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August 29, 2012
While it’s tempting to travel to Europe to ride the legendary roads and cols there are a lot of other spectacular places in the world to cycle that you won’t see on Eurosport. Sometimes I get caught up in talking about professional cycling, but I think it’s important to remind ourselves that there’s a lot more to riding than that. My mate Eamon and his partner Tess recently went to Nepal to seek some of the roads less known and what they saw was spectacular. Here’s a taste…
For me, riding my bike is not about having a machine within 0.3 grams of the UCI weight limit or having the latest and greatest gadgets to reduce my drag coefficient by .0001%. It’s about the freedom it provides, the places it takes you and adventures along the way. Don’t get me wrong, I still love riding in the bunch and the odd sprint to the line and race up a mountain, which brings me directly to my next point…
Mountains in general have cyclists going weak at the knees. As a keen cyclist whom is far better in the hills than flats, I say the more grand the mountain the better. This got me thinking…
The highest mountain range on the planet has an attraction like no other. It has an aura surrounding it, a sense of adventure and danger. The area draws mountaineering types from all over the world. This remote land is tailor made for extreme climbers and hikers, but what about us bikers? What is it like to cycle these mountain roads? Is it even possible to cycle amongst the highest peaks on earth?
There were a lot of unknowns as we flew into Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal.
It was 10pm and black as the ace of spades as we threw the bike on the roof of our minivan taxi. We rattled and shook our way down the dirt ‘back road’ (I struggle to even consider it that!) through Nepal’s capital. All the way hopeful the untied bike would still be on the roof when we arrived.
Almost immediately on arrival in Kathmandu, we felt uneasy in this foreign land, not knowing where we were, nor where we were going and the pre-booked 3 star hotel turned out to be more like a 1star prison cell. So, within an hour we had made arrangements for the next morning to fly out of Kathmandu and head to Pokhara. This was probably an extreme over-exaggeration and unfair assumption of Kathmandu, but the fact was we only had limited time and wanted to hit the hills. I had heard great things about Pokhara and wanted to check it out for myself.
Weather conditions can be very unpredictable in the Himalayas and we spent 3 hours waiting for the all clear to board the propeller powered 20 seater aeroplane bound for Pokhara.
Bike and person onboard, we made the 25 minute flight westward across the country.
Pokhara is set on the beautiful Lake Phewa, in the foothills surrounding Machapuchare (Fish’s Tail), a highly sacred mountain to the god Shiva. So much so it is off limits for climbing activities.
Even though Pokhara is Nepal’s 3rd largest city, it is much more relaxed than the bustling capital, therefore more conducive to nice road cycling.
There are three major roads leading out of Pokhara, one to the north, one to the west and one leading back to Kathmandu to the south east. The great thing about this part of the world is that no matter which direction you head there are great mountains and endless valleys.
When riding in Pokhara, the airport is the best reference point to start from. It is central within the city and all roads lead to it. Nepal is a place where you’ll find people sitting outside dilapidated buildings playing cards or just happily watching the world go by. Let me tell you, it gets a whole lot more interesting for them when lycra-clad Aussies go whooshing by on their racing bikes.
The natives are extremely polite, helpful and interested in any new arrivals to town. They were especially interested since we were dressed in our lycra and riding bikes like nothing they have ever seen. Undoubtedly, the most common question we were getting from the gathering crowds was ‘How much is your bike?’ At first it’s a bit unsettling as you feel like they are either going to try and whisk it from under you or they are trying to get money out of you but then you realise that they are in fact just really interested in you.
The locals do have bikes but strictly use them as a mode of transport for home grown products or simply to get around town. Needless to say, there is no Sram Red, Dura-Ace or any carbon fibre features in sight.
After an eye opening ride around the city, dodging stray cows, random pedestrians, mopeds and pot-holes large enough to lose yourself in, we left the city and headed west. This road instantly takes you skyward at comfortable gradient through forests, rice paddies and farm houses. The locals would look on, yell out and wave as you contend not only the incline but also the humidity and heat.
Being the wet season humidity is high… REALLY high! We were making our way up to the World Peace Pagoda on top of a hill with stunning views overlooking the town of Pokhara (and if you’re lucky, the Himalayan mountains as the backdrop).
The landscape changes really quickly as you make your way from the city to the surrounding farms, through forests and along the valleys. The only thing that changed more quickly was the weather. Each afternoon a thunderstorm would roll in and dump enormous amounts of rain in super-sized droplets. You go from having a nice dry ride to being absolutely soaked and ducking for cover wherever you can find shelter in a matter of seconds. It’s all part of the fun of course and we would make it a challenge to try and beat the storm home each afternoon.
You can’t really do a loop ride around Pokhara as there are not many (if any) connecting roads. So instead, you would ride out on the main roads as far as you like, passing through the little villages along the way before turning around and retracing your tyre tracks back home, whilst racing young teens on mopeds of course!
On the road rolling north out of the city it is once again different. We rode in the early morning as the sun tried to break through the ominous looking clouds. The landscape sprung to life with workers and school children heading off for the day. The north is obviously where the majority of locals reside as there were a lot more suburban type houses and shops compared to the farmland found in the south west.
Continue on north and you’ll head along a valley parallel to the Himalayan mountain range. Eventually you’ll make your way further into the foothills of the great Machapuchare. Villages quickly become more and more scarce and you are reminded that you are in a very remote part of the world. Which is precisely the reason these mountains hold such attraction, it is an adventure no matter which direction you take.
Whether it be riding through bustling city streets which appear to have no rules or trying to avoid being caught in the treacherous downpours which rise up over the mountains, all the while running into friendly Nepalese locals of all ages. Nepal is a fascinating place; probably not one many have ridden on a road bike but a compelling place which left us wanting more.
[CT] as Ernest Hemingway once said, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.”