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Archive for May, 2012

[This is a story which I did for freeridermag.in which was published in their May edition. You can download the entire issue here. Due to whatever editorial considerations, it didn’t quite get published the way I expected, with the images intended for it. This post will contain the story and the images shot for it, as originally planned. The rider in most of the pictures is Nilesh ‘Nelly’ Dhumal]

Stand up on the pedals and feel the rush as you roll six-and-a-half feet down the rock and lean into a long left-handed curve. You want to crank harder but the dry, dusty track has you wary as you stick that left leg out for balance. Switchback left and head straight for the crack in the rocks.

 

As you squeeze through, you realise you’re going too fast. Your brain screams, “STOP!” You battle the reflex that makes you want to grab those hair-trigger brakes and, instead, gently tease it with a finger. Take the switchback to the right and the urge to stare at what’s immediately in front of your wheel is overwhelming as you dodge rocks and struggle to keep from skidding through a rut. The trail banks right around a massive rock. You fight the sand which threatens to fling you headfirst into a little stone – a stone so inch-perfectly placed to split your skull that it has to be work of some diabolical entity.

Slip and slide your way around the rock and you’re greeted by the welcome sight of a long straight sloping upwards to a crest. Excited at finally regaining control over your fate, you crank away and burst over the top only to be brought down to earth. The trail banks hard right and then left immediately. You overshoot. If you’re lucky, you slow down enough to take the second turnoff.

 Blitz down the long, pebble-strewn straight at breakneck speed and shred your way up a short rise to hit the last of the straights – dusty, sandy and deceptively easy.

Stay off the brakes and grimly pray you sussed the right pressure for the tyres to be able to do their job.

Hit the bottom at full pelt, jink left, take the chicken line and hang on. The trail dips and lifts as it slingshots you straight towards an obstinate outcrop.

Something’s wrong! Pedal spin’s shifted your left foot off kilter. You’re moving too quick to shift back and that rock is coming up fast. Bank right!

Too late.

First line missed. Your rear brake sends you into a sketchy skid as you make the second line. Barrel down the last stretch still balancing the bike with one good leg, dodge the tree and as you come around the last curve, a smile begins to spread.

You’ve made it.

Without a fall.

And you were pretty quick too.

Wham!

Only wind beneath your feet.

Faceplant!

You bite the dust with sickening crunch and lie there in the swirling dust trying to breathe. Trying to figure out where your bike is. It’s done a couple of flips and lies forlornly in the dust, ten feet away. You hope like hell you haven’t broken anything – on you and your ride. As you painfully pick yourself up, people come running up – walkers, bird-watchers and random strangers. They all wear a curious mixture of expressions on their faces – concern (for soundness of body), amusement (at obvious unsoundness of mind) and bewilderment (over what would possess someone to do something this idiotic).

The diabolical entity which is the life-force of Turahalli looks on and smiles – a hard lesson taught.

Note to self: It ain’t over until the wheels stop spinning!

In the sport of downhill mountain biking, tragedy lurks behind the most innocuous-looking corner. Just ask the two who broke their collar bones at last year’s downhill race at Turahalli – one a noob (in practice), the other – the man who came in second only to take a toss while having a little fun after.

You trudge home with your bruised baby in tow, sights squarely fixed on the next ride.

Turahalli – yesterday, today and tomorrow

Sometime in April of 2009, I stepped out of the house in the wee hours of the morning to make what seemed like a loooooong trip out of the city. I was accompanying a couple of climbers to a place locally famous for great bouldering action.

Spread over a number of little hills, Turahalli turned out to be a reserve forest filled with rocks off all shapes and sizes each of which was being sized-up by a motley crew, all with the same gleam in their eyes – climbers eyeballing the day’s challenges.

Somewhere around the same time, a young man from a related tribe spun his crank down Kanakpura way on a quest of his own. As he made his way towards the outskirts of Bangalore, Nilesh ‘Nelly’ Dhumal kept asking puzzled locals if they knew of a hill with a mandir on top. Why a hill with a mandir? Well, he knew something known only to members of his tribe. And when he finally passed a curve in the road and spotted the hill, he knew he had been right. For as only members of the Indian downhill mountain biking tribe know, where a mandir sits on top of a hill, there awaits a course begging to be shredded.

