As I took refuge under a puny tree from the light but chilling snowflakes, I could see the dark gray spots where the snow had dampened my gloves and track pants. Getting off from my squeaky mountain bike I quickly put on a waterproof jacket as one of our guides zoomed his bike past me.
Originally, getting back to my own business, I noticed the dampness had also seeped into all corners of my daypack. Before my passport turned to irretrievable smithereens, I decided to drop my bag in the back-up jeep, stuffed with bags and bicycle wheels, that was to assist and assure us of the medical backup present on our three-day cycling trip in the snow-covered valley of Lahaul, in the state of Himachal Pradesh.
After dropping my bag in the jeep I was waiting for others to catch up when a group of friendly locals cheered us on as they walked by. I couldn’t help but grin when a guide of ours jokingly informed them that we were one of those relentless athletes making the punishing 475 km journey from Leh to Manali on our mountain bikes.
Laughing along, the guide seemed a little fishy at first impression, especially after his latest joke, when he casually recalled the multiple times he’s done the Leh to Manali bicycle trip. However, this 21-year-old Manali-born guide, who I came to know as Raj Chhetri, continued to surprise us with the little bunny hops and the little swings he did with his bike as he dashed into the ever-present fog.
Later as we reached the top of a snow-laden hill, I hoped to catch up with Raj and get to know his tricks while racing downhill; however, as the wind deep-froze my damp fingers I was forced to call it a day ten minutes before our final milestone, forcing me to give up a battle I was fighting to make sure my fingers keep moving.
Disappointed at the failure, I quickly jumped out of the van and joined Raj for lunch an hour later at our first camp. Raj, having effortlessly finished the full trip, was inviting and had a smile on his face that disguised his — as we soon figured — profession as a downhill mountain-biker to a mere teenager who went around lighting up the mood. Soon, as a couple others followed me to the table, we couldn’t help but compliment him as he spell-bound us with stories of his journey from a local Manali schoolboy to a champion who left many mountain-bikers eating his dust in countless races held locally and abroad.
Originally starting mountain biking for fun at the age of 10, Raj found himself drifting between school and cycling in the hills of Manali until grade five, when he shifted to Delhi to complete his education.
“My parents support my education, but when I’m cycling I don’t have their support,” said Raj, who decided to commit his head, blood, and bones to the sport at the age of 15.
While his older brother is involved in the “hiking and climbing business,” Raj can’t resist the lure of the snowy-peaks despite breaking a knee and a collarbone a while back.
“I learned that I won’t die,” Raj said.
The sunshine that entered my room early the next day promised a much better day for cycling. To light up the mood even further, Raj showed us a couple of his bunny hops and tricks before we set off for what was going to be a painful day.
Throughout the day the rock-hard seat had me stand up and peddle to enjoy the view every once in a while, and the thick rubber tires were content watching me cycle next to a teammate who had decided to drag his bike to the top of the valley on foot as they expended most of my efforts to cycle upwards. However, Raj was always there, making sure I slipped no further as he frequently stopped by other riders to check if they were doing fine before he went back to his conversations here and there.
Wondering when I’ll get to the top, Raj soon zoomed past me twisting and turning around the curves with breath-taking handling and impressive flair. Raj’s limitless enthusiasm and energy was freakish but inspiring at the same time. Later that night I figured out Raj had a friendly challenge racing a member of our team, who had long been left behind by Raj.
No wonder Raj has won so many awards and even more team-trophies over the years he’s spent as a professional mountain-biker. Eyebrows were raised around camp when we figured out he had won the Himachal Athlete of the Year, given to the athlete with the most number of points totaled from participating in different annual competitions, three times — amongst other achievements.
Having traveled to Belgium for training, Raj hopes to continue learning and participating in national and international competitions such as the Asia Cup which consists of 6-7 rounds. Asia Cup was lucky enough to have Raj grace the tournament in Brunei and Nepal; however, financial problems forced him to return.
Nevertheless, Raj’s success has not gone unrecognized internationally as European Companies continue to sponsor his ambitions to keep biking and learning more about the sport.
On Thursday I was looking forward to riding back out of the valley of Triloknath; however, as I left the tent I understood why the cold kept me awake at night: snow had pulled down the temperature as well as the communal-tent with it. Sheltered by a tree, I quickly ate some porridge and cereal in a cup and hopped into the van which took us back up to the main road that led back to Manali.
I guess the weather sensed our frustrations of sitting on a bus. We had already traveled in for two days to get to Manali because around noon the white clouds parted to make way for sunshine that pumped us back on to our bikes to reach the final milestone. I could see Raj walking around taking pictures with his phone, his enthusiasm could light up the darkest of days. But the enthusiasm soon faded, when tragedy struck and a loose rock, about the size of a football, fractured an eleventh grader’s arm, thereby ending his cycling trip. The incident got me ruminating about the dangers that Raj has to face every day as I later commended his bravery. He replied, “When you’re young you’re not afraid of anything.”
And there it struck me, the disappointment of the first day, my freezing hands, it was just a mental game that was pulling me down, and I should’ve kept going.
Friday morning felt cheery and safe; however, we soon sank into our seats whining about the queue of lorries making their way to Rohtang Pass, a mountaintop that overlooks the city of Manali on one side and Darcha and Spiti Valley on the other. Towards the top, surrounded by snow, many jumped out of the bus for quick snowball fights before the traffic moved on.
When we reached our hotel in Manali, Raj and I shared what seemed to be our final valedictions, only to have him give us a tour of the tiny city of Manali later that evening after dinner. The park where he trains other kids about the tricks of his trade was closed for the day and so we made way to a garage full of motorbikes that Raj and his colleagues rent out to riders who fancy long-rides through the mountains.
However, soon the water trickling out of the moon-less sky left us no option but to leave Raj to his journeys and ambitions.
All photos by Abdul Malik Ansari
Edited by Janvi Poddar