As the sun dipped behind the mountains in the distance, Archana Sharma continued pedalling towards the finish line, stealing furtive glances at the marshal's vehicle tailing her. There was a good chance that she would soon be asked to stop riding by the safety officer, Kamal Sharma, and would be packed off on the truck along with her bike for a quick drive to camp.
Around six hours earlier, race leader and eventually winner, Thomas Engersgjerd of Norway had stormed through the course to pick up yet another stage win and consolidate his overall lead. By the time Sharma signed off the stage, he was sitting easy, scrubbed and showered, now sipping a steamy, cloying chai, while indulging in banter with the other riders to cool his heels after a gruelling day.
Nepal's Harka Lama, a runner-up in the Masters Solo event at the 2018 MTB Himalaya. Image courtesy: Akashdeep, HASTPA, 14th Hero MTB Himalaya
Sharma and Engersgjerd represent a myriad mix of riders that the MTB Himalaya draws each year. For, not all races pose a challenge in their own way for both, amateur and professional riders. Just the enormity of the race on paper reflects just how punishing it gets for any rider. Then again, one could be a veteran of mountain biking, yet nothing quite prepares you for the surprises nature presents time and again in the wilderness.
The eight-stage, roller-coaster race runs over 650km from Shimla to Dharamsala, and has earned the reputation of being one of the toughest mountain biking races in the world. It climbs to a maximum elevation of 3,100 metres, while there are other sections with technical, single-track trails and steep downhills that drop to over 1,500 metres in a few minutes, before leading uphill yet again. So unpredictable is the terrain that it isn't surprising to be halted by a flock of sheep around a bend, or be as startled as the fox that darted out of a thicket a short hop away.
What is a guarantee and becomes a constant through the nine days of the race are the wonders of the Shivaliks and Dhauladhar mountain ranges " some sights so gorgeous, that it's hard to fathom how any rider could stick to a plan and maintain focus at breakneck speeds, instead of succumbing to the glorious views all around.
The course runs past some of the least trodden regions of Himachal Pradesh " newly constructed jeep tracks and pugdandis that are the only access to a village or two, and during other times, running across sections of the state highway alongside speeding apple trucks, before trailing off towards the backroads again. It is these off-road sections that attract top riders from around the world, including Engersgjerd, his Norwegian teammate Ole Hem, Germany's Andi Seewald, a top-10 finisher at the MTB World Marathon Championships, and seven-time 24-hour Solo World Champion, Jason English of Australia. To soak in the race, there's nothing like hitching a ride on a steward's motorcycle and walking the trails with a binocular and camera in tow, while watching the master riders negotiate every turn and bend with their expert skills.
"The surprises it throws at every corner makes it really thrilling. Back in Europe, we have manicured trails but out here, it's all very raw, which only adds to the challenge and the thrill. Besides, we always have to keep in mind the right side of the road," says Seewald.
The luxuries of civilisation make way for the comfort of a tent at serene campsites in between stages. Each morning dawns to a dewy chill that leads to starting problems for everyone from the riders to the support vehicles, until the luxuriant sunshine and a hearty breakfast get most up and running.
In the mountains, it's every man for himself, given that some trails are desolate, besides the stray local ambling home for lunch. The narrow pugdandis have to be tackled with deft manoeuvres, inches separating a smooth transition from a bumpy slide down the mountainside. That said, tumbles, tears and bruises are commonplace, perfectly captured on GoPros mounted on the riders, cherished best with warm supper around a bonfire.
Each evening, there are tales of goodwill doing the rounds, where a rider has bailed out a compatriot in distress. And through the course of the race, friendships develop through these little acts of kindness, even as racing takes top priority at the end of the day.
All spares and snacks are carried by the riders, with a few feed stations en route to replenish supplies and get a quick fix on the bike, or simply make a quick conversation to bring relief from the hours spent in silent contemplation in the saddle.
In its 14th edition, managing the race is a Herculean task in logistics for the organisers at the Himalayan Adventure Sports & Tourism Promotion Association (HASTPA). It involves planning just two weeks after the race ends, though the real work starts three months before the flag-off. One of the most vital aspects is chalking out a course through the landslide prone mountains of Himachal Pradesh, especially since the race is scheduled after the monsoons. In the dead of the night, route markers brave the cold to mark out the entire stage, though at times, last minute diversions are unavoidable. Even during the current edition, the route had to be remapped due to a blockage at Paronthi, leaving just about enough room for two tyres to roll by.
"Getting the infrastructure at these remote places is a big job, then of course, there are the logistics of setting up camp for around 200 people each day. We have a team of 40 volunteers and officials, a kitchen staff of 38, toilet staff of 10 and camping staff of 10. It's important to be well fed, racing or otherwise," says Mohit Sood, race director and founder/president of HASTPA.
This year, HASTPA visited five cities around the country to tap talented riders, handing them the opportunity to share space and learn from some of the top riders around the world. Assam's Ahonda Menjo even managed to win the final stage, as the contenders stepped off the gas to enjoy a celebratory joy ride to the finish.
"The idea is to popularise the sport in India and give others a taste of top-class action. Next year, we will reach out to 15 cities," says race communications officer Ashish Sood.
Hero Action Team supports six elite riders and another six with potential at a total budget of Rs 25 lakh, where most of the boys come from the hills around Shimla and are gradually earning the opportunity of competing in races in India and abroad. There's still a world of a difference between Indian riders and their foreign counterparts, which has a lot to do with the culture of mountain biking in the country and the limited access to world class equipment. And with little understanding from other quarters on just what the sport entails, it is credit to bodies like HASTPA for dreaming and executing a race of this magnitude.
"When we started back in 2005, only 12 of the 30 riders were Indians. Over the years, the Indian participation has grown and talent has emerged. Then, the fact that top international riders are coming speaks volumes of the efforts were are putting in. But there's still miles to go for the sport in India," Mohit Sood says.
Over a period of time, the race has drawn all kinds of riders such as professionals and semi-professionals, aspiring youngsters and weekend riders with dreams of going the distance for a sense of accomplishment or simply bragging rights. There have been inspirational stories of riders such as Datta Patil " a farmer from Sangli, who negotiates the extreme terrain barefoot and has missed just one edition of the race so far. Or Avishya Jaswal and Ashish Sherpa, who at 16 years were the youngest to ride a part of the race, hoping to make a mark in the years to come.
The reputation of the race is such that Engersgjerd's second-placed finish in 2017 wasn't satisfactory in his books, coming back to claim top spot and the 'King to the Himalaya' title this year, while Catherine Williamson is now a four-time 'Queen of the Himalaya' champion, having won every edition that she's participated in so far.
And for the likes of Sharma, there is nothing quite like experiencing the highs and lows of riding in the mountains.