Cycling in India has grown by giant pedal strokes. Every metro city in the country has colourfully attired cyclists out on weekends in large numbers. Yet, the most popular genre that has caught on with recreational cyclists is randonneuring, followed distantly by travellers and a spec on this already small cycling planet of amateur racers.
We chat to Gautam Chima, founder of Aravalli Trailhunters, on building an underground race scene in a city which doesn’t have a racing heritage. We hope this insightful and instructional chat will help budding racers pedal down this racy path!
It has been 5 years since inception and Aravalli Trailhunters (ATH) has gone from strength to strength, from their first race which saw 5 participants (3 of whom were the organisers!) to getting some of the strongest riders in the country to come race in the keekar strewn forest of the Aravallis in their season finale…
Cycling Monks: What was the reason to start off Aravalli Trailhunters?
Gautam Chima: The reason to start ATH was simple. We were unfit fat lalas. We went for MTB Shimla, where we realised nothing will happen if we continue riding like this…
I was looking for someone to ride with, in the Aravallis. Riding with the PedalYatris was difficult because for me to come from Saket to Gurgaon at their timings meant starting at 3 am! So that didn’t work out ever.
I met Ajit through Gaurav Wadhwa at The Bike Shop and we started riding together in November 2013. We hunted for trails and basically most of the ATH systems we follow were developed in those 3-4 months. We would go to the trails with our phone GPS’ and mark out some trails on Strava, get lost, get in the wilderness for 2-3 hours, get back, look at the computer, see how the trails were. Basically mentally mapping it and physically going and checking out how the trails connect. We found huge stretches of trails that could be raced on. At this point of time we weren’t really looking at racing, but just at exploring. That’s from where the trailhunters name came about.
We then raced at Firestorm in February 2014, we trained for 2-3 months for it. Ajit was relatively fitter than me and I was recovering from a knee injury sustained on the Aravalli trails, and we trained really hard. We did the race and finished top 15, which was terrible.
But we met KKR (K Kiran Kumar Raju, current National MTB Champion) there. We were in awe. Because in that race his gears got stuck and his bike became a single speed and he was still beating the goras (expats).
We chatted to him and he told us why don’t you boys start racing regularly. That’s the only way of getting better. We did the usual complaining and moaning and said no one organises races here, he said, why don’t you start your own racing. We said we didn’t have money. He said you don’t need money. You just need a bunch of guys who can pool a little bit of resources and race for bananas. We said okay, we will think about it, in the back of our minds thinking KKR was half-mad!
A couple of months later we went to MTB Shimla. Ajit and I got handed our arse on a platter. All our training was grossly insufficient. We were walking on climbs and it was terrible. There we also met Abhishek Purohit.
We realised that if we were to get better, we needed to do something drastically different. So we decided to start a race club. The first thing decided was to not make a group. It would be a race club where people from any group in Delhi could come out and race. We had a grand plan that all the clubs will come out racing. Since we were racing in the Aravallis and Trail Hunting is what we liked, so the name Aravalli Trailhunters stuck. We decided that the first race should be in May.
Strava is our race marshal!
We made a group on Facebook and pinged all the regular cyclists we knew, Viju, Pochi etc. and told them come race with us. This was being done without money, we could not have people as marshals. The only way marshal we could have was Strava. Since on mountain bikes, the speeds aren’t that high and there would be no sprint finishes.
If we mapped a course, made it a segment and raced that segment, starting at the same time, chances were high that it wouldn’t get messed up. We tried this a couple of times before the race.This was the first thing we started with, Strava.
Then we went for a course, and saw that a course works. What else did we need? We needed racers! So we personally called up 10-15 guys and thought we will race with at least 10 people, not less than that.
The Day Before
The day before the race we met Jasbir and others from PedalYatris (PY) on Mahadev and we invited them for the race. There were incredulous! This wasn’t how you race, this wasn’t a race, racing for bananas, there is no infrastructure, there is no medical support, there is absolutely nothing. How are you racing?
We told them this is something we are experimenting with and this is what we are going to do this year. We were going to race for the heck of racing. There was no prize money, no nothing, we just wanted to get better. They were bemused at the entire plan. But they supported us and put the race event on their Facebook pages.
