Pedalling for life

Retired General Gaurav Rana went on the 50km Kathmandu Kora Cycle Jatra despite being on chemotherapy . Photo: KTMKora

As former Chief of Army Staff of Nepal Army, Gen Gaurav Rana is more used to riding 4WDs and helicopters to remote parts of the country. No one expected to see him at Patan Darbar Square last week being flagged off in this year’s #KoraCycleJatra.

Rana, age 66, is a bicycling aficionado, but what makes his participation in the gruelling 50km Kathmandu Kora even more remarkable is that he is being treated for a malignancy, and had his latest chemotherapy treatment just a week before the ride.

The general defied expectations and illness at the 16 July event, even beating his own mileage from past years.

“I want to keep a positive frame of mind, so I set Kora as my goal and worked toward it,” Rana told us. “My doctor said it was okay to exercise, and told me to lead a normal life.”

Rana comes from an illustrious family of military officers, and began cycling in his childhood. He found similarities between his love of adventure sports, like mountain biking, and his military career.

Rana served as Chief of Army Staff from 2012-2015, when he instituted a policy that all officers should avoid using vehicles on Fridays — and to bike or walk instead both to maintain physical training and reduce reliance on fuel.

While some people may look down on cycling as a lesser form of transport, Rana wanted to be an example, riding a Nepali-assembled bicycle to work.

“When I started cycling to work, people were saying, ‘Oh, if the chief can ride, why can’t we?’ It slowly picked up in popularity,” Rana recalls.

The general was impressed by the turnout at this year’s #KoraCycleJatra as thousands of cyclists gathered at Patan Darbar Square for the 50, 75, and 100km routes. As he pushed through the race’s challenges in spite of his cancer diagnosis, Rana noticed the community-focused atmosphere of this year’s Kora.

The Kathmandu Kora bicycling event is the brainchild of ethical tourism entrepreneur Raj Gyawali and a young British volunteer to raise money for Samata School. The first ride was organised in 2011 with just 35 cyclists.

This year’s event saw over 3,000 registered riders with parallel Kora events being held in different parts of Nepal, as well as abroad. Gyawali hopes that the Kora can be a message for others facing illness to fight back against depression.

Throughout the race, Gaurav Rana and fellow cyclists supported and encouraged each other. He says, “It was tough — the sun was out all day and the weather was scorching. It was very challenging but also extremely rewarding. I had such a sense of achievement.”

Beyond the sense of meeting a shared challenge, Rana was struck by the number of young cycling enthusiasts and how the sport has developed in Nepal in recent years. Whereas five years ago, many participants used worn down bicycles with patched up tyres, this year’s ride featured more brand new bikes of all makes than ever before, even electric bikes.

“I was very impressed looking at the variety of bikes,” says Rana. “Today, cyclists are more professional and understand their equipment better than in previous years.”

Pre-Covid Koras have also seen the participation of organisations supporting cancer survivors. In 2019, the Richa Bajimaya Memorial Foundation took part to raise money for breast cancer screening for patients through the rally.

Says Rana: “I had put the Kora as my target. Everyone knew about my treatment, but I wanted to show that having cancer need not change your quest for adventure. You have to go on with your life and enjoy every moment.”

Circumambulating Kathmandu

When Raj Gyawali organised the very first Kathmandu Kora in 2011 with a young British volunteer, there were only 35 cyclists who raised money  for charity.

In the past decade, the Kora has never abandoned its dedication to help the under-served in society while instilling a spirit of adventure in young Nepalis.

It is a measure of how much the sport has grown in popularity that there were more than 3,000 registered riders on 16 July.

Unlike a traditional race, cyclists push themselves to complete whichever challenge is best for them.“It’s not a rally, it’s a ride,” says Gyawali, explaining the Kora challenge’s goal of bringing Kathmandu’s cycling community together.

Not only are the bicycle varieties growing in number, but the Kora challenge itself is spreading. There are now 50 or 60 locations in Nepal, including Pokhara, Biratnagar, Birgunj, Nepalganj, Surkhet, Hetuada and even Jumla. This year over 300 cyclists joined Bhaktapur’s first official Kora challenge, compared to only 30 last year.

The Kora Jatra was also held on the same day this year in Singapore and in Geneva, and enthusiasts are picking up the challenge next year in cities in Australia and Europe.

Each year, Kathmandu’s Kora  grows in popularity and numbers of cyclists. Now, the ride fills Kathmandu's streets each year with thousands of bicycle-lovers, including inspirational figures and celebrities.

Gyawali’s goal is to make it a community event, and keep the cycle challenge accessible to all, whether they are athletes, actors, students, children, or former army chiefs.

“This is a fun ride. There is no other agenda. The pure agenda is building community and being festive,” says Gyawali. He explains that to cyclists, the Kora challenge acts as its own jatra, with entire communities coming together in a wider festival. By now, locals know the route, which is the same each year, and offer special discounts.

The Kathmandu Kora follows a clockwise route that circumnavigates some of the city’s most renowned religious sites, including the Boudha and Swayambhu stupas and Pashupati temple.

While initially sponsored through Gyawali’s company, socialtours, the annual gathering is now co-organised through Pangro Outdoor Events and Cycle City Network Nepal. Turkish Airlines is the official airlines partner and conducts CLICK2WIN contest where this year both professional and amateur photographers have a chance to win a trip to Istanbul if their Kora picture receives the most views.  

Read more: ‘Re-cycling’ Kathmandu is not so easy, Sarah Watson