2021 Indian Downhill Championship: Fast Boys & Girl!

The 2021 Indian Downhill Championship saw 29 boys and 1 girl race their way to the bottom in Alandi, Maharashtra. A Race Report…

The MTB Cross Country racing was not the only action at the 2021 MTB National Championships. For the last half decade, there has also been a niche within this niche sport. Those who are slightly crazier than your regular mountain bikers.

These are the nutters who ride their bicycles down a hill at absurd speeds, risking life and limb.

2021 saw 29 boys and 1 girl show up at the start line to see who can get down to business fastest!

Downhill racing isn’t racing in the purest form. It isn’t a handlebar bashing, close contact sport. It is a Time Trial. Where the fastest rider wins. Simple!

The nature of this operation means that the riders are racing the course, not so much each other. The hero in any DH event is the course. And Alandi was no different. Err no, it was actually slightly different…

2021 Indian Downhill Championships
Up Up And Away for the winner, Ismamul Howk!

Gadag vs Alandi

Gadag was barren.

It was all wide and no technical skills were needed. You could ride with just one skill, knowing how to brake, and you’d be able to ride the Gadag track. The drop was the only big feature in Gadag and even that was not built fantastically. The angle was against the flow of the trail.

The Alandi track in comparison was short and not the highest in elevation lost. Yet it required more technical skills to navigate.

You needed to be fast, you needed to know how to ride properly through rock gardens. Your line choice made a big difference in this race than in any other nationals.

In fact, Ismamul, who won, said that this was the only DH track he has ever liked from the nationals.

A typical Maharashtrian hill… brown rocks and golden grass…

Track Walk

The start is a ‘rock valley’. It is a waterfall line. If it rains, that is the path the water follows. And the riders follow that curvature. It is smooth at the centre and really rocky on the sides and loose. And off camber.

The track is designed to ebb and flow through this section finally reaching the first jump which is a little lower down. Once you exit the rock section you get onto this 2-bike length wide track which leads you straight onto the jump. This jump is about one bike length long. There is no difficulty to it, in fact you don’t need to pop it. It will just fly through.

It lands you facing slightly in the wrong direction. The gap jump is pointing somewhat right, while the exit is pointing somewhat left. You kind of correct for it mid-air and the landing strip is filled with big rocks and tiny little ones.

Anything can end your race, right then and there. Which it did for me, I landed on a rock and broke my front wheel.

2021 Indian Downhill Championship
Virendra Mali on the rocks…

This exit points you straight down into this really big compression. Followed by a slight undulation and tiny uphill. If you pump the exit properly, you go straight into this section and you will have a lot of speed.

This section is ever so slightly turning right. Until the main right hander. The main right hander is a rock garden, which takes a sharp right. Everybody takes the low line because there are very few rocks there. And the low line cuts into the apex and sends you wide. You will need to go wide if you are going to hit the second gap jump. Once you exit wide, you are looking dead on at the gap jump. Which is actually a creek crossing.

It is not big either. The jump looks massive, but it is only about a bike length and a half in distance. With very little speed you can overshoot it.

The landing is a little off from where you are turning. What people would do, is they would land and quickly turn. The jump is facing somewhat right and you are to go somewhat left. Some riders would land early almost casing it, so that they would get a better angle.

You would then go into this kind of swishing undulating terrain, until you reach the rock garden.

It is all single track after this point. These are big rocks, and a thin line which snakes through the centre, which nobody is able to thread. You have to hit the rocks and go past them without slowing too much. You jump over some of them to the highline which is to the left and skip a few rocks and jump down and continue. Once you are done, there are smaller rocks here and there and it is only a narrow single track until the finish line.If all this didn’t make sense, watch the video below!

Practice Makes You Faster

The fastest people on track through practice sessions on Friday and Saturday were Ismamul Howk, Abhijeet Gharad and Virendra Mali. Sahil Sehgal was also fast, along with Gaurav and Tenny.

Victory would go the way of one of these lads. All that was left to do was race!

A Couple of Firsts…

Girls at DH…

2021 saw permission being given for a girl’s DH event. A first! It wasn’t a race, but a showcase event to check rider interest. If enough girls showed up, then there was a possibility of it being upgraded to a race.

Unfortunately, the notice for the girls came late and few girls came through. Anissa Lamare being a pioneer of the field, was there at the forefront of it all. She can bring more people to the sport; we just need time.

Our DH courses aren’t as difficult as the World Cup DH, of course. Cross Country bikes can race these courses, as my bike has shown. It is just the word Downhill that scares a lot of girls and potential riders.

