The wind hurts like the slash of a painful memory — it sears through chinks before the mind battens down on the offending breach. It is double digits below the wrong side of the Celsius zero. At 4 am, it’s still a good three hours before the sun fights past the Great and Middle Himalaya ranges that imprison the valley of Spiti. I’m astride a 150 cc motorcycle that’s been tinkered with and pandered to in an effort to mutate it from its road riding birth to its present dirt riding bastardisation.
The mountains are eerie silhouettes hued with a hint of life from the sun that’s yet to fully stretch awake. Hulking under their shadow is the Kaza primary school.
A dozen or so bike riders are huddled in the school ground. The moment is stamped vivid in my memory because of what one of the guys said: “Fellows, why do we do this to ourselves?”
The cold was forgotten in the spontaneous guffaws that erupted from the huddle and the varied assertions of bravado that floated out from each corner, barely audible before the wind snatched them away to disparagingly pound them into the massifs that have heard it all since creation.
A club of crazies
Years later, I’ve still not been able to figure out why, for three years of my life, the Raid de Himalaya became an obsession that, each September, would gallop roughshod over the pretence of focusing on anything else.
The Himalayan Raid is a 2,000-odd kilometre — the distance varies each year — high altitude skirmish between mountains that predate time and puny Indian two- and four-wheelers that hate leaving the skimming embrace of tarmac.
It’s also become a primarily biking event as amongst four-wheelers it’s only the workhorse Maruti Gypsy that manages to survive and win year after year. In the event’s ten-year existence, the Gypsy has won — yawn — ten times. Bikes, though, keep changing depending on the rider’s prowess.
The bikers look at the four-wheel guys and their heated cabins with contempt that is akin to an infantryman’s for the arms that don’t do any fighting. The terrain on two-wheels is thud-slither-slide-smack-screech, the order depending upon the size of rocks strewn across that particular track.
The 5,500 m high passes, early morning starts in benumbing sub-zero cold, competitive sections stretching over 100 kilometres, and the limited possibility of evacuation in case of a mishap, make the Raid the ultimate temptation for the masochistic biker.
Given the extreme conditions one would expect few participants but then organiser Vijay Parmar explains just why the biking event field gets fully booked months before flag-off: “It just shows that the two-wheeler guys are not too bright. They keep returning for more pain.” Hmmm… logical.
The physics to making time on a mountain road that twists and contorts unpredictable like mating snakes is quite simple actually.
The closer you go to the outer side of the track, the faster you’ll go. Following that line allows you to judge the turn a split second quicker than the competition and let the accelerator have its way faster. The … err … problem is that beyond the edge there is invariably a chasm that falls thousands of feet to jagged rock or foaming river.
The best rider to have tamed the Raid — Aasish Moudgil — at times rides less than two feet from the edge.
Then there’s the fact that everybody can blast going uphill. But the better riders haul up the competition hurtling down. If you’ve ever gassed the accelerator to churn out your rear wheel
and make it grip all the more, thus propelling the bike to slide into the turn, then you know precisely what I am talking about. Braking hard on every turn downhill is for the sane, it’s just not for Raid winners.
Then there’s that third thing. Rocks, sand and potholes one can take but the scariest is black ice. If you have never been introduced to this dastardly form of that stuff, which is so cute and fluffy when it’s coming down, then pray you never are. Riding on black ice is like trying to negotiate a greased mirror. Never been on a mirror but I have skid enough on black ice, and the parallel sounds just about right. It stays the X factor because you never know where and on which high pass it will show up.
Makings of a winner
The why of doing it is convoluted.
Many flock to the Raid for life-long swagger rights. The burn of high altitude wind on the face stamps them ‘Raider’, a label that commands serious respect in the biking community. But these sorts usually don’t last beyond the first day.
The ones who go on to finish this ordeal and gird up the moment the next one comes around are the ones who live a bit outside the pale of the normal urbane world. The Raid on a bike is not for those who swerve crazy in city traffic, it’s not for those who paint their machines hues of the spectrum that scream their presence as loud as their exhausts deprived of the muffle of a silencer. The ones who last the Raid invariably are the quiet ones — the winner for the last three years is a bespectacled electrical engineer — for the mountains don’t bend to the flashy hordes who spew fire and brimstone; they, after all, have weathered creation itself.
The writer is the Sports Editor of Hindustan Times, Mumbai.