Taking a bend in front of the mandir which began it all

The next time I went bouldering at Turahalli, I was presented with the somewhat curious spectacle of three helmeted men lugging bikes up the hill while a fourth dragged rocks off the trail. Word had gotten out and Tribe MTB had begun their infiltration of Climber Central.

Riding with the man who opened up Turahalli to mountain bikers, one learns to view things in a different light. You learn to memorise the course, begin turning before you actually see your destination, work up the nerve to take a few drops and keep coming back after a faceplant (as I did). It’s been a while since that first sight of the hill with the mandir and, over time, Nelly’s come to know it well enough to roll ol’ Faith(ful) back down the hill in the dark, riding the trail from memory.

Nelly riding his Giant Faith down Turahalli at sundown

Turahalli is now a favoured venue for the offroad races of the hugely-popular Bangalore Bicycle Championship, hosting XC, downhill and even cyclocross races. Last year’s downhill races saw participants from across the country shooting it out on the slopes. The last XC race which took place barely two months ago saw a monstrous turnout.

Riders breaking free of the melee on the first rise at the BBCH XC race

Weekends see Turahalli thronged by riders of all levels, from noobs eager to get out of town and experience a break from their humdrum lives to experts trying to build jumps, take drops and up the ante in general. When Tribe MTB Chieftain Nelly calls out to the Bangalore Bikers Club to enlist help to build a trail, people enthusiastically respond and pitch in. The downhill line has metamorphosised over the years. Erosion has smoothed some of it, the forest rangers have blocked them with rocks, plants have grown and things have shifted, ramps have been built and mud cleared. Each new change throws up a new challenge and keeps the rider sharp.

But, every story has to have a darker side. Multi-storey apartments are beginning to form the backdrop of the trail and in the not-too-distant future, Turahalli might become something of an island in a concrete sea.

Downhilling with multi-storey buildings in the background

This isn’t the first time Turahalli has been under threat however. Climbers talk about how Turahalli was under threat more than a decade ago from land-grabbers. In a bid to save what was then an arid land, fast-growing trees were planted and the area was declared a reserve forest. These trees now form neat rows and a beautiful green cover – the same trees through which bikers now fly in headlong pursuit of a rush.

The government is toying with the suggestion of making it a park but this isn’t the greatest of news for us as it’s hard to imagine a rider shredding his way through a trail dotted with lost lovers.

For the moment though, Turahalli’s trails continue to provide endless days of great riding, climbing and other outdoor activities. The local biking community is hard at work building some great ramps and opening up new lines for this year’s downhill championships. So, if you’re in search of a rush and like to live life on the (t)rails, come on down to Turahalli this July and put your body where your mouth is.

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So here goes my review of my first mountain bike. Personally, I think its a travesty to buy a mountain bike and then relegate it to road duty (unless for the reason mentioned in my last post – a gift to a Dad). My bike has seen almost exclusive offroad duty. The only roads it rides are those which take me to its natural habitat. I’ve ridden XC, for which it was intended and DH, for which it was not. Here’s how it breaks down.

