Racing in Nepal

[From November 2007]

Had a stunning, superlative time racing the Nepal National Mountain Bike Championship this weekend. It was just as nutty as the India race, but with the familiar-collides-with-the-otherworldly hilarity compressed into one day.

The plan was to meet up with my new friends, some of the Nepali mountain bike allstars in Thamel, then we’d coast down the hill to the bus rendezvous point.  Bikes were loaded and tied into, well, dump trucks, and from there we were transported to the race venue in Chobar. I received admiring compliments on my bike, though to my eye it bore all the shabby negligent wear of being a tour mule for these months: the middle chainring was useless with the teeth worn to toothy stubs, the shifting, which took determination and effort to twist, was at best non-committal, and the Kathmandu recently purchased $18/pair no name 1.8 knobbies pumped up to 60 psi so as to avoid a flat didn’t exactly inspire confidence (I had gifted my Weirwolfs to Gulam in India, when I thought I wouldn’t need race tires any more on the tour).  I swallowed my stupid ungrateful irritation: Among the other competitors, even though there was an occasional Specialized Epic or Scott Scale, the majority were what at home would be big box store junk.

At Chobar, the familiar: a large vacant lot with tents, impromptu fencing, 120 festive and nervous racers with their families and friends.  Lots of friendly folks, “where is your country?” to “Thank you for coming from America to race our championships!”  I lined up with the gang in the elite wave and we immediately faced a steep broken rutted climb.  Four laps ahead of us, totaling about 40k. A small group of us burst ahead of the scrum of the narrowing track, and we’d ride together for most of the race.  The course was fantastical and demanding along village paths lined with people three deep cheering.  We’d enter these pressing corridors of sound, village alleyways, completely unlike racing in the US where you might well be by yourself for most of the course.  Now over loose cobblestone, now on singletrack between rice fields where falling meant a four foot drop into muck, alongside temples with candles and small fires burning, incense.

I’m with the lead pack, me, a Brit expat, and six Nepalis, I’m fit from touring but have no top end so suffer sputtering heaving and gasping at the steep climbs.  We make a turn on gapped flagstones around a bend, dig in on a straightaway, on top of the big ring now, pinning it, and — I blink quickly to clear the sweat — a cow with a wreath of flowers wanders out of an alley. Mud, dung, puddle spit spraying, I’m fishtailing brakes locked up, half of us shoot left in front of it the other half right and behind it. It’s as calm as a queen in her court, we’re pedaling again laughing terror and amazement.  Did I mention that the course was marked but not closed? It was harvest time, so wagons and small utility trucks and people carrying baskets of who knows whatall were sharing our route.

By the end I’m crosseyed, cramping in the 85 degree heat, barely able to wrestle the bucking careening skidding Superlight.  I had watched a couple of tiny Nepali racers positively weightlessly float up a boney 25% pitch, nor did my legs even so much as twitch in response to my plea for more speed.  Still, I was proud to get on the podium at the end, shake hands with the great gang I had raced with, receive a trophy and a check for 3000 nepali rupees (US$40).