In-depth Race Report from the 2021 MTB National Championships held in Alandi, Maharashtra between the 29th to 31st October.
The hot and arid air of post-monsoon Maharashtra welcomed Indian racers to the 2021 MTB National Championships. On this occasion in Alandi, Pune. The 18th iteration set a new record with the highest number of participants ever. Grapevine suggesting around 500 participants were there to go FULL GAS… The sport has been getting ever popular thanks to the boys and girls racing at the sharp end of the field.
If there is anything that we learnt from this iteration, it is that the fastest riders of the country have only gotten faster. Those who performed in the 17th edition weren’t a flash in the pan. They have gone on to stamp their authority. The onus now rests on the mid-pack to work extra hard to bridge the gap to the front.
But let us roll back a bit and first talk about the hero of any MTB race…
Nestled in the Western Ghats, was home to the 2021 MTB National Championships. The heat in Maharashtra was ably supported by the sharp-edged rocks on the ground. Conditions perfect to puncture and defeat these warriors with ease.
The course had around 70 metres of elevation gain for the 5 km lap. To put that in perspective for XCO World Cups, the climbing would be around 150 to 220 metres. Though 70 metres is the ballpark figure you get in the Indian nationals. The difference was that, all the climbing was localised, there were two sharp climbs, two descents and a lot of flat jeep tracks.
A tract of land which had oodles of potential, but turned out to be more ‘meh’ and less ‘sweet’. Compounding the ‘mediocrity’ of the course was the fact that parts of it were decided just a day before racing kicked off. One climb which was added at the eleventh hour was unrideable by all racers, not during the practice sessions, not during the race. But as Shiven points out, if the riders had more time to practice, they might have been able to ride it.
The course started with a flat open section of 100 metres and then the singletrack started. You rode down and through a small stream at the bottom before attacking the first climb. Which was rideable for the experienced junta, the rest got off and pushed. After the first climb you turned around and immediately started the descent. But you couldn’t recover on the descent after climbing.
The descent was followed by a long flat.
Post this flat where the strong powered through, came the second climb, which was unrideable. After the unrideable section there was a singletrack gradual climb, a slow burner. From there you had a longish flat section, which was a jeep track. Where you had enough space to overtake. From there you descended through a cool rock garden. The faster riders could make 10 seconds over the slower riders on this section.
After the rock garden there was another flattish section with big bumps. Finally, you rolled back onto the start finish section.
There was a lot of singletrack on this course. Other than the flat jeep track sections there were no real spots to overtake. This track was only for the big boys and girls, there was a shorter easier track for the younger ‘uns.
In the men’s, based on the previous year’s results, Shiven was the man to beat, with Adonis Tangpu matching him on pace. Kamlesh Rana and Prakash Magar Thapa from the Army Adventure Wing, were not far off with Devender Thakur forever lurking.
Shiven only raced the Mixed Team Relay, so was relatively fresh for the XCO. Starting off as favourite, he was more relaxed before the start, knowing he had the fitness to win.
Adonis in the run up to the nationals, had started racing under Sports Authority of India, with fellow racer, Devender Thakur, coaching him. He was also learning a lot working with a dietician, sports psychologist and more. He was both well prepared and nervous about moving up to the higher class.
Among the girls, it was Pranita Soman, who was a cut above the rest. She had dominated proceedings in previous championships and was expected to do so again. For anyone to be Women’s Champion, the requirement was simple, beat Pranita! Challenge to the crown would come from Rutika Gaikwad and Priyanka Karande from Maharashtra, along with Joysna Narzary from Karnataka.
The Race: Men’s Elite XCO…
The XCO was a barnstormer. Shiven took off, wanting to lead into the singletrack and control it from there. His strategy was simple, to push on the climbs, manage it on the flats and descents and keep his powder dry for the long race.
And this race was incredibly long. Where XCO races hover around the 90-minute mark, the boys in Alandi, found themselves on the track for a shade under 2 hours.
Adonis was so exhausted from his ITT and Under-23 races, that he contemplated not even starting the XCO.
On the first lap itself, Devender and Adonis attacked Shiven for the lead. He sat back and didn’t mind, as he knew he was fresh and comfortable at that pace. Adonis on the other hand started feeling the heat of the Elite pace and the previous day’s fatigue from the first lap itself.
There was a strong wind blowing across the course and on the flat sections it was a bit of a road race. Sitting on another’s rear wheel, would give you the benefit of the draft.
For the onlooker from the start, it was obvious that Shiven was setting the pace and it was up to the others to try and keep up. As the laps ticked off, there was a group of 4 at the front with Shiven, Kamlesh, Adonis and Devender. Behind them was Prakash and in the chasing pack was Kiran Kumar Raju, David Kumar and Vijay Parkash.
The long flat stretches ensured that riders with big power could pull a lead, which others couldn’t reel in.
The second unrideable climb saw all the riders having to dismount, walk/ run, remount and then ride away. There was always the risk of cramping in those transitions. Shiven with his wealth of experience chose to go relatively slow through there. He preferred losing a few seconds on the climb, instead of running up and cramping and losing the race.
It was all cat and mouse till the 5th lap. Then Shiven dropped the hammer. Only Kamlesh could keep him in sight. Adonis was suffering so much, that he contemplated dropping out of the race entirely. His body wasn’t in the mood for torture. Adonis knew that if he tried to maintain that hot