I came across Damons diary searching his name on Google trying to find the winner of the 8Th Raid-De-Himalaya . Well Damon is not just one hell of a rider but a wonderful writer too, may be his profession as a journalist gives him that skill but I have never read a more detailed, precise and well explained diary about travel and emotions that too when it's not just travel its the one of the worlds toughest motor sport rally Raid-De-Himalaya. I found him on http://www.bikehigh.com/ and I have put him on my favourite list for ever. What a man and what an approach he has towards motorcycling. Appreciable in every sense .
Anyone who contemplates taking part in the Rally Raid de Himalaya, with its terrifying and potentially fatal vertical drops, must wonder what it feels like to go over the edge, to leave the road and spin into the void. Well, although I only went over a small one, I now have a pretty good idea of how it feels. First there's a familiar 'whoops', then a cold realisation that as far as cock-ups go, one is presently engaged in a mother. A sense of 360-degree, what-way-up space precedes a mix of pain and relief as the ground is struck and left, struck and departed again. Spinning through the twilight, tumbling, sharp blows coming in from every side, a rag-dolling realisation that if you can't arrest the downward spiral, then you've probably opened your last Kingfisher. I'll be beaten to death by the rocks, or go over a big one. I've no idea what's below me.
Legs out rigid; arms, hands and heels searching for purchase. Flailure is failure. Arse over tit again and the heels dig in.
Delighted to be alive, I go through the post-stack motions: Toes wiggle? Check. Fingers move? 'Ow!' But check. Knees, elbows, shoulders all move stiffly. I know I'm all here because everything hurts. Especially my right leg. It isn't responding to instructions, but as I draw myself upright I'm able to pull it into position and when I put weight on it there's only a marginal increase in pain. I am able to lean forward against the slope to steady myself and start to climb.
I was in the lead, 2075km into a seven-day, 2100km race when the taxi punted me over the edge. Just 10 miles to the gate and I'd have clinched a win, but all I can now work out is which way is up. I don't know where my bike is and seem to have blown it, big-time. Having taken time out en-route to get some pictures taken for coverage in Bike magazine, I am perilously close to losing time on this last 'transport stage' and only have a lead of around 1min 20secs. If not on the bike and over the line within about half an hour I'm done. A week of hard-riding; four o'clock morning musters; changing tyres in the dark in the biting mountain winds; boily backside and dust-clogged nose; stinging eyes and sunburn; four previous crashes - it all looks set to end here in the rocky scree of the Rohtang Pass thanks to a stupid error of judgement. But, make no mistake, I'm happy to be alive and not smashed to pieces.
The run up to 'The Raid' was a busy few days - giving the Yamaha its first full service, changing my part-worn Metzeler Karoo tyres for Pirelli MT61 enduro rubber and buying provisions. To pass scrutineering I was also required to fit mud flaps fore and aft, and they have done wonders for the bike's styling. Lovely. It was also necessary cover the bike in an extraordinary number of race sponsorship stickers.
I did manage to find time to get in a couple of test rides, getting an idea of how the new Pirellis worked on the dirt, but didn't get nearly so much practice as I'd have liked. Still, with the bike now luggage-free and riding with a bunch of other riders (including English Matt, who I'd first met in Leh) I managed to get a measure of how quick I could go - which on the lose dirt was not quick enough.
For a couple of days another English fella and around-the-worlder, Adam Lewis, and I had teamed up to halve the number of stupid questions we felt obliged to ask the organisers. Despite Adam having competed in a number of UK enduro events, neither of us had a fool's clue on how this monstrous number was run. We were also both granted the use of Motoworld's workshops - the garage business of communications director, Vijay Parmar (thanks Vijay) - to prepare our machines.
Now I like Adam, he's a proper Brit grass roots racer; ready to smile and laugh his way through inconvenience, resourceful (stripping his BMW F650 to its underwear two days before the race to change its suspension bushes) and ever ready to lend a hand. Like I said, I like Adam, but I don't want to sleep with him, thanks. But that was the arrangement laid on for us the night before the race's kick-off.
