Mud, Sweat and Madness on the Mountain

Features Issue 114 Apr, 2011
Text by Ravi Man Singh

Age is no bar for a good time and racing up or down a hill can prove to be more about knowing your own strengths than just about the speed and the track.

What on earth was I doing on that godforsaken racetrack? I wondered, sweating my guts out at 56 years of age.  Thick, slimy mud showered down on me, my lungs felt like they would burst from the puffing and panting and my knees were near ready to buckle from the strain. My bike whined in fierce protest.  Along with the madness and self-doubt however, came moments of hope and ecstasy, grit and courage, joy and jubilation and the consuming desire to push on and to win. As a rookie, with only 9 months into my cycling career, I had never thought in my wildest dreams that I would participate in a championship race, let alone win.  I had signed up for the race on a whim and to my surprise, had won my first ever, cycling championship.

The first MTB Madness Mountain Bike Championship cross-country race was organized by Kathmandu Bike Station. A recently opened mountain bike shop in Pani Pokhari, it is run by the enterprising duo of Prayas Tamang and Buddha Lama. Slated for August 28, 2010, the race was divided into six categories: Juniors (under 18 years), Women (open), Elite (19-30 yrs.), Veterans (30-40), Masters (40-50) and Grand Masters (above 50 yrs).

In Two Minds
Still uncertain about my participation, the official form for the race languished on a table in my living room for several days. “No rush,” I said to myself. First off, I lacked the confidence. To bolster my morale, I talked with Rupesh who runs Epic Adventures, an upscale bike shop located in Jhamsikhel, Lalitpur. Besides selling branded bikes, the store also conducts cross-country tours and expeditions for local and foreign mountain biking buffs. “Why you must! Even if it means just participating,” said Rupesh sounding positive.  “Plus, the race includes a category that fits you like a glove.” His words were comforting. “Maybe I should give it a thought,” I mused. I submitted the form the next day.

Exactly three weeks remained for training and inspection of the racetrack. Then the rains started.  My plans to visit the track were frustrated by the monsoon.  The sun eventually showed its face and I ventured out on the track. I had company— fellow bikers, Khasing, 23 and Sulav, 13—both would-be contestants for the race. We were quite the motley crew.

The race venue was Budhanilkantha - a burgeoning uptown bazaar popular for the historic shrine of the reclining sapphire Bishnu. The start and finish point was the Budhanilkantha School. The official track began on  a wide, paved road (pitted though with watery pot-holes), led across a mild incline and left the main road (to the Shivapuri National Park) to turn towards a dirt track (a thrilling down-hill ride) before dropping sharply to the left towards a foot trail that cut across paddy fields and solitary mud houses. From there we traversed a slimy, narrow path that fell away towards a stream, rode up a tricky hillside that had seen a recent slide (we had to haul our bikes between big boulders here), making our way carefully across a narrow bridge before racing downhill on a wide track riddled with fissures and potholes to rejoin a dirt road at a bridge over the Bishnumati River. The dirt road then climbed up—a formidable uphill ride (I christened it the Jyanmara ukalo - “the killing incline”). The slimy road ran across paddy fields lined with a cluster of houses, until it met a paved road that converged on to the starting point. This made one lap (5.5km) of the race. Sulav, Khasing and I did only one lap for the day, which was enough to give us quite a scare. On one of the slippery mud slopes, Khasing lost control and hurtled down in a heap into the paddy field. Then, I slithered down—against my better judgment—did an “endo” flip (a bicycle accident in which the rider is thrown forward over the handlebars), and landed head first into the sludge. Sulav chose to walk his bike.

The Big Day
The big day finally arrived. Sulav and I were competing, but Khasing opted out as he had problems with his bike. I had not slept well the night before.  When I arrived at the race venue, the site was already abuzz with feverish activity. Every single biker, men and women wore colorful jerseys and slacks with snazzy crash helmets to match. Word got around that the two-time national champion Ajay Pandit was competing. I had no idea who was who. To me however, every biker looked cool and intimidating, especially the tall, brawny “kuire” (foreigner) bikers, some of whom looked as if they could be in my age group.

The race was to start at 9am, but the weather did not look promising at all. There was no sun and a dull overcast sky made a downpour look imminent. However, the race was set in stone, rain or shine. The event attracted hordes of curious onlookers. Locals thronged the streets, loads of bicycle buffs, fans and cheerful families and friends milled around, while media persons scurried around flaunting their cameras.

