Mountain Biking in Nepal | The Story of the Local Kid Who's Humbling Europe’s Best Riders
Meet RJ: The young Nepalese mountain biker with lungs from another dimension
Words & photography by Dan Milner
No matter how many times I do it, riding at altitude never seems to get easier. Four thousand metres has an ability to sucker-punch you, no matter how fit you thought you were, however much “training" you’ve put in, however “superhuman" you felt back home on your local trail. As I grind my way up a meandering slither of dirt towards the 4200m high Lupra Pass that is edging slowly closer, I grab for my lowest gear. I’m out of luck: I’m already using it.
I resolve to man-up, to dig deeper. “I can do this," I mutter before lifting my head just in time to see a fellow rider effortlessly dancing his way up the trail in front. It’s RJ, a young Nepalese rider, and he’s grinning. Right now, I really want to hate this kid.
“I grab for my lowest gear. I’m out of luck: I’m already using it."
You could argue that being local means Rajesh Magar, or RJ as he’s known, has the physiological advantage of having been born among these oxygen-deprived mountains and so by default is immune to their lung-crushing effects. Right now I don’t care if this is true or just a figment of my altitude-addled brain, but the thought makes me feel better about myself, at least for a moment.
But somewhere deep inside my head there is disquiet: RJ has only been mountain biking for three years, something that pales against my own three decades of fat-tyred experience. Ergo: I should be faster! I can keep up with this punk-ass kid, right? But the truth is plain for me and the other western riders to see: the ass-kicking RJ is dishing out, just like the seemingly Escher-esque endless climb we’re pedalling up, is something I’m reluctantly having to suck up.
In three years of mountain biking, having starting out on a bike he welded together for himself, he’s already won the Nepal National DH champs twice and the Himalayan Downhill Trophy in 2015. Did I say I want to hate this kid?
"The rewards come at a price: not least climbs, which leave me feeling nauseous and frequently questioning my sanity."
I’ve joined mountain bike guide RJ on Yeti cycles’ first International Tribe gathering — 23 Yeti riders from half a dozen different countries, all seizing the opportunity to ride amazing backcountry trails in one of the planet’s truly most spectacular places: the Lower Mustang region of Nepal. Here, the mighty 8000m high Annapurnas provide a jaw-dropping and snow-encrusted backdrop to some of the best trails I’ve ever ridden, but the rewards we’re reaping come at a price: not least climbs, which leave me feeling nauseous and frequently questioning my sanity.
I’ve been riding long enough to know that everyone has their own comfort pace, both up and down. My own stint at racing mountain bikes has long been cast to the rust-pile of history along with its elastomer-sprung forks and peak-less helmets. Nowadays an insatiable thirst for beer and a noticeable lack of bounce when I crash have become my excuses for never being the first to the top or the bottom of a trail.
But assemble 30 riders together and you’re usually swept along in a spirit of informal competitiveness, compelled to dig deeper, to ride faster, encouraged to show off, to somehow become “superhuman" in your own eyes or those of others. There are elements of this rivalry among our group of Yeti aficionados, something that fuels an incessant but friendly banter between strangers over dinner.
"Our lives become refocused on the simple priorities of sleeping, eating, drinking and riding."
But here in Nepal’s wild terrain, a million miles from the fibre-optic driven speed of western living, that nagging competitive streak within us is easier to ignore. Instead, immersed amid physically and mentally impenetrable mountains, riding between terraces ploughed by yaks, on tracks that are ambiguously called “roads" and staying in tea-houses whose window panes rattle in the afternoon wind, our lives become refocused on the simple priorities of sleeping, eating, drinking and riding. For a little while at least, we have that luxury.
This is my third visit to the Mustang region, lured back by the promise of not only world-class singletrack, but by a culture of friendship and a landscape that couldn’t be more visibly distinct from England’s green and pleasant lands. Sitting in the rain shadow of the mighty Annapurna range, the Mustang is an arid tapestry of red rock peaks and plunging gorges, of braided rivers and fluted spines of dirt sculpted out of the hillsides by eons of time. And nestled amongst this geologist’s dreamscape are the villages —mud brick houses that sit as testament to the locals’ stubborn refusal to give in. It’s as inhospitable and wild a place as you can imagine and to me it’s breathtaking, in more ways than one.
"Nestled amongst this geologist’s dreamscape are the villages —mud brick houses that sit as testament to the locals’ stubborn refusal to give in."
My five days with the Yeti crew are filled with riding loops out of Kagbeni, a tiny charismatic village that has become the hub for many a guided mountain bike trip. We reach our simple tea house accommodation via a twenty minute ride in a twin-prop’ plane from Pokhara to Jomsom, skimming the mountain tops before descending into the Kali Gandhaki river valley to line up with Jomsom’s short runway. Our flight couldn’t be more stealth if we were arriving by drone. Winding between peaks there’s not much room for error and flights cease by 11 a.m. when the valley wind picks up to hold the airport to ransom.
