Chris Keeling has been biking ever since he can remember. With his Dad, Steve’s, support and encouragement for seeking out adventure, Chris has become one of Nepal’s top downhill mountain bikers. At just 16 years old, Chris has performed remarkably well in acclaimed races in Nepal and abroad. ECS NEPAL recently caught up with the ambitious young man to learn more about his smooth yet menacing biking skills.
The Usual Suspects
The foggy drizzle on a gloomy morning does little to deter these experienced mountain bikers from careering down the steep and treacherous trails around Nagarkot, north of Kathmandu. The tranquil hills buzz when they put their skills and courage to the test on the steep rocky trails. The thrills come with every heart-pounding jump, roll, turn and swerve along and down the steep ridges. Downhill mountain biking demands a high level of fitness and is only suitable for those prepared to take on the rugged hills with pumped up adrenaline, unwavering mettle, and of course, a shiny mountain bike. Chris Keeling and Buntay Panday are in their element, and after several hours of training for the upcoming Asian Enduro Series race, they call it a day with a carb-loaded feast.
Every weekend calls the duo to one of the hilltops around Kathmandu Valley, from where they begin their crazy rides. Though the risks are real, experienced riders make it look like a breeze. Speaking of experience, both the riders have quite a few races and podium finishes under their belts, in addition to playing an important role in promote this extreme sport in Nepal. While Chris has competed for Nepal in several acclaimed international races, Buntay runs the mountain biking company Temple Rides. Until recently, Nepal wasn’t particularly known for its enduro and downhill mountain biking; but with an increase in races and the enthusiasm of local riders, it is no exaggeration to say that Nepal has become a mecca for mountain biking.
This brings us back to the younger of the two riders, Chris. The slender young man has created quite a stir in downhill racing. Riding his Commencal Meta AM V4 bike, it’s always a thrill to watch him shoot down trails, and in most cases, end up on the victory podium.
Growing up on a Bike
Chris’s mountain biking journey began with Tony the Blue Hippo(see photo!). The toddler took him for rides around the lounge and the garden. Chris can’t remember much about this time, although Tony stayed in the family until Chris was about nine years old, by which time Tony had fallen to bits from overuse. His Dad, Steve, an avid adventurer himself, recalls how Chris was overjoyed to get Tony on his first birthday and loved to whizz around on him.
It’s safe to say that in most Nepali families, mountain biking (or any adventure sport for that matter) is seen as nothing more than a half-hour fad after school. But, for Chris, the outdoors grew on him. “My Dad used to take me running with the Hash House Harriers every weekend,” he remembers. “I used to enjoy running in the countryside. Every so often, my dad would go off on longer treks to Annapurna and other mountains, or on a long cross-country bike ride; I always wondered what it was like. My Dad had introduced me to the outdoors even earlier, as I had my rice feeding ceremony on the top of Shivapuri when I was six months old.”
“I had a bike with Spiderman colors by the time I was four. It had training wheels, which were soon taken off,” he remembers. “I used to bike with my friends in our neighbourhood, that’s how I learned to ride.” Steve bought Chris bikes as he outgrew his previous one and used to make frequent trips to the local bike shop to keep them fixed. Those bikes took a lot of punishment. “All the local kids took turns riding my bikes. There were sometimes five kids piled on one bike careering down a slope!”
The Spiderman bike gave way to a BMX bike that belonged to his brother Hus, who lived away at boarding school. A ramp that his brother built in the compound was too intimidating, according to Chris. “I was better off with simple riding, because for me, biking was fun, and nothing to risk my limbs for.” But, he got lessons from Kumar Pun at Gyanodaya School’s pump track, and learned riding techniques, giving him confidence to tag along with his dad on longer bike rides.
Chris remembers only bits and pieces of his first-ever long trip, the 80-km ride to Nuwakot when he was nine years old. “I was finally able to join my Dad on long rides. Riding to Nuwakot was quite a feat. Even though it was hot and there were some uphills, I really enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoy riding uphill as much as downhill,” says Chris, spoken like a true enduro rider. Another memorable trip was to Borderlands near the Tibetan border, and beyond. This trip involved cycling up the long steep road from Kadichaur to Mude, which Chris remembers as being really tough going up, but huge fun on the one-hour ride back down! Besides, there were countless smaller trips within the valley.
These experiences, plus witnessing the exploits of the competitors at the 2008 Asian Mountain Bike Championships (held in Chobhar, Kathmandu), fired Chris’s enthusiasm for mountain biking.
A Jab at Racing
By 2012, downhill biking was picking up in Nepal with several races lined up, including the Himalayan Outdoor Festival. With support from Rupesh Shrestha of Epic Mountain Bikes, Chris competed in his first proper mountain bike race, finishing nineteenth. He began to show his promise the following year when he finished ninth at the national championships, and fifth at that year’s Himalayan Outdoor Festival race, competing against senior riders. Then, in June, he got his first taste of standing on the podium, coming way ahead of the other 76 riders in the Kathmandu Bike Festival under-16s race.
His determination, strength, and skill began to pay dividends when he won the Megakids downhill race in the French Alps in July 2013, the Nepal national downhill and junior cross-country race, and the Palpa Urban Downhill race, all in 2014. The same year, he secured third position in the youth category of the Megavalanche, a race that starts up on a glacier. He shares his experience that, “It was really thrilling and tough. It was dangerous to even walk on parts of the trail. Quite steep and slippery, and the more than 300 riders could run you over if you fell!” His best ever result came in the Mountain of Hell race in France, July 2015, when he finished second junior and 29th out of the 510 finishers.
Although he finished first in the 2014 National Downhill Championships, he wasn’t entitled to be national champion because of his nationality. “I have British citizenship, but I’m half Nepali as my mom is Nepali,” says Keeling. “I’m hopeful that some day the government policy will recognize my achievement and allow me to formally represent Nepal in international races.”
Chris’s racing and riding experiences in Nepal, France, and the UK have given him a great grounding in the sport he loves. The young man shows a huge passion for his chosen sport and says that there is nothing quite like the feeling you get when competing against other riders, and pushing yourself hoping that your body and bike responds to all the pressures you put on it. He continues to develop his fitness and riding techniques from training rides along the Nakhu Khola valley and Saturday trips with Buntay and the crew to the steep hills around Nagarkot and Shivapuri.
Chris’ forthcoming races
In the coming months, Chris will be competing in several races in Nepal and abroad while juggling his GCSE exams in between. He is looking forward to the races in Nepal to renew the fight for top dog of Nepali downhill mountain biking, and is really looking forward to the first round of the Asian Enduro Series, which Nepal is hosting in April 2016. He is also signed up for four races in France in July, with great ambitions for competing again in the Megavalanche and Mountain of Hell races, two of the gnarliest and longest downhill races in the world.
Then, he heads to the U.K. by when he will know if he has been accepted to do the one year full-time Downhill Mountain Biking course at Borders College in Scotland. The course is attended by some of the world’s best downhill bikers.
Good luck for the future, Chris!