Race day saw only 5 people at the start line. Out of which 3 were organisers! Abhinay Pochiraju and John Hall were the other two. Viju came to take pictures. We wondered what to do. Since we were out there early morning, we decided to race. It was a 16 km race. This was race 1.1.
Today we continue with a lot of things we started then. We had a general idea from the beginning, planning and thinking through things. Like how to do this, the expected problems and how to add to it later. The main structure, of having a season and having multiple races was from the very first race.
The points leaderboard started from the second race. We decided that was the way to go since we were serious about it.
In the first race I didn’t finish, I had a sidewall tear. The Chyma Smash started from the first race itself! Things tend to stick! Ajit and Pochi had a sprint finish, and Ajit won. John Hall came third.
We wanted it to be as non-labour intensive as possible. Everything on Facebook or online. The only thing we needed to do was mark the trails.
I think without Facebook, ATH might not have taken off at all. WhatsApp was not popular at that time. It was difficult to reach out to people without Facebook.
CM: Who were the people who started it off?
GC: Ajit Nair and I founded it and Abhishek Purohit is the co-founder. So the three of us were the first three members!
CM: How often do the races happen?
GC: After the first race we were energised that we got five people to race. So we pushed a little more. I made FB posts and hammered other groups like PedalYatri, Cyclop and whoever I had access to. I would do a media overload on these groups, telling them a race scene is going on with a lot of pep talk to join the races!
Ajit and I realised we needed to race the full season, and the points leaderboard was actually suggested by Pochi. We thought managing an entire season would be difficult, but we decided to try it out.
Aman Puri came on board, I don’t know how he heard of it, but the next race he came with 4-5 racers from Noida. There were others who heard of it randomly from Gurgaon, friends of PedalYatris. In the next race we had about 10-12 racers. Which was fantastic. When we were in the trails marking and hunting the courses, we would see people on the trails and tell them there is a race and invite them. We would literally hound those people!
From there it kicked off. We even did a stage race, while MTB Himalalya was going on we did a stage race in Delhi. It was tough, but people came for it and we had winners and we had people who came for both the stages. It was interesting.
At that time we figured you need different skills and strengths to become a complete racer. We realised that in the hot months we couldn’t race long, in winter we could race longer. All of these things we learnt as we did it. We didn’t know all of this. We learnt, read about it, thought about it, spoke to people and found out what works.
We realised we can do different routes, distances at different points of time in the year. And connect all of that and make into a big race called the Grand Finale at the end of the year.
In the first season we raced every month from May to December. Second season we did 12 or 13 races, 3rd season we realised that it was too much work. So we took it down a notch and made it 8 races in a year. Fourth season we wanted to do 9 races but then we were hit by the pollution in November. So we again did 8 races. This season we went completely crazy, because we did 5 road races and 10 MTB races. So 15 races this season!
CM: Did you take inspiration from any other club?
GC: Bangalore Bicycle Championships (BBCH) had a two year lead on us. We didn’t even know about BBCH at that point of time. We just knew that something with that name existed, not more. That’s all we needed to know. If someone else was doing it, then so could we!
Since we had attended a few races (MTB Shimla), we knew a few things about how to organise the races. The most important being a course map with GPX files. So everyone could have it with them and go practice or at least there won’t get lost. The second is that the distance should be precise. The third was race positions should be precise. The fourth was the course should actually be marked.
With these four critical things in place, we thought a race could be organised successfully.
CM: What got Aravalli Trailhunters to start organising road races?
GC: We decided to kick-start road racing in Delhi because there was nobody else doing it. If we did it then maybe someone else will pick on it and start off.
We did a couple of pilot races last year under ‘Delhi Street Racing by DV’. We did that because ATH was for Mountain Biking and we didn’t want people to say that mountain bikers are arranging road races. The problem was that we couldn’t get any volunteer support. ATH had a volunteer support system.
ATH has a brand now in the country. People know that these guys are racing. We capitalised on that. So we shut down the DSR idea and decided to do a few road races to check out the response.
Inception of the Idea!
The idea started in Bangalore. Last 2-3 years we have been going for the Nandi Epic, it is a 100-120 km race which ends on the Nandi climb. The whole calendar of the amateur club of the Bangalore boys is based around it. Its one of those coveted races. We realised that the level of racing in Bangalore is much better than the level in Delhi. It is because they have been doing it for longer and with a lot more people. The first time we went, there were around 100 people. That is a lot of cyclists racing.