Frame

Its very hard to quantify frame quality unless you really are a balls-to-the-wall dirt jumper or an industry-insider and expert. If you’re the former, I guess you judge a frame’s build quality by how quickly it breaks down on you (or not). If you’re the latter then you know how much the manufacturer has compromised on the frame build quality (or not) in the interest of slashing prices. Yes, yes I know there’s ride quality, responsiveness on the trails, absorption of buzz and blah blah but I’m just talking about strength of the material for the moment. Can you or any journeyman mountain biker really separate the performance of the material of one alloy frame from another? I sure as hell can’t. So I’ll leave that aside by saying its made of double-butted 6061 aluminium which is generally supposed to be pretty strong for the kind of riding prescribed for this frame (XC). I will slip this one in though – one of the aforesaid industry-insiders I’ve chatted with seems to feel that this frame is comparable to the Trek 6000 series (which means it punches wayyyy over its price tag). I love the hexagonal profile of the top tube as it gives it character. Whether this improves performance, only an engineer will be able to tell you. The frame is similar to its elder sibling (the Alite 2000) in design but is slightly more compact with a shorter TT. KHS bike sizes come in odd numbers – 15, 17, 19 inches. This was a little awkward for me as I land on the cusp of two sizes – 17 and 19. After a lot of reading and advice and trying out Naveen’s 17-inch as well as the 19-inch frame of the 150 and 300, I decided to plump for the 17. One particular piece of advice I got actually helped me make up my mind – you can make a smaller bike feel larger (by playing around with the stem length and angle, the seatpost and bars) but you can’t make a large bike feel smaller. Plus, mucking around with TBH’s 15-inch was just so much fun that I had to go with a smaller one. And yes, in this case its completely true, bigger definitely does not necessarily mean better. I love how agile and nimble the 17 feels. Im still working on the fit though. I found that the stock stem made the reach too short and gave me an upright posture. I wanted something more aggressive. So we fitted a 110mm stem which was flipped to increase cockpit area. This made it a really aggressive fit which works fantastically on XC. On the DH though, it was a nightmare. I kept going OTB (over-the-bars) and realised this was because my centre of gravity was wayyyyy too far forward. I realised I needed two different solutions for different terrains. More on this later. Suffice it to say, this frame feels fantastically nimble and sporty – more so than any of the competition that I’ve tried out, including bikes which cost nearly double. Comparing it to the bikes in the same price range (at the time), such as the Trek 4300 for example is just downright unfair. Its also built like a tank. Considering how many times I’ve flipped it on the DH at Turahalli, it has nary a mark to show for it. Excellent paint job albeit the fact you might find a blemish or two beneath the surface in the form of a slight rise in the paint.

Drivetrain

With a Deore Shadow RD, Alivio FD, shifters and crank arm and Mega 9 crank, the drivetrain is pretty much unbeatable for anything anywhere near its price range (MRP of Rs.30,000 at the time). And its really all one really needs in terms of smooth shifting. Durability? Only time will tell. One thing I do know is that I for one didn’t feel any mind-blowing difference between these and the Acera on my hybrid. Which goes to show that there really is something to the claim that any level derailleur   will perform well if tuned correctly.

Wheels

WTB SX24 rims are decent budget rims. Superb looking with an all-black theme, matched with black spokes and little red nipples – a nice detail to go with the black and red theme of the bike. The hubs are no-name OEM kit which have done pretty well considering they’ve gone tumbling down the hill a few times. Only once did the rim (front) actually bend and a truing set it straight. Love how light they are and they roll easy and fast (which says something for the anonymous hubs). A slight downside is that you are stuck to presta tubes thanks to these rims and they are not only more expensive but are also in short supply on occasion. So you might want to stock up on a few before you hit those trails.

Brakes

Bengal Helix 3 hydraulic brakes – LOVE these! They grip and bite like an enraged dog and don’t require any time at all to bed in. They stop on a dime and seem to perform better than the Hayes hydraulics on the 1000’s elder sibling. The fact that they come in a red anodised theme only serves to sex things up even more. A lovely little touch which shows these guys have really thought things through is the little plastic bit which is fixed to the cable just above the calipers (visible only in the full-bike pic – sorry). What does it do? When transporting bikes without the wheels one usually has to scrabble around for a bit of plastic or something to wedge in place so the pads don’t stick together. Well, in this case, that plastic bit is always there so you don’t have to save up pieces of credit cards in future – simply pull it off and stick it between the pads and take it off when re-attaching the wheel. Methinks those of you who’ve been through the pain of having to bleed your brakes for something this asinine, will appreciate the gesture.

