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Meet the future of Indian mountain biking From Mountain climbs to the top of Indian Mountain Biking

Meet the future of Indian mountain biking From Mountain climbs to the top of Indian Mountain Biking

There's no stopping him. | Photo: Ankit Sharma (@man_made_machines)

Shiven is winning titles and working tirelessly to elevate cycling in a country of 1.4 billion

Shiven’s first mountain bike race was a successful failure. He was just 14 years old, on the start line with a humble steel mountain bike against a fleet of carbon rigs. He was new to the sport, but he loved pushing up climbs and the thrill of off-road descents. “The whole atmosphere was pretty crazy to me,” he says. “It was something that I’d never experienced before.”

He was third across the line. The result put Shiven on a path that has taken him to the top of a burgeoning XC racing scene in India. But it also taught him a hard lesson. The race ended on a climb that was too difficult for him to pedal. So Shiven hopped off his bike and pushed it up the slope. No longer worried about crashing, he took his helmet off. And when he crossed the line, an official asked him, “Where’s your helmet?”

Shiven showed the official that his helmet was still hanging from his handlebar. He didn’t know that the rules said the helmet should remain on his head. Shiven received a penalty for the infraction that sent him into dead last place.

“The whole year I spent in remorse, in a kind of agony, because of my stupidness,” Shiven says. “So the next year I trained, even though I didn’t know what training was. I woke up early in the morning before school.”

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Shiven won the student category at the same event the following year, 2013.

“I started to love that sense of competition, love the sense of putting in the work then reaping the rewards in the race,” Shiven says. “And when you can look in your competitors’ eyes and you feel that you are actually racing, I got hooked to that feeling.”

Throughout Shiven’s career, he has pushed through barriers to pursue his love of racing. He completed an engineering degree at the same time he was traveling around one of the world’s largest nations to take on meager race offerings. Mountain biking in India hadn’t yet blossomed, another technicality that couldn’t slow him down. Shiven won every race he could — he is the two-time reigning Indian XCO champion and recently placed 12th at Asian MTB Championships, the best an Indian rider has ever done — and now at 25, he’s leading a movement to make Indian mountain biking bigger and more competitive, as well as opening paths to the professional levels of the sport.

Shiven signed with Trek India this past summer. He is friends with Kiran Kumar Raju, who goes by “KKR,” another Indian Trek athlete who forged his own path in cycling and inspired others to do the same. They are among India’s first breakout mountain biking stars. In a country with prolific mountains and 1.4 billion people, they certainly won’t be the last.

Shiven is the defending two-time Indian national champion. | Photo: Salil Dobhal (@salildobhalphotography)

“Even when Kiran was winning national championships, there were guys who were winning medals without even wearing cleats,” Shiven says. “That itself just gives an idea of how primitive the sport was at that time. It was purely about raw power pushing the pedals and not much about technique or having a professional approach towards the system. And now things are changing.”

But before Shiven set about redefining Indian mountain biking, he had to redefine himself. He prefers to be called by just his first name. When he first signed up for Facebook many years ago, the site required that he input a last name, so he entered “Aerohawk” because he liked how it sounded and what it represented: “Aero” as in airborne and his love of aircrafts, “hawk” as in the flying bird of prey. His Instagram handle remains @shiven_aerohawk, and some publications refer to him as “Shiven Aerohawk” as if he’s never been anything else.

Shiven also describes himself as coming from the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, where he has lived for more than six years, despite growing up in an area just outside the capital city of New Delhi.

“My father hails from the Himalayas, and that’s where I want to be identified with because I love the mountains,” Shiven says. “That’s how I started cycling and mountain biking. But unfortunately, I was born and brought up in an area where there are no mountains within about a 200-kilometer radius. I didn’t like that part of childhood growing up, not having mountains and not having access to cycling.”