Every rider had a number tag fastened on the handlebars, and another pinned up on the back of the jersey, different colors to correspond with the categories. The excitement mounted with every passing minute as the riders were called to the line. The line-up was impressive and overwhelming: a hundred riders. By the time the race started, I was a nervous wreck.

The Kick-Off
With the whistlt going off, the race started amidst loud cheering and clapping. The elites occupied the front row followed by the juniors and women. The veterans, masters and the grand masters filled the rear.  We tore down the road, my adrenaline hopping mad. I no longer felt edgy.

I did fine as I pedaled furiously up the first incline. Bikers swished past me, but I left some behind too. I was jubilant, and my confidence soared on the first downhill.  I considered myself fairly good and fast on that particular off-road track, which I had done several times. My computer read the speed at something like 32 kilometers-per-hour. “Not bad,” I said to myself. The bends were tricky, rather treacherous with loose gravel and sheer drops.  I feared for the bikers’ safety; a fall could be very dangerous. “Swoosh!” a biker blazed passed me and disappeared around a bend.  Maybe I was not so fast, after all.  Then, spinning along a wooded stretch, I stopped and stared in disbelief.  The wide dirt road that stood there only two days ago had vanished to a landslide.   In its place was a narrow path, just wide enough for a bike cutting between massive boulders.

Cheers and clapping went up from waiting volunteers and fans as the race marshal directed the bikers towards the sharp left curve, down a narrow single track. It was time for me to brave the dirty and slippery-as-hell trail. Confident, I plowed through the mud, a knowing smirk on my face that the steep, slimy slide, where I had taken a fall earlier, approached. I slipped a little ahead and the next thing I knew, I was a couple of feet down into the bushes. Luckily, I emerged unscathed.

Mud Baths
As it turned out, the mud slide was muddier because of the rains from the previous night. I got off and carefully steered my bike down the slope. Suddenly, a biker slid past me, skidded, tried to keep steady and then flipped over. I winced as the poor chap landed head first into the mud, his bike on top. Later after the race, I learned that just about all the bikers had fallen off their bikes on that slope.

Breathless and muddied I continued on.  Only half-way up the steep Jyanmara Ukalo, I was gasping for air. A couple of bikers sped past me as if it were a normal weekend ride for them. I got off, as expected, but comforted myself that I was not the only one. Others followed suit. I spotted a lady-biker sitting by the track. “Hey, what’s wrong?” I gasped.  “I’ve been falling all the time,” she sounded almost tearful. “Come on, you can do it. Get up and get going,” I said, trying to cheer her up. As I cleared the top, I looked over my shoulder. She was on her way up. Almost on the verge of giving up the race, she later took third place.

After the slow haul up, the straight stretch at first seemed like a piece of cake, but then, the unthinkable happened. My front wheel sank deep into the rutted track, made me pitch forward and I was off my bike and in the mud.

After remounting my bike, I soon found a sealed road where a group of volunteers (the feed station) clapped and cheered as some stretched out their hands to offer us water-filled plastic cups. After that, the finish line just lay around the corner, hardly 100 meters away.  I pedaled hard, a sudden burst of energy revive me. Amidst loud, rousing cheers, I breezed through the finish line, completing the first lap.  I pedaled furiously past but could not miss a smiling face, waving wildly at me from the crowd—my wife, Radhika.  I wondered how Sulav was doing.

Lap two was uneventful for me, but not for everyone. I went past a duo furiously pumping up a tire.  The going was getting progressively tougher and slower for me.  Even the first incline had me almost wheezing. It must be age, I reminded myself. Trodden over relentlessly by the racers, the muddy trail had become messier.  The mud-caked chain and drive-trains grated and rasped and every thrust on the pedal seemed an ordeal. The only welcome sight was the cheering and clapping bunch, who worked wonders to raise my failing spirit.

Herculean Task
The last lap was seemingly unending. By the time I cleared the punishing Jyanmara incline, I was a total wreck. Fatigue was getting the better of me. At one stage, I nearly felt like abandoning the race, but pride came in my way. Dying for a drink, I tried to reach for my bottle and found that I had dropped my water bottle.  “Hang on in there…this is the last lap,” I kept mumbling to myself, almost in a stupor. Then, much to my relief, I spotted the waiting crowd with flailing hands who held water bottles and cups. The sudden realization that I had only 100 meters between me and the finish line made me delirious. “Yes!” I almost yelled.

