Downhill all the way

Nepal has the ideal extreme terrain for mountain bicycle racing

Being one of the world’s most vertical countries, with six directions (east, west, north south, up and down) it was only a question of time before racing downhill on mountain bikes became a popular sport here.

Now it has. Pedal-powered, two wheel downhill races are gaining adherents looking for adrenalin and adventure. With the world’s most rugged terrain to practice in, Nepalis are even winning international championships.

Adventure seekers hurl themselves down steep slopes on their dirt bikes, careening throiugh narrow trails, dodging cattle, goats, people, trees and rocks, all the while striving to maintain balance and prevent themselves from losing control and veering off the path  to the valley below.

Possibly the first daredevil mountain bikers here were Craig Moffet and Brad Grunewald, who rode all the way to Everest Base Camp and back in 1983. Since then, as roads have opened up Nepal, adventure bikers have been venturing further afield into wilder parts of the country.

“Because trekking routes have been turned into motorable roads, many young people are taking up cycling,” explains Diwaslal Pradhan of the group Pangro.

Mustang is gaining popularity for cross-country riders, but there are challenging ridge trails right here on the Kathmandu Valley rim, in Chobar, Dakshinkali, Pharping and Godavari.

And as they gain experience, many young Nepalis want to take part in competitive downhill races. “More than 20% of the participants in our last race were youth,” says Shyam Limbu of Grand Himalayan Enduro, adding that the sport is not just fun, but also a healthy, environment-friendly activity.

Grand Himalayan Enduro is now famous worldwide for its challenging terrain and tough competition. Cycle enthusiasts from 21 countries flew to Nepal for the 2019 downhill race earlier this year.

“There are 15-20 international participants who come to Nepal every year just to take part in the race. This year more than half of our participants were foreigners,” explains Limbu. He points out that while Nepalis are increasingly drawn to the risky sport, the proportion of foreigners is increasing as word spreads about Nepal’s challenging terrain.

Besides Enduro, other international cross-country biking competitions in Nepal include Yak Attack and the Himalayan Outdoor.

Adventure is risk, and it is this risk that seems to attract downhill racers. The danger does not seem to deter women riders either, whose numbers are increasing through platforms such as the Ladies Mountain League, which introduced women to outdoor sports like swimming, rock-climbing, cycling, hiking and kayaking.

“The platform for women gives access to sports by providing equipment, such as bikes, via a mountain-biking ‘library’, and at the same time women can get training,” says Jenny Lama from Himalayan Single Track, a branch of the Ladies Mountain League that has trained 30-35 women in the past year, three of whom participated in the National Downhill Championship. Others took part in cross-country racing, and some became so addicted to the outdoors they went on to become mountain guides.

Says Sailendra Dongol of the National Cycle Association and co-owner of Pangro: “Just organising races should not be our goal, we need to develop more athletes.”

Karma's karma

Fed up with 12-year-old Karma Sherpa playing video games all day long, his aunt took him for a biking trip to Chobar four years ago.

That is all it took to get the young lad hooked to mountain biking. Now 16, Sherpa and his bicycle are inseparable, and besides winning many national races, in December he came second in the under-18 International Chiang Mai Enduro.

“I believe I was a pretty notorious kid,” he admits with a shy smile. “I didn’t like doing homework, so I was out and about in the mountains around Kathmandu in my bike every chance I got.”

The Chiang Mai race was a morale booster for the Nepali teenager, who realised he could compete with the best in the world, and was also inspired by meeting the big names in downhill biking.

“The competition was five days after my final exams in Kathmandu, so I could not practice much but the race went well,” Sherpa said, hinting that he could have even come first if he had enough training time.

The boy’s first race was the Kathmandu Mountain Bike Festival, when he was 13.  Despite being nervous he finished seventh, then built on the experience winning three of his next six races.

Sherpa credits his trainer and mentor, Shyam Limbu of Grand Himalayan Enduro. “He is my biggest inspiration,” says the racer, explaining how Limbu is a holistic trainer, monitoring his technique, mental maturity, concentration and nutrition.

“He also tells me to be less shy and talk to people more. It is good advice and has allowed me to make many international friends,” adds Sherpa, who also looks up to Nepali bikers Rajesh Magar and Suman Tamang.

Sherpa’s foster parents are very supportive, and took him to Switzerland for bike training. He has been told his performance is much improved after that, thanks also to better gear.

Downhill racing is dangerous, and even at 13 Karma was already battle-scarred. He broke his collar bone while training in Switzerland and proudly shows us an x-ray of his shoulder on the cracked screen of his smart phone.

“I have broken my collar bone in the exact same place twice. I also broke this mobile screen in one practice,” he adds smiling.

The teen biker’s ultimate goal is to participate in and win the Red Bull Hardline, one of the toughest downhill mountain bike races in the world. He says: “One victory is not enough, I need to win more.”

Reeti KC