On 26 September, five Nepali men boarded a plane to Malaysia. Unlike the thousands of youth who queue outside Kathmandu airport everyday to escape the despair back home, these were professional athletes who would represent Nepal at the six-day long UCI Langkawi Island Mountain Bike Challenge and the World Championships qualifier.
Nepal’s top mountain bikers Ajay Pandit Chhetri, Narayan Gopal Maharjan, Aayman Tamang, Roan Tamang and team mechanic Santosh Rai arrived in Kuala Lumpur with the determination to leave their tracks on the international mountain biking circuit.
ALL PICS: SANTOSH RAI
The second day of racing for the Men's Elite category starts.
The event kicked off on 28 September with an 80km race where the top 20 automatically qualified for the Mountain Bike Marathon World Cup Championships 2014 taking place in South Africa. The Nepali team initially found itself at a disadvantage because unlike the steep terrain back home where they excel in, the course was relatively flat. But their mastery of the sports was at full display as three riders made it to the championships. Aayman Tamang, the second youngest rider on the team, finished in 10th position. Narayan and Roan followed close behind in 14th and 15th, respectively.
Unfortunately, Nepal’s current national champion, Chhetri was a victim of two punctures and broken gears forcing him to pull out from the qualifier even before the first lap was over. The most experienced rider on the team, however, proved very resilient and came back strong in the six-day race. Maharjan, arguably the most powerful climber on the team, suffered an allergic reaction to a leech bite that would keep his ankle abnormally swollen throughout the race.
Narayan Gopal Maharjan sprinting during the individual Time Trail which was part of the Langkawi Prelude.
The prologue for the Langkawi Challenge included a short 2.5km sprint, used to seed the riders for the remaining five days. It was new territory for the Nepal team, as none of them had participated in this type of event. Chhetri began his bounce back from the disappointing qualifier by leading the team in the prologue, followed closely by Roan, the youngest rider on the team.
Stage 1 was where the real race began; a 65km circuit of Langkawi Island. Chhetri continued showing his mental toughness by placing 24th out of 93 riders on the day, the highest-placing in the team. Maharjan was only two minutes behind in 29th place. Aayman and Roan followed in 41st and 45th positions respectively a further six minutes back from Maharjan.
The Nepali team regroups after the heat and endurance of the 80km marathon where Aayman finished 10th and the riders qualified for the World Cup Championships in 2014.
Chhetri continued his resurgence in Stage 2 with another 24th position finish. Aayman and Narayan followed in 36th and 39th respectively with Roan a bit further back in 49th. The third stage again saw Chhetri at the top of the team standings, something he would repeat in stage 4. Stage 4 with its short laps and Stage 5, a 1km loop mountain bike criterium race were both new types of racing for the team, which compounded the disadvantages they faced with the lack of hills.
Despite a rough three days in the middle that included a still swollen ankle and a hard crash on day 4, Maharjan led the team on the last day, managing to stick with the field throughout the race, completing all laps of the criterium.
Overall the team did well, gaining the respect of professional teams across the world. Out of 93 bikers who started the race Chhetri finished 29th overall, Maharjan was 38th, with Roan and Aayman 45th and 46th respectively. Chhetri also made up for his bad luck during the marathon qualifier by gaining valuable UCI points, which means he too will be flying to South Africa next year. Roan at 45th place was the fastest young rider (19 years) in the race and Aayman, barely 21, was only four seconds behind him.
The team waits for the start of the Time Trail, a first of its kind experience for the four Nepai bikers.
Year after year, Nepali bikers have dominated the grueling Yak Attack race around the Annapurna Circuit. Long races with lots of climbs suit our riders, but in Langkawi with its unfamiliar terrain, the team still excelled. The Malaysian race is a testament of the men’s immense technical skills and stamina and shows that they have what it takes to make it big on the global stage.
The contest also highlights the importance of setting up professional cycling teams to complement the weak national infrastructure. Singletrack Team, the first professional cycling team, provided support for Narayan, Aayman, and Roan. The Ravenswell Foundation, a Swiss organisation that is helping develop mountain biking in the country, funded Chhetri’s travel.
“It was hot, humid, and wet throughout the six days. Some of the best bikers in the world and from Asia took part. Competing alongside them under such conditions was a great experience for the team and we learned a lot,” says Chhetri.
Race to the top, TYLER MCMAHON
Yak Attack 2013, TYLER MCMAHON