Riding hard up a steep Himalayan road is sure to make your heart thump against your rib cage; make your legs feel like jelly and leave you panting and red-faced. But what makes it all worthwhile is being able to ride your bike at a relaxed pace once you get to the top. You aren't crawling at a snail's pace, but you aren't zipping by like you would in a car either.
"You might only be cycling at 18-20 kph but that's the ideal speed at which you can take in the beautiful landscape," says Milind Bhide, a mountain biker who runs Countryside Adventure Holidays, a Mumbai-based adventure travel company.
The Himalayan region parts of Ladakh, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand offers some of the best biking trails in India. The road from Manali to Leh is legendary for its mountain biking trails.
Another popular bicycling route is from Manali to Shimla. This has also been the preferred route for the MTB Himachal, a high-altitude mountain bicycling challenge, for the last six years. "Mountain biking is the best way to get close to nature in an eco-friendly way. The pleasure of riding through pristine forests cannot be compared to anything else," says Mohit Sood, president of MTB Himachal.
What makes mountain biking extremely adventurous are the challenging conditions in which the bikers have to ride. Some stretches of mountain roads are often very steep, making them impossible to ride on. The bikers have no other option but to carry their bikes over the rough terrain. "Then there are the downhills, which are steep, curvy roads you take to ride down a hill," says Sood. "These are very difficult to master since it's so easy to lose control as your bike hurtles down a slope. One wrong turn and you could end up in the valley below."
"The mountainous regions of India are full of long downhills and gruelling uphills that are highly demanding for bikers," says Arun Joshi, founder of Delhi-based Peak Adventure Tours. "The straight stretches, sections of hike and bike and sections of fastpaced gravel roads contribute to a great mountain biking experience. There is a little bit of everything for riders of all initiations, besides just dirt roads and single tracks."
Trails or off road tracks bring a different set of challenges to the table. "One of the thrills of mountain biking is being able to ride on off road tracks as it lets me thoroughly enjoy the beauty of my surroundings and indulge in some photography," says Rohan Dhawan, an avid mountain biker and a member of Pedal Yatri, a mountain bikers' group in Gurgaon.
If you're a newbie, the best way to hone your mountain biking skills is by riding your cycle as much as you can on an everyday basis. Building stamina and endurance along with muscle strength is key. "You can boost your fitness level by going to the gym regularly, but there's no substitute for spending time on the saddle," says Saminder Singh Saluja, a four-time participant in the MTB Himachal. "Ride your bike for as long as you can everyday. That's the best training really."
Cycling for long distances on flat roads is a good way to start. "As you pick up more skills and your endurance improves, you could start exploring hilly roads," says Dhawan, who started by cycling in and around Gurgaon and now goes mountain biking in Himachal Pradesh with fellow members of Pedal Yatri. A daily cycling routine of 35-40 km keeps him in top shape.
But be careful before taking on steep mountain roads and off road trails as a novice, advises Dhawan. "Never go on an off road trail when you are alone. When you are exploring a different terrain for the first time, it's always good to be in a group," he says.
Customised mountain biking
The safest way to start mountain biking is by signing up with an adventure sports company that will customise a tour to suit your requirements. You can choose routes, distances and the duration of your trip. All equipment, including ATB (all terrain bikes), back-up vehicles, repair kits and even a mechanic are provided by the organisers.
"If there's a stretch that's too tough for you to handle, you can put your bike in the back-up vehicle and drive down that distance and start riding the bike again after some time," says Bhide.
Peak Adventure Tours organises mountain biking tours in Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh and Sikkim. Contact Arun Joshi on +91-9811636814. Countryside Adventure Holidays organises customised mountain biking trips for groups of five or more. Contact Milind Bhide on +91-22-2444 1513. Pedal Yatri is a Gurgaon-based group that organises rides to the Aravali Hills and Himachal Pradesh. For details, email firstname.lastname@example.org EQUIPMENT Bikers use all-terrain bikes for the mountains. Pick from brands like Atlas, Cannondale, Firefox, and Hercules. Knee and elbow pads help to minimise scrapes and bruises. Basic puncture patch kit and bike repairing pack. At least two big bottles of water. First aid kit. High-energy snacks like dry fruit, cheese. Swiss Army knife for safety and utility.