The course from Shimla to Manali was largely the same, but with harder climbs and longer days than last year, a challenge to be sure. I felt like a stronger rider this year, though - that hillclimb up Mt Baker and paying attention to my technical riding helped. Around 60 people (mostly Indian) started the race, and only 35 finished! A few downhill accidents early on, but mostly just the daily grind of so much vertical gain and mileage, about 75km and 5,000' of gain per day on surfaces of varying quality, from beautifully smooth tarmac to (mostly) broken tarmac/gravel to these obnoxious cobblestones that slow you down on the descent, let alone an uphill effort!
As with last year, my favorite part of the ride is just getting to know people over 10 days of being tired, happy, hungry, discouraged, relieved, impatient and resigned. You can't fake it for that long, especially working that hard. So a few more friends here, people I'll look forward to meeting up with again, either on a bike or not. And of course, there are the random people you meet along the way - a woman who took care of my cold soggy self by the fire on our one day of rain waiting for the other riders to come, an old village woman delighted to have us take pictures with her flowers, the hoardes of kids endlessly amused by the instant gratification of digital images, and all of the people who made this event happen, many of whom didn't really know what to make of this crazy mud-covered lady riding with a bunch of men.
There were only two women riding, and the sponsored Nepali mountain biker was far stronger than I. So I managed to get second - sweet! We found out later that the organizers had tried to cancel the women's prizes since there were only two of us, and were informed of the error of their ways. So all went as advertised, and the prize money nearly covered my plane ticket over. I would have been happy just to complete the event, but racing for position is a good change for me. I don't think I need to do this event again, especially trying to schedule work around it, but might do more bike touring here in the future.
Back in Delhi, I'm sitting in an "American diner", complete with old CocaCola advertisements, car memorabilia and rock-n-roll playing for ambience. There's Heinz catsup on the table, but menu offerings like "Chips and Salsa - Pringles, Dorritos chips and Potato wedges served with jalapeno salsa" and pomegranate smoothies. Close...