Tyres

Kenda Small Block 8s – hate these! Hate, hate, HATE! Ok, let me be objective here (even though I hate ’em). This year these tyres seem to be all the rage and can be found on most mid-priced mountain bikes. They dont come cheap either, costing a whopping 2.8k each! They take a very high psi (up to 80), are folding tyres (so super light) and roll very very easily. They were designed for hardpack and are supposed to be truly grippy and fast on said terrain. Ok, so I have no doubt ol’ John Tomac knew what he was about when these were designed but he sure as hell hadn’t travelled to India, let alone ridden here. The Small Block 8s simply weren’t designed for the kind of dusty, thorn-ridden terrain we have in these parts. On the XC trails I ride around Bangalore, they pick up more punctures than a whore does STDs! Riding them with tyre liners (Mr. Tuffy – BUY!) makes life a little better but then this somewhat negates one of their major selling points – the weight (or lack thereof). On the DH in these parts they suck donkey balls! Period! To get any kind of purchase, you need to run less than 30 psi (which is ridiculously low for a puncture-prone, paper-thin folding tyre) and you’re still scrabbling around like Wiley Coyote on a ledge. Granted they were meant for fast XC, but they aren’t ideal for that application (in these parts) either. If you like to ride your bike in the terrain it was designed for (hint: it does not involve tarmac), do yourself a favour when you buy the bike and swap them for something better – Kenda Nevegals if possible or even Schwalbe Blackjacks. Even if you can’t swap, pay for an upgrade. I would even plump for the Kenda Klaws which cost about a third as much as these high-maintenance thorn-dogs! Bottom line? The Kenda Small Block 8s are a dream-come-true for all those Indian mountain biker riders who keep their rides on on the road. Did I mention I hate ’em (you decide which)?

Fork

This seems to be the most controversial part of a really well-kitted out hardtail. The RST Omega seems like a great fork at this level, on paper. Its got a hydraulic lockout, is pretty solid and takes a beating. However, its a very very stiffly sprung fork. On the wrong side of 75 kilos myself, I find it hard to extact more than 50mm of travel out of its stated 100. Even on a really hard hit it won’t go beyond 80mm and this is at zero preload. The advantage of this is that it really does handle great on the XC. The lateral stiffness it gives you only adds to the agility of the frame and its great fun. But, if you want it to travel, it won’t. Try what you might, it simply won’t. If you’re a light rider, this’ll really be a problem. If you’re 80 plus kilos, it will definitely work in your favour unlike the spongy forks which come with most of the competition. It will certainly teach you how to work your body over tough terrain and is ok for anyone who rides a lot on roads. If you’re in the US, you can try and open it up and experiment with different springs but, unlike other brands and models, there don’t appear to be aftermarket parts available for the RST Omega. As it happens, Bike Radar did a nice review of the bike where they reported the same thing but they do mention that this does tend to vary among different pieces. Take a look at the comments below the article and you’ll notice that a chap from KHS has said they supplied a fresh bunch of forks which were softer sprung, after reading the article. It could be that there are other bikes floating around out there with very different responses from the same model. One way or another, this may be one major piece of kit that you could consider upgrading, to match the rest of this bike.

Saddle

WTB Speed V – great saddle! Its a rather wide saddle so rather kind to the generous backside. While large, it isn’t overly plush so its got good support for the sit bones. Its also got a cutout design which provides relief to them crown jewels on the long rides. A nice little touch to round things off are the rough (and tough) sides which allow you to lean them of handy trees and rocks without worrying about ripping it. If you plan on some downhilling though, its width might hinder your ability to get back and behind it.

So whats the bottom line on the 2011 KHS Alite 1000?

I love the bike! Love love love it. I’m in the process of upgrading a few components but its heart will remain. I think it was the best possible bike available for the money in 2011. The younger avatar now costs 6000 more (and that isn’t even MRP) and though it comes with a Rockshox fork, the frame is the same as the lesser siblings, which wasn’t the case in 2011. The head angle is also slightly different (less slack) and Im not sure how this will affect handling. With the new import rates, get ready to pay even more for it in the second half of the year.

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