Mountain biking has seen a steady rise in popularity in India
Trail Runners – The Past, Present & Future of Mountain Biking in India
Over the past decade, the mountain biking community in India has seen exponential growth
Four years ago, an excited 15-year-old Akash Sherpa rode his bike on the slopes around his home in Shoghi, a small town around 15 km from Shimla, the state capital of Himachal Pradesh. He was preparing for the big day. Cycling is a way of life in the hills either while running chores or racing with friends. So, when the Hero MTB Shimla – a two-day bike race – came to town, it gave him and his mates a purpose to race.
There was just one catch: He didn’t have a bike to ride during the two-day event.
With little idea about the demands of mountain biking (MTB) – the boys were in it just for bragging rights – Akash made his way to the start line on a borrowed bike. He was confident of doing well; after all this was a terrain that he was familiar with. He would be pleasantly proved wrong. Miles away from the short stretches that he was used to riding on around home, the race took him through the unchartered territory of long winding roads high up in the mountains, opening up a whole new world of discovery and adventure.
What he did not expect, however, was that two days later he would find himself on the winner’s podium. And once the brief celebrations died out, the teen realised he was hooked on to the sport of mountain biking.
It wasn’t like bicycles were new to the Sherpas. Akash’s father, S.D. Sherpa, had repaired bicycles for a living. Ashish, the younger sibling, was also part of Akash’s entourage that rode along Shoghi’s hills. The two brothers grew up pushing each other around on a bicycle lovingly made by their father. Never did they think, though, that professional racing would become an important part of the family.
The result at Hero MTB Shimla was enough to impress the organiser of the race, Himalayan Adventure Sports & Tourism Promotion Association (HASTPA), to gift Akash a mountain bike. Ashish followed in his brother’s footsteps and the two shared the bike while training. It was only when Akash was signed on by the Hero Action Team that he received a brand-new bike as part of the package and the two brothers could finally train and race together.
Sherpa was well aware of the demands of the sport. He put an end to his own love for motorcycle rallying and started a motorcycle garage alongside the cycle repair workshop in order to supplement his income. Together with the money the family earned from the dhaba Mrs. Sherpa ran, they began to focus on the intricacies of the sport with a focused training program. The dream was to produce homegrown, mountain biking champions in the years to come.
“Junoon hai dono main (Both are really passionate). They even help out at the dhaba and the garage, because they know how we’ve pulled it off over all these years. But our pockets didn’t allow us to send them to big events. Now that they have sponsors, they’ve started going to races outside of Himachal Pradesh as well,” Sherpa says.
As the name suggests, mountain bike racing involves riding bikes on single-track trails in the hills. Think pagdandi – the little paths that are carved out to leave just about enough room for someone to walk. The tracks, frequented by trekkers, are used by the locals to get to their villages located up the in hills. While tar roads are being built to improve access to the most remote villages, these tiny rough walking trails remain the fastest way to get to the top of the mountain. For bikers, though, they offer both a dreadful climb and the added thrill of storming downhill.
MTB racing has several formats that test speed, endurance and skill. Only a few, however, are recognised for international competitions around the world by the world governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI).
The most popular format remains the Cross Country Olympic (XCO) due to its simple organisation and short duration. The race features a loop of 4-6 km over a single-track course with a predetermined number of laps. The number of laps is different for each category and is established by the UCI Commissioner before the race according to the actual conditions of the track.
An XCO race is often divided into two parts: a cross-country timed trail – where each rider individually takes on the trail to clock the fastest tiUme and a cross-country mass start where all the riders take off together. Any rider whose lap time is 80% slower than the leader’s first lap is eliminated from the race. It is the only mountain biking discipline included as part of the Olympics so far and makes for high-intensity riding.
There is the Cross Country Marathon (XCM) format with marathon races ranging from 50 to 100km per race. A test of endurance, the XCM is like the Tour de France on uneven tracks in the mountains. The Downhill (DH), a more radical format, has riders storming down a mountain route featuring drops and jumps. It lasts less than five minutes and the fastest across the line wins. The 4X format – like DH- is a short downhill race. It features bigger drops and jumps, and pits four riders at a time alongside each other.
Besides these, other formats such as Enduro, Pump Track racing and 24-hour mountain bike races have their own circuits around the world though they are yet to be certified as Olympic or UCI events.
