Downhill Dreams

9 min read
29 Jul 2016
9 min read
1680 words
Nishma Shrestha hopes to someday make a living as a professional downhill biker. But to do that, she’ll need to overcome many of the obstacles strewn along her path
Nishma Shrestha hopes to someday make a living as a professional downhill biker. But to do that, she’ll need to overcome many of the obstacles strewn along her path

Nishma, 19, is one of two or three women downhill bikers in Nepal. For Nishma to be able to compete in more races in the women’s category in Nepal would require that there be more female participants in the competitions looking to pursue downhill cycling professionally. And if she wants to become a champion, she will have to herself create that pool of skilled women cyclists who can be her competitors. Creating that pool and promoting cycling in Nepal are among Nishma’s main goals.

But achieving them would first require that Nishma overcome numerous challenges. “In Nepal, downhill biking is regarded more as a hobby than a career,” says Mangal Lama of Switchback, an organisation aimed at improving the mountain biking scene in Nepal. Mangal is a professional downhill rider and Nishma’s mentor. According to Mangal, mountain biking only started getting noticed by Nepalis after the Asian Mountain Bike Championship was held in Nepal in 2009. Over the years, the sport has gradually gained traction, and there has been a gradual growth in the number of people who want to mountain bike. But only a small fraction of these people are actually taking it up as a profession. And still fewer are opting for downhill biking. And the number of women downhill bikers stands at three.

“The reason there aren’t enough women in the sport,” says Mangal, “is because except for people like Nishma, not many women bikers are opting for it.” Downhill cycling calls for speeding down rough and steep trails where cyclists have to manoeuvre their bikes on narrow tracks against rock gardens, and the trails feature extremely sharp turns, treacherous surfaces and numerous other hurdles. It requires sharp concentration and slick technique, together with strength and stamina. “The thrill you’ll experience is amazing, but you’ll have to take on crazy risks too,” says Nishma.

“Especially when I’m taking on difficult hurdles, I get an amazing high once I overcome it,” says Nishma. “And that thrill is what keeps me passionate about downhill cycling.” Nishma started mountain biking a couple of years ago, and she practiced whenever she could get her hands on her uncle Sunil Shrestha’s bike. (Sunil is a professional mountain biker himself.) In the beginning, her trips were limited to her neighbourhood in Goldhunga, and she only went as far as Mudkhu, around 2 km away. On these trips, she started meeting more and more bikers, and from those encounters she learned how to hone her mountain-biking skills.

Two years ago, she volunteered in Switchback’s racing event in Palpa, the Palpa Urban Downhill Mountain Bike Race. Until then she had no idea what downhill biking was. Since that race, Switchback’s Dawa Sherpa, Jayendra Kakshapati and Mangal Lama have been providing her the much-needed guidance and training.

As she got better, she competed in races such as Showdown Dharan, RSR MTB challenge and National downhill championship, among others. In 2015, she also represented Nepal in the Himalayan Mountain Bike Festival in Manali, India, where again she had to compete in the open category. She came in fifth. “Despite her starting only two years ago, Nishma has already proven herself to be a very serious competitor because of her commitment to the sport,” says Mangal.

She is indeed extremely focused. Every day, Nishma rides her bike from her house to her college, Public Youth Campus, in Dhobichaur, where she is a student of Tourism Management, to squeeze in that extra bit of time with the bike. On weekends, Nishma rides to places such as Hattiban, Chobar and Shivapuri to practice on the bike trails. On most occasions, she’ll ride uphill, rather than going there on a vehicle, before starting her downhill dash. In Shivapuri, she rides the 3 km trail at least twice whenever she’s there. In these sessions, she practices new moves—most of which she learns from YouTube—that she wants to perfect, such as tailwhip, a move where a biker needs to be suspended from their bike and get the bike to do a full rotation using nothing but their arms, or a wheelie, where the biker needs to pedal the bike with the front wheel pulled up in the air. She needs to employ these moves during the course of a race, and the practice sessions allow her to overcome her fears of the rough terrain and the numerous obstacles.

Another trail where Nishma practices is a narrow stone-paved path between paddy fields in Khokana. Nishma pedals down this single-track trail on her Trek Slash 8 bike whenever she can because mastering its slippery slope will be a skill that will help her during races. When tackling this trail, she’ll hurtle downhill at some 40 km per hour, tilting her bike at narrow angles around the corners in the track, manoeuvring against the numerous stones and puddles along the way, and perform a bunny hop to traverse a small gap where the track meets a bigger road, at the track’s end.

Practicing on such natural trails, says Mangal, gives Nepali riders an inherent advantage over riders from other parts in the world. The country’s varied topography not only allows Nepali mountain bikers to practice in rough terrains or on exceedingly challenging single-tracks, but also to ride in regions like the Annapurna Circuit. The advantage of riding in the high-altitude regions is that bikers here are better equipped to deal with altitude sickness compared to bikers from other countries. “It would thus make sense if sports authorities in Nepal promoted professional mountain biking,” he says.

Today, bikers in Nepal get no such governmental support. They have to think twice before taking up biking as a career. The main reason behind that is the lack of sponsorship. There are no organisations dedicated to sponsoring cyclists, from bearing their training costs, the cost of their gear and bikes, and the cost incurred in participating in competitions, national or international. Only some businesses such as The North Face and Mountain Hardware in Nepal bear some costs for cyclists, but for a sport this expensive, business sponsorships are nowhere near enough. “I couldn’t participate in this year’s Himalayan Mountain Bike Festival in India because I didn’t have the money to take part in the competition,” says Nishma, whose costs for last year’s competition were borne by her family. Even when she does get to participate in these competitions, the returns aren’t assured—because she has to compete with male bikers.

For most bikers, sponsorships are limited to the help that they get from their friends abroad. “Whatever amount I get as sponsorship or as help for buying my gear comes from the people I take on cycling trips to places like Mustang and Lhasa,” says Mangal. As for Nishma, she has been helped by Chaindrive, a cycling group based in Dubai, to buy her bike and by Switchback, which not only helps her with training, but also bears some of her costs.

Practicing on Natural Trails Gives Nepali Riders An Inherent Advantage Over Riders From Other Parts In The World

Nishma wants to devote her life to downhill biking. But making money off the sport, at least in the near future, presents a difficult challenge. Every year, the number of races that are organised in Nepal can be counted on two hands, and the number of downhill races is even fewer. For bikers, investing money in the sport with the hope for returns is akin to gambling on themselves. That is why most bikers here have to get by on taking tourists to various cycling trips, which helps them earn more than the races themselves. Nishma too plans to conduct such trips in the future in order to continue pursuing her downhill dream.

Because downhill biking at this point doesn’t offer career prospects and also because of the inherent risk factor in downhill biking, families aren’t usually supportive of their kids becoming bikers. “The lack of family support especially comes into play in the case of women bikers,” says Mangal. Nishma’s family, however, have always been supportive of her, mainly because her father, Gopal Shrestha, is a cycling enthusiast. So her attempt at creating a pool of downhill bikers will start from her own home. She plans to train her little sister Nista, who is already showing interest in the sport. Nishma hopes that together they will be the unbeatable Shrestha sisters, who will recruit many more women to come join them in their downhill adventure.