Mind you I didn't join him until after midnight, thanks to unfinished jobs and a briefing that took up a good part of the evening. From there it was a completely sleepless night, if only a four-hour one, before rising to ride to the race's start.
Completely knackered at 4.30am, I'm strapping my toolkit and Baglux tankbag, containing requisite sleeping bag, emergency rations and first aid kit, to the tail of the XT. We have to be in the start area at 5.30 for the first vehicles to leave at six. It's bikes first and then cars and of the 33 (I think) bikes leaving, I'm 28th bike, near last thanks to my high (101) unseeded race number.
It's a weird sensation running quickly through the quiet streets of Shimla at 6.30am, cops waving me through the junctions and tunnels. Soon we're off the main track and heading for the first competitive stage on the dirt. A number of waiting bikes mark the start - for every minute early into the staging area, there's a five-minute penalty; for each minute late, it's just a minute's penalty. Accurate timekeeping is essential.
Stage One, Day One, is tight and rocky dirt track. At just 26km it is short and intense with perilous falls. Advice from experienced mentors (four-times winner, Bantu; seen-it-all font of motorcycling wisdom, Trigun; organiser Vijay et al) is simply to take it easy and survive the first day - around half the entry is expected to fall out by day's end due to failure to make the maximum permitted lateness (MPL), crashes, punctures, or simply realising they're not up to the job.
My friends give good advice indeed, but it fails to take into account the fact I might want to compete. And Vijay, after taking me for a short assessment ride to gauge whether I was fit for the Raid had marked me thus: "You are good enough to ride in the Raid, but you won't win it." Whether by intention or accident, this has fired me up - nobody likes to be underestimated, let alone written-off...
I reckon that if I fall too far behind on these initial tight dirt stages - where I know the small-engined bikes are quick and agile with more experienced riders - then I won't be able to make it back up on the more open sections later in the race. Today we have some 425km to cover, and with more than a quarter of this rough-track racing there's a long way I could fall behind.
So best advice ignored I go for it, hard as I can. Over the course of stage one I pass many slower bikes, have a few near misses and one slide that has onlookers running for cover. In competitive two I slide off on a shiny surface in front of an assembled village. I was showing off, trying to spark the pegs and Matt is proved right, the word 'twat' could have been invented for me. Luckily the road just here is so smooth that the bike and I are barely marked and I lose less than a minute. Next hazard is a dog that runs out on me. I manage to lose speed, spin Muttley around on the spot, and we both go about our ways.
All day I have been dicing with 'Big Nitin', number 100, on his madly modified and hugely tuned orange Enfield Bullet. His bike is fitted with long-travel forks, a Japanese monoshock rear end and he rides it like a devil, spinning the wheel everywhere and backing off for nothing. I pass him on the long Stage Three, over 60km of dirt track, when he has a technical problem. I then have a problem of my own when the front mud flap is dragged into the wheel, but get going before he re-passes.
Within minutes I hear the drone of his engine behind me and there he is, 25m behind and gaining. I have lost concentration, over-relaxed and slowed. Efforts redoubled, I manage to gap Big Nitin and finish the last racing stage of the day, having overtaken about 15 bikes on the road and stayed ahead (on the road,not in time) of the fastest cars.
The last transport stage of the day goes over the Jalori Pass at about 3300m and on to the finish at Manali. For once taking advice, I stop only for a quick smoke before tackling the day's last 250-odd kilometres. Five hours is plenty of time, but it's best to get going and refuelled early, in case of a problem later. I have this problem when 40km from the end I get a puncture in the dark. With half-a-dozen Himachalli villagers trying to 'help', I get a new tube in and hit the finish line at around 8pm.
Adam, with whom I am again sharing a room/bed, has lost time with a puncture in the first competitive stage and now his suspension problem has re-emerged. His friend Dan helps him strip the complicated BMW once more to find that the upper shock bush of his Ohlins has once more worn out - only 400km since replacement. With no permanent fix in sight, Adam withdraws from the race, which is a big disappointment, as not only have we been working as a mini team, but I'm also looking forward to a bit of a ding-dong with him on the tarmac.