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Shiven fully absorbed the mountains into his identity, earning a reputation as a climbing specialist as he became a podium fixture along with KKR and another good friend, Devender Thakur. Shiven steadily rose up the Indian mountain biking ranks despite never knowing where the sport would take him. As a teenager he dreamed of being a pilot in the armed forces, which led to him entering an engineering degree program after high school. He kept two very distinct career paths open to himself, full-time mountain biking and mechanical engineering, but struggled at times to keep up with his rigorous schedule.

When his studies and racing were in conflict with each other, Shiven often gave priority to racing. He fought hard to maintain the 75 percent attendance record required by his college, but his weekends were chiefly occupied by traveling to far-flung locales. He’d pack his bikes and leave for races on a Friday, race on a Sunday, and often get back to his college dorm at 4 a.m. on a Monday for a scant few hours of rest before heading into another week of classes.

“By the time I finished graduation, I knew if someone in India can pursue mountain biking full time, it had to be me,” Shiven says. “I was one of three athletes who was sponsored by a bike brand [along with KKR and Thakur]. I had the equipment sponsor. I had the ambition. I knew how to do things.”

Simply participating in Indian mountain biking races could be an adventure in itself. Some events were so flat and smooth they could be conquered on road bikes. Others were much more brutally challenging than riders were aware. Shiven once participated in a race in the Himalayas at over 2,000 meters of elevation that featured roughly 3,600 meters of climbing. Riders anticipated finishing after 150 kilometers, only to be told by organizers that there were still 30 kilometers to go, mostly uphill. “That has to be the toughest one that I’ve ever done,” Shiven says.

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Shiven lives in mountainous Himachal Pradesh in the Himalayas. | Photo: Delton Dsouza (@ijustdoubled) & Prathamesh Patil (@prathamesh_patil_visuals)

Shiven loved racing despite its hurdles, and even sought out ways to push his own boundaries. In 2021, the Indian National Mountain Bike Championships added an Under-23 event, making Shiven eligible for three potential titles: the men’s U23 XCO, elite XCO and individual time trial. He entered all three races, hoping to become the first Indian rider to become a triple national title winner at one event. The races were supposed to take place over three days — the elite time trial on a Friday, the U23 XCO race on a Saturday, and the elite XCO race on a Sunday. Once again, technicalities conspired against him.

“The first evening the events got delayed a bit and the time trial race was the last event, so it had to be moved to the evening on the second day,” Shiven says. “So basically I had the Under-23 mass start in the morning, the elite time trial in the evening, and the men’s elite mass start the next morning.”

Shiven won the U23 race without much trouble, but post-race fatigue bit him hard during his 23-kilometer time trial run. He almost blacked out during his effort, and was simply happy he didn’t crash as he took second place. The next day he felt somewhat refreshed, and secured his first elite men’s XCO national title.

“So basically, in a matter of 34 hours, I won two national titles and a silver medal,” Shiven says. “I was over the clouds to be able to pull this off. And the next year, I defended that title in the elite category.

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Shiven’s rise has coincided with mountain biking’s growth as a sport in India. Local events have become bigger and more professionally run, and more riders are heading to start lines for their own breakout performances than ever before. Shiven has noticed that the equipment around him has improved, too. Riders are no longer vying for podiums on flat pedals. Most encouraging to Shiven is that more riders are receiving support from major bike brands like Trek.

Shiven had admired KKR’s success and support from Trek for years. When the Bicycle Company first approached Shiven in March, 2021, about potentially making him the brand’s second Indian rider, he viewed the chance as a major step forward in his career.

“For a couple of years, I was literally racing on my own, managing my own budget, managing my own equipment and everything,” Shiven says. “The bike for sure is an upgrade, but I think the biggest upgrade has been the mental and moral support that I’ve received. I’ve gotten an immense amount of mental support, in the sense that I don’t have to worry about equipment, I don’t have to worry about a lot of things that an athlete faces in his career. I’ve been provided with ample opportunities. There is no pressure from the sponsor. That’s very rare, and a really positive thing that I’m free to do what I want to do.”