In November 2017 I met Naveen John, we had been talking for the last 3 years and had built a relationship. So we asked him to come up north for a race. He said okay, February, you guys organise it and I will be there.
We came back to Delhi did the Finale in December and in January we confirmed the dates for the race in February. We decided to do the Kaladunghi Epic based out of that conversation. It was a lot of hustling, trying to get people together. It was our first road race and it was outstation and it was a difficult place to get to. Managing people, the bikes, leave etc. It is a logistical nightmare to do outstation races. But it worked out in the end.
CM: How difficult was it to get the racing scene going in a place like NCR, which doesn’t have a traditional cycle racing scene unlike, Bangalore, Bombay and Pune?
GC: Delhi was brutal, in fact it still is. People out here just don’t want to race. It’s a different mindset.
If I knew why they didn’t come to race, I would have figured out how to get more people to the races. But I just don’t get it. I have tried videos, I have tried talking to people, telling them to come race. And I explain to people, that if you win or come on the podium that’s good. But that is not the race experience.
The race experience is completely different, it is a personal experience. You go in there and hit this wall, where your mind and body wants you to stop and everything hurts. You have to push through that wall. I call it the ‘fleeting moment of clarity’. Everything else will fade and you will have this single question, “Are you going to stop?”. Every time I have that question I say I am going to continue. Then you go ahead and finish the race or if you get a good standing then that is the bonus. But going through that question is what makes you a better human being.
I think racing requires a little bit more dedication. If you enjoy racing then you tend to ride more consistently throughout the week. You have a plan. Irrespective of the number of hours you end up riding, you keep a tab on your riding. People start eating better, maybe lose a little weight. People start thinking with the race in mind. Racing gives you that and I don’t think the cycling culture in Delhi is there yet.
People are looking at cycling less as a sport and more as something that gives them joy. Which is fine.
Look at the runners, there are so many people running, competing in Delhi. But for some reason cycling lags far behind. I would really like to know the answer to that!
CM: How do you manage to rope in the country’s best MTB and road riders for Aravalli Trailhunters’ races, which have little or no prize money?
GC: KKR and I have had a one on one relationship with ATH. KKR in a sense is the figurehead of ATH. He also knows that. No matter how big the scene is in Bangalore, it still is a very nascent scene. You need to reach a critical mass of 500 racers or 1000 where you start turning people’s heads, where people say something is going on and the money starts coming in.
Everybody realises that and the community needs to grow. So wherever they can, they come. We don’t call him for every race, we only call him for the best races in the year. Where we know that race will be up to a certain standard.
KKR sees the amount of work we put into these things. Because we are mountain bikers, we make the courses as per an MTB race. It is tough, but it is doable. It has got everything that you would need as a mountain biker. The competition is good, okay, maybe not for KKR, but for the rest, the competition is good. The fierce determination to do something.
Naveen and Arvind
It is the same thing with Naveen and Arvind. He has seen the scene grow and he has seen how we are doing it over here with mountain bikes. That’s why when we talked about it he said it is a good idea to come up north and get the road people interested in racing. That is what the whole idea was, to get people to talk to Naveen and Arvind. People were inspired to see how these guys do what they do and maybe they would want to do the same.
I know for a fact that Kaladunghi Epic was successful because of NJ and Arvind. The last time we did Kaladunghi for MTB we got 20 people. This time we got 50 people. The pull was that many people wanted to come out and meet NJ and Arvind.
At a community racing level (a term NJ gave us), the prize is not important. What is important is that you go out and bust your chops and understand what the sport is. If you get better and arrive at the nationals, then you talk about prizes and money. At this stage you don’t need to look at the prize, you need to look at how to get on top.
CM: How much influence have the expats had on Aravalli Trailhunters?
GC: A lot of Expats are in and out of ATH. Many of them have said that ATH gives them a sense of sport, not necessarily to win.
It has helped me personally in a lot of ways, because I have got a tremendous amount of support from expats. They have helped us out whenever we need money for the finale and whenever we are doing a club kit run, they say yes they want to be a part of it.
When we started racing with the expats in Delhi, there was Johan Bentinck. They were faster than us and they had a target on their backs. We had to beat them. That was definitely motivation to go out there and beat these guys.
CM: What were the biggest hurdles for Aravalli Trailhunters?