Later in the evening the day's results are out. I am astonished to find myself in second place, leading a bunch of riders who are all within a couple of minutes of me. Ahead are a couple of cars and a rider nicknamed 'Rocky' - so named because of his love of the films and his mild-mannered behaviour off the bike and tenacity 'in the ring'. Rocky (last year's winner, number 71, riding a lightly modified Hero Honda Karizma) is a whole 11 minutes ahead. With the roads opening out tomorrow and more suiting the big, heavy Yamaha, I hope to take some time out of Rocky's lead, or at least stay in touch.
The tough first day has done its job, all but halving the field. Today is an 'easy' day, with a 50km transport over the Rohtang Pass, a 100km dirt racing stage and a further 60-odd km to the Finish at Kaza in the stunning Spiti Valley. I'm tired, a bit achy, and struggling to concentrate and pace myself at the start of the stage.
About 20 minutes in, there's a beeping behind me as a blue rally car approaches for an overtake. I consider where to pull over and let it through. Then reconsider. Overtaken by a car? Not going to happen. If it does pass I'll lose time in its dust cloud and as we're starting to climb towards the 4500m Kunzum Pass may well get stuck behind on the steepest parts of the climb.
Being chased kicks some extra adrenalin into the system and I take off like a hairy bear with its arse alight, quickly gapping the Suzuki car and managing to focus for the rest of the stage. It pays dividends as by the day's end I've pulled back (I think - I didn't check the time sheets that night) around three minutes on Rocky.
In Kaza, determined to get some sleep (I've had around three hours in the past two nights), I check into a cheap hotel that I used on my reccy, eat early and get some kip.
Three very steep, very tight and technical 'special' stages comprise day three. They are all in the stunning high desert Kaza area and we'll only cover about 100 miles, but I know the terrain is going to be very physical on what is basically a big road bike with knobbly tyres.
Each of the stages climbs from around 3000m to approximately 4000m within the space of about 20km, with vertiginous drops from which you could base jump. There are a couple of points at which officials wave speed down for some potentially fatal technicalities, and bugger-all grip throughout.
I crash three times in all - all slow ones. Twice the bike comes around on me on nadgery uphill sand; once I'm distracted by roadside officials and topple against the cliff-side after locking the wheels. One crash leaves the bike tank-down on a steep slope and I lose at least a minute hauling it upright.
One of the stages is run twice and the last downhill 7km is rough tarmac. Barrelling down and braking into the hairpins is pulling my front knobbly apart.
Overall, though, I'm happy to be pretty much on the pace. Although I have around twice the power of the bikes near the front of the pack (the bigger bikes in the field are failing to compete), there's no reward in 40bhp when you can only get 20 of them to the floor and you're wheel-spinning everywhere, struggling to hold the weight up in the hairpins. I don't know exactly where I stand behind Rocky, but am pretty sure he hasn't got away today.
The main competitive section of this race is basically a reversal of day two, 100kms over Kunzum La with fast valley-floor sections. I've upped my tyre pressures to try and get some more stability and a higher top speed on the fast bits, which run over gravel and stone dry river beds. The 'death weave' now sets in some 5km faster and I'm able to top out at about 130kph, but it's arse-twitching stuff when you see what terrain you'll be tumbling over.
Running the stage this way also brings those of us running at the front over Kunzum Pass early - about 7.30am. There is ice lurking in the shadows.
Again I've slept poorly and am struggling to race all the time, wary of getting the bike's mass slowed and turned on the downhill 'pins. Staying full-on for every second of an hour and a half over this stuff is hard work. I miss an official short cut and lose time. Rocky gains a little on me, but not enough to worry too much about when this is the last of the serious dirt stages.
The last stage of day four is situated on the famous/infamous Manali-Leh road. All tarmac (or at least a rough version of it) and only 17km over a small pass, it's the ideal place to see what kind of time I can pull back on good surfaces, where I can use the Yamaha's power. I get confused by a roadside 'finish' sign, put out for cars competing in the 'reliability' class, and lose a minute or so dithering over what to do.But I'm still fastest here, quicker even than the lead cars.