I Did It
After a glass of water my limbs suddenly felt stronger. With a last gasp, I tore off down the remaining distance, legs pumping like crazy, as if there was no tomorrow.  Fifty yards, thirty, twenty, ten and five; I cruised through the finish line as the waiting spectators erupted into a rapturous applause. Even before I stopped, I saw smiling faces and eager hands thrust towards me. “Congratulations, you’ve won!” all of them exclaimed. I could not believe my ears, a moment frozen in time. Then, Sulav turned up grinning from ear to ear. My little partner had clinched the third place in the juniors’ category. Way before the prize ceremony, word came that the top ranked Ajaya Pandit had won again. In the women’s category, a foreigner took  first place but her strong contender (also a foreigner), who had outraced her in the first lap took a fall, and had to be rushed to the hospital. Many riders had pulled out of the race; some had lapped out while others because of minor injuries. Quite a few bikes had broken down. Ayaman Tamang, the national junior champ, swept to victory and the Grandmasters’ title, which I won, had only three contestants: one had pulled out at the last moment, and the other did not complete the race. As it turned out, it was almost an uncontested victory for me. What of it? I still became a champ, didn’t I?  

First MTB Madness Mountain Bike Championship: an Overview
The cross-country (XC) race was Kathmandu Bike Station’s maiden venture into racing. The owners, Prayas Tamang and Buddha Lama made it a point to organize the race conforming to UCI (International Cycling Union) general rules. Race disciplines, age category, and course requirements (like gravel paths, forest tracks, fields, significant amounts of climbing and descending) were met with.

The cross-country MTB race, with 103 bikers in six categories, comprised 7 Women, 16 juniors, 41 Elite, 25 Veterans, 12 Masters, and 2 Grandmasters.  The race results were as follows:

Category                                           Laps                      Distance                      Timing
Elite (19-30yrs)
                                5                           27.5 km                         ------
1st) Ajaya Pandit Chhetri
(Reigning National Champ)                 …                               …                            1:42:16

2nd)  Narayan Gopal Maharjan          …                               …                            1:48:07
3rd) Padam Sabenhang                                                          …             …            1:50:00

The prize money included Rs. 25,000.00, Rs. 15,000.00 and Rs. 10, 000.00 respectively for the top three elites. Awards for the top three winners in other categories included trophies, certificates, t-shirts, and mountain-flight tickets.

Women (Open)                                         3                           16.5 km                    ...
1st) Freya Mills (Australian national)        ...                              ...                           1:31:14
2nd) Indira Rana                                          ...                               ...                           2:13:08
3rd) Sandhya Kumari                                   ...                               ...                           2:17:10
Juniors (12-18 yrs)                                        ...                               ...                           ...
1st) Aayaman Tamang
(Reigning National Champ)                           ...                                ...                           1:15:02
2nd) Lelish Maharjan                                     ...                                ...                           1:16:05
3rd) Sulav Shrestha                                        ...                                ...                           1:43:25
Veterans (31-40 yrs)                                      5                              27.5 km                                                               

1st) Chandra Bahadur Chhetri                       ...                                ...                           2:01:54
2nd) John Cuthdertson(Australian)              ...                                ...                           2:27:01
3rd) Kishor Sahi                                               ...                                ...                           2:27:01  Masters (41-50 yrs)                                         5                                …                                        

1st) Laxmi Bahadur Maharjan                       ...                                ...                           2:29:56
2nd) Jeff Basler(American)                             ...                                ...                           2:46:38

3rd) Michael Rosenberg (German)                 ...                               ...                           2:54:21
Grand Masters                                                   3                           16.5 km                               

1st) Ravi Man Singh                                          ...            ...            2:11:50

The event was organized in aid of Early Childhood Development Centre (ECDC) as charity for educational scholarships for prison children. Kathmandu Bike Station and Makita Industrial Power Tools (sponsor) jointly handed over a cheque for Rs. 51,000.00 to ECDC before an impressive line-up of foster kids. The event was supervised by Race Director Mr. Rakesh Shrestha and Chief Marshal Mr. Rupesh Man Shrestha and was chaired by the President of Nepal Cycling Association, Mr. Chhimi Gurung.

To sum it up, the race event was a resounding success by any international standard. For the organizers, it was no small feat, though. In the face of overwhelming odds--the incessant rains, difficult terrain, and the landslip that washed away the dirt road at one location--only days before the race—the organizers spared no effort to pull the event through into a grand success. Kathmandu Bike Station truly deserves a mention.

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