Common across most formats is a demanding terrain that needs riders to be equipped with exceptional riding technique while also being completely familiar with their machines. Breakdowns and falls are commonplace – it’s every rider for him/herself – especially when riders are expected to squeeze man+machine in patches where trails have barely enough space for a pedestrian.
What sets mountain biking apart from road and track racing is that, besides endurance and speed, it demands skills to handle natural terrain, rocks, soft sand, a fallen log in the middle of the path, or a stream cutting across the trail. The awareness and focus needed to negotiate the route in mountain biking is unparalleled.
Some of India’s top mountain bikers come from the Indian Army, champions at the 15th Giant Starkeen MTB National Championships in Pune last October. Coach Shishir Karki was one of the first from the institution to take to the sport when it was introduced as part of the Army Adventure Wing in 2006.
“Nobody knew what mountain biking really was,” reminisces Karki. “As part of our internal games, we had a triathlon that involved cycling, running and rafting. That year, our seniors proposed a cycling expedition from Lhasa to Kathmandu. But when that got scrapped, the team that had been handpicked was sent to our first race, which was the Hero MTB Himalaya in Himachal Pradesh [Ed note: the same one as Sherpa].”
Karki continues, “I was one among the original seven who were selected and I competed at various races until 2016. We had no coach back then and, being a senior, I picked up tips from foreign riders whom I met at races and passed it on to the youngsters.”
After hanging up the wheels of his career, Karki enrolled in a cycling certification course conducted by the world governing body, UCI, and took to coaching the Army team.
“It was only then that we had some structure,” Karki stresses. “We always worked on speed and strength but were clueless when it came to technique, let alone the use of technology. Today, we first train the boys and then conduct selections to pick the riders for the team who go on to compete at races. Our gear too has improved drastically. There was a time we rode bikes worth 12,000 rupees; the ones we ride today cost around 3.9 lakh rupees.”
The Army mountain biking team has crafted a practice trail at their base in Raiwala, Uttarakhand. Training for endurance, meanwhile, happens on hill slopes nearby. The advantage to race and train year-round places them among the top riders in the country.
The team at Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), the armed border force, has a similar advantage. The institution adopted the sport of mountain biking just under two years ago. Today they have 14 riders, 3 of whom are women. At their base in Arunachal Pradesh, training is a focused 365-day affair for select riders, all pedalling up to 400km a week, interspersed with regular competition across the country.
Lately, they have begun identifying talented riders and supporting them with training and equipment. Poonam Rana, 21, the winner of the women’s elite cross-country time trail and mass start races at the Nationals, is among those to be picked up by the SSB.
Says Isaac Rai, one of the senior riders with SSB: “She’s been with us for two years now and we’ve extended her the offer to join SSB in the future as well. Our Commandant, Rajesh Thakur, is now looking to support more youngsters if they have the potential.”
The Army and SSB mountain bikers are also assured of employment through mountain biking; something that was only limited to road and track cyclists. Other elite mountain bikers, however, must fend for themselves to chase the sport at the highest level.
Mountain biking continues to be an expensive sport. Newer, lighter bikes are more efficient but hard on the wallet. Karnataka’s K. Kiran Kumar Raju, who won gold in the men’s elite cross-country mass start event at the Nationals, is a sponsored rider who rides a bike worth INR 4.5 lakh. Add that to the cost of spare parts, an indoor trainer – a device that keeps a bike stationary allowing the rider to train indoors, nutrition, training, travel, competition fees, and hospitals bills that are commonplace in an injury-ridden sport such as mountain biking, and one quickly begins to see why the sport is as demanding off the saddle as on it.
Despite being one of the top riders of the country, Kiran, 32, had to work part-time jobs to fund his riding when he decided to turn professional a few years ago.
“We were just setting up the scene back then,” says Kiran. “By 2015, there were enough races around the country where, if you did manage podium places, it could take care of your racing needs.”
When Trek – a leading American brand headquartered in Waterloo, Wisconsin – entered the Indian market, they signed Kiran on as their first mountain biking athlete. The deal relieved the financial stress on Kiran; and once the results started to show, his sponsors decided to extend their support until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. They even offered him a monthly stipend for the duration of the deal.