GC: Two things are really difficult about ATH. The first thing is the marking and the pruning rides. Those are brutal. Nobody likes to do them. Whoever is doing it has to bear the brunt of it. These are long thankless rides, you are out on the trails for 5-6 hours with 20 kg on your back. It takes a long time to do it.
Fun if you hang out with the guys, have a lot of conversations and discussions about cycling. It is a lot of fun from that point of view.
The second is when we drive down to the Gaushala, I don’t know how many people are going to show up. Sometimes, 5-6 or 30. That nervousness of how many people are going to show up. It is never consistent. That’s tough.
CM: How supportive are cycle manufacturers/ stores to help build the race scene?
GC: Its a mixed bag. With sponsors comes more responsibility and we operate as an amateur underground club. To take on a big sponsor means we have to deliver big numbers and show something, so that they get their pound of flesh. They are after all putting money into it. It is difficult to convince someone to invest in something like this. An MTB club is a niche market, the numbers at the best weekend do about 100 racers a year. Some are repetitive, so that isn’t a huge number for sponsors. This is not something that will make their sales grow.
The local bike shop perspective is not tough. Because they are the guys who the racers need. The bikes are coming here, it is getting wrecked, it needs to be serviced before and after the races. There are the guys who have been supporting us on and off. Through the year we have good relations with bike stores throughout NCR. Because they understand the value they get.
They are beginning to understand that racing is the next step. Because the sport has to grow into racing. Racing will get more bike sales, because more people will get higher end bikes, need parts, tyres, more servicing, more chains, more broken components. It is the natural progression. But to get there you need to support the local racing scene.
CM: Does Aravalli Trailhunters help grow the community or vice versa?
GC: ATH has grown by its own. Irrespective of what is happening around it. Because these guys are racing no matter what, even if they are five guys coming, if 10 better. Yes, there is interaction with the community at large, but the idea has always been just to race. A lot of people who have been regulars with ATH have seen that. These guys are earnest and sincere. They are doing it for the love of racing and they do a decent job of it. People go back with enriched lives.
You go back on a Sunday, you have had a good experience, you have had your beer, you go back a happier person. That has what has made ATH grow. This junglee experience. I don’t think you can replicate that experience anywhere else. We do it in such a hippy way, we don’t go thinking we are going to be race organisers. We think we are going for a party which happens to be a race!
CM: Is organising a road race very different from MTB?
GC: They both have their challenges.
In MTB it is slower, so it is safer. And there is no traffic, so it is easier to manage. The difficult part is the marking and getting people to understand how to look for markings. For the first two years, we told people to look for the markings at the ground and not in the trees. Because people would miss the mark. People tend to look straight and up while racing.
It is easier to organise a road race. Everything is available, the route is available on Google maps. You can go in one car ride and do everything in one hour! It is easier to control traffic in a road race if you are smart. We did a road race in the middle of the ridge. Right outside the Rashtrapati Bhawan. We managed the traffic, it was incredible. We had help from the Delhi Police.
The only time we took permission was for the Ridge Attack. Because the police would shut us down, it is right next to the President’s Palace. Other than that, we have been doing races where there is less traffic or where we know we won’t be getting into trouble. On trails there is no permission required. Because it is not regulated. It is underground. It is like going out for a ride. You get 10 or 15 people for a ride, you don’t need permission.
CM: Who are the main people who have been helping grow Aravalli Trailhunters?
GC: There have been so many people that it is impossible to name everyone.
The core team of ATH make everything happen. Without them, nothing would happen. Anshuman Singh, Ricky Sharma, Saurabh Singh, AP and me. Ajit is now in USA. Without these five guys nothing would happen.
From season 1 and 2, Viju was a huge support. He got so many doors opened for us. So many things he explained to us because of his experience of the racing seasons in Bangalore. We grew a lot with that.
There are just far too many people to name.
CM: What things should anyone keep in mind before starting off a racing scene in their city?
GC: You have to reach out to the cyclists, one on one. Then you have to get them together. You have to work with sincerity and just get them out on a couple of bike rides and start this conversation. Go for a couple of races together, go for an ATH race, go for a BBCH race, go for the races closest to you. Go as a group and experience a race and then if it clicks, from there it is easier. I think the first thing is to get people excited about racing.
PHOTOS COURTESY: Aravalli Trailhunters