Thinking about participating in the MTB Shimla race? Don’t know what to expect? Read on to know a first timer’s experience of riding in the MTB Shimla 2017.
Often during a MotoGP race you hear the commentator saying that the rider coming third has the best seat in the ring for the battle between the first two. They have a point; the best manner of spectating is by being in the thick of things. I decided to put that theory to test. The spectaracer!
Over the last few years I have heard about many cycle races in India. Two of which were filed away in some brain compartment for future processing. The Tour of Nilgiris and MTB Himalaya. I have wanted to attend both these races as a spectator, fully aware of my limited riding capabilities. After hanging with the junglees of ATH, I got thinking about actually participating in the MTB Shimla race. I love watching races from the comfort of my couch and on this occasion I was looking forward to getting out of my comfort zone.
On the roof of Marco’s car flew my cycle as I was ensconced in Ricky’s car as we headed to Shimla for the weekend. We landed up at Hotel Woodville Palace late in the afternoon for the rider registration and briefing. At the venue I found my bike had already been assembled by Marco and felt rather sheepish about getting everything on a silver platter courtesy the ATH junglees. I then searched for anyone who required assistance, so that the wheel of aid would turn a full circle.
A surprisingly quick registration later, it was time to attend the mandatory Heritage Ride, where all the race participants were paraded at the town square with the assembled media making a big show of us humble cyclists. Not all that humble either, as most of us enjoyed the attention and applause of the assembled junta as we strutted around on our fancy bikes! Fortunately this was a short ride and everyone was happy to head back to the hotel to prepare mentally, physically and gastronomically for the race.
MTB Shimla 2017: Day 1
The next morning as we rode towards the start line, I braked and swerved to the side abruptly as I remembered something super important. To switch on Strava!
The start line was as chaotic as one could expect with a mass start of 115 cyclists of varying riding capabilities on a narrow mountain road. As is my usual practice, I started from the back of the field. This helps protect from over enthusiastic participants in the start line melee and a confidence booster as you overtake the slow pokes ahead of you rather than getting blitzed from behind. Having 30-40 people overtake you simultaneously at the start can be seriously demoralising.
After an initial kilometre of climbing, it was downhill on broken and gravel roads. I wanted to be absolutely alone on this descent. For good reason, as I saw multiple people crashing and a few stopped because of mechanical problems. A few not so bright souls occupied most of the narrow road as they inspected their bikes. I had not so sporting thoughts, as I contemplated nudging them off the mountain! They were paying more attention to their squeaky brake, instead of the riders hurtling down behind them.
All such negative thoughts were washed away as we bottomed out at the river. A kilometre long section cutting back and forth through the river was loads of fun. As long as you consider having shoes soaked in icy cold water fun!
And from there we climbed and climbed, and then some more before we reached the base of the mighty Junedghat. Where the climbing torture continued! Unlike most of the fit riders around me who stuck to pedalling, I did the walk of shame for the majority of the climbs. I walked more in those two days than all the hobbits put together in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And those buggers walked a lot!
The feed points were a double dhamaka. Not only did you get good food (any food is good at that point of time) at these pit stops, but you also had extra motivation to reach the next feed point. After the ascent of Junedghat, it was a tarmac descent on public roads. Having people racing downhill with oncoming traffic is hardly a good idea, even if these were back roads with minimal traffic. Just as my hands started aching holding onto the brakes, it was time to climb again. At these warped moments of existence a climb feels like a godsend! For the first 100 metres at least, after which it is back to cussing and pushing! This was the second climb for the day and just to spice things up, it was even steeper!
There was a lovely mountain spring in the midst of this climb with cold water to energise the rider’s tired body. It was essential, as the final bit of the climb was depressingly steep. Every time you think you have reached your limit, it gets tougher and you have to dig deeper.
At long last it was time for the final descent. First through broken village roads and then through a meadow. The initial part of the meadow was beautiful and let the rider relax for the briefest of seconds. After which the speed started building up scarily as the slope got steeper. Caution got the better of me as I pussyfooted my way to the bottom of the meadow. Whence the single track section started. The single track was steep in places, rocky in others, with trees jutting out onto the path and in some it was more General Halftrack than single track! The fun bit though was that a mistake would see you at the bottom of the hill. Not along your intended path of course, but straight down!
