Spinning wheels with a purpose – Yasas Hewage
By Chenelle Fernando
“If fish belong in water, he belongs in cycling” one would say. Not only is he a forerunner in revolutionising the sport within Sri Lanka through numerous high-endurance sporting events, but he also hopes it carries him one step towards reaching his goal of a cleaner and sustainable environment.
Today, he’s the founder of numerous initiatives such as Spinner Café in Madiwela, where you can go ride bicycles and enjoy great coffee and rotti sandwiches, and Pro-Am Serendib. Also enumerated are high-endurance cycling events such as “Race the Pearl”. It is an ultra-endurance cycling race and challenge connecting the two furthest points of Sri Lanka – Point Dondra and Point Pedro with over 600 km – on great paved roads which concluded on 4 February. It is first of its kind in Sri Lanka. He is also one of the franchise holders for IRONMAN 70.3 Colombo.
To get the bigger and better picture, here’s the scoop after an interesting conversation The Sunday Morning Brunch had with him.
Q: Sports have always been in your DNA, but this wasn’t what you grew up with. How was your early life like to start off with?
I came out of the corporate life in 2014, and at the time, I was working at a bank for 10 years. I started at a very low level as a teller and built up my career afterwards to a fairly senior level. My career was built around the field of banking, but at the same time, I found myself in sales and marketing too. So, I’d say I’m a sales and marketing professional who worked at the banking industry and retired at the age of 37.
Q: You initiated your journey to bring about change in terms of sustainability and environment conservation. What’s your take on this?
I personally believe that it should be a part of any leader, but we need to realise that most people don’t have their basic needs. While I went on a green trail and spoke a lot about green marketing, I understood that it was going to take a little longer. Hence, I thought that I’ll slow that down a little and make cycling fun, because if you actually start cycling, it’s eco-friendly. I believe in doing meaningful things where people would unconsciously contribute to it.
Q: What triggered you to place yourself in a field that’s vastly contrasting to what you initially started off with?
In 2012, I made the conscious decision of cycling to work instead of driving. I made small changes to my lifestyle and bought a simple foldable bicycle and started riding at least one day a week. Minimising pollution by cutting down my carbon footprint was my initial reason – not necessarily to “compete”. I subsequently read about Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France winning cyclist, and I bought a racing bicycle which I rode at the biggest cycling race at the time in Sri Lanka. I cycled with pro athletes and found myself with the main group for around 100 km. This was all while I was still working at the bank and it was through mistake that I realised that I had the capability of endurance.
The hours I spent cycling as a child, I’d say, might have conditioned me with a mind and body to perform. It was after this that I started taking up racing events more seriously and initiated the idea of promoting cycling around Sri Lanka.
Q: You’ve unquestionably come a long way since then. So, what is your current outlook on triathlon culture and high-endurance sporting in Sri Lanka? Are you content with the current stance it holds?
Yes, for sure. Considering how people used to think back in the day, our initiatives have influenced people to think out of the box; to think of endurance events and push their limits. We see the culture of triathlon coming in, surrounding the brand of IRONMAN. As per where it stands right now, last year we concluded as the highest rated event in South Asia, and we were rated 4% above the global average of satisfaction in a 40-year-old brand.
Sri Lanka, right now, is in the map of IRONMAN and we’re a formidable player. We can’t be complacent, but we have to be proud of where we are. I’m one of the franchise holders for the event IRONMAN 70.3 Colombo. I bring in my cycling expertise and promote it to that community to bring it to that multi-sporting base.
Q: How important do you think such events are to our country, and why?
The story of where people should visit Sri Lanka for its beauty is one that’s been told over and over again. It’s important, however, to build on that beauty through events and activities that is lifestyle-driven. 70% of the international athletes who visited Sri Lanka for the first time (of IRONMAN 70.3 Colombo) with no intention of coming here did so because the event and activity made them look at Sri Lanka, and now they’re in love with it. Hence, in order to attract the right target crowd, it has to be event/activity-based.
Q: You recently organised Race the Pearl, which was in aid of collecting funds for those with cerebral palsy. Could you shed some light on this?
It was organised through our foundation “Wheels for Wheels”. We realised that although there’s around 40,000 people with cerebral palsy, around 10,000 of these children need wheelchairs. So, we thought while we ride our wheels, why don’t we spin the wheels of a wheelchair. Since then, we’ve been doing this and the races we have organised and hope to organise are in aid of helping them out.
Photos: Saman Abesiriwardana