Sitting in my hotel room in Chiang Mai Thailand, recovering from 3 weeks of solid base miles with my buddy Simon bike touring across Northern Vietnam and Laos, an unexpected invitation came in. My friend, Yeti from India, was helping with a second year race and was looking for some international riders to come and take part too help develop the event. It was a split second decision but off to India it was for the Uttarakhand MTB Himalayan Challenge!
The Uttarakhand Himalayan MTB Challenge, put on by the Indian Department of Tourism in association with the Cycling Federation of India had two goals: Promote tourism and grow Cycling in India. It was a nice race to support as there are zero entry fees for its 100 competitors which allowed 80 local Indians a chance to race their bikes for a week and another 20 International riders from Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, USA, New Zealand and myself form Canada to experience one wild ride across a beautiful part of the World.
India is an incredible country with over 1.25 Billion people and a history which reaches back 5 millennia. Our first stopover was the countries capitol of New Delhi which inhabits a population the size of Australia inside its boundaries. It’s one crazy-ass place with everything imaginable squeezed in there including some old castles and impressive historic monuments. It can now also stake claim to the World’s worst air pollution, over three times worse then Beijing which is pretty screwed itself. 12 hours was enough to digest a lifetime of bad air as we got the heck out of there and headed up to the mountain town of Nanitial, just 280 km away. In Canada this drive would take 3 hours, in India it takes over 9 hours as the streets are a spectacle themselves with everything and the kitchen sink on there. At one point my mind was getting overwhelmed by all the action so I closed my eyes, only to reopen them to a giant billboard falling on a shed beside the motorway. Oh boy, here we go..
The racing itself was stunning as the mountainous landscapes in Uttarakhand made for some wild race courses as the roads constantly wound themselves around mountains, over passes, through river gorges and past bustling mountain towns. Often we’d climb for 35-40 km, followed by epic descents, knowing around each corner could be our destiny with the end time if we didn’t ride wisely. There was never a quiet moment in India and this sort of racing on open Indian road ways required 100% attention. On day one our biggest competition from India, Sachin, was wiped out by a jeep, breaking his bike into three pieces and launching himself down a mountainside. Miraculously he woke up three hours later in a hospital with no recollection of the wreck, and also no serious injuries. The next day Sachin hopped on a 35 lb, $100 Wal Mart bike, wrecked himself again on the first descent, hopped up and went on an attack for two hours before we finally caught him again. After this stage we nicknamed our relentless and determined friend “Crash.”
Every night we were put up in local lodging and dished up local Indian cuisine. It usually worked out but after winning stage two heading into the mountain top town of Gwaldam we checked into a sketchy hotel on the edge of town. For lunch we headed out back to what looked like a chicken coup and were served up a number of different Indian Curries. Taking one look at the operation I told my travel partners Thomas Turner, Justin Price and Adrien Retief that we were rolling the dice with this meal. Sure enough my dice rolled the wrong way and the next 24 hours was spent either on the toilet or running to a toilet.
Unfortunately stage three was the Queens stage and had over 150 km of racing. The first 70 km was flat or downhill which allowed me to dangle off a large lead group, the only thing keeping me in there was seeing the Indians on there Wal Mart bikes and flat pedals, which seemed rather inspiring. Turning into stubborn mode for the 2nd half of the stage I pushed through the stomach grumblings to take the stage win but at the same time also pushed my body into emergency shut down mode.
Another round of spicey curry knocked me out for good and for the next 2.5 weeks my body has been in the hurt locker with heart rates above 130 causing meltdowns. I could sense this was coming after the last four months of great racing and travelling through Costa Rica, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, and now India. I know better then to head to a country like India for a race when the empty tank signal is on the dash board but I have a tough time sitting still when theres adventures to be had.
For the rest of the race I tired to avoid the broom wagon and had an interesting time riding with the mid packers. These guys are the spirit of the sport of mountain biking, always with smiles on there faces as they do there best with whatever crappy bikes and food they have to power them through these long days.
Trying to find rest during stage races is tough at the best of times and in India its near impossible as the Indians love there noise with people honking there horns, dogs barking, chickens squawking and churches belting out religious statements 24/7. Once in a while it would be quite enough to sleep for a bit but any sleep would be awoken at 4:45 am by the Chai tea guys. WTF, in what World does someone want Chai tea at this time!? We would unhook our doorbells, put ear plugs in and ask politely for no Chai tea but every morning these guys would show up all smiley faced and wouldn’t back down until they got an answer. It was hard not to come out swinging at these early hours but we managed to hold back.
Sleep deprived, full of early morning Chai tea and still sporting a volcanic stomach I pulled my camera out and switched into tourist mode for the last couple stages. It sure is surprising how much more you see when you’re not in race mode. This part of India was especially astounding with waterfalls, thick forests and the entertainment of watching the locals do there daily routines on the side of the roads. It’s something tough to explain as the street action in India is like no other place I’ve been on earth.
In the end a couple tough Mongolian Roadies would take spots first and third, Thomas Turner from the USA was second, Adrien Retief from NZL in fourth and myself managing to stay in fifth thanks to gaining loads of time on the first few stages.
This trip turned into a rough one but I’ve never had a regret heading out on an adventure as every day moment is an entertaining learning experience when you’re some place new. The Indians sure looked after us good this trip and left us with a positive image of there country. The drive back to Delhi we saw our lives flash before our eyes a few times but we made it. The day after I was full steam ahead hopping on a jet plane headed to Australia to settle down for a bit to regain some health in a 1st World country before tackling the rest of the season.
Next up is one of Australia’s Iconic Marathons, the 100 km Convict on the outskirts of Sydney. This one will either go really good from over compensation or really bad if the body resembles anything from this Indian adventure. After that it’s back to my favourite country of them all to kick off the Canadian portion of the race year!