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Shiven, just 25, has made it his mission to raise mountain biking's stature in India. | Photo: Delton Dsouza (@ijustdoubled) & Prathamesh Patil (@prathamesh_patil_visuals)

Shiven worked hard to earn a place on solid ground in an unforgiving sport. Since signing with Trek, he has continued working hard to help other Indian riders who have the passion, talent and work ethic to carve out professional careers of their own. Shiven admits that the Indian mountain biking scene isn’t ready to compete against European nations just yet, but it is making progress. He took the lead in organizing a trip to Turkey with nine members of the Indian mountain biking national team, sponsored by the Cycling Federation of India and the Sports Authority of India. For two months over February and March, they trained alongside big-name European riders and took on races ranging from Category 3 to Category 1.

The trip gave the riders a solid block of training for the season, and a front-row seat to watch how World Cup-caliber athletes train and compete. It was eye-opening for the riders who, unlike Shiven, hadn’t yet raced internationally.

“It gives you a big picture, like, ‘OK, the competition is very high abroad, and you need to work your ass off to compete at that level,’” Shiven says. The trip may have reminded riders how far they have to go to reach the World Cup level, but it also showed a level of progress that was unfathomable just a few years ago.

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“Until 2015-2016, there was no Indian mountain biking team. That’s the first time a team was sent out to Asian Championships, and it was just a couple of riders,” Shiven says. “Now everyone knows each other, everyone helps each other. We are pushing each other. A lot more riders are taking things seriously like training full time, training better, getting better equipment.

“People are looking up and saying, ‘This guy is doing this full time, so maybe we can pursue that as well.’ Me, Kiran, Devender, when we were starting out, we didn’t have anyone to look up to, and that makes a lot of difference.”

The next step for India’s mountain biking growth will be success and recognition outside of the country’s borders. Shiven’s 12th-place finish at Asian Championship in South Korea is certainly a good start. His personal favorite example occurred at BIKE Transalp in Germany, an annual seven-day stage race covering approximately 500 kilometers and 18,000 meters of climbing. In 2016, he partnered with Thakur to take on the daunting event, but finished roughly 360th out of 400 teams on Stage 1 due to a series of mechanical issues and mishaps. “We were pretty low,” Shiven says. “We were supposedly the best riders in India, and we were having such a bad race.”

Everything that went wrong on Stage 1 went right on Stage 2. The pair jumped 80-plus places in the overall rankings, more than any other team in the race. For the bounce back performance, they won the Attack Jersey Classification award, and earned a podium celebration at the end of the day.

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Image by Delton Dsouza (@ijustdoubled) & Prathamesh Patil (@prathamesh_patil_visuals)

“We were totally not expecting that. It was the first time we were on the podium of an international event. And that felt so amazing to be there,” Shiven says. “We were like, ‘Wow, we are on the same stage as these guys who are winning World Championships.’ That was a special feeling”

Shiven’s tastes of international success certainly won’t be his last. For all that he’s accomplished, and for his high place in India’s mountain biking scene, he’s still a young rider who has yet to find his ceiling. Every year, there are fewer obstacles in the way of his success. His competition is faster, the races are bigger, and with support at both the state and sponsor level, he has a chance to fulfill immense potential.

His goals are sky high.

“I want to be winning at the top level, whether it’s the Olympics or the World Champs,” Shiven says. “I want to be working to the level that I’m winning those races. And for me to get to those levels, it doesn’t happen overnight.”

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Shiven knows he won’t get to the top by himself. Understanding the environment around him is as critical to his success as his own hard work and desire. He learned that more than a decade ago when he forgot to finish his first ever race with a helmet. Shiven could have used a guiding hand then, and he’s determined to make sure promising young riders feel that he is looking after them now. Because what’s best for Indian cycling is also what’s best for him, and vice versa.

“That’s one of the reasons that I’m pushing the sport, because I know that’s how the sport is going to push me,” Shiven says. “It doesn’t take one man to do it. You need the whole nation behind you.”

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