Biking Nepal

Adventure Issue 82 Jul, 2010
Text by Alex Teh

Whoosh! goes the air around us as we raced down the amazingly long downslope, before
returning to the crowded streets of Lalitpur. It was the first time we had biked in Nepal and I was amazed at the variety of trails and the high standards of bikes that are available here.
Thanks to Chandra Ale and Rupesh Man Shrestha of EPIC Mountain Bike Adventures we began our journey in the wee hours of the day after choosing our bikes at his shop near Sanepa.

In mountain biking, nothing is as important as having a good bike, one that is comfortable and that you can trust to do the job. At EPIC Bikes there are several types of mountain bikes to choose from. First, there is the fully rigid bike, which comes with no suspension systems. This makes for a faster ride as there is no energy being wasted on the suspension. The downside, however, is that this bike will not absorb the shocks and bumps that come with off-road biking.

Next up there are ‘hardtail’ bikes that come with front suspension forks. (A ‘hardtail’ bike is one on which the rear axle has no suspension; hence, rides hard.) These front suspension, however, helps take some of the abuse that the trail throws at you and makes for a far smoother ride than a rigid bike. The hardtail bike tends to be heavier, however, because of the added weight of the suspension system.

And, it may not be as maneuverable. The heaviest bikes of all are the full suspension bikes. This is the type we rented for our day on wheels. Full suspension bikes come with both front and rear suspension systems and are extremely comfortable on tough and bumpy trails. That said, they require more energy to pedal uphill as they are heavier and the back suspension may absorb some of your cycling efforts.

Nonetheless, full suspension bikes are gaining in popularity today, because of their perceived comfort and handling capabilities. “For me, it’s a step up from a normal ‘hardtail’ bike. Although it may be more expensive than a hardtail, once you try out full suspension, you can’t go back to hardtails,” says Rupesh.

Not only do you have to choose the bike you need, you must also choose the materials that go into making the basic bike as well as the extra components that make up the fully-
outfitted bike. For example, major bike companies like Trek, Giant and Santa Cruz usually make their bikes out of aluminum for the light weight and relative strength. Now, however, carbon fiber, which is lighter and supposedly stronger than aluminum, is all the rage. As for the components, all those things that are added to the basic frame—gear shifters, gears, wheels, brake systems and other assorted stuff—there is a range of products for
consumers like us to choose from, things that are required no matter the price range you are willing to pay for.

Now that all that is out of the way, you can rent top-of-the-line bikes from EPIC for around Rs 600 (hardtail) per day. My suggestion is that, for beginners, don’t worry about all the custom details that go into each and every bike. Rather, get down to a reputable biking store and ask the owners for more details. That way, you can learn about your future bike from a first-hand source as well as get to feel it by testing the bike out on a ride.

Besides the various mind-boggling options that come on the bike, there are also different riding styles that have evolved with mountain biking. These can broken down into four major categories: cross-country (XC), downhill (DH), Freeride (FR) and trial riding. Although all four are being pursued in Nepal to some extent, cross-country (XC) riding is all the rage here now.

Typically, XC riding means cycling from point-to-point or in a loop, including climbs and descents on a variety of terrain. And, as we all know, the variety of terrain in Nepal is just astounding. From high hills just outside the Kathmandu Valley, to the high mountains of the Himalayas, to the flats of the Terai, Nepal does indeed have the world-class
terrain of a “cross-country paradise”, as Rupesh puts it.

In five short hours on the day of our ride we rode from Balkumari to Balkot, Lubhoo, Lamatar, Disendole, Sanagaon, and back from Gwarko. We covered hills and paddy fields, cycling up on never-ending uphills and racing fast on blazingly steep downhills. The views from vantage points up in the hills were very good as well. Paradise, it was, indeed. Paradise on wheels, that is.

And it’s not just expats who ride. The local Nepalis are also catching the biking fever. Back in the 1980s/90s, Himalayan Mountain Bikes (owned by an American), was the first to offer commercial biking in Nepal. Since then, the sport has grown from strength to strength in the country. Now, there are around six or seven reputable biking companies, and races are also being held on a regular basis. Many people not only use the bikes as a form of transport around town, but go out into the hills on weekends to explore their native land.

“If you compare the interest in mountain biking five years ago and now, then mountain biking is a big success in gaining popularity. At that time, if you held a race, hardly 50 people would turn up. Now, it is easy to get over a hundred participants for each race,” says Rupesh. His company, EPIC, has also seen its clientele shift from mostly foreigners to the present mix of 60% locals and 40% foreigners.

According to Rupesh, cycling is an activity that is environmentally friendly as well. It emits no harmful gases and is totally dependent on human power; good to know in these times when fuel prices are going through the roof. Besides going off-road, many Nepalese also use their mountain bikes to get to work, which can save time instead of being stuck in the never-ending jams.

Not only that, mountain biking have a social impact as well. “The good thing about the Valley is that, if you just cross the Ring Road, you can visit many off-road trails and there are clearly defined cycling routes to explore,” says Rupesh. “When you visit the villages along the way, you will also find the true hospitality and warmth of the Nepali folk. We also buy food and drinks from them, which helps sustain their livelihoods.”

According to Rupesh, September to November and March to April are the best times for mountain biking. This is also when demand heats up for their tour packages and guided mountain biking trips to the Jomsom area and the Annapurna Circuit, as well as to Tibet. That said, trips like these are more for the technically competent riders, though even they need to train for a few months prior to such trips, which include some long grueling rides.

For the beginner, however, Rupesh suggests easy rides out of the valley to explore and build up more experience as well as endurance on the bike. It is definitely not easy to get used to the hard seats, which caused us some pain as well! Also, the start-up costs for a bike in Nepal are very reasonable. Bikes range from Rs 6000 for the lower-end models to over Rs 50,000 for higher end models.  And according to Rupesh, the resale market in Nepal is very good. “If you buy a 50,000 rupee bike and want to sell it after two years, you can probably get around 35,000 back, provided that it’s in a good condition,” he says.

Besides the bike, beginners should also look at the other equipment that needs to be bought as well. Each biker needs a good helmet to prevent injuries in case of an accident. A good helmet should have holes for ventilation and should fit your head snugly so it won’t fall off. Also, a serious biker will want to consider investing in cleated shoes for more power. The biker should also consider better training, as well as appropriate cycling clothes, gloves and bike tools for making repairs in the outdoors in case there is an emergency. The startup cost of a relatively decent bike, along with all the extras, should come to around Rs 40,000. With diligence and proper maintenance, this bike should last you seven or eight years. Cleaning the bike involves just a few hours of work in dismantling it and greasing the gears and parts.

Nepal is holding the 14th Asian Mountain Biking Championships this year, from the 6th to 10th of November. Riders from more than 30 countries will be participating. November is almost here, so go get yourself trained up to be a mountain biker and join the fun!