Off season was rolling into it’s second week when the opportunity came knocking to take part in India’s first ever UCI ranked race, a 32 km XCO event in the South Indian province of Kerala. It was a fully comp’d trip to a place I always dreamt of travelling too so after not much thought, off season was put in to intermission and I prepared to head off to India!
A couple weeks back I had finished a 24 hour challenge on the Annapurna Circuit and a 3 day, 300 km bike tour back to Kathmandu from Pokhara, so there was some residual fitness in place. The problem was the couple extra offseason pounds I’d put into storage, and the fact XCO races require a high end which is quite different then the diesel engine I use for marathon events. Their were question marks but sometimes you just have to go with what you have and give it your best shot when cool opportunities arise!
The adventure started with meeting the Nepali National team riders Roan Tamang and Laxmi Magar at the bike station, along with there coach Prayesh who was going to accompany them on the trip. Roan and I did some last minute bike work on our Kona Hei Hei’s before boxing them up and jetting off to the airport to catch our 2pm flight with Nepali Airlines to Bengaluru.
With any luck we’d land in South India by 5pm, drive 5-6 hours and be at race sight in Kerala before midnight. Not a chance, not on this side of the World! First the Nepal airlines flight was delayed 3 hours till 5 pm, then we got stuck in Indian customs for over 1 hour as they can be quite strict with entrance into there fine country. Finally through that hoop the next step was meeting the Kerala MTB organized transportation outside the airport for the 250 km drive south. Two guys were there but there bus was lost so we waited another hour before it finally found us, loading up at 10 pm for what they now informed as was to be a 9-10 hour journey through the night! Thinking we raced on Saturday I figured we were now officially screwed and almost turned back to Nepal right then.
We’d come this far already, so hopping on the bus was the easiest option, although I dread any sort of vehicle transit on this side of the planet for numerous reasons. First we drove for 3 hours, stopped at 1 am for chicken Biriyani, then drove farther with our driver almost falling asleep 3 times, once claiming we had a flat tire while he got a few zzz’s. We told him to take all the sleep he needed, just don’t kill us! It was an amazing drive, we went over 250 speed bumps, nearly hit 7 cows, swerved in and out of dogs and chickens and arrived at the race hotel at 7 am.
Now we slept, then ate some rice dosas for brunch, then tried to find the race course but rode around lost for an hour as the directions some of the locals gave us were just random guesses. Finally locating the 4 km course through a beautiful tea plantation we did a lap and then asked a volunteer which day we raced as there was still some confusion. She confirmed it was Saturday and showed us the schedule on her phone, so we went out for a couple more harder laps to try and get our travel ravaged bodies primed for the race. After riding back to town we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing, eating and prepping our bikes.
After a big carbo loading dinner of rice and different curry’s we went out to meet our Indian racing buddies at there hotel across the street. They all seemed pretty relaxed considering we were going to be racing India’s first ever UCI ranked XCO race the following day. What made things more confusing was the fact that almost all the other riders were showing up this day, which seemed not very smart given that a lot of them had travelled over night from different parts of the World. Some from Germany, others from Iran and most of them from neighbouring Asian countries, 14 nations in total were present for this race. As more confusion sank in, the Indian riders informed us that race day was actually Sunday now.
We had no idea who to believe anymore but after further investigation the race was indeed Sunday which was a big relief! Saturday, our bonus day, we spent on a sightseeing bike ride with our Sri Lankan buddies through the green Indian countryside, visiting temples, rolling through tea plantations and soaking in the South Indian culture. This part of India was like a different country to the North part of India, with thick jungle foliage, relatively fresh air and a pretty laid back culture. After our 2nd carb loading dinner in as many nights we started to worry a bit about how many extra pounds we were going to pack on this trip as the rich, carb heavy Indian food is prime for putting on weight.
Sunday was race day, it was tough not to overeat breakfast with fresh rice dosas and iddly coming out of the kitchen but we kept our heads on straight and managed to escape without sabotaging our race preparations. After a short 30 minute ride to race sight we were overwhelmed by the huge local crowd which had amassed and the professionalism of the event set up which included team marquee pits and tents for each nation. My Canadian tent was jammed full of spectators so I ended up hanging out in the German tent which was tucked away from the chaos!
At 9:30 our race kicked off with the riders going crazy on the first 2 km climb before the fast descent back to the finish. Going diesel pace I kept the front of the race in sight with an Iranian rider, Farzbad, leading the field. Each climb he’d gain 20-30 seconds, then I could get 15-20 seconds back on the descent. This went on for 6 laps with his lead almost reaching 1 minute. Not sure what was left in the tank it was go time if I was to ever catch him as there were just 2 laps to go.