My front tyre is now in a state of serious disintegration. The knobs on the sides are breaking off and it's not fit to compete another day. I have my part-worn Metzeler Karoo tyres (the dual-purpose rubber that has served us so well throughout the trip) being carried by Kevin, a Brit' with his Land Rover entered in the reliability competition. But there's a problem. We are staying in a military transit camp at Patseo and as Kevin has diplomatic number plates he can't.
I've my wheel out ready for the tyre change, so the officials (thanks you, guys) arrange to bring the tyre the 25km from the hotel at which he's now been posted. It arrives at around 9.00pm and is quickly fitted, but finding someone with a pump takes another half-hour. I'd wanted to change the rear, too, but it's getting too late and too cold at near 4000m.
Carrying kit has been a problem throughout. Most of the competitors have service crews running with them, but I'm having to ask favours of people to carry my overnight bag. I'm grateful to those who helped, but this means me rarely seeing my kit and is a constant hassle I don't need. I'm having to run around finding cars when I need to work on the bike, or sleep.
Night four I sit up and have a few much needed social whiskeys with friends before crashing out at midnight in the barrack room bunk beds in which w're billeted. It's cold, the roof doesn't fit, there's a plethora of snoring styles, but I manage to get some kip eventually.
I'll leave it at that for now, cos it's going to take about two hours to get this posted. More, probably, tomorrow.
At 5am we all come alive in our barrack room. Washing and
brushing is outside, water from an old oil drum positioned
above a fire to stop the water freezing. I don't bother with
the washing bit. It's bitterly cold, but not so bad as it could
be, not so bad as it will be at around 7.30 when we climb
over Baralacha La (4890m) on the day's first competitive
stage, which starts at the army base and runs for around
60km to the nothing place of Lingti.
The cars preceding Rocky and I have broken the ice on the
streams, but this is not such a help when they've dragged
water onto the dirt and it has instantly frozen in their tracks.
The vast majority of the stage is tarmac in reasonable
condition and towards the transit camp at Sarchu the road
straightens out and speeds build. There are, however, deep
culverts ready to catch out the unwary... or the wary for that
matter. Hitting one at about 110kph, bottoms the
suspension out, before kicking the back end into the air as it
unloads. All that's to be done is getting arse out of saddle
double-time, gritting teeth, holding on and hoping.
WeÕve been warned about the ice expected on the steel
bridges, but I still go in too hot at Sarchu, crossing just
about the whole span on full lock with a football in my
throat. For some reason the bolts holding this simple
construction together have been inserted from the
underside, meaning inches of threaded steel spikes
protrude. Thankfully my tyres survive and I don't fall onto
the iron maiden.
All this fast road means it's not long before I've made up
Rocky's two-minute, on-the-road headstart and by the
finish line I've gained some three minutes. The rest of the
field are now comfortably behind our two-horse race.
Next comes a long transport stage across a huge, and
hugely stunning high-level plain. At the end of this is the
loftiest point of the Leh route, Tanglang La, claimed to be
the second highest road in the world at 5328m. At the
stage's start point, a couple of kilometres before the road
begins to climb up to the pass, there's a long wait in a cold
wind. But things look even worse ahead as dark clouds
gather over Tanglang, promising snow.
Tales of the Raid being snowed to a halt a few years back
have got me a bit twitchy and despite needing this 40km
stage to pull back some time, there's a part of me secretly
hoping it would be cancelled. A radio report from up top
suggests there's some light snow, but not enough to stop
the stage, so off we go, this time me starting ahead of
Rocky despite him being ahead in the bigger picture.
