Until five years ago, cycling for Rakesh Rana meant hanging out with friends while waiting for his turn to ride in his hometown of Mukteshwar in Uttarakhand. It was a distraction from the time he spent pondering over an uncertain future in between the meagre business he conducted at the family-run grocery store.
One day in 2011, he heard of a local cycling race conducted by an NGO, Aarohi. It wasn’t so much about racing back then; his eyes were focused on the prize at stake—a bicycle for the winner, which he could never think of buying at that time. Rana missed out on the bicycle after finishing third in the race, but he had found a new avenue to dream.
The following year, he won the same race and was the proud owner of a basic model of a Rockrider mountain bike.
The work put in since that day has landed him one of his biggest achievements yet—a third-place finish among Indian men at the 12th edition of MTB Himalaya in October. The race is one of the meanest mountain biking races in the world, which runs from Shimla to Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh—that’s 650km over a period of eight days. Rana ranked eighth among the men and finished behind Indian riders Devender Thakur and Shiven, who are seasoned riders backed by the Hero Action Team.
It was Rana's first podium finish in the big league. He had come a long way since riding his first geared bike up and down the slopes around home.
“I was amazed to see how effortless it was to ride the same slopes, which I had previously only attempted on a bike without gears. What drew me to mountain biking was the challenge that natural terrain poses compared to racing on roads. Of course, then there are the views that you can soak in during a race,” says the 26-year-old.
With little idea about the world of mountain biking, Rana had a lot of things to figure out on his own, right from his training schedule to bike servicing.
“Once I went out for races, I realized what it took to be a part of competition, rather than just a participant. I would learn a lot from the more experienced riders,” he says.
His first major race was the Tour of Nilgiris in 2013, where he finished a commendable ninth. He also met Kiran Kumar Raju—one of India’s top cyclists—and understood from him the demands of mountain biking. The following year, he returned to the Nilgiris to finish sixth on a basic bicycle ahead of a number of top riders who rode mean machines. Such was his performance, that he had a sponsor waiting for him at the finish line.
“Siddhartha Bhandari, who runs (travel and tourism company) Walk to Himalayas, told me that he would help me with my racing. They continue to support me and it’s a great relief to have them by my side,” Rana says.
The idyllic hills around Mukteshwar provided the perfect terrain for Rana to train. But when it came to finances, there wasn’t much he could expect from his father, who is a farmer, or the shop that they ran. Rana was offered a job in Bhandari’s bike shop, but he knew it would affect his training. So he decided to set up his own enterprise back home where he runs a campsite and conducts treks in the hills nearby to fund his cycling. All the above resources, in addition to the prize money he makes, go back into racing.
Yet, it isn’t enough to buy the best equipment, but that hasn’t slowed down Rana. In December last year, he won his first mountain biking race—a 60km course at the Nainital Winter Carnival, and followed it up with another win at MTB Nainital Challenge in April, which is a two-day race over 125km. In September, he took on his first international race—the Tour of the Dragon, which is a single-day, 268km race in Bhutan—and finished ninth overall.
“It was encouraging to come into this (MTB Himalaya) race with these results. But MTB Himalaya is a different challenge and the field is really strong. It’s different to do it for a couple of days, and entirely different to keep at it over eight stages. So I’m really happy with my result here,” he says.
Back home, Rana’s most cherished possession is still the bicycle he won at the local race. These days, he’s lending it out to others to give them their first taste of mountain biking.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.