We leave and return among the yaks and chickens that ply Kagbeni’s narrow flagstone alleyways, while crimson-robed monks busy themselves around the village’s 15th century monastery. We sink Everest beers at the end of our rides, or wash down chocolate cake with frothy cappuccinos at one of Kagbeni’s new, western-styled coffee shops — indications of the creeping changes that tourism brings. Sitting on the infamous 12-day Annapurna circuit trek, Kagbeni sees a daily ebb and flow of trekkers and more recently mountain bikers. As such we’re a valuable source of income to many families eking out a living in such a remote and harsh environment.
"We flaunt crosswinds to hurriedly sprint over swaying suspension bridges and zig-zag through pine forests…"
Our Nepalese riders RJ, Mandil and Nishant and U.K. guides Euan and Chris from H&I Adventures show us the best, and often hidden, trails of this spectacular area. When we ride the Gandaki river valley up from Jomsom, we deviate from the usual trekkers itinerary to lap through the nearby villages of Pilling and Phalla, both perched high on the valley side. We flaunt crosswinds to hurriedly sprint over swaying suspension bridges and zig-zag through pine forests and down alpine switchbacks as we make our way down to Marpha and on to the heat and sweat of sub-tropical Tatopani.
In only five days we ride a year’s worth of flow, and file a lifetime of memories. But it’s the ride from Muktinath, a 4000m high outpost of civilisation, that most steals my attention, and not because of the sight of RJ’s defiance of the effects of altitude. Still gasping for air, I finally reach the top of the Lupra pass and peer into the seemingly bottomless valley that is our way ahead.
Surrounded by some of the tallest peaks on the planet and embedded in a landscape devoid of trees, it’s hard to get a scale on things here —what seems like a ten minute climb takes an hour, a fifteen minute descent becomes fifty. Whatever our skewed perspective, below us a ribbon of singletrack teasingly meanders its way back and forth across the mountainside before disappearing abruptly, and if I’m honest a little alarmingly, into a vertical abyss. From where we stand it looks like the trail might as well plunge into the centre of the earth itself.
We roll in, with RJ at the lead. The descent is fast and dusty. Shadow another rider too closely and you’re left spluttering through clouds of dirt, teeth coated in grime. The trail begs to be ridden fast, but its surface is loose and deep swathes of dirt on every corner threaten to rob front wheel control. I battle self-preservation and the instinct to grab my brakes, an action I know would see me cart-wheeling down the steep hillside, bouncing off rocks into the abyss below.
“Relax, relax," I repeat, mantra-like but it’s easier said than done. I pull up for a rest, to breathe again, to re-gather my mojo and smear the grit from my face. The air around me is thick with swirls of dust, spiralling upwards in the warm air and casting a veil over the snow-capped horizon. Ahead I can see RJ slicing his way down the trail —a clichéd hot knife through butter. He’s two-wheel drifting, almost carelessly around every corner like he was born on a bike. I thought my pace was fast, but “fast" I realise is relative. What’s unravelling before us is a lesson in being humbled and one that is driven home by knowing the disparity of opportunities we’ve had in life.
Unlike my home country Britain, Nepal is one of the world’s poorer nations. Here bikes are seen as an essential means of transport, not the technology-adorned playtime toys they have become back home. But somehow, despite the opportunities our western lifestyles have given us, the places we’ve ridden, the countless years of riding we’ve collectively amassed, my group of accomplished Yeti riders still can’t keep up with RJ. And it has little to do with age.
The Nepalese are a hardy bunch. And they have to be. The Yeti Tribe gathering happens in the wake of Nepal’s devastating earthquake, a shock that seismically halved the country’s valuable tourist numbers overnight and devastated household incomes in many of the tourist hotspots such as the Lower Mustang.
With few exports, Nepal’s population is one of subsistence farming, the country’s impossibly steep and rugged terrain adding to the list of challenges that monsoon rains and an inadequate transport infrastructure already heap upon its inhabitants.
But faced with such unrelenting challenges in life the Nepalese remain positive and largely upbeat. There is no point being any other way they say. RJ is just one Nepalese face, but he’s a symbolic ambassador for the attitude of a country. And he rides bikes like a Nepalese, grabbing life with both hands and refusing to give up.
I watch RJ disappear into the void ahead, dropping down towards Lupra village, a tiny jumble of houses impossibly clinging to the side of the Panda Kola gorge, a sight that looks like it has been torn from the pages of National Geographic. I have the luxury of visiting this amazing country, and I have the luxury of returning home, back to comfortable western lifestyle where clean water pours at a turn of a tap, where roads are asphalted and bikes ridden for fun alone. Standing there with RJ’s dust settling around me, I realise that this Nepalese lad has a lot to teach me.
He might be half my age and riding in borrowed and loaned kit, but he has shown me what’s possible if you ignore limitations. Like most riders, I’ve basked in my own heroic feelings before. I’ve cleaned impossible-looking technical lines I never want to repeat, and raced multi-day events through the Alps on hardtails that left me unable to sit for a week.
I’ve watched the slow-mo films of our privileged upbringing heroes of the bike world, but now standing on a remote Nepalese mountainside I realise whatever we think about our bike riding back home, however impressive our heroes’ antics or riding ability, whatever Rampage line was survived, or new Strava record was set, it all pales into insignificance alongside RJ. In this one lad, having juggled school and work at the age of 13, won races, landed work as a mountain bike guide, and now dropping the rest of us like it was our first day on a bike, the word “superhuman" is being redefined.