It's damn cold, with some light snow falling and at the pass'
summit the rough ground is hard and white with frost. Again
there's ice, but in most places the power is getting to
ground surprisingly well. On Tanglang's downside to Rumtse
the road is fast and wide, again suiting the Yamaha and I'm
able to brake into corners with a fair amount of vigour on
the front Metzeler. I get to the line and watch watch. Rocky
comes in some three and a half minutes behind me, so I've
made around a minute and a half. Things are going to plan
and I expect to be able to haul in Rocky's now six-minute
The last transport stage to Leh should be easy going, and is
until I'm stopped by an angry mob blocking the road. Running first on the road, ahead of the cars, I find myself
surrounded, being met with some aggression and don't
understand why I'm the subject of the crowd's ire. There are
police wielding sticks and telling me to drive on through the
crowd, but I'm not up for ploughing old ladies over. I ask the
police not to hit the people, the people not to hit me and
hope I'm not about to get the shit kicked out of me by a
band of Buddhists. When they start to pull me off the bike I
feel I've no choice but to go and the assemblage parts to let
me through with only some token blows.
I'd assumed I'd committed some terrible sacrilege. Perhaps
some grand-master monk had been disturbed on his
deathbed. What awful act had I inadvertently committed? I
had been part of an event that had made their bus late...
More arse-ache was to come when I arrived at the Leh finish,
only to be told to bugger off back out of town until the
minister of inconvenience was in place to receive us arriving
at neat minute intervals. My next job was also to wait. To
wait around three hours for Kevin and Koos to turn up in
the Land Rover with my replacement rear tyre, which I
changed in roadside darkness near a garage with an airline.
My luggage, however, was in yet another vehicle, staying a a
different hotel and by the time I'd tracked it down, had a
shower etc, it was getting on in the evening. Nonetheless,
my new roommate, 'Little Nitin,' a fiend called Shetty and I
went to one of my old Leh haunts for dinner and a bottle of
beer. This proved to be very pleasant, but the food
poisoning that followed was anything but.
I know the road from Leh to Pangong Lake as it's the one
Pankaj Trivedi and I took into the Ladakhi hinterlands when
going for our altitude record. I know it's just the territory
the Yamaha and I enjoy and that with the Metzelers back on
front and rear I can catch the leader today. Only two
problems - I haven't slept a wink all night (and little the
previous at the cold army base) and I have a raging shits.
Wearing the carpet out between bed and bathroom, I'm
considering bowing out. In store today we have a crossing
of the 5000m-plus Chang La, a pass that felt higher and
colder than even Tanglang La on my last ride around the
area. I doubt I can concentrate fully for 320-odd dangerous,
high-altitude kilometres when I can't even risk breakfast.
Having come this far, I decide to break the day into sections
and just try to get through each one. First, get dressed;
next get to the bike, scrape the 5am ice of the saddle and ride
to the start-line in the dark cold.
In the paddock, waiting, shaking uncontrollably, big spasms
wracking through me as I fight the urge to vomit. I'm
exhausted and so is my bog-roll.
Next task is to complete the long transport to the first
competitive section in the bitter cold. I feel a little happier on the
bike - I always do because it feels like home. A measure of
how bad I feel is that when I stop at a shop for loo paper
and water, I forget to buy cigarettes!
From the doctor's car at the competitive stage's start point I
am delivered a magical bowel-binding antibiotic wonder-pill
and some electrolyte sachets to add to my water. The other
required drug is, I know, that good old adrenalin stuff, but I'm
having trouble revving myself up in the cold and still can't
stop shaking, still feel like death.
The stage begins with a few kilometres of flat-out action,
which wakes me up a bit. I leave my visor up for a big fresh
blast - insects are grounded in these temperatures, so eyes
are fairly safe. As the road rises up to the pass, I manage to
slip into that full concentration zone where only the riding
matters - full focus, I barely notice my hands deadening
under my heavy gloves. On the descent I notice them alright
and as the blood starts to move again it feels like they're in
I can't even remember where I pass Rocky (somewhere near
the top, I think), but I do and make back some more
minutes. As the surface is mainly very good, I've started
catching the two lead cars, too.
The next section is ultra-fast (comparatively), with an
average speed of under 70kph required to 'zero' the stage. I
am feeling a lot better now, go at it hard and clear the
stage without any time penalty, faster than the two lead cars
and faster than Rocky. But I gain no advantage, time-wise,
as there are four of us who have zeroed the stage.
