Under blue skies interrupted by the wispiest of clouds, 72 off-road mountain bikers from seven countries, waited for the shotgun to begin the fifth National Mountain Bike Championship. The contest, an annual event of the Nepal Mountain Bike Association (NMBA), was held on 26 May this year, beginning at Gairi Gaun, a deserted stone quarry on the southern flanks of the Swayambhu section of the Ring Road.
Chimmi Gurung the chairman of the NMBA was saying: "This is the last call, if anybody has any queries about the circuit and the race, please ask now... Some parts of the trail have been washed out by the rain. Expect a lot of mud on your tyres... All right, everybody's clear." This is serious stuff-the NMBA championship is the only recognised national level international-class mountain bike championship in Nepal, and it is slowly gaining international recognition as a contest to be reckoned with.
The 46 competitors in the senior division were deadly serious. Only a slight smile on some faces belied the sense of anticipation in the air. The contestants were a mixed lot, from tattooed Thamel folk to a lone female participant wearing a strange contraption to protect a sprained foot. As soon as the pistol resounded, the bikers shot off, only to navigate a hair-raising hairpin bend to get to the south hill of the circuit gate and then whizz down a dirt track leading north. There are a few obstacles on this path, which after one-and-a-half km goes west towards Nagarjun hill. There's an uphill one km slog past a gompa, where the path was particularly, well, muddy. It was on this segment that most of the racers tasted mythical Kathmandu mud, after which they careened down a bone-shaking gravel path. They went around this 4.5 km track not once, but five gruelling times, covering 22.5 km most of us hope we never have to walk across, leave along race.
Predictably, most racers lost speed on the uphill, but there was plenty of opportunity to do so on the downhill, too. And this was shown to full advantage by Kiwi John Thompson, described by spectators as "the crazy one." Descending at approximately 50 km/hr from the highest point on the course, he hit a rock and flew right off his disc-brake bike. The children up the hill fell down laughing. Thompson, who went on to win the senior's title in just over an hour, enjoyed it thoroughly. "That's how I got my energy. I loved each moment of this bond I had with the kids out there. And many thanks to Philippe who lent me his bike," he said, pointing to a French racer in the junior division who offered Thompson his bike when he saw him with a flat tyre near the circuit gate. But there were also other lucky factors in Thompson's win. His nearest competitor, Chandra Bahadur Chettri, was barely a minute behind him-until, that is, he got a flat. "I was in the middle of nowhere. I was helpless," sighs Chettri.
The first runner-up, Canadian Richard Torgen had a less dramatic, but very consistent ride. Suresh Dulal, who finished third, had three rough falls, but managed to maintain his position. "I lost so much speed recovering from the falls, but I did my best," he said. Not a single contestant dropped out because they were tired and couldn't hack it, including Erin Ryan, the Canadian woman with a splint on her sprained foot. In the senior division, 34 bikers finished the circuit.
Also exciting and equally "do or die" were the 26 under-18s in the junior division. They did two laps on the circuit instead of five, and were wildly excited. Young Sanjay Shrestha from Samakhusihi, who finished in tenth place, had quietly skipped breakfast and slipped out from home with his heavy bike. One of the fastest juniors, nine-year-old half-Australian half-Sherpa Sunny, was the pre-race crowd favourite, but unfortunately took a bad spill at the beginning of his second lap. Many juniors fell, but there were no serious injuries. Ten-year-old Heman was unfazed by the rough trail. This student of Little Angel's School who bicycled all the way from Sat Dobato, seven km from venue, won the trophy for the youngest to finish the circuit.
Eighteen-year-olds Arjun Ghale (first position, 24 minutes 46.82 seconds) and Sanjeev Thapa (second, 25 minutes 37.02 seconds) showed what the younger participants could do given a few years of experience. Thapa was the winner last year of the Himalayan Mountain Bike Championship held at the same venue. But he wasn't doing too well, and only barely put Ravindra Adhikary (25 minutes 58 72 seconds) in third place.
These precise times come courtesy the organisers, who made sure every participant went back with a formal notification of their timing and position. This may seem like the obvious thing to do, but pervious mountain bike championships in Nepal have not bothered to actually keep any such records. "We don't want anybody to go back without knowing and having official proof of their timings and position- they have worked so hard just to even participate," says Sanjeev Pandey, the director of the race and a member of the NMBA. The chief time-keeper was none other than Nepal's record-breaking senior marathiner, Baikuntha Manandhar. "The boys are good, " he said. "They're committed and that's what I like about this whole thing."
While the racers were struggling on the track and the timekeepers were watching, eagle-eyed, there was plenty of excitement among the spectators. They were kept entertained by a multitude of things-
whistling time-keepers, first-aid squads rushing hither and thither on motorbikes, kids cheering vociferously in between scarfing down vast amounts of ice cream, a Manangi and Sherpa volunteer family distributing a Nanglo lunch box and bananas to the racers and volunteers, and a swarm of monkey-like children grabbing at the fruit.
Mountain biking began gaining popularity in Nepal about a decade ago. The Himalayan Mountain Bike Tours and Expedition organised the first MB race here in 1993. It was a 32 km race starting from Kakani finishing at Budhanilkantha, and attracted 72 mountain bikers from Scotland, England, Australia, Denmark, Belgium and Nepal. The NMBA, which was formed and recognised by the National Sports Council in 1995, is an active member of the Asian Cycling Confederation and Union Cyclist Internationale. This year's Nepal Mountain Bike Championship was the association's fifth.
"Our objective here is to promote mountain biking in Nepal. We want to attract a large number of domestic racers and turn them into professionals, and make Nepal an international mountain biking venue," says Umesh Rimal, a member of the NMBA "The NMBA is confident that such races will help promote tourism in Nepal-plenty of people love to mountain bike in such wild terrain and enchanting landscapes," he adds. "We plan to send the Nepali mountain bikers to participate in the seventh Asian Mountain Bike Championship to be held in Korea in October this year. But we are trying to raise funds," says Chimmi Gurung.
Whether that happens or not, even as the dust was settling on the trackat the end of this race, NMBA members were already scheduling for an international race at a similar venue in Nepal next March.