The Raid de Himalaya is a 2500-odd km high-speed motorsport competition that boasts of the highest competitive altitudes in the world. The Xtreme category has participants hurtling as fast as they can on barely motorable roads of the middle Himalaya, with the imposing Baralacha (4890 m) pass being part of a competitive stage.
Held in the beginning of October each year, the Raid has competitors facing sub-zero temperatures with an average distance of 300km per day. Given the terrain it traverses — rough, rocky unpaved roads hewed out of the mountains with steep drops being the norm — every participant who goes to the Raid astride a motorcycle realises that one mistake can cost him his life. It’s not an odyssey that can be undertaken unless one is a bit of an adrenaline junkie; one who doesn’t mind pain.
Subhamoy Paul, a 49-year-old businessman from Kolkata, was astride his KTM EXE 500 motorcycle on the third day of this year’s Raid when he crashed to his death. He was navigating the Losar to Gramphu section in Lahaul Spiti district, Himachal. That’s 78-km of rocky, rough road that includes the 4500 m Kunzum pass.
After coming down from Kunzum, the track runs on the right bank of the Chandra river and throws sandy, rocky (both big boulders and pebbles) and fast flowing straights at a rider. Paul appears to have miscalculated and hit a boulder that threw him off with about 15 km of the stage left to go. The subsequent head injury seems to have been so bad that there was little the chopper evacuation to Manali could have done.
The thrill of pushing
In the 2015 Raid, this writer and Paul were sharing service vehicles as we both competed in the Xtreme motorcycle category. We both have big bore machines, mine being a KTM 525 EXC, and were chaffing at the route that year as it excluded my favourite Losar-Gramphu stage.
Now, the combination of straights and rocks on this particular section allows our bikes to be unleashed to their full potential. The narrow, tight corner trails don’t favour them, nor do tarmac sections which are a nightmare on our off-road specific knobby tires.
Both bikes have about 11 inch of suspension travel in the front and 13 from the rear monoshock. Gramphu to Losar and back are the kind of stages that allow the top end (about 140 kmph at that altitude) as well as the great suspension to come into play as one can hit the bumps and the rocks hard at high speed while being confident the bike will soak it all up.
The crucial bit to controlling these machines at high speed is the kind of strength and endurance one has. Off-road, high-speed riding is all about skill liberally buttressed with the bulwark of muscle.
Now, there are a bunch of us in their 40s who have finally managed to get the machines they used to lust for in their youth. We compete sporadically but all have notions of making it to the podium.
This year I backed out of competing in the Raid as I realised that I wasn’t strong enough to push it. I am also seasoned enough to know that once the adrenaline kicks in, the throttle tends to open up and caution becomes just a tiny whiny noise in a corner of one’s brain. So, it was prudent to not compete at all. A bike crash four months ago followed by a month-long assignment abroad had seen my preparation nicely scuttled.
Paul, in the meanwhile, had parked himself in Europe months on end. He had competed in enduro events and had been riding trails there. He had also shed 15 kilos and was looking to ensure that he had a six-pack by the time he turned 50.
He left for the Raid confident and optimistic about his chances. Now, Paul was too seasoned a rider to have done something drastically dangerous. But that then is the terrifying nature of this sport. One bad bit of judgement and ones world becomes a horrifying mix of chaos and panic when riding at those speeds. One bad call and it can be the end.
A serious business
The thing that hits a rider when something like this happens is the basic realisation that it could have been anyone one of us. A death rips off the glamour and machismo; the stakes are laid bare and they are penetrating in their magnitude. As one sits back in the wake of Paul’s demise and the ‘Is it worth it?’ query pops up in the head, I look to sieve for reasons as to why we do this?
There is something about being astride a motorcycle on a rough road and trying to tame the terrain with your skill and the prowess of your machine. It’s said that one feels most alive when one is close to the edge. And taking a dicey turn with a bare foot to spare your rear wheel from the thousands of feet of plummet is doing that, literally.
It’s a strangely liberating experience. Once in a divine while, ability and the machine collude to take one beyond fear and those rides are sublime. The pros manage them with regularity, my kind once in a rare while. It’s these highs and the release which comes afterwards that makes all this so addictive.
Even as we mourn the passing away of Paul, we know that next year again there will be a horde of bikers lining up to take part. The lure of racing on the highest tracks in the world remains intact.
(This writer has taken part in the Xtreme motorcycle category of seven Raids and completed four of them. He was the Group A winner in 2005.)