Things are now going to be tight if I'm to catch Rocky,
because we now have only three competitive stages left to
run, two of them today. So I put everything into the job,
gassing as hard as I can, everywhere I can. Again, I zero
stages and go fastest of all, but I'm not gaining all the
advantage I might. I'm busting the target time, but Rocky's
not coming in far over it and so not getting big time
Had I taken it easy on day one, I would not be within
shooting distance. As it is, I estimate myself to be
somewhere between level and two minutes behind. The final
stage tomorrow is a reverse run of the Tanglang La stage
and I'm confident I can take two minutes back. My wish is
that I'm now a couple of seconds behind, so that Rocky will
start ahead of me - it's a letting the dog see the rabbit
Rumours that night, before the official numbers are available,
are that I'm in the lead; that I'm 1min 16 secs behind; that
someone's going to 'fix' my bike in the night. Rocky's brother tells me
their mother is making a special trip to the prize-giving to
see her son crowned. Having not eaten all day, I'm too tired
for other people's mind games. All evening I've been nurturing my own head problems and am considering withdrawing from the race anyhow.
In my tired state I'm feeling that if I win, I lose, because
everyone will say it's the bike. If I lose, I lose twice over,
because I must be crap if I can't win on the big Yamaha.
Nobody complained about foreigners competing on powerful
bikes when they weren't vying for a win - there have been
others before me and all have failed to finish. And nobody
gets shirty about the Indian riders on imported bikes. No-
one - except ultra-rude Brit' Matt, of course - has come out
and said: 'You're shit, it's just the bike that's doing the
work,' but I there's an undercurrent of such feeling, I'm
sure. Maybe it's just the fatigue messing with my mind and I
myself am my only accuser. Except rude Matt, of course.
Over pizza with Shetty, I'm a sullen old bugger. I sit silently,
reminding myself that there were four big bikes entered at
the start (a couple more suitable than mine, I reckon) and
that I'm not even entered in the same class as Rocky. I only
have the one bike on which to race!
Rocky has done extraordinary things on his 225 Honda, has
been a great competitor, a good sportsman and spending so
much time waiting together at the front of the field we have
also become pretty friendly. I have great respect for the lad,
but should I just hand him the race? Surely nobody should
expect to win. He shouldn't be feeling like a condemned man
when there's every chance he'll be a class winner - and by
some considerable degree. And, hold on a god-dang minute,
there's still one anything-could-happen stage to run and the
small matter of Leh to Manali and the finish, 475 high-level
I've ridden as hard as anyone, given the event as much
commitment, taken at least as many risks, endured the
same physical challenges. And all on my own, without the
help of a support team. As I've picked up the pace, people
have started to make assumptions: that I'm a professional
off-roader; that the XT is a competition enduro bike, etc,
etc. They do't see the stiff, short-travel forks, the rubber
touring footpegs, unadjustable suspension trying to control
the wild buckings of a 185kg road-biased machine, or know that as
standard this bike has sod-all ground clearance.
They can't feel the weight of the thing, the back tyre spin
everywhere on the torque, the effort it takes to get such a
long and weighty bike turned on the dirt, or slowed on the
frost. Still, it is one of the three best bikes to start, but only
if you can ride it.
I decide to decide whether to race in the morning, when,
hopefully, I've had some sleep and can get some kind of
reasonable perspective. A couple of small rums, earplugs in
With six hours sleep under my Arai helmet I’m a different man. The choices are no choices at all – if I retire from the race it will make no sense to anyone and may well cast a small cloud over what is, and has been, a fantastic event. It could be disrespectful even to the other competitors who have given their all. The least I can do is give the same and win or lose with the best grace an oik such as myself can muster.
Having simply parked the Yamaha up last night, I give it quick ‘n’ frosty check over. Tyres are still pressurised, split link still in place on a chain that hasn’t needed adjustment in over 1500 miles of racing. No leaks, no major rattles. I still don’t know where Rocky and I stand time-wise – and have a strange lack of concern, deciding to conserve everything for the last stage, whatever the situation. Worrying now is just a waste of mental energy.