The lone warrior, Anissa… Photo: Robin Darius

Hardtails at DH

The other new addition to the track were Hardtails. Permission for which also came at the last minute from the officials.

Hardtails make up the bread and butter of racing in India. Not everyone can afford an expensive DH bike. Or for that matter any expensive full suspension bike. It is hard to afford and then maintain. People buy HTs first and foremost. It is important to have them in the field.

The idea till now was, if we allow HT riders, they won’t buy full suspension. Which is straight bullshit. If you allow HT riders, they will progress to the point where they know they can afford a full suspension and actually win.

People buy these bikes only with a chance to win. And if they can’t prove it before that, it is a gamble. You don’t know whether the money is going to pay off or not.

Having HTs there was super important. Now that we have them, we hope to keep it going because they are the community. We all started on HTs, if we say no to HTs, then we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

2021 Indian Downhill Championship
Sahil Hakani on his hardtail

Different Styles for Different Soils

Riders from different corners of India ended up on the podium. The timings of them were close, but the riding styles are all different.

The style depends a lot on the kind of terrain they train on.

The Pashan boys from Pune, deal with dry dirt. They have comparatively moderate technical riding but a lot of airtime, a lot of jumps.

The Himalayan boys on the other hand have a lot of loam. Which is mulchy dirt. They ride in wet loose terrain. Same with the northeast boys.

Each region has their own distinct riding style.

For me, in Hyderabad we have big and sharp rocks but little dirt. I am comfortable riding rocks and dry loose soil. But I am not comfortable with big jumps and wet terrain.

Silver medallist Abhijeet Gharad flying high…

Different Bikes for Different Tracks

Indian DH tracks so far have not been at global levels in terms of length, which makes selecting the correct bike a tricky choice.

The most suitable bike would be a mid-travel trail bike or a long travel trail bike. Bikes in the Enduro ballpark.

DH bikes are really good, but they make up their advantage in time. Which means you have to give it a lot of time to make up time. With a 5-minute run, it could easily shave off 20-30 seconds. But in a 1 minute run, which is typical of Indian nationals, you are shaving 1 or 2 seconds.

Anybody with a decent Enduro bike and skill can make up that 1 second. Enduro and trail bikes are the best for Indian tracks.

Bronze man Samander Thakur showing his style…

Fastest Man of The Time

Ismamul has proven to be one of the most consistently fast riders of India.

He isn’t THE FASTEST rider, but he is the most consistent. On race day, it was the rider who is always fastest. He doesn’t share his secrets, neither does he share his lines. Others have to just guess whether he is going to do good or not.

If you look at results over the years, Ismamul has always done well and been among the fastest.

Future Forward

DH is a nascent sport in India. It is growing and evolving and a lot will change. A lot needs to change. Some more urgently than others.

The first thing that the DH community is looking forward to is ‘Inclusivity’. More women. More hardtails. A better track.

Better allowances for the track builders to build good tracks. Actual locations where DH is possible. Something where we can squeeze more than a minute of ride time. We need something in the range of 3-5 minutes of ride time. That means a proper hill. The challenge currently is location. If we can get a good location, we are golden.

Another supremely important aspect is safety. Track designers cannot be held responsible for injuries that happen on the track, that are not pertaining to the track design. If a rider crashes, we need the officials to have everything ready in terms of safety.

DH is a high-risk sport. If you get injured it could be a few scratches or it can be fatal. The races need proper health and safety measures taken care of before the race starts. During practice as well. If there is no first responder or if somebody gets hurt, really badly, and we cannot help them off the track. And if they get worse, then it is on us. And then racing stops, altogether. We need the officials to understand the safety required for this race and make arrangements for it.

All the way from Arunachal Pradesh, Bommo Riba

Other pressing needs…

are the use of timing chips and not stopwatches.

DH racing is new to the country. It is even newer for the officials in charge. There’s a lot that they need to do, from timing chips, to how the track is designed, to where the track is supposed to be, how is it supposed to be, who do you pay, who to talk to.

We look forward to the continued evolution of this sport in India…

Prajwal going the XC way!

Photos: Sandy Sakharkar/ Pixel Haveli (Check out all the DH pics by Sandy)
Text: Prajwal Pingali (Read this cool blog by Prajwal about the 2021 DH)

If you liked this article about the 2021 Indian Downhill Championship, then also read our interview with the 2019 Champion, Slade Gomes. Check out the Full Results on CyclingMonks. Also check out this DH action from Temghar.

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