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[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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As dawn broke over the hill, Turahalli’s resident Coucal was somewhat startled to find that his usually tranquil living room had been turned into something akin to an arena. Wraiths in colours to rival his plumage jinked and jived their way through dappled sunlight at breakneck speed, occasionally interspersed with howls of rage and pain accompanied by the sound of breaking foliage.

Race Two of the 2012 Bangalore Bicycle Championship saw competitors abandoning their anorexic companions in favour of rather more substance, for the cross-country (XC) challenge.

The course had just about everything in it – an open dirt track leading to a stony field which then opened up into a bit of singletrack before riders were confronted with a deceptively short climb. Those who had run the course before knew the perils of being stuck in a pack when confronted by this. Not that it mattered in the slightest though considering they comprised the favourites anyway. The first five broke away in no time and Darren powered his way up the climb with Nelly, Bharath and Craig in hot pursuit. Behind them, Naveen and Sriram fought their way clear of the crowd only just in time.

Then came the hordes.

It was quickly apparent who had actually gotten his knobbies dirty and who had kept them plastered to tarmac. Weight too far forward and rear wheels spun out of control. Too far back and forks lifted. Granny gears on the incline when caught in the queue (for indeed that is what it was reduced to) made it difficult, if not impossible, to shift up quickly. Metal screamed, chains groaned, rubber slipped, spun and riders came to a standstill, only to find out just how awkward it is to get moving again when up against an incline, with no grip, in the wrong gear and your rear wheel playing footsie with the bike behind you.

For quicker riders caught in the melee, the knowledge that the lead pack was opening up a huge gap made life much worse.

Once riders made it up the hill, they followed the trail as it wound around the hill through a dusty construction site with plenty of space to overtake. As the leaders rocketed through the dust, they picked up more speed and entered a sparsely wooded area where they dodged through the trees (where our poor Coucal sat mute spectator).  Breaking through the scrub, the trail suddenly dipped and then rose as riders had to bank right on a long curve with a 15 foot drop on the side. Drama played out here in spades. Darren whipped around the curve without batting an eyelash and hammered his way through. Nelly flew up the bank without pause in thought (as befits one of the best mountain bikers in the country) until confronted with a rather grumpy rock. Going as fast as he was (some 35+ km/h), he did the only thing possible – bunny hop. Boom! Hissssssssssssss.. The Coucal burst through the trees in a panic. Snakebite claimed another victim and it was time for the long walk home.

The course then hit the most exciting section – a lovely 1 km stretch through a grove of trees with a downward slope and plenty of space to overtake. Headlong flight along this section though, came at a rider’s peril. Those who ride the trail regularly will bear witness to the challenges posed by a mix of dappled sunlight, the gradient, undulations in the terrain and quick curves around trees. A rider going fast would be on right on top of a dip, rise and curve around a tree before he could react. Dented helmets and bruised egos attested to the immutability (and immovability) of those trees.

Riders burst out of the trees to barrel down ruts for some 50 odd metres before taking a switchback which led back to the start.

And yet another lap of pain.

For one morning, Turahalli witnessed every twist in every possible plot. A derailleur hanger snapping off after a bike was subjected to two crashes in a lap. A mangled handlebar and stem as its rider literally flew off the dip preceding the long bank. A bruised face stemming from a difference of opinion with a tree. A yellow jersey dodging through the flora as its wearer ran the course after suffering a broken rim – a show of team solidarity. Many long slow walks of shame back to the start with busted bikes in tow. Curses and abuse as the race leaders shredded their way through blisteringly fast curves to be confronted with slow riders too stunned to react in getting off the racing line. A solitary road bike cocking a roadie snook at the MTB plebians.

A day of spills.

A day of thrills.

A day well spent.

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