After four hours of pressing down on the throttle, my thumb is aching. The hands are numb from gripping the handlebar tightly, and the legs feel like jelly. But there's no reprieve, the finish is still 10 km away.
My body sways one way, as my machine -- a Polaris Phoenix 200 cc ATV -- pulls in the opposite direction; twisting and sliding in the deep ruts filled with loose sand and slush that pass for a track in this rally. It's taking all my energy to stay in the running, negotiating twists and turns while speeding through narrow openings between tall grass and shrub in the desert, somewhere near Jaipur.
Besides the occasional curious villagers and over-loaded tractors, there are no signs of civilisation. Stray thoughts of stopping and going back cross my mind, but I know that isn't an option -- that's the first rule of the rally; never come back the same track.
Realising that the options are severely limited I decide to make the most of it. That was the turning point. Despite the peril I was in, my heart raced in anticipation of the next turn. With every slide on the slushy track, I experienced an inexplicable satisfaction; quickly discovering that the faster I went, the greater my enjoyment.
At the start
A 30-minute crash (literally) course in ATV driving is not much to rely on when you're about to be thrust into a rally through extreme off-road conditions, but it was 30 minutes more of training than I'd had before. Forget riding a quad bike, until now I'd never even seen one, except on the telly. The thought of riding it through a track infested with pits, deep ruts, and mud puddles brought a lump to my throat. I wondered whether I'd tumble to my right or the left. Whether I'd land with the ATV atop me, or to my side. Which limb would I break?
Even as I quietly panicked, the other participants started going through their warm-up rituals, full-throttle across the rugged terrain. It was a moment for desperate measures -- I straddled my quad, shut my eyes, and tried invoking the spirit of the wild. Perhaps due to my inherent love for adventure, the churning in my stomach began to settle down. I felt like a Rajput soldier atop a saddle-less horse, waiting for the bugle to announce the raid. The paraphernalia of chest and arm guards and helmet completed my armour. And thus, the first Polaris ATV Challenge Rally began.
Gun the throttle
My thumb was put to use like never before. I swerved and slid and steered to stay on the track. The deep ruts turned into mud puddles with every drop of rain that fell and my handlebar started to wobble. The machine started behaving strangely -- veering left when I willed it to go right.
I've driven many a motorcycle and car, but none of them gave me any inkling of how a quad bike would behave. Scattered bits of advice came to my rescue. Like the first commandment -- keep the handle straight and the rest will follow. And the words of Rusy Kohli, who eventually won the rally: "Do not lose the momentum. It's a bike with four wheels and will not topple if you balance it."
So there I was, dancing on my quad, keeping it balanced. My actions resembled a twist - when the waist went left, the body went right, the head left -- and I began to figure it out. Though my timing wasn't flattering at the end of the 7-km first stage, it brought me closer to my machine. I started to know how it behaved. After the first stage, I was in control.
Used to riding bikes, my first instinct when the machine pulled to one side was to put my foot down. I learnt the the hard way that this doesn't work for a quad, and almost wound up with the 200-kg beast on top of me. Instead of leaving me shaken, the experience gave me more confidence to swivel on the roughs. By the second day, I was experimenting with the machine. I rode it standing, slid with ease round tight corners, never used the brake and controlled the glides and turns with the throttle alone.
At the end of seven stages of intense riding, I was exhausted and soaked in half-baked mud and desert dirt. Coming second in Category 2 for ATVs below 200cc never crossed my mind. All that I was thinking about was the experience. After two days of intense riding that put my endurance level to test, I was feeling deeply satiated as if my soul has been purged and my life has been cleansed. I guess that's why I love adventure.
The writer prefers
tarmac but is now a firm convert to the temptations of an off-road ride.