I risked the descents a bit more and pushed with everything on the climbs, catching up to Farzbad at the bottom of the last descent with 1 lap to go. Immediately attacking I gained a 5 second advantage but Farzbad closed it and was now right on my wheel. We were both on our limits, unable to shake each other as we raced up the punishing climb. In my head the race was to the top of the climb as I figured if I could go into the descent first I’d likely take the win. This meant going a fare bit over my limit a couple times when Farzbad tried to come around me to take the lead. I suffered a lot and had to shut my brain off to the suffering for a couple minutes, but made it to the top first and took the descent fast, keeping Farzbad at bay. He would slide out on the last corner before the finish line and I would cruise in for my first UCI XCO win and the $2500 first prize!
It was pretty wild at the finish line with a huge crowd, bands playing and interviewers coming in to ask about the race while we tried to catch our breath. This went on for ages, with the crowd coming in for endless selfies, which was cool for a bit but soon I started to get light headed and was ready to faint. There was no end to the selfies but I had to escape before I passed out so snuck away to find some water and recollect myself after what had been a very demanding race.
The rest of the afternoon was great, supporting our friend Laxmi in the Women’s race, eating loads of Indian food, and then going to the awards ceremony which went on for hours. The highlight was the Canadian National anthem playing while they raised the Maple leaf up the flag pole to celebrate the victory! It was a great experience but soon the sun started to set, and there was no sign of the ceremony ending, so we riders tried to escape so we could ride back to town before darkness. The problem was we had to get through the huge selfie crazed crowd, which nullified any forward movement. Our efforts were doomed but suddenly the whole crowd turned to a car showing up on sight, which apparently contained one of the countries top movie stars. We were forgotten and could escape, as the Indians went crazy, screaming and jumping up and down for their movie star.
Back at race hotel we had a few minutes to shower before rushing down to the lobby to wait for the bus that was going to take us to the final dinner party at 7 pm. This is when the real adventure started. We waited till 8:15 till the bus finally showed up. People were getting hungry and two riders had flights to catch in the middle of the night from an airport 3 hours away, but we assured the dinner was 2-3 km away so we went with it. After driving 2 km north into town the bus stopped for 40 minutes to wait for some other people, then pulled a u-turn and drove right back past our hotel. Now 9pm, we were starving and ready to jump out at the hotel but were guaranteed it was just another couple km to the dinner party. Gone this far already we decided to go with it but weren’t prepared for the 45 minute drive on winding roads into the middle of the Jungle to come. From here we were told to get out and hike another 2 km! What a gong-show, I was worried for the two riders who had flights to catch but a this point all we could think about was food and decided to hike into the jungle as directed.
It was starting to feel like a scary movie, as I figured a Tiger or some bush people would jump out of the jungle next, but sure enough we found a resort after 20-30 minutes of hiking and our dinner! It was spicy and burned our bellies but anything after waiting 7 hours since lunch was going to taste just fine at this point. Now close to 11 pm we were all ready to pass out after a pretty epic day. The next challenge was finding a way back to the hotel as the bus that dropped us off wasn’t leaving till it was full which likely wouldn’t be that night with the way things were going. Eventually we convinced a race official to drop us off, past midnight, for a couple hours rest, before the Nepal team had a taxi arranged for 4:30 am back to Banguluru. Not keen on another 9-10 hour car trip I had alternate plans to ride half way
with Indian national team rider Kiran to Mysore then grab a bus, 4 hrs direct to the airport. The ride was great, through a national park with elephants and deer all over the place, but as things go in India I missed the first bus which meant waiting 1.5 hours for the next bus. This one would drop me off 1.5 hours before my flight if all went as planned, a little tight as I still had to box my bike and meet a Steadfast Nutrition representative to pick up some nutrition for the Nepali training centre and its rider back in Kathmandu.
Shockingly the bus was on time, which was necessary, as I still needed to find Roan and Laxmi at the airport as they had my bike box. They were waiting as planned and helped me pack my bike as I ran around trying to find the Steadfast nutrition representative. Luckily I found him quickly but now had two big boxes of nutrition to deal with as we jammed stuff in bike boxes and then ran to the check in counter, getting there a few minutes before closing. From here we paid some extra $ to Indigo as there $150 tickets soon turned into $250 with bike charges, taxes, and random fees. Up next was a red eye flight through Delhi, with a 6 hour layover, before a 7 am flight back to Nepal. For some reason things never go very smoothly in India but it’s always a memorable adventure. It is a truly incredible country, and its chaos keeps dragging me back. Time and time again it has found a way to suck every last once of energy out of my body bit I’m sure I’ll be back for another round in a short time!