Wednesday, October 8, 2008

What a ride

That was, indeed, interesting. One never knows what to expect from an event like this, so it's always interesting. Unfortunately, I had a crazy stomach bug for two days during the race, so didn't complete days two and three, and therefore wasn't in the running for any competition. But there were a total of six women riding at various levels, and about seventy men - Indian Army guys, an organized Aussie group, the barefoot farmer who completes this every year, and many amazing Indian riders from Bangalore, Delhi, and Pune, some competitive, some here for the same reason I was, just to see if we could do it. Nine days, 32,000' elevation gain and loss, 650 kilometers.

The actual logistics included staying in canvas tents set up for us each night by an industrious crew in various school grounds and cricket fields, and mostly Indian food served buffet-style until we couldn't eat any more. Each day saw a variously ignored start time, usually with a freeride section before the first of two or three race stages. I'd never done a stage race before, but the idea is that you have to ride the whole distance over the day, but only certain sections are started in a race format and timed. Finish that section, ride along at your leisure to the next section, and race again. Eventually, get to camp, take your bucket of hot water into a little personal bath tent, splash around with the soap until clean, and get ready to do it again tomorrow.

Terrain? Well, in the mountains there's rarely much flat ground, so days were spent variously climbing and descending 2 to 10% grades, sometimes in race stages, sometimes at whatever pace you wish. On a good day (for me), the road was decently graded, with at least some sections of pavement, making for relatively smooth going. On a bad day, the road was either broken rock or these incredibly obnoxious slate cobbles, laid with the sharp edge pointing up, or an 11km bike-and-hike through steep forest and hillside. Most of the time it was a mix of dirt and gravel with the occasional large rock or muddy section thrown in, and of course a landslide or twenty.

The monsoon this year stayed much later than normal, ending perhaps only a week before the start of the race, so there were a huge number of landslides all across the state of Himachel Pradesh. One or two days saw the entire course rerouted to get past still-closed roads, and every day saw many spots where rocks and dirt had been mostly pushed aside, leaving compacted bumps to remind you to look up to the fresh dirt of the collapsed hillside. Local workers were clearing this stuff by hand, piling rocks and scraping mud aside to open the roads that keep them connected and supplied. Fun times.

The most enjoyable aspect of the ride for me, however, was the people I got to meet. From all over the world and mostly all over India, there were sponsored racers, casual riders, adventure racers, military branches, and a few who had just started biking. And being around the same people for ten days, you get to see a lot about them, much like climbing in the mountains. What they're like when they're tired, hanging out, hungry, overheated, cold, frustrated, racing, taking it easy... You get past the barriers of pleasantry and start to glimpse peoples' motivations and weaknesses, dreams and disappointments, vision and history. We're all standing around waiting an hour or two for dinner - how did you come here? Lin's friend is the hub of the Delhi cycling community and I ended up hanging with a cadre of Bangalore racers and riders, learning and joking and having time to just be.

Probably 30 people were actually competing (the prizes were not-insignificant sums), but many others were there largely for the experience of riding that far for that long and seeing some breathtaking terrain. It is beautiful here, and everyone I ran into was great. Stops for chai, kids cheering by the side of the road, women in fields, men watching us ride through their village - what a amazing way to see this place. The race was actually incredibly organized, in an Indian fashion, with water and road markings and people to help just when it was needed. An incredible experience awaits if you ever want one...

Lin and I have stayed on just north of Manali, in Solang, preparing for our next phase of mountain climbing. The weather has been a little strange this fall, so our dayhike today will buy some time to see what the weather will do. If all's well, we'll leave in two days for a week or more trip to whatever the weather and snow conditions dictate. The good news is we're well-acclimatized and feeling strong, but we'll have to wait and see what the mountains let us do.

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