At the start point the usual printout of our current time standings is not available, but still I’m unconcerned as we leave for the first transport stage, heading for the last competitive section. Rocky is above me in the starting order, so he’s still in first place and I will be chasing him up the mountain.
It’s colder than an Eskimo’s earlobes as I head out of Leh. Even at ‘just’ 3300m there’s a light glaze of ice smoothing the ponds. We will be climbing two vertical kilometres higher this morning. I keep speed low so as to buck some of the wind-chill and to avoid sitting around for too long while waiting for the off. Rocky has been employing the same thinking and we ride the last 20, or so, kilometres together.
We are nonetheless still some 30 minutes under time and are both feeling the chill in our spectacular, snow-capped, sub-zero surroundings. My cold-tattered cuticles are usually painful, but this morning there’s no sensation and the blood coagulates upon emergence. The streams are frozen, the valley is silent, not a bird in the sky. Even the ubiquitous crows don’t show. No breath of wind. Utterly lifeless, save two drivers, two riders, and the officials huddled in their vehicles. The peak snow oranges in the dawn and as the minutes pass and the sun rises higher somewhere over the summits, the glow drains down the sandy mountainsides promising a tolerable day. But not far enough. Not soon enough.
What feet? I’m jumping around, singing and dancing without a care, winding myself up, but still the ice blocks in my Sidi boots won’t thaw. This early morning podiatry discomfort is, however, less than peripheral. I’ve not an ache in my body and feel as fit at 4300m as I did in my Fen-level hovel before I left over four months ago. But stronger.
Like a demented native American witch doctor with a rattlesnake up his bison-skin kilt I stomp-hop over to one of the official cars to see if they can give me the low down on the time situation. They don’t recoil from the sun-and-wind-and-cold-burned, wrinkle faced, chapped-lipped, red-eyed nutcase, but instead get on the radio and come back with an answer: 1min 6sec. Then I’m called back – mistake, it’s 1min 16sec. Still purrrrfect.
Having made the decision to go for the kill (and to be honest I’d imagined how I’d feel in exactly this situation when I’d entered the race, only to berate myself for being over-cocky to the point of stupidity) I find myself looking at Rocky as prey. The high mountains can do strange things with the mind and right now they’re painting blood-red crosshairs on the back of the 22-year-old’s helmet.
In a physically and mentally challenging event like this you’re often looking inward. Once you’ve found the something, a mental condition maybe, The Zone, that will let you ride on the edge, your edge, on the edge of the edge, that big, scary, fatal edge, hopefully without going over it, then… then you start to write overly-long, babbling sentences with a surfeit of commas. And maybe you learn to work yourself into that zone.
First car goes… two minutes pass… second car goes… rabbit in the trap… two minutes pass… run bunny run! For two minutes Rocky is, I assume, giving it everything. In this time he can easily be over a mile ahead as I drop the clutch and begin to chase down his bobbing scutt.
In the thick gloves I’m wearing, I can’t ‘double-shuffle’ the slow-action, big-turn throttle in my palm, so I’ve started with my elbow cocked above the bars. Drop the elbow for full-fuckin’ open and use the wrist for more sensitive throttle metering. Power uphill is my huge advantage here, so I’m going to milk the bike for every wheezy (at three miles high) dobbin.
My biggest weakness throughout the event has been concentration when I’m racing alone – pushing hard without going too hard when there’s no other vehicle to gauge my performance against. On all the high-risk, technical race stages so far, I’ve been talking to myself, geeing myself up, usually with some hardcore self abuse and foul language: ‘concentrate, eyes up you dozy f’er, pick a line, push. Don’t look down you silly old git, stop fannying, open the throttle all the way, shit or get off the pot…’
Today, besides self checking that the throttle cables are like bowstrings where the grip is available, it feels easier – this is when you know you’re going quickly. The normal tension warning is exhausted hands, from gripping the bars too tightly. Now I’m focused yet relaxed, the perfect state. It’s smoother, less dramatic, but faster.
