The Raid Redemption

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The Raid Redemption

The biker contestants in the raid de himalaya face unique challenges.maxim rides with the crazy bunch, for whom the ride is the victory.

They are a singularly unique band of brothers, who are, perhaps, joined at the metaphorical hip with their common desire to push themselves so far out of the comfort zone that it borders on self-flagellation. They are the guys with big hearts and even bigger balls. They are the motorcyclists who take part in—and win—the Maruti Suzuki Raid de Himalaya rally.

While competing in the Xtreme category of the Raid—be it cars or bikes—itself lends a punishing dimension to the term “living on the edge,” the bikers, who have been a regular fixture since the Raid first started as a rag-tag endurance rally 16 years back, remain the heart and soul of the highest-altitude motorsports event in the world. Yet, somehow, the spotlight fails to shine on them more often than not.

Devoid of the comforts of four wheels, these bikers do a precarious high-speed balancing act on tracks hewn high up on the mountainside, which are booby-trapped with gravel, sand, rocks, boulders, waterfalls, gushing streams, gnarly riverbeds, gaping drops and benignly devilish patches of black ice. That’s what you get above 10,000 ft. If all this is not enough, add sub-zero temperatures, vertigo-inducing altitude and oxygen deprivation. It’s a heady mix, and if one is having a particularly bad day, one has to tackle face-blinding blizzards or even earthquakes. Falling is not an option, yet some do. Some carry on after picking up the pieces, while others call it a day to tend to their broken bones, cracked ribs and bruised skin, only to return to race in the majestic mountains in yet another edition of the Raid. And, even the best in the business sometimes bite the dust. Before one is tempted to label this motley crew of riders as a bunch of lunatics, let it be said that they are perfectly normal people with perfectly normal day-jobs. Barring a few professional riders, who are supported by factory teams like TVS Racing—the motorsports arm of TVS Motor Company—the bigger chunk of the field is made up of privateers. They spend their own money, ranging from between `50,000 and `1,50,000—excluding the cost of the bike—to reach for the holy grail of endurance bike rallying in the country.

Entrepreneurs, corporate executives, journalists, lawyers and pro riders come together at the Raid for their annual sip from a cauldron of adrenaline that bubbles in the craggy heights of the Western Himalaya, stirred by a druid who goes by the name of Vijay Parmar of the Himalayan Motorsports Association (HMA), and his team. But if one were to ask these bikers what brings them to the Raid year-after-year, chances are that the answer will be stony silence, an incredulous laugh or a few mumbled words. Because there are no eloquent answers.

The Raid means different things to different people. It might be easy to assume that Houston-based Gurprinder Singh Sarao, a.k.a. Nick to his friends, who was bitten by the bug more than a decade ago when he took part in his first rally on a mere `6,000 budget, has seen it all on a bike... he embarked on a 1,50,000-km overland trip around the world, passing through 73 countries with wife Kanchan astride a BMW 1200GS. Yet, this race on the roof of the world really tugs at his heartstrings. “It’s difficult to put into words what brings me to the Raid. Maybe it’s a subconscious urge to find out how far one can push oneself. Then, there is the terrain on which it’s run, unlike anywhere in the world,” says Nick.

This year, in the early hours of a day in October when half of Shimla was just stirring out of bed and the other half was still tucked under blankets, the 27 bikes and 41 cars in the Xtreme category—and another 20 bikes in the Moto Alpine class—growled and barked out of the Peterhoff Hotel. Just like they have over the past 16 autumns. And the writing was on the wall: Competitors were staring at a total distance of 2,200 km, of which 617.61 km consisted of competitive sections divided over 15 stages that ran against the clock.

Barely five kilometres into the day’s first stage, the perils of the Raid hit home, when Baljit Singh, a callow rider from Ludhiana, went off the cliff and some 40 feet down. The bike slithered a long way down to the valley floor where it found its resting place in a heap of metal and plastic. Personal gear saved the rider, barring a few scratches, but it has given him the licence to regale others about his perilous tumbling adventure.

On the first day itself, the front-running pair of Arvind K.P. and R. Natraj, astride the factory-prepared prototype TVS RTR 450 developed in collaboration with French bikemaker Sherco, set the stage for things to come. Arvind completed the day’s two competitive stages in just 54 min 11 sec, with Natraj covering the same distance a further two minutes adrift. Both riders finished ahead of nine-time Xtreme 4x4 champion Suresh Rana, piloting a factory-tuned Maruti Suzuki Grand Vitara. For the record, Rana timed
58 min 31 sec.

The real Raid, as any experienced rider will tell you, begins from the second morning onwards when the rally enters the heart of Spiti Valley. On this day, the riders face a competitive distance of a little over 76 km, from Gramphoo to Losar. The gnarly bed of the Chandra Valley, hemmed by towering peaks, the climb up to Kunzum Pass perched at 14,931 ft and the descent to the first village in Spiti is the proverbial sieve that separates the men from the boys. The seductive straights over gravel that are punctuated by dips and humps, deceptive turns, bone-shaking rocky beds of rivers, sand traps and extremity-numbing cold are omnipresent to spring nasty surprises on unsuspecting riders. Those who ride foreign bikes and possess the right riding technique fly low on this treacherous piece of terrain. But even for them or the best riders of the lot, there can be no guarantee of finishing.

