Nepal pushes mountain bike tourism

Adrenaline junkies ride through Himalayan forests at the Enduro Ratnange in Solu


There are certain activities that demand absolute focus. The surroundings blur as vision narrows, tension rings in the ears. The closer to danger, the more exciting it gets. 

Thrill is what adventure sports like mountaineering, canyoning and white water rafting are all about. Now, a new kind of outdoor activity is taking advantage of Nepal’s vertical terrain and scenery: mountain biking.

The sport is going viral as passionate, trailblazing Nepalis turn what used to be trekking paths into biking trails, and post GoPro videos of their adventures. Now, the sport is going international and at the forefront is Phaplu Mountain Bike Club that held its second Enduro Ratnange Race in March.

“Last year was all about proving the viability of the event. We worked hard to figure out every single detail,” says club founder Ang Tsering Lama, who this year got support from the local government and sponsors. 

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Some of the best mountain bikers in the world attended, among them acclaimed French rider Rémy Absalon, who told us: “Ratnange trails are some of the best in the world, the mixture of loam and dust is just awesome to ride on. I have travelled a lot, but never seen a country like Nepal where we are so well received.” 

The Ratnange Trail Center is a network of 13 routes spanning 60km used solely for mountain biking with a selection of narrow, technical, wide, or single tracks that need the complete concentration of riders. The rest stops offer stunning views of the Everest region.

Lama designed the route on existing foot trails, and works with the local community to maintain them. He raises funds by renting out paths to private companies, who name trails after their brand for Rs20,000 a year. 

Explains Lama: “The trails roll through the forests and the route is designed based on what you want it to be. Do you want it to flow? Do you want switchbacks? Drops? Jumps?” 

Flowy trails have kind curves that allow bikers to maintain momentum and a smooth speed, while switchbacks are zig zags built into a steep trail to reduce speed on descent. Drops are where the trail falls away. Jumps consist of takeoffs and landings, and vary in the time the rider is airborne.  

When blazing a new trail, a good road must always be close by for urgent medical attention. The risk of serious injury is ever present. Safety precautions include helmets, knee and elbow pads, and chest and back guards. Even then, concussions, fractures, discolations, and broken wrists are common. 

Lama advises matching ability to the choice of trail, but riders always want to push their limits. One way they train, is at pump tracks, which are artificial dirt circuits. The bike club built one of these in Phaplu where young ‘rippers’ learn to control bikes. 

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Another way to train for the downhill is actually the uphill. “The uphill builds the mental endurance needed for the downhill,” explains Lama.

It also builds physical strength. Riders need strong, endurable legs, a sturdy core, and a solid grip. “But on the downhills, a state of complete focus and presence washes over you, and all of your sensations and abilities are heightened. It is taxing on the body, but still meditative.” 

Lama runs The Happy House in Phaplu, a family lodge where Edmund Hillary used to stay and call his “happy place”. When he formed Phaplu Mountain Bike Club, Lama wrote to bike shops and friends, who donated two-wheelers. Before long, local young children started coming in after school to zoom around the track. 

Club members did well at Enduro Ratnange, inspiring a new generation of young riders to dream of careers as mountain bike athletes or biking guides, who make $25 an hour to a trekking guide’s $15.

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Despite the popularity of the sport and possibilities to compete at higher levels, the bureaucracy, government ignorance, and a lack of infrastructure are setbacks.  

The club makes sure that it is inclusive: there is no membership fee, and bikes are set aside exclusively for girls. The main trainer, Mingma Yangzi Sherpa, is a woman. 

Mountain biking is also good for the soul, says Lama. “Getting good at this sport requires discipline, and a sense of camaraderie. Bikers seem to develop a deep respect for the environment.” 

Nepal pushes mountain bike tourism NT 1

Mountain biking tourists are great for Phaplu’s economy as well. Trekkers who pass through Phaplu stay for a day, while bikers may stay for four or five. Mountain biking destinations in Wales, Canada, and the Alps see millions of tourists every year. Nepal already has the terrain, the trails, the hospitality and unsurpassed views. 

Phaplu Club is already looking forward to next year and hopes to organise Asia-wide events with top talents. There is also potential to stage Ratnange-like projects in Makalu and Ilam. 

Kathmandu to Phaplu is a now a nine hour drive on the Sindhuli Highway via Okhaldhunga, or a 30 minute flight to Phaplu. Riders can then pedal up to the start of the trail or take a shuttle for themselves and their wheels. Just so you’re not, you know, two tyred.

Vishad Onta