To hear kids say ‘I want to be like Yankanna (Venkappa’s nickname)’ and that parents are citing my example to encourage their children to take up cycling has been the most satisfying feeling for me as an individual
It was an ordinary day in 2010 for nine-year-old Venkappa Kengalagutti. He had dropped out of school, so he spent his time helping his father with daily chores on their eight-acre groundnut and onion farm. A visiting family friend, an avid sports lover, impressed by his height, suggested he enrol for cycling lessons. Cycling is one of the most popular sports in the North Karnataka districts of Bagalkot, Vijayapura and Gadag.
Right from that moment, life as the family of seven – father Shivappa, mother Bagavva, a sister and three brothers – knew it, changed for the better.
Fast forward to now, Venkappa, who went back to school when he began cycling, is a second-year BA student at a college in Bagalkot. The sport has taken him to multiple cities and countries for competitions. He also got a job with the South Western Railways in 2020.
Cycling opened new doors, transforming the life of this young boy from Tulasigeri village, about 15 km from Bagalkot.
"I remember my father and his friend going to Bijapur and buying a brand new BSA cycle for Rs 5,000. I went around announcing to the entire village about the ‘new cycle from the big city’ for days. My joy had no bounds," recollects Venkappa.
Now, he trains with a professional cycle worth Rs 10 to 12 lakh, provided by the Sports Authority of India. The cycle was his companion in winning a bronze medal in a team event at the Asian Track Cycling Championship held in Delhi last June. The 21-year-old’s third position finish ensured his place in the Indian team that went on to take part in the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
Venkappa’s sports career took off when he cleared a selection process in 2012 and got into the Department of Youth Empowerment and Sports Hostel in Bagalkot under the guidance of Anita Nimbargi, his first coach.
“A boy who did not know how to write his name in the register book on the first day of hostel, now has his name displayed on digital boards at competitions all over the world. He has made all of us so proud,” shares Anita.
Venkappa’s steady progress took him from winning medals at local events to state meets, to eventually becoming a regular winner at junior and senior nationals in both cross country and track cycling races. Following a three-year training stint at the Bagalkot hostel, the youngster took part in the all-India trials and was selected for the National Cycling Academy in Delhi.
His current coach at the academy, V N Singh, is all praise for the cyclist’s dedication. “He is one of my best students, who is always focused on improving,” says Singh. He is currently among the Top 3 senior middle-distance cyclists (4 km to 30 km) in the country, says the coach, adding, “Venkappa has everything it takes to achieve bigger things.”
Going from practicing on deadly highways filled with heavy-load trucks, buses and speeding vehicles on the outskirts of Bagalkot to training in world-class indoor velodromes took some time to adapt. But Venkappa had pedalled too far to let hurdles slow him down and decided to keep surging ahead.
Living at the academy since 2015, he terms the initial years as ‘cultural shock’. “Not knowing the language in a big-city environment was tough. But adjusting to the food was even more difficult,” he quips.
Looking back at his journey, the cyclist says, “I am grateful for all the opportunities, and for the journey I am on.” He has become a regular member of the Indian cycling team since 2018, and has represented the country in several international competitions.
While being blessed with opportunities is one thing, making the best out of them is another – something which Venkappa did well. Knowing that it would not just change his life, but help make a difference in the lives of others was a major motivation.
“When photos and articles about me winning were regularly published in the local newspapers, people were happy, and took pride in it. It showed me that what I do has an impact on society,” he says.
Inspired by Venkappa, around eight children from his village now train hard in the Bagalkot sports hostel, with aspirations to emulate the athlete. “Of course, going to the Olympics is my ultimate goal and I will do everything in my power to reach there. But to hear kids say ‘I want to be like Yankanna (Venkappa’s nickname)’ and that parents are citing my example to encourage their children to take up cycling has been the most satisfying feeling for me as an individual,” he says.