A couple of kilometres before the end I saw a rider sprawled out on the ground. I stopped to enquire about health and happiness, turned out he had cramped badly. So I got off my bike and assisted him in relieving aching muscles and prodding him back onto his bike. After which he started sprinting to reach the chequered flag 15 seconds ahead of me! Ultra-competitive I say!
After the Flag
At the finish line I was told that the camp where we were to stay the night was a couple of kilometres downhill. Surprise! It was five more kilometres uphill after the two going down. That Good Samaritan who provided the incomplete information was fortunate to not have his face accidentally bang into my fist!
At the camp it was a wonderful atmosphere of revelry, as everyone celebrated finishing the first day on a high note. With good food and banter flagging spirits were soon lifted. These MTBers were a little too enthusiastic apparently, with almost the entire camp getting busy with washing their bikes! The mud plastered on my bike looked pretty cool I thought and lazily ignored the washing and cleaning chore!
The evening ended with the leaders from the various categories getting their race leader jerseys. Steve from the ATH gang was leading the masters, even though he lost a lot of time on a wrong turn. Watching him slice through the field after he found his way back onto the racing trail made for spectacular viewing. The reason for being an ardent spectaracer!
MTB Shimla 2017: Day 2
The next morning it was a case of surviving the day with already sore muscles. As the clock ticked towards the start, Jimmy required a tyre change. And everyone from the ATH bunch dived in to help. The teamwork displayed to get that wheel ready for the race would make any F1 pit-crew proud!
The racers were placed in the starting order of more or less where they ended the previous day. As such I found myself in the middle of the pack and in the first 10 metres saw a couple of people next to me fall. I was quietly confident after a decent first day and hoped to build on it. After the 5 km of downhill to Sadhupul, it was back to climbing till the monastery from the previous day.
From there we climbed alongside the meadow section which was an incredibly steep climb. Brimming with (over)confidence I didn’t tank up and rest at the first feed point. As a result by the end of the climb I was toast! There was a fast descent after that, before we once again proceeded to climb Junedghat.
I was low on water, energy and motivation, struggling to make it to the second feed station. A helpful young man gave me water and a banana, which allowed me to somehow drag myself up to the feeding point. I don’t know his name and didn’t see his bib number, but thank you, whoever you are.
At that point of time I knew my chances of finishing were rather slim. I lay down under the canopy and slept for half an hour. Yes, in the middle of a race I was catching more than 40 winks! I saw Ricky, Marco and Prakash all catch up and then go past me, but found zero motivation to accompany them. Motivation came in the form of a pretty girl who reached the feed point and then went past me. It was a fine line (read bottom) between finishing the race and ending with a DNF!
After my proper Goan siesta, pedalling was much easier. Especially once Junedghat was left behind. It was now a matter of pacing myself to the end on mostly tarmac roads without steep gradients. We were in for a treat though, between two sections of tarmac there was this gorgeous bit of forest path. That section of the race alone made the entire suffering worthwhile. The tourer-half in me wanted to sit there and soak in the beauty, the more dominating racer-half ensured that I plodded on. On the last bit of climbing I struggled up as quite a few people overtook me in that final 3.3 km stretch!
It was a fantastic race, set in a spectacular bit of country and very well organised. The experience of riding in MTB Shimla will be long cherished. The racers, organisers and locals were extremely friendly, warm and helpful. And that humanity is what possibly makes participating in a soul crushing race like this worthwhile.
Some notable extras:
Sumit finished the race even though he had terrible luck. Suffering from a puncture in the first 100 odd metres of the race cannot be a boost to a person’s confidence. And after losing 1.5 hours repairing the puncture, still finishing 4th is something incredible and inspiring for us mortals.
Prakash for putting his foot down! He had a brake failure after the end of the race while returning to the hotel and shoved his foot into the wheel to stop his bike. Presence of mind, else he would have been over the hills and far away! Fortunately he didn’t break any bones.
At dinner after the race, it was a sight to behold as Gautam ordered Butter Chicken. His eyes lit up as if a kid in a candy store! Rarely ever you see an adult so excited about food. The sacrifices cyclists make to train hard is mind boggling. And of course thanks to him for organising and pushing us all to participate in this race.
Last and surely not the least, a special award to Ricky who raced without two balls. Err, I mean two balls fell off from his headset. Okay, I give up, that didn’t make it sound any better…
Tldr. Yay, had lots of fun at MTB Shimla!
Photos Courtesy: MTB Shimla and Gautam Chima