An altitude gain of 15,000 metres in eight stages, covering 650 kilometres in the Himachal — the Hero MTB Himalaya is no “pedal in the park”. Throw in a few of more variables — the riders camping overnight in tents while they recover from the aches for next day’s action; the terrain battering their prized race-prepped bicycles to breaking point while they ride, nursing their bikes, hoping their bodies don’t break either… You get the picture!
The 2016 edition of MTB Himalaya — 12th running of the race — began on September 25 from Shimla, and will traverse through some picturesque trails in Himachal, crossing high passes including the famed Jalori Pass, before ending in Dharamshala on October 3.
After three days of intense action, the riders spent a relaxed day at the Gada Gushaini campsite on Wednesday, enjoying the well-deserved rest day. But “rest” for cross-country MTB racers is not exactly spending time in a hammock enjoying the mountain view. The day was used for repairing the bikes as well as the bodies, preparing for the next five stages to ensure the most important thing they are there for.
MTB Himalaya is a survival game more than a race. Canadian Cory Wallace, a rider who has earned his stripes in cross-country multi-stage mountain biking races across the world, concurs.
“While winning the race is a great feeling, crossing the finish line, regardless of which position you are in, gives an equal high,” says the 2014 MTB Himalaya champion. “This race is about survival. Yes, we do push ourselves and the organisers ensure the courses and trails are technically challenging as well.”
The course this year will take the 67 riders (9 women) through Gada Kuffer, Shwad, Gada Gushaini, Bagshed, Kamand, Barot, before the final stage and the chequered flag at the cricket stadium in Dharamshala. The terrain is a mixed bag of challenges — from single-track and jeep track trails to on-the-edge boulder-ridden paths and broken tarmacs.
A bumpy ride indeed and Wallace, though a pre-race favourite, is finding things a little more bumpy this time with German Andreas Seewald and former 24-hour MTB world champion, Jason English of Australia, pushing him. Things didn’t help when the Canadian lost time on the second day with a puncture.
Yes, punctures are a very frequent reality check for the riders and they carry spare tube and equipment to repair them and get going. Wallace, who had taken lead in the opening day in the men’s open standings, lost it in day 2, but clawed back to second position on the third day, behind Seewald. English is in third place.
In the women’s open solo segment, defending champion Catherine Williamson, a former European and world champion in triathlon, duathlon and marathon MTB, seems to be operating on a different plane. She leads Ilda Pereira of Portugal in the women’s standings and looks good to ride her way to victory this time around as well.
But the Himalayan trails can be tricky and Williamson knows things could turn around fast. But the English rider also believes in being in the moment and enjoying “some of the most beautiful trails in the world”. That probably is her winning edge for the meditative experience of being surrounded by pristine beauty ensures riders forget the muscle pain and burn as well as the leaderboard, and their focus remain sharp on the trail.
On the local front, two Indians in the men’s open solo category have been making a good account of themselves amongst the much more accomplished foreign riders. Devender Thakur and Shiven, pumped up after their great ride at the legendary Bike Transalp race across the Alps, are in 10th and 11th positions.
The experience they gained at Transalp seems to be helping them. “It was a great outing,” said Shiven, who, along with Thakur took part in the team event there.
“We were racing with a lot of professionals and could watch first-hand how they handle long stage races, especially how they recover post ride and also how they pace themselves through the stages,” added the rider, who is part of the Hero MTB team.