March 2018 marked a special day for the dedicated aficionados among the mountain biking fraternity in Kathmandu.
The day heralded the most eagerly anticipated the 16th Nepal National Mountain Bike Championships (Trek 16th Nepal National Mountain Bike Championship XCO, March 25 ) and the 8th National Downhill Mountain Bike Championship (March 27) organised by the Nepal Cycling Association and sponsored by the Kathmandu Bike Station, Panipokhari, Kathmandu, the sole distributors for Trek mountain bikes for Nepal.
For every crosscountry and downhill mountain biker, whatever the genre, juniors, women, masters, or the crème de la crème–the elites– winning the National championship race reserved the most prestigious mark of recognition or honours and served as a springboard for international participation.
The venue for the crosscountry race was set further up the hill from Halchok at Ichangu Narayan, an 18th century Hindu God Visnhu shrine, some three kilometres southwest of Swoyambhunath (the Monkey Temple) and almost at the base of the southern flank of the towering Jamacho hill. It came as a surprise for me because (since I knew) the national championship races, both the crosscountry and the downhill, were staged at Chobhar in the previous years.
I was, however, in for a bigger surprise when Chhimi Gurung, the President NCA (Nepal Cycling Association) told me that the first National Mountain Bike Crosscountry Championship (March 1996) under the banner of NMBA (Nepal Mountain Biking Association; renamed NCA in 2006) was staged at Gairi Gaon, Halchok (the present Armed Police Forces Headquarters premises), and covered this year’s Ichangu Narayan tracks too.
“The change of venue to Ichangu Narayan had to be made this year as the quarry work at Chobhar impeded the staging of the race. The race track change has been constant for more than a decade starting from Halchok to Tokha, Hattiban to Chobar and now to Ichangu Narayan. Our continued efforts rest on finding a better track that meets the UCI and Olympic standards,” added Chhimi.
Being a mountain bike racer with a number of medals under my belt in the grand masters’ category (bagged in the past 10 years), how could I miss out on the race (did not participate though as the race did not have the right category for me). A rider lady friend from the UK, Lisa, joined me.
We arrived at the race venue a tad late but not too behind time as the race commissaire blew his whistle and raised the flag for the kickoff. Amidst loud cheering and clapping, the line-up of racers belonging to the juniors, women and the masters’ categories shot forward in a blurring flash leaving a cloud of dust behind them.
Normally quiet on other days, the temple premises was abuzz and wore a festive look. The milling crowd included the racers, mountain biking buffs, and the local people. The XC or the Cross-country discipline had 71 racers: 35 in the Elite’s (age: 19-30), 6 in the Women’s (age: 19-30), 7 in the juniors’ (age: 17-18) and 23 in the masters’ (age: 30+).
The XC or XCO (Crosscountry Olympic) race is based on a lap system and the competitors are required to finish the designated laps according to his/her discipline. The start line and finish was the same spot. The number of laps (3.5km to each lap) for the racers to complete was: elite’s-6, and the women’s/ juniors’/ masters’-4.
The race also incorporated the lap out or elimination system as per the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) and Olympic regulations. Riders whose timing was 80 percent slower than that of the race leader were eliminated. The 80 percent zone was clearly charted out, but the rule would not apply when the riders were on their final lap.
It was 9:30 am and the juniors, women, and masters race were already racing on the track. The star appeal of the race–the elites–was scheduled for 11 am. The ace riders were all gathered around the temple premises biding their time for the big moment that would decide their fate.
I could see the familiar faces . . . there was Ajay Pandit Chhetri, the legend (five-time National XC Mtb Champion/five-time Yak Attack Champion), Narayan Gopal( last year’s runner-up), Buddhi Bahadur Tamang or Roan as he is mostly known (last year’s topper), Okesh Bajracharya, Rajesh Magar (the DH Champ: I wondered why on earth he had chosen to participate in XCO category), and not the least, my favourite, the ever-smiling, Ayman Tamang. I spotted Ajay pedaling his bike attached to an indoor bicycle trainer sucking on an energy gel pouch as his fans watched him in awe.
Since one and a half hour was left for the elite race, Lisa and I decided to take a walk and cover the entire track (3.5km) or one lap. The idea worked wonders as it offered several vantage points to watch the racers in action and allowed us the opportunity to make out the geography of the track.
As we sauntered along the track, obviously, I was comparing the Ichanngu Narayan track with the older Chobhar one. Notably, Chobhar was almost entirely single track and more challenging as it led through a narrow trail that dropped treacherously off the cliff face. To sum it up, it was rugged, open, more technical and spectator-friendly as it offered a 360-degree angle view of the racers in action from most of the spots.
The Ichangu Narayan race track was different. The downside of it was its steep and longer climbs had less technical sections and begged for more single tracks. That was my evaluation of the track.
“I think Chobhar track was more like a XCO race track as it offered more challenges, was almost all the way single track and technically tougher” opined Raj Kumar Shrestha, one of the top five racers of Nepal Mtb contingent.
“As far as the locale was concerned, Ichangu Narayan was better compared to the bare and barren terrain of Chobhar as the track crossed patches of woods and greenery and offered a pleasant countryside vibe; but it had a very long and a grueling stretch of the climb, almost like 1.5 km. Even the UCI mandates include only climbs measuring not more than 200 to 300 metres,” Raj Kumar further added.
