As a child, David Kumar was oblivious to the sport of mountain biking. On Sunday, he registered a hat-trick of wins at MTB Shimla. And to think that he took to the sport just four years ago!

David Kumar

First published: https://www.redbull.com/in-en/david-kumar-from-watching-mtb-races-to-dominating-them

David Kumar: From watching MTB races to dominating them

Just two years ago, David Kumar was an unknown biking enthusiast. Now he is India’s top mountain biker who finished first among his countrymen at MTB Himalaya 2017.

While growing up amid the mountains of Reckong Peo in Himachal Pradesh, there was a sight that fascinated David Kumar. He stood there, motionless and in awe, as he saw the odd bunch of foreign cyclists huffing their way up the slopes near his home. Nothing could distract Kumar at that point. Once they disappeared around the next bend, Kumar snapped out of his fixation and got on with his daily chores, silently wishing that someday, he too could do the same.

With few resources on hand, buying a bike during those early days was a distant dream. He started saving money, but as the amount in his piggy bank started increasing, so did the price of the bike. In 2015, when he realised that he would be pushed into a mundane existence at the family-run cellphone shop, he decided to move away from home, with little idea of what he would do next.

Though the uncertainty was killing, it was to be a right decision in the long run. The first thing he did on moving to Shimla was to borrow money until he could finally afford to buy his own bike. From that moment on, there was no looking back. There was a new toy on hand, and alongside it, a lifelong dream that he wished to chase. When Kumar notched up his first career win at MTB Shimla in April this year, he got one step closer to it.

A new start

For the next few months after moving to Shimla, Kumar and his bike made for a regular sight around town. There was no training routine as such; more of trial and error as he figured what riding a mountain bike was all about. Whether it was a few mad dashes to see how fast he could go or a day-long ride on the weekends to check his stamina, there was this quiet joy Kumar experienced, each time he was on his bike.

But at the same time, he needed a consistent income to sustain himself in this new place. He dabbled with a few jobs as a salesman until he realised he couldn’t do it anymore.

“I first thought I would do my MA in Shimla, then dropped that and did odd jobs. But it was impossible to study, work and cycle. So I decided to take time off and moved to my brother’s home in Dehradun that winter,” Kumar says.

When he returned to Shimla in 2016, Kumar heard of MTB Shimla — a two-day race of about 130km in the Shivalik Hills. There wasn’t much training under his belt, but the prospect of participating in his first race was enough of a draw for him to give it a shot. At the end of it, Kumar had finished 10th among the men and 11th overall.

“It was a great boost for my confidence. But when I first saw the other bikes, I realised what I was riding was no match for what I was up against. Main dandi se lad raha tha aur woh talwaar se (I was battling with a stick while they had a sword),” he says, chuckling.

In his first race, Kumar had finished ahead of experienced, as well as sponsored riders. One of the organisers of the race, Ashish Sood, was impressed with his raw ability and pushed him to continue chasing the sport. To back him up, Sood handed him a job at his bike store under the Himalayan Adventure & Tourism Promotion Association (HASTPA). From dreaming about bikes, Kumar was now living among them.

David Kumar took to the sport just four years ago.

Lessons in riding

Though he was done with his education by then, it was back to school for Kumar once he took on the job at the bike shop. He learnt the nitty-gritty of the working of a bike, in addition to repair and maintenance, which is the key during multi-stage races in case of breakdowns. With a roommate who was an experienced rider, Devender Thakur, the learning continued outside of work as well.

“He’s one of India’s top riders, and he gave me my first insight into different training methods, diet, rest and recovery. I started following international riders online and learning through videos. Earlier, I was just commuting on a bike — it was now that I was really riding it,” Kumar says.

The first real test came in September 2016 with MTB Himalaya — an eight-day stage race that runs over 650km from Shimla to Dharamsala. It was the first multi-stage race that he was a part of and though he managed to bag the fourth spot among the Indian men, he had missed the podium by over two hours.Little did he know then that all his struggles would finally bear fruit in 2017.

David Kumar works as a bicycle mechanic in Shimla.

Switching gears

After spending a year in Shimla, the pressure was off Kumar for the moment. He had a stable job, had access to bikes and suitable terrain to train on, and now had a good understanding of the preparation needed for the big races. He mixed his routine up with sprints, interval and endurance training. When Team HASTPA started this year, he was signed on as their rider, which also helped him earn an entry fee and travel allowance for the races. With his mind set on chasing a career in mountain biking, he lined up once again at the start of MTB Shimla in April. This time around, he took top spot and earned the ‘King of Shivaliks’ crown. It was all slowly falling into place for him.

As part of his preparation for MTB Himalaya in September this year, Kumar took on a challenge that he and his mate had thought of a few years ago. The duo decided to carry their bikes all the way up to Kinner Kailash — a holy mountain peak in Kinnaur. Though the distance was barely 40km, it was the altitude that made it an arduous ascent.“We climbed to 5,100 metres, continually lashed by rains and strong winds. After a point, we had to carry the bikes over boulders — our shoulders were swollen for the next few days,” he says.

The same month, Kumar participated at the MTB Nationals in Pune, where he finished 15th in a field of 90. It was the final preparation, before MTB Himalaya beckoned. However, it all started off on a terrible note, as he struggled with cramps during the first stage of the race.“I think it was bad food and the lack of rest. Mid-way through the stage, I had to lie down at one of the medical stations. Nothing would work, including anti-cramp pills that another rider helped me with. But I couldn’t see my race getting over right there, so I struggled on to the finish line,” he says.

By the end of Day 1, he had finished in 18th spot, trailing his Indian counterpart, Isaac Rai, by nine minutes. The following day, things didn’t get better as he started cramping yet again, extending the gap to 15 minutes. That night in camp, he realised that the race would soon be out of his hand if he didn’t recover from the slump. Stage 3 featured a gruelling climb from the onset, all the way to Jalori Pass (3,120 metres); it was the moment Kumar had been waiting for all along.

“I’ve always enjoyed the struggles associated with an uphill and even focussed on it while training. If there was one chance to catch up, it was now,” he recalls.

David has been a consistent performer at MTB Himalaya as well.

By the end of Stage 3, Kumar was in his element, extending a 20-minute lead over Rai that would only increase as the days progressed.“He was much faster than the professional, foreign riders on the climbs. I personally saw him go past Michael Isidoro (5th) and Pau Zamora (6th), which was incredible,” says Kshitiz Gupta, an official at MTB Himalaya.

The end of the race was a breeze for Kumar, finishing over an hour ahead of Rai and taking top spot among the Indian men, while settling for a 10th place finish in the overall men’s solo category. The following month, he teamed up with Thakur to take second spot in the Team of Two event at the inaugural MTB Arunachal: Hornbill’s Flight — a seven-day race that runs over 730km. That too came with its fair share of drama, as David’s frame snapped on the second day, forcing him to ride on a makeshift arrangement for the next four days.

At just 23, Kumar still has age on his side. Sood, who helped him make inroads into the world of cycling, believes he has many more mountains to climb in life.“I’m so happy to see David scale these heights. He is a naturally talented athlete and a passionate one too. When I met him two years ago, he didn’t even have a proper cycle,” Sood says.

Dreaming on

These days, Kumar keeps busy at the HASTPA bike shop, attending to customers and looking after bikes as if they were his babies. After all these years, he’s finally in a space that he can call his own and in a state of mind where he’s most happy. The training is all a part of the routine, armed with a confidence that comes alongside winning. And the success has seen support pour in, from even those who thought he was going down the wrong way.

“I remember my brother was very worried about me. These days, he logs on to YouTube to show his friends my videos from the podium. It’s really encouraging, though I’m certain my parents still don’t know what I really do on a bike,” he laughs.

Kumar has come a long way from those days when he stood and admired the many cyclists coming his way. These days, he is busy inspiring others; especially those, whom he leaves in a daze, each time he glides past them.

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