May 11, 2017
Most mountain bike trips involve well-known destinations or at the very least, places other mountain bikers have been. For the most part, our trip to India involved neither of these. Mountain biking does exist in a few select places in the country, but those spots were meant for a different kind of bike adventure.
We’d hatched a plan months prior, at home in Whistler, BC, and dreamt up two goals: the first, to explore the remote Spiti Valley, where we could build and ride big mountain lines in some truly unique places. The second, to ride the mystical root bridges of Nongriat in a corner of India known for being one of the rainiest places on earth. So, on a crisp fall morning, Chris Draper, Vince Emond, Justa Jeskova and I departed Whistler, excited for what our six-week trip held for us. India has a reputation for being a tough place to travel, and we had the added weight of bikes and camera equipment, but I don’t think any of us were prepared for some of the more trying moments of our journey.
Our first stop was Manali, widely considered the mountain bike capital of India by the small community of bikers here. A fair description, but it needs to be taken in context, as mountain biking is still very much a fringe sport in India – the number of locals asking for a photo with us and our bikes confirmed that. There’s a small ski area just above town where, once a year, the few local riders in town hold a downhill race, and there are plenty of trails surrounding town to keep you busy for a while. We stayed for about five days and there were still many areas we could have explored. It was the only place our tires wouldn’t be leaving first tracks.
Our goals would be accomplished over the Rohtang Pass and beyond, deep into the high mountains. Our first day in the Himalayas was one of the most astounding days I’ve had travelling. Until you see the mountain range in real life, you don’t truly get an idea of how massive and beautiful they are. Travel was slow due to the state of the roads, yet none of us cared; we were glued to the windows of our van for hours as we took in one of the world’s most awe-inspiring landscapes. Our emotions were heightened too, knowing we would be riding our bikes in this wild place.
Following 12 hours of driving, we arrived at Chandra Taal, a high-altitude lake sitting at over 4300m. Bike assembly went rather hastily as we were eager to finally lay tread on the massive playground before us. Pedalling uphill at this altitude felt like riding through mud, but it was easy to ignore while scanning the horizon for rideable lines. We settled on a shale slope with a short chute entrance and hiked our way to the top. Each step we took resulted in a half-step back due to the loose surface and our lungs gasped for air. At the top looking down our line and taking in our new view, there was a distinct “is this for real?!” moment. Each second we were in the Himalayas was more surreal than the one before, and now we were about to let loose down a long slope where no one had ridden their bikes before. And it wasn’t just the novelty factor that made it so great – those turns were some of the best turns I’ve ever made in my life.
The next two weeks were a blur of building, riding and exploring, plus hard work, sweat and blistered hands. The days were short and hot. The nights were long and cold. The exploration and prep work to ride lines and trails in the Indian Himalayas resulted in some of the most gratifying biking we’ve ever done. We would come home each day covered in dust to a sporadically-functioning cold shower and even that couldn’t kill our buzz. It was an incredible few weeks that culminated in biking through a high alpine village with a centuries-old monastery a stone’s throw away. A mind-blowing end to our time in the Spiti Valley.
Getting to Nongriat to explore its network of living root bridges turned out to be a much more difficult process than we envisioned. After three days of crude dirt and crumbling asphalt roads, we briefly made it back to civilization before spending four days navigating the over-complicated bus and train systems just to get there. Along the way we learned how to cram bikes, people and luggage in rickshaws and found out that full trains were not designed for travel with mountain bikes. Most importantly, we learned to never eat the train food again.
After what felt like months we finally made it to Cherrapunjee, the closest town to Nongriat. Still reeling from the effects of a food-borne parasite, we gladly took a day off to plan and rest, and mapped out a descent high above Nongriat to navigate to the valley bottom, usually only accessible by foot (or in our case, bikes). The trail down took every ounce of our energy. It was steep and technical with many more switchbacks than we anticipated. We were more than happy to swim in the valley’s crystal clear river, which gave us the rejuvenation we needed to ride on.
Sooner than we expected, the first living root bridge appeared: a two-level span hundreds of years old. The bridges are created from the roots of the banyan fig trees, and manipulated by humans over generations to grow across rivers. The bridges are their means of inter-village connection during the monsoon season when the rivers grow impassable. It was an otherworldly sight and an unforgettable experience to ride across – not exactly the most technical feature to ride, but easily one of the most unique. On a trip full of wonderful and wild experiences, it was a big highlight of our adventure.
Our exploration of unridden India was an adventure success. A veritable highlight real of stunning views and surreal riding environs. It isn’t a mountain bike mecca (yet), but with a little hard work it was so much more: riding in a biking world unknown.
Video by Vincent Emond.
India’s fringe mountain biking community turned out to be a massive playground for Steve, Justa, Vince and Chris. MEC was proud to support them on their epic journey via expedition grant funding.
Want to see more wild places to ride in the world? Check out10 must-do mountain bike destinations.