In essence, mountain biking has existed in India since the very genesis of bicycles in the country. From a practical standpoint, townsmen and village folk have been riding one or the other variety of the pedal cycle over hillside paths, dirt tracks, and unpaved roads since long before motored vehicles and engineered tracks came about.
What is Mountain Biking?
The sport of cycling off-road, over rugged terrain, on purpose built mountain bikes. Simple.
Mountain Biking is a fairly diverse and complex sport. Here is an all inclusive Mountain Biking know-how infographic explaining the disciplines of the sport and discussing the key factors that differs one from another.
As a sport form, mountain biking, or MTB, was introduced into the country back in mid to late 2000s. Though the one odd cyclist here and there was to be found cycling off-road, it was really the extramural riders who discovered the mountain biking potential that lay dormant in the trails and terrain of Indian landscapes. Over the years, little pockets have cropped up across peninsular India and the Himalayas, such as in Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh, among others, which have now become mountain biking hubs and are attracting athletes from different corners of the country and even the world.
The advent of MTB communities and MTB races in relatively unexplored nooks of the countryside has generally been accompanied by socio-economic progress. A percentage of the credit for this progress can be attributed to growth of tourism in these areas. The demand for low budget services has not only given rise to backpacker hostels and home stays, but also sees localities setting up rental accommodation systems specific to a traveler’s needs. A similar trend can be seen in the variety of cuisines that are now being offered at local dhabas and eating joints.
Emerging MTB communities are bringing with them a greater focus on environmental conservation in order to preserve and develop trails and mountain biking tracks. State governments are starting to realise the potential of
mountain biking terrain and are joining hands with MTB enthusiasts to develop untouched lands and carry out MTB events, while still being environmentally conscious.
A hub such as Shimla, for example, today receives an additional footfall of 500 to 700 people during the annual MTB Himalaya Race, lauded as the highest mountain bike race in the world, and thus one of the toughest. Participants, though 80 in total, hail from a range of backgrounds, right from native Himachalis to international Tour de France ranked professionals. Foreign athletes have brought with them knowledge of the opportunities available at an international level. As a result, aspiring youngsters find their way to Shimla to gain exposure. The state itself is producing gifted cyclists who can be seen winning races across the country. Case in point, budding athletes Devender Thakur, Shiven, Akshit Gaur, and Ankush Arya, all from Himachal Pradesh, are regularly spotted securing top positions at MTB events.
In the below image, participants of the Trails ‘n’ Dust MTB Challenge sunbathing in the quaint little Gada Gushaini village after Day 1 of the challenge.
The emergence of localised races across the country, such as MTB Jaipur, MTB Dehradun, MTB Kerala, and so on, are a sure sign of expansion of the sport across different kinds of terrain in India. Events of this scale motivate residents of smaller towns and cities to take on the sport, being neither too technically heavy and yet challenging enough to push the everyday cyclist out of their comfort zone. Additionally, the country is seeing a rise of non-competitive MTB events such as Tour de Satpura, Bangalore Mountain Festival, Tour of Goa, et al. An MTB event of this scale could be anywhere from two to ten days long, the route meandering through hills, mountains, sanctuaries, fields, ghats, villages, and barren land, offering picturesque views of verdant landscapes, bringing outside exposure to interiors of the country, as well as showcasing the beauty of remote areas to the external world. The races thus attract not just mountain biking lovers, but also travelers, tourists, landscape aficionados (such as photographers), and adventure addicts.
In the below image, members of Manipur Adventure and Mountain Biking Association chilling at Leimaram Waterfalls.
A new phenomenon introduced into the localised MTB format is intercity events, encouraging aspiring athletes to represent their community, thus nurturing a sense of camaraderie and cultivating a healthy spirit of competition, while also giving MTB enthusiasts a platform to showcase their skills. Teams are formed region wise, but also witness sizable participation from teams of the Indian defense forces, including the Army Adventure Wing Team, the Indian Navy Team, Team BSF, and Team SSB. Some of these athletes are leading cyclists in the country, all hailing from different corners of interior India.
The growth of MTB in these very interiors is bringing with it a demand for locally available mountain biking gear and tools, thus giving rise to shops and outlets in hill stations that cater exclusively to this need. “Initially it took people some time to understand the concept – why the bicycles are expensive, why they should invest in it. But gradually they are understanding the need for it,” says Naveen Barongpa of Himalayan Mountain Bike Network, who also owns a mountain bike outlet in Manali called Himalayan Bike Bar. A rise in the number of such shops is naturally a sign of economic progress in relatively unknown towns and cities where mountain biking is undergoing a boom.
Expansion of tourism due to the practice of MTB in sporadic pockets across the nation has also led to economic progress, creating new sources of income for many athletes. Since, professional MTB racing has not yet become a source of income in India, save for a handful of top riders a new phenomenon of guided bicycling tours across the countryside has emerged. This has considerably benefited the athletes who not only earn their daily bread through this activity, but also find this to be an alternate avenue for training. The Manali to Leh cycling tour, for instance, is a new tourist attraction and draws a good portion of Leh’s tourism in the summer months. Who guides these tours? MTB athletes, among others.
Till a decade back, families were not very supportive of this alternate choice of profession. Even today, the upward graph of supportive families seems to be progressing much slower than the MTB graph, but there is a sure indication of progress. Resident communities within villages and cities that have become newfound mountain biking pockets are now being exposed to the lifestyles of international athletes, thus realising the tremendous scope of a bright future for their own children. Nevertheless, practical considerations come into play at some point, considering that MTB has not yet reached its full potential in India.
Unfortunately, training facilities are almost nonexistent within the country. Individual efforts here and there are contributing to the overall resource pool of the country, but there is still a long way to go. One such effort is diligently being made by mountain biking veteran Dattatreya Patil, a name that draws immense respect and reverence from the entire cycling community of India. Today, Patil trains kids in Maharashtrian villages for free, carrying out programs in schools, thus encouraging initiation into the sport from an early age. A similar effort is being carried out by the Himalayan Adventure Sports & Tourism Promotion Association (HASTPA) in Himachal Pradesh. Such initiatives emphasize upon the advantage children have in developing mountain biking skills from a young age. Fortunately though, such efforts are more concentrated in rural areas rather than urban cities.
Though lacking in standard and infrastructure as compared to the west, the Indian MTB scene has witnessed exponential growth specifically since the early 2010s. There is as yet untapped potential in Indian terrain as well as in India’s contribution to the sport at a global level. With the rate at which facilities are developing and enthusiasm for the sport is building, it’s only a matter of time before MTB explodes in the country, bringing obscure districts and regions at par with their cosmopolitan counterparts.
Witness Manali like never before. A totally different perspective that will keep you wanting for more! An amalgamation of Downhill Mountain Biking in Manali, Himalayan cultural nuances and a catchy Bollywood song that will make your foot tap and keep your eyes glued to the screen.
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Author: Pritha Pande
Budding skier, theatre practitioner, and our in-house grammar guru, Pritha refuses to live life in pursuit of a singular profession. When not busy lazing around, she can be found ushering feminism into the 4Play office space.