Says Nikhil Pallat Ramesh, marketing manager at Trek, “In the past, we’ve sold bikes only through distributors. It was only last year that we entered the market ourselves. Kiran mentors another talented youngster, Johnson S. So, for now, we have two riders as part of our athlete management program. We don’t have a fixed budget yet, but by next year we should have more structure to the program.”
What Trek does as part of its initiative to take mountain biking to the masses is organising a Founders Ride where participants have the opportunity to learn more about the sport and what it entails.
“I’ve seen folks buy mountain bikes and they don’t even go on trails. Educating customers on the different kinds of cycling is essential for the growth of the sport in India,” Ramesh adds.
Other companies, too, have recently emerged as sponsors for riders. Hero Action Team backs Himachal Pradesh’s David Kumar, the Sherpa brothers and Sarah Appelt along with 12 other riders. ‘Walk to Himalayas’ sponsors Rakesh Rana and two others while Cannondale has supported Shiven for a year now.
Siddhartha Bhandari, co-founder of Walk to Himalayas, says the company values long-term consistency over short-term results. “Our support for riders is based on how they do at races. For instance, Rakesh has been consistent over the years and is among the top riders of the country, so we plan on sending him to Scotland next season to train.”
Since taking on the responsibility of pushing the sport of cycling alongside the Cycling Federation of India (CFI) around four years ago, Giant Starkenn has assigned an annual budget of close to INR 2 crore, which also includes support for around 12 mountain bikers on their roster.
“The support for each rider varies, depending on his passion and riding ability. But this is only possible since the brand is growing. Bike sales have only been going up among both recreational and competitive riders at an annual growth rate of 25%. Before we started organising the MTB Nationals in Pune, the race was almost non-existent, and we’ve come a long way over these years,” says Pravin Patil, managing director and CEO of Starkenn Sports.
Besides the Nationals, the CFI collaborates to organise three additional races in India – the NorthQuest Ladakh Challenge, the MTB Uttarakhand, and the MTB Kerala which is scheduled to be restarted in 2019 after a gap of two years. There are also a whole host of private races around the country giving riders ample opportunity to race. Arunachal Pradesh hosted the inaugural Dalmia MTB Arunachal Hornbill’s Flight and MTB Tawang last season, Sikkim hosted the Epic 17K, and Walk to Himalayas organised the first edition of MTB Meghalaya this year.
Shiven, a top mountain biker says, “I manage to find about 15 races during the season. So in terms of racing, there’s enough action. With the backing of Cannondale, I can focus on training and competing these days.”
It is a similar story for Sandeep Madaan, a mountain biker from Chandigarh, who joined Decathlon Sports – the sports goods retailer – as part of the retail team five years ago. Decathlon initially funded his racing ambitions, but on realising his true abilities, they transferred him to the production office where Madaan helps with designing the retailer’s bike offerings.
The new role has allowed Madaan to take advantage of his unique perspective as a rider. “I used my know-how of mountain biking to work as a quality engineer for Btwin bikes so that we can offer our customers better products. At the same time, I continue racing thanks to the backing of my employer. In certain races, I also test out prototypes which we hope to launch in the market in the years to come.”
A common gripe among riders has been the poor quality tracks, those that lack a challenge. Cross country trails (XC) were often just uneven terrain used by large off-road vehicles – a far cry from global standards.
Shiven, who is among the few Indians with international experience (he participated in the Asia MTB series – a UCI level-3 event – held in Philippines in March 2017) says, “The competition was high as top Asian riders were present to collect UCI points and secure Olympic qualification. The race was at a high pace despite the relentless track featuring steep climbs, technical descents and a couple of jumps.”
Since the race – the MTB National Championships – moved to Pune, the organisers have made a conscious effort to raise the bar each year – both in organizing the event and ensuring a high-quality, well-planned track. According to the riders, the track offered at the Nationals this year was the best they had ever ridden on. Most agreed it was on par with the standards around the world.
Jason Allen Rodrigues, deputy general manager of marketing and brand development at Starken, and an integral member of the organising team says the planning for the 2018 race had begun early. “The recce began after we finished the last edition of the race. Our intention was to separate the mountain bikers, who train specifically for the trails, from the road and track cyclists. On a route like this, only those who go off-road were likely to excel. Next year, we want to increase the total elevation and add steeper gradients and sharper descents.”
While the track posed a welcome challenge for the elite riders, it proved quite gruelling for the age group kids. Rodrigues argues that it only augurs well for their future.
