The wind hurts like the slash of a painful memory -- it sears through chinks before the mind battens down on the offending breach in clothing. It is double digits below the wrong side of the Celsius zero. At four am, it's still a good three hours before the sun fights past the 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 among 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-crack-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 75 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... interesting logic.
The physics to making time on a mountain road that twists and contorts worse than a PMSing woman's mood is quiet 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 track 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 a scant 12 inches from the edge. Yes, I've measured it.
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 uses 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 stuff 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 on black ice, and the parallel sounds just about right.
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 title 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. He has stayed away from the last two editions of the Raid as three years of lousy suspension smacking into unforgiving rock have led to spinal compression in the neck. But then one of those KTMs with 13 inch of play up front just may be what the doctor prescribed.
The Himalayan Raid What:
The highest altitude off road motorsport event in the world Where & when: Begins Shimla, first week of October.
High passes in the region of 5500m Early morning starts in sub-zero temperature Some sections have rocky roads, others smooth border road tarmac Two editions of the Raid have had to be curtailed mid-way due to freak weather. One saw conditions which had competitors marooned beyond Rohtang Pass for five days.
A bus or a taxi usually takes eight hours from Gramphoo to Kaza (250 km). A Raid vehicle averages three hours.
What you need:
Experience of riding on dirt, nay, make that rocks.
A well-prepared, modified machine.
Loads of guts. We suggest you borrow your neighbour's too.
Vijay Parmar: 09816004137
Total sponsorship needed to support one rider
Rs 49,700 Rs 7,500 (entry fee) + Rs 10,200 (backup support) + Rs 16,000 (modification cost) + Rs 16,000 (cost of spares)
Details of the money
Backup Support The long nature of the Raid and the extreme terrain makes service back up mandatory with two service teams minimum to ensure support throughout the event.
Here's how amount works out:
Rs 80,000 -- Hiring costs for two Toyota Qualis taxis for eight days.
Rs 18,000 -- Hiring costs for two mechanics for nine days.
Rs 10,000 -- Food and accommodation for mechanics, drivers and helpers.
Rs 3,000 -- Registration cost for service teams @ Rs 500 each person.
Total backup cost:
1,02,000, which is split between 10 riders.
Rs 1,000: Replace front light with round one; do away with the faring.
Rs 2,500: Switch to a smaller 16 inch rear wheel.
Rs 1,000: Raise the front shocks.
Rs 6,000: Change rear suspension to custom-made gas packs.
Rs 2,000: Change to K&N air filter.
Rs 2,000: Craft new foot pegs, mounting plates; regular ones break too easy.
Rs 750: Change front tyre to grooved pattern suitable