I began wondering as I sweated my guts out pedalling my mountain bike up the steep hill. The tires spun slimy mud all over me, my lungs felt like they would burst and my knees buckle from the strain.
“What on earth am I doing on this godforsaken track?” Curiously enough, I kept it up stoically.
That was in August 2010. I was still a rookie, only nine months into mountain biking when I took part in a cross-country race staged by Kathmandu Bike Station, Pani Pokhari, Kathmandu. Spurred on by my friends and co-riders, I participated in the race despite being of two minds initially and lacking confidence. That was my first ever and most memorable race experience. Named MTB Madness, the race for me, a guy aged 56, was a sheer madness indeed.
The race venue was Budhanilakantha – a burgeoning uptown bazaar popular for the historic sapphire shrine of the God Vishnu resting on a thousand-headed snake-god (Shesh Nag) in a small pond. The kickoff point was the Budanilakantha School, just a couple of hundred yards away.
The race would begin on a paved road that led to the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park. After some 500 yards the route turned towards a dirt track leading to the Chandeswori shrine, Tokha before dropping sharply to the left to a foot trail that cut across paddy fields and solitary mud houses rejoining a dirt road slimy with the monsoon rains at a bridge over the Bishnumati River.
The road then ran across paddy fields lined with a cluster of houses until it met a paved road that led back to the starting point. This made one lap, or 5.5 km. The riders in the grand masters’ category (above 50 years) had to do three laps.
The big day finally arrived. All excited about the race, I hardly slept the night before. When I arrived at the kickoff point, the site was already abuzz with feverish activity. It was quite a sight to see the place crawling with bikers looking their best in colourful jerseys and slacks with snazzy crash helmets to match.
The line-up was impressive and overwhelming: one hundred riders. The milling crowd also included friends and my wife Radhika, who had come to cheer me. The weather that morning at 9.30 did not look promising. There was no sun and a dull overcast monsoon sky made a downpour look imminent. The race was, however, set in stone—rain or shine.
Word got around that the two-time national champion Ajay Pandit was also competing. I had no idea who was who. To me, every biker looked cool and intimidating. My heart sank when I spotted a couple of tall brawny “kuire” (foreign) bikers, looking almost my age group. By the time the race started I was a nervous wreck, you bet!
Every rider had a number tag fastened on the handlebar, and another pinned up at the back of the jersey, different colour corresponding with the category. The excitement mounted with every passing minute as the riders were called to flag off.
Finally, the whistle was blown and, amidst loud cheering and clapping, the race kicked off. The elites occupied the front row followed by the juniors and women. The veterans, masters and the grand masters filled the rear.
I did fine as I pedalled furiously on the pitted paved road with watery holes up the first incline—a little breathless though. Bikers swished past me but I left some behind too. My confidence soared on the first downhill for I considered myself fairly good and fast on that particular off-road track from Budanilakantha to Chandeswori shrine, which I had done several times on previous occasions. “Swoosh!” A couple of bikers blazed past me and disappeared at a bend. Maybe I was not so fast, after all!
After the gravelly off-road going through a wooded hill with tricky bends and sheer drops, the trail switched to a single track slimy with mud, nearly ankle-deep. I ploughed through, the tires skidding in the thick slime. “Whoops!” I slipped and the next thing I knew I was lying in a heap a couple of feet down in the bushes! Luckily, I did not slip further down the slope. I managed to scramble back up onto the track unscathed. Breathless and muddied, I continued on the track. Amidst loud, rousing cheers, I breezed through the finish line, completing the first lap. I pedalled furiously past but could not miss a smiling face, waving wildly at me from the crowd—my wife, Radhika.
Lap two was uneventful for me – but not for everyone. One biker slid past me, skidded, tried to 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 every biker had fallen off his/her bike on the monsoon ravaged track.
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. Churned up relentlessly by the racers, the trail had become muddier. As the minutes went by, every thrust on the pedal seemed an ordeal. My GT Avalanche bike’s mud-caked chain and drive-trains grated and rasped miserably.
On one of the steep inclines, 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 already on her way up. Guess what, she grabbed the third standing on the podium!
The going got tougher by the minute. What seemed, however, a welcome sight, was the cheering and clapping bunch stationed at different feed zones, who, apart from offering water, worked wonders to raise the failing spirit of the riders.
The last lap seemed unending. By the time I cleared one of the punishing inclines, I was a total wreck. Fatigue seemed to get the better of me. At one stage, I nearly felt like abandoning the race, but suddenly Radhika’s beaming face flashed before my eyes and I managed to drag myself.
“Hang on in there….this is the last lap,” I kept mumbling to myself, almost in a stupor. With a last gasp, I tore down the final leg, legs pumping like crazy, as if there was no tomorrow.
Hundred yards …fifty… twenty … ten … five … and I cruised through the finish line to the waiting crowd that erupted into rapturous applause. Even before I stopped I saw smiling faces and rushing hands thrust towards me.
“Congratulations, you’ve won.”
The words seemed to freeze in time.
Later, I learned that the grandmaster’s category, which I’d won, had only three contestants. One had pulled out at the last moment and the other did not complete the course. As it turned out, it was almost an uncontested victory for me. What of it? I still became a champ, didn’t I?
Singh is a 65-year-old outdoors man, lost in his own little adventures. Interests? It used to be hunting; it stopped during the Maoist insurgency. Then came fishing followed by mountain biking. So, his passions are writing, mountain biking and fishing. Ambition? Ride his mountain bike from Beni, Baglung, to Lo Manthang and Upper Mustang.