There’s more to off-road biking than just the bike
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There’s more to off-road biking than just the bike

Off-road riding is one of the most physically demanding sports and the Dakar just takes it a few notches higher, writes Sukhwant Basra.

other Updated: Dec 21, 2014 13:12 IST
Sukhwant Basra
Sukhwant Basra
Hindustan Times

Motorcycles in India are made for commuting. The ‘fun’ aspect of riding is restricted to a few; pushing hard on dirt to even fewer. Our people just don’t understand that competing off-road isn’t about sitting on a powerful machine with superb suspension and giving throttle.

From the Atacarna desert in Chile, known to be the most arid in the world, to tackling the peaks early in Argentina, CS Santosh will be riding through some treacherous terrain (HT Photo)

In fact, sitting just doesn’t come into the picture that much — the majority of the time one has to stand as it makes for better vision and control. The artificial ease of tarmac is stripped away along with all pretensions of a rider the moment he embraces the choke of dirt. It’s a bit of a reality check.

Compared to puttering away on a tame road, the dirt’s alive. To eek speed out of it, you have to conquer it. And in order to do that, you have to forget about instinct and instead let the scientific bit of your brain take over. For instance most of the times the best way to gain better control is to give throttle — that’s counter-intuitive for most of us who jam on the brakes the moment things get a little skittish. Throttle makes the rear tyre rotate faster and thus dig into the surface to provide traction; braking, meanwhile, leads to just skidding.

Raw courage

Off road riding is one of the most physically demanding sports in the world. Even in freezing conditions, riders come off a competitive section dripping sweat. It demands great endurance, it requires superb core strength and above all it requires raw courage. The last bit, of course, only comes in when you want to be really, really fast. Like Santosh Chunchunguppe is.

“I do cross training thrice a week, cycle for close to two hours three times; ride at least six hours every week. I have been doing that for close to a year. But as of right now, I am busy putting on some fat,” says the first Indian to attempt the Dakar on two wheels. Putting on fat? “Yeah man, you know I have been riding all my youth and it turns out that my body fat percentage of nine isn’t going to cut it for the Dakar. Nowadays I am stuffing myself with mithai (Indian sweets) from the local halwai (sweetmaker) to take it up to about 14% so that I have the reserves necessary to complete the Dakar,” says the 31-year-old who prefers to be addressed as CS Santosh. “Unless you have the reserve fat, the body starts burning muscle when your energy reserves run out.”

With the 2015 Dakar set to have three marathon stages wherein riders will have to camp in isolated bivouacs overnight, this factor becomes crucial. In these stages the riders have to service their own machines and can’t get any help from their backup. Body fat also really counts during long stages with the longest lasting a humongous 781 kms.

In the 2012 Raid de Himalaya, which Santosh won in his maiden attempt, your correspondent got a short glimpse of just how fast this guy is up close. He crossed me in a competitive section as if I was parked up on the side having a coffee. The speed apart, what was most pleasing (not at the time though, for I was mad that I was being trounced so badly in the very first stage of the event) was the smoothness of the rider.

Have you noticed those morons on the road darting in and out of traffic? They go-brake-go-screech. The best riders, instead, go smooth. It’s about not letting the rpm drop, using the gears to control the machine and braking to slide into a turn in order to align for a fast exit.

When Santosh passed me, he made it look so easy that for a moment my courage level also shot up and I actually began to go faster following his line. For about 30 seconds, that is! “It’s got a lot to do with muscle memory and extended riding experience. Nothing compares to time on the bike. And one doesn’t always enjoy it. It’s like a ritual that you get trapped into. Sometimes it feels like a chore. But then it’s got be done and a man’s got to do what he has to do.”

Not just riding

Apart from the grind of being on a motorcycle for 9000-odd kms on hostile terrain with, many a time, no distinct trail to follow, the Dakar is also a unique navigation challenge for motorcyclists. Mounted atop the handle bar is a toilet roll kind of thing. Now, for some of us it might make sense to have a toilet roll along when our senses scream out in protest if subjected to the raw dangers of an event like the Dakar. But these riders mount their rolled up road books (detailed navigational aids with all aspects of the route marked out) there. “We get handed those road ‘rolls’ a day before the stage and one spends about an hour for every 100km to mark the road book in a manner that allows ease of navigation. At those speeds (Santosh will touch in the vicinity of 180 km/h in some sections) it is very important that the road book is marked in a manner, with different colour codes, that the important bits register even when all is a blur.”

Unlike events in India the GPS on these bikes only goes active when a rider is in the vicinity of a waypoint (these are checkposts which ensure that all participants do the entire route as mandated), the rest of the navigation is by pure old-school road books.

What makes it all the more tricky is that the rider has to keep moving that roll manually, make it sync with the odometer reading and then continue navigating. Quite crazy, if you think of it.

Money, money

Unless you are very rich or have a fat sponsor, you can’t do the Dakar. “It takes about 100,000 euros (around `77 lakh). The entry fee alone is 14,800 euros (around `11.4 lakh), which, thankfully, the organisers waived off for me.” But, 80-odd lakh? Buy a house instead, man! “Err... I have a house,” laughs Santosh who has been helped by a bunch of friends to raise the money. PB Racing of the S Balan Group is his principal sponsor.

“There’ll be two trucks with about 20 mechanics for eight riders. The bike itself costs around 35,000 euros (`27 lakh), though with Red Bull coming on board, I have managed to save on that bit. Each component is built for this event and built to last its rigours. The customisation leads to the expense. Then, of course, the service guys have to be the best as a rider is just as good as his machine.” Santosh will be backed by the famous KTM Red Bull team that, he says, has had 13 winners in the past.

Fringe benefits

There’s an interesting tale about a famous biker coming in late during the transport stage of a Dakar much to the bewilderment of his team which could not figure out where he had been held up. In response to their barrage of questions when he finally clocked in, the rider took off his overalls to display a bikini. He had exchanged items of clothing on the way after spending some time with a lady. All this during the world’s toughest event!

So, is it true what they say about bikes being magnets for women? “Now, how do I put this? Let’s say it certainly piques their interest. I am not going to ape that famous rider for sure but the moment I finish the Dakar I plan to take in the many sights and sounds of Argentina which include the beautiful South American women,” chortles the boy within the man who is set to carve out a new chapter in the history of Indian motorsport.

Sitting in a room with Santosh one gets the feeling the man’s like a capped volcano – calm on the exterior, all raw beneath. The calm bit is essential if he has to complete the Dakar, the aggression even more so if he has to do well.

Like the burn scars on his neck exemplify, this is a man who pushes his limits to try and get his own. This is a man who takes risks. That way, he’s a new breed of Indian – looking to redefine; out to jettison convention. “The scars show that I don’t shy away from danger. I don’t hesitate to push beyond my comfort level. I just hope I have enough of the X-factor required to complete the Dakar. Heck, damn the modesty. Tell you what I am not going back off. If the machine does, I can’t help it.”

First Published: Dec 21, 2014 13:02 IST