The incline that started after what appeared like 200 metres from the start line was in fact very steep and way too long, physically demanding and energy-sapping. As Lisa and I cleared the top, a whistle sounded nearby and we instinctively turned around to watch.
There she was doing her second lap–none other than “the Daughter of Nepal’s Mountains,” Laxmi Magar, the seven-time National Champion and a winner of innumerable races. One of her best was to clinch the podium standing in the Sri Lanka Holidays Rumble in the Jungle 2017–a premier mountain bike race prevailing over a French and Australian racer.
Laxmi is to date the only Nepali woman racer to have won the Yak Attack stage race, considered the world’s most grueling high altitude endurance race–“the highest mountain bike race on earth”.
Obviously, she was in the lead as I cheered her on. She waved back at me. Yippee, I was walking on clouds that the champ still recognised me! We did a couple of races together a few years ago.
A minute or two later, two other women riders appeared closely followed by the strapping young junior racer Prachit Thapa Magar, last year’s runner-up. Lisa seemed excited as she clapped and cheered the racers on. Since I knew Prachit, I shouted out his name as he furiously pedalled past.
The downhill after the climb had some technical sections and a single track. We stopped by to watch the racers tackle the steep trail. I checked the time and it was a few minutes past 11 o’clock. My pulse started racing as I realised that the elites would be barreling down any moment. How I wished I was racing too . . . only if the organisers had included the grand masters’ category!
Then the whistle sounded and I could see the race marshal shouting to the onlookers to clear off the track. I watched with bated breath as the champs came hurtling down. It was not the 1st-seeded Ajay but Buddhi Bahadur Tamang (Roan) in the lead, closely followed by Narayan Gopal. The third rider to appear was Ghanashyam Rai . . . and on his tail was Ajay.
The race had just begun, so, it was too early to jump to conclusions. The bikers swished by as we shouted our cheers. The screech and the skids of the tires, the whirr and the clunk of the chain, all sounded music to my ear. Frankly, I was virtually racing with those guys!
In the 4th lap, Ajay had secured the 3rd place while Buddhi Bahadur Tamang(Roan) still led the race with Narayan Gopal in hot pursuit, a very close battle between the two leaders.
After the tech section, we moved further down where a tabletop was placed. The riders could either take the jump or skip it. We witnessed a terrific jump made by Rajesh Magar, the DH Champ.
Next, we moved further down to the 80 percent zone, the finish-line some 80 metres away. The final lap had begun and the racers would be there any moment battling and jostling to outwit each other to reach the finish line.
A mixed crowd including the spectators, mountain biking fans, and those riders who had finished their respective races, had already gathered there excitement and anticipation written all over their faces.
As I turned back to look at the race track, I could see in the distance the leading riders dashing towards us. The countdown had begun. The seconds ticked by as the crowd including Lisa and I waited with bated breath . . . 10, 9, 8 . . . . Wow! Roan was still leading with Narayan Gopal hardly seven metres behind! The crowd clapped and burst into a roaring applause as the champs hurtled past.
Suddenly, Narayan Gopal turned the tables on the champ, Roan, and in a tearing flash shot past him. Then everybody froze! In the dying minutes, scarcely 20 metres from the finish line, the chain suddenly came off Narayan’s bike on the steep incline.
Time seemed to stop for Narayan’s fans. Shell-shocked the crowd watched as Roan loomed hardly five meters behind. It appeared Roan would catch up with Narayan any moment. Time seemed to stop. What happened next, created history!
Narayan got off his bike in a flash fixed the chain in a matter of seconds and in a single bound was on his saddle streaking across to the finish line. It was an explosive finale. Lisa and I were stumped. The fans broke into a raucous jubilance, their adrenaline running at fever pitch. Roan finished second just 23 seconds behind Narayan. Ajay came in third.
Even seconds matter in a race. As it turned out, both the champs had to face setbacks, which can wipe champions out. Narayan had to dismount and lost a few seconds. So did Roan lose vital seconds when he took a fall on a technical section but sprang like a scalded cat and was back in the saddle.
For Narayan Gopal, it was not an easy stroll to the podium. “The podium win this year means a lot to me; it’s like invoking of God’s favour upon me as this is my first National Mountain Bike Championship win and reflects six years of my hard struggle to achieve it” a beaming Narayan Gopal shared his feelings with me.
For the last six consecutive six years, Narayan Gopal satisfied himself as a runner-up in the National championships– the gold always eluded him. Playing second fiddle to the winner in most of the races, this was really and truly an emotional win for him.
Both Ajay and Roan (Buddhi Bahadur Tamang) were happy with their third and second podium standings and the trio was congratulating each other exchanging solid bear hugs. It was endearing to see the warm camaraderie among the champs though arch rivals and at perpetual war during races.
The organisers had it dialed from start to finish. There were feed zones offering water to the racers and tech-zones to help the racers in case of a breakdown or a flat tire–even ambulances stood by as a contingency against injured riders.
Great course; fantastic support; well-organised event; amazing riders; well-drilled officials; a great field day for the fans and the last but not the least a wonderful locale–that about summed up the National Mountain Biking XCO Championship Race this year.
Photos courtesy: Khasing Rai