 Arvind, the defending National Supercross champion, found out the painful way that even the slightest slip in concentration can be unsurmountable. After blitzing the first half of the stage from Gramphoo to Batal, a distance of around 30 km, in just 28 minutes, the gifted rider hit a patch of black ice, launching the man and his machine into orbit for a very  hard landing. His rally was over in a blink. A painful fracture to his right hand and a damaged bike were the only remains of his short but explosive exploits. Yet, sitting in the crisp autumn sun in front of Dorjee Uncle’s dhaba at Batal in the shadow of the hulking mass of the Chandrabhaga massif, as he waited for his back-up to take him to civilisation, Arvind could smile easily. “It’s all part of the game. It was good till it lasted... maybe, next year,” he said. His body may have taken a knock, but his spirit remains indomitable.

He was not the only casualty on that day. As many as seven bikes dotted the section in various stages of disrepair—snapped swingarms, sheared suspension bolts, busted engine chambers, blown engines and bruised egos remain as a testimony of the carnage.In the Moto Alpine category, 13 out of 20 riders failed to make it to Kaza time control in the maximum permitted time. On such a day, Natraj nailed the stage in a jaw-dropping 78 minutes, covering a kilometre in just a shade over a minute. The majority of those who survive the second day usually go on to savour the high of finishing the Raid, barring a few odd exceptions.

Riding a Group A machine—a foreign production bike—that is made specifically for dual-purpose riding is the focus of desire among the raiders. These lightweight bikes with generous dollops of power, enormous amounts of torque and specially-tuned,long-travel suspensions are meant to dispatch anything in their path with utter contempt. But they cost a good deal of money and it still takes a lot of effort in the Raid. In the absence of an import policy, these bikes attract crippling duties of up to 120 percent because the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India (FMSCI), which looks after motorsports in the country, has been unable to get motorsports recognised as a legitimate sporting activity. If that were to happen, bikes could be brought in as “sports equipment,” and a current generation Suzuki RMX 450R or a KTM 500 EXC would not cost upwards of `10,00,000.

Getting a monster rally bike is one thing, but riding it is more difficult still. Those weaned on underpowered Indian machines need to unlearn a lot and imbibe new riding techniques. As Sukhwant Basra, a journalist who was back for his fifth Raid astride a KTM 525 EXC, says, “One has got to tame these bikes.” These bikes have to be ridden in the power band to extract optimum performance. That’s easier said than done, because one has to spend considerable time in the saddle, traverse hundreds of kilometres of varied terrain and have a reasonable level of fitness. “It’s all about riding fitness and how much time one has spent on the bike. The more one rides, the better one gets... with some amount of guidance from an expert,” says Suresh Babu, who finished second overall this year on his Suzuki RMX 450Z. “ I’m happy with the result given that I’d hardly ridden the bike in the months leading up to the event, as I was recovering from a rib injury suffered in another rally,” says Babu, who dreams and lives two-wheelers as the National Product Head for Suzuki Motorcycles in India.

The Raid also pushes the riders to the limits of ingenuity. Those riding regular Indian street bikes have to go to enormous lengths to make their machines trail-worthy. And, that requires bits-and-pieces engineering on the bikes, but that comes without a guarantee of reliability or safety. Sourabh Handa, winner of the first MTV Stuntmania, rode a KTM Duke 390 with a front suspension cannibalised from a Hero Impulse! Yet, he managed to finish third overall, purely on account of his testosterone-powered riding.

On the fourth day, when the tail-end of cyclone Hudhud dumped a load of snow in the upper reaches of Himachal Pradesh that led to the cancellation of competitive stages and the entire leg was declared a “liaison section,” Handa’s bike lost traction close to the top of the snow-covered Kunzum Pass en route to Sarchu. The fall cracked the engine chamber. In such a situation, a normal person would have given in, but not a front-running Raid contender. Using two empty Red Bull cans and a fistful of M-Seal, the Ludhiana-based rider patched the crack, waited for it to dry in sub-zero temperatures, poured in fresh engine oil and charged into the Raid camp on the windswept plains, seconds before his maximum permitted time elapsed.

On day six, the 16th Maruti Suzuki Raid is over. Only 15 of the 27 Xtreme Moto Quad starters have made it to the finish line in Manali. As they lounge around in the hotel in various states of euphoria and exhaustion, alcohol has begun to lubricate their tired bones and fatigued minds. They begin to narrate their stories of individual triumphs and failures—some are funny, some over the top, some pretty grave. But the underlying theme is all about pushing oneself to find one’s own limits, and creating a bond with your machine. As the dust settles, and after the 3,567 corners over 617 km of competitive riding, Natraj emerged as the winner in the Moto Quad class, with a total time of 7 hr 47 min 13 sec, which was more than an hour ahead of the winning 4x4. Rounding up the top five are Nick Sarao and Sandeep Matharu, in the fourth and fifth positions. But, as they mill around, everyone wants more.