I catch sight of Rocky much earlier than expected and he doesn’t appear to be going so fast as usual. His body language isn’t what it should be – usually he’s wide-shouldered, puffed up like a boxer, but today he looks deflated, hunted, waiting for the sound of my engine. I feel sympathy when I come up behind him before the top of Tanglang La, sound the horn, and lope past.
On the first downhill section, mainly dirt and patchwork-mac, I’m bemused not to find Rocky anywhere in the mirrors. It’s only been a couple of kilometres since I passed him. I slow down – after all, I only have to keep him in sight – but he doesn’t show and normally he’d be barrelling downhill behind me. At the end of a long, death-drop straight I look back again, but he’s not there. I’m worried he’s overdone it in pursuit. I stop, put a foot down to crane backwards and wait. In a few seconds Rocky’s blue leathers appear, so off I shoot.
At the foot of the descent are a flat-out few kilometres to the finish. My top speed is still limited to 130kph as the bike bucks, sways and weaves beneath me, the damping in my overheated shocks failing to cope with the undulations and ever-shifting cambers. But there is certainly no way I’m going to be caught. As the line comes into view, the second-placed car is having his card stamped, so I’ve made up over three minutes on the four-wheeler.
The Times of India, 9/10/06: “[Asish (Rocky) was] hunted down by rookie Ianson (sic), a British auto-hack, powering a brute, 660 cc Yamaha XTR – which called for lots of Zen for motorcycling… Finally on the 7th day in the thin air at about 17,000ft near the top of Tanglang La, Ianson ‘went mental’ and passed the reigning champion on the last competitive section of the event,’
If anyone knows what that first bit means…
At the competitive’s finish, I’m congratulated by all and interviewed by a TV crew. I try to point out that the event isn’t actually over, that there are another 300-ish kilometres to the Manali finish and that anything could happen the remaining mountainous miles. And of course, anything does…
I reckon I’ll be very short of pictures for Bike, so grab a friendly photographer do a few shoots of the ride back. This, of course, murders my average speed, so I pick up the pace a little, which also helps my concentration – for most of the long ride, at least.
Rohtang is the last pass before Manali, one of the most beautiful spots on Earth and one of the most stunning rides. I’m over halfway down the Manali side, eager to get to the line and crack open a beer. I’ve been whooping through the tourist traffic that’s been making its way down from the pass’ top and making good progress I’ve passed most of the other returning competitors.
In the dwindling light I find myself behind a small taxi, itself behind a jeep. Beeping my tits off I pull out and start to pass, when so does the taxi. Beep, beep, beep is having no effect and I’m pushed to the edge, where I’m forced to brake. The Taxi’s rear wing takes my front wheel and leaves me spinning down the hillside.
As I struggle up the slope, kicking my boot’s toes into the dirt like a snow climber, a rope is thrown from above, courtesy of Cheta, the co-driver in the second-placed car. I wrap it around my right wrist. Mistake, it’s bloody agony as I’m helped/hauled up by my injured hand.
Near the top many hands pull me to the road where I’m relieved to see the bike lying on the falls’ edge. The right-hand footpeg assembly has been sheared off and the bars are twisted away to the right, but it looks rideable and starts after a few seconds on the button, so I tuck my injured leg into the side of the engine, ask which way I am supposed to be heading and with the steering pointing off the cliff, ride off towards the finish. I self-diagnose a touch of concussion as oncoming traffic leaves me weaving to a halt when it dazzles my pie-pupil eyes and I manage to drive straight past the turning to the finish before realising my mistake and U-turning.
At the finish gate everything is very low key, with few spectators and no photographer to record the event. Rude Matt has made it home before me, making him the first westerner ever to complete the Raid.
The battered bike is left in the Parc Ferme and I’m helped to carry my kit to the nearby hotel. In my room I’m joined by a gaggle of congratulatory friends and we sink a few beers before dinner, after which I crawl under the blankets like a beaten dog and pass out.