Chetan Shah’s breathing gets heavier as he approaches the Taglang La pass on his bicycle. At 17,480 feet, the pass is the highest on the Leh- Manali highway. Shah, who is in his forties, has completed an impressive 366 km of the 514 km cycle race which ends at Khardung La: the highest motorable road in the world.
Apart from Shah, 61 more participants attempted to brave one of the harshest cycling terrains on the planet. Unfortunately, the weather did not favour the mountain racers. The Army had to close the road to Khardung La due to heavy rains and landslide in the area. However, even after the roads were closed, three determined cyclists, including two Army men, rode all the way to the lofty pass to successfully complete the expedition. The others, like Shah, had to stop short of the pass. The thrill of having undertaken such a challenging endeavour is in itself fulfilling. “I really enjoyed the testing 500 km ride. I knew that it was a very difficult terrain and therefore had to undergo various tests to make sure that I was fit for the expedition”, says Shah, who participated despite having a long medical history. He says that he has had a brain tumour surgery, got his left knee replaced, and has also had a heart by-pass surgery.
The road from Manali to Khardung La is considered to be a difficult ride even for motor vehicles. The journey is in the must-to-do list of most travel enthusiasts in the world. Hundreds of motor-bikers from across the world hit the road every day to experience the sheer beauty of the Himalayas. Journeying via cars and bikes is itself referred to as an expedition by many.
It was the second edition of the Manali-Khardung La Cycling Championship (mkcc) with racers participating from different parts of the country and the world. The racers included 32 members from the Indian Armed Forces. Among the international participants were Laxmi Magar, a three-time national cycling champion from Nepal and an American couple: Angela and Doug Aldrich from California.
The idea for the race was pitched some five years ago when two travel enthusiasts, with a penchant for cycling, met at a function in Delhi. One of them was Gaurav Schimar, a travel photojournalist who heads Northern Escapes: a company that organises eco-friendly tours in the Himalayas. The other one was Anil Uchil, the founder of Cycling for Change, a group based out of Mumbai. The idea was quite ambitious but the two adventure aficionados combined expertise with faith to make it a reality.
Gaurav tells Tehelka, “It was very challenging to put up such a difficult race. At some points in the route, it is not advisable to even stand for more than five minutes due to low oxygen. I salute the spirit of the cyclists who rode in such difficult conditions.” He adds, “I believe it’s more than just a race. We want people to experience the beauty of the trans-Himalayan region through cycling. They will not just race, they will soak the beauty of the region and would want to come back again and again.”
His partner, Anil, feels that the race will get India international recognition. “We won’t compare it with the Tour de France but we are trying to create an event which will put India on the world cycling map. Cycling is being taken up in a big way in India but there are not enough stage races happening. This race is incomparable in terms of beauty. People used to think that it is not possible to organise a race in this terrain but we have proved them wrong,” he says. Anil seems to be the perfect candidate for organising the race. He calls himself a leisure cyclist and claims that he cycles for around 20,000 km annually. Anil was also part of the first contingent to represent India at the Paris-Brest-Paris Cycling event in 2011.
Together, the organising duo complements each other. “In my knowledge, no one knows the trans-Himalaya region as well as Gaurav. It was his knowledge of the region and my expertise in cycling which helped in successfully putting up such a challenging event,” says Anil. On being asked about the prize money for the race, he laughs, “We cycle for pride not for prizse.” He further adds, “We don’t want professional riders to come and participate for money. There are hundreds of other contests for monetary prize.”