“If kids are riding these trails at 14, imagine what they will be riding at 20. And if that’s what they’re riding at 20, imagine what they will be riding once they have qualified for the Asian levels in a few years,” he says.
Rodrigues, though, may not have accounted for riders from, for instance, Patna, Surat and Hyderabad for whom the trail at the Nationals was a tough ask. The three cities are among the few that have little access to off-road trails and hills. Riders in these cities have to make do with training on flyovers (for uphill riding) – a stark contrast to the boys from Himachal and Uttarakhand who train on the hills in their backyard.
Kiran, who has international experience both in training and racing, believes the need of the hour is manicured trails which challenge a rider’s technique, helping him/her develop sharper skills.
“If you look at the lap times of some of these kids, it’s pretty close to the elite riders,” he says. “At the same time though, they can’t be riding a technical course once a year. In Australia, there are thousands of trails built and maintained by the government. All riders have to do is come and practice. You need to keep the youngsters motivated and excited through these facilities.” Kiran spent five weeks training in Australia in early 2018.
Biking communities in Pune, Bengaluru, Chandigarh and Gurgaon have done a fair bit to build infrastructure and introduce the sport to a larger audience. Vinay Menon, a regular on the circuit in the 1990s, recalls free riding on the hills around Pune, discovering new routes. He did it as a hobby, a spirit that is still alive among the local Pune riders. The Mad Monkey track that the Pune community created has become a permanent fixture on the bucket list of downhill riders and enthusiasts in India.
It’s the same with the Aravalli Trail Hunters (ATH) in Gurgaon. Gautam Chima, the founder, along with two friends felt the need to race every month and prepare for events such as the MTB Shimla, more as amateurs than serious racers. They soon started pouring over GPS maps to figure out a system of trails in the Gurgaon Aravallis, often losing their way and once even bumping into a leopard en route. Soon, they were organising monthly XCO and XCM races from February to December. While all year round the riders compete for a small token prizes, winners of the season finale are handed the opportunity to race at other events such as Hero MTB Himalaya and Hero MTB Shimla.
Says Chima, “We have a category called Finishers’ Circuit in every ATH race for kids and newbies. These are designed to give access to MTB trail racing in a safer format. The community is really an extended family and we pool in resources to make the races work. We all get together to support riders from time to time.”
Manipur too has a bustling mountain biking culture in the hills around Imphal, where monthly informal races take place. The same venues hosted trials for the Nationals with riders getting sponsored equipment from a local bike dealer.
Hari Nanda, manager of the Manipur team at the Nationals remembers the tough early days. “We had started out mountain biking in 2003 with few resources. Through the Manipur Adventure and Mountain Biking Association, we are able to conduct races today. We have a good number of riders, but in the future we need to create more opportunities for them to race.”
Bike parks have also mushroomed in cities such as Gurgaon, Ooty and Darjeeling, allowing young bikers to practice and hone the art. In late 2018, a new facility called Spirit of Mogli opened up in Gahunje near Pune. The facility features a pump track – a track that mimics off-road conditions – and a skills park filled with obstacles to help riders improve technique.
“We’ve been riders ourselves and saw the constraints in the industry,” says Akshay Ananth, an instructor and a partner at the facility. “It’s a training ground for anyone interested in mountain biking. The whole idea was to remove the entry barrier into the sport by providing a facility and good bikes to ride.”
Most elite riders have to manage training themselves using whatever information they can get from the internet – from planning a weekly regime to picking up skills and arriving at a suitable diet plan. Yogesh Kumar, who has been sponsored by 4Play.in, an online adventure sports channel for a year now, follows a routine he designed himself after spending hours poring over articles online. The drills vary depending on the kind of race that he’s training for. Of late, he has been using an application called Sufferfest that customises training plans, depending on the athlete’s ability, around 10 weeks before a race.
“The app is used on an indoor trainer and teaches you how to suffer,” says Kumar. “Before starting any training plan, it calculates some numbers to understand the body and then designs a programme accordingly. Once the season is over, I go back to building my base for next year.”
A few among the next generation of mountain bikers have been fortunate to have access to a coach – a relatively recent phenomenon in the world of mountain biking. While Johnson is being mentored by Kiran, others such as Vyshakh K.V. and Charith Gowda, who have picked up two golds each in the men’s junior and youth boys’ category at the Nationals respectively, have benefitted from the guidance of coaches.
Most kids start off with road cycling given the relative ease of terrain as well as the accessibility of a bike. A few like Lokesh Narsimhachar have been road racers themselves, which further makes it possible for him to take kids such Vyshakh under his wing.
“There are more road races as compared to track and mountain biking, which is beneficial for these kids when it comes to competition,” says Narsimhachar. “Besides, they have prospects of employment with various organisations in the future through it. At their age though, it is more important to mix up the kind of riding they are into, so I ensure that my wards train on roads and trails alike.”
Others like Nagaraj T. V. took up coaching by chance. Nagaraj started Cycling Mysooru when he was looking to channelize his own sons’ raw energy and their newfound love for cycling. Soon he introduced the sport to students such as Gowda. Through trial and error and after consulting experts in the field of sports, he has today devised a five-year training program – the minimum number of years he feels is needed to produce a national champion. Of his eight riders at the Nationals, six returned with gold medals.
“I ask the parent to leave the kid with me for about two weeks, and first check if he’s cut out for cycling. Only then does it make sense to invest in him and the sport,” Nagaraj says.
“I’ve seen a lot of parents take the kid out of mountain biking because of the terrain involved. But this is what sets mountain biking apart from road or track: You need greater concentration, more reflexes and complete awareness because you can’t predict what’s around the next bend. Knowing how to fall is as important as developing riding skills. And one of the key aspects that we work on is learning how to fall,” he adds.
Through most of the week, Nagaraj focusses on elements such as fitness, patience, listening skills and strength. Cycling only features on two days of the week while the rest of the time is spent on crossfit exercises, running and yoga. Full body massage and the application of Ayurveda is an integral part of the training routine as well. Last year, he even sent his students to the Giant Starkenn facility in Pune for a month to learn about bike maintenance and what makes the machine. While going to races, Nagaraj packs his own ration and ensures that he takes a cook along with the team to ensure the right nutrition.
“Five years ago, there was no mountain biking and off-roading meant riding on mud roads, the kind you see before the surface is tarred. Today, we are aware of international standards, so we know how important it is to ride trails. In the next decade, mountain biking will be the No. 1 sport,” Nagaraj says.
While teens these days train on trails as well as on the road, the lifestyle surrounding mountain biking is what draws a few to it.
“Road racing is all about power and determination, mountain biking is about skills and being completely involved in the moment. Then of course, there is the terrain and the opportunity to be amid nature,” says Vyshakh.
Mountain biking has seen an increase in popularity among youngsters. While the nationals last year saw around 200 riders from 16 teams, this year that number rose to around 450 riders from 25 states. And if the CFI is to be believed, this number is only set to rise in the years to come.
India has seen recent success in track cycling with the likes of Esow Alben rising to World No. 1 in junior sprint cycling in July and winning silver at the UCI Junior Track Cycling World Championships in Switzerland the following month, a first-ever for the country. The foundation for this success was laid over four years ago with the establishment of National Cycling Academy in New Delhi. A scientific approach followed by qualified coaches has given India hope for the future when it comes to track cycling.
“We are getting the government to realise that there are 24 medals at stake in cycling at the Asians and the Olympics. And we are working on an annual government funding of INR 8-9 crore while sports like hockey get INR 80-90 crore when they have at most two medals at stake,” says Onkar Singh, secretary general of CFI.
“We were close to the medals in track cycling, so we promoted it and have a few achievements to our credit today. Now we want to focus on endurance events in track and road cycling besides MTB and BMX racing,” he adds.
At the last edition of the Nationals, another format of mountain biking – downhill racing – was conducted as part of an exhibition event. But looking at the increase in the number of bikers taking to it, the CFI hopes to include it as part of the competition next year.
As per Singh, CFI is also in the process of formulating a plan to set up a mountain biking academy next year and organising regular camps, especially before important races such as the Asian Championships. Besides, he has been in talks with institutions such as SSB and the Border Security Force to set up another academy in the mountains.
“We want riders to stay at the academy where we can focus on training and have a support staff that is equipped to aid their efforts. The government has agreed on principle and we hope to start working on it next year. We want to replicate what we’ve done with track cycling when it comes to mountain biking,” Singh says.
And that only augurs well for the efforts of folks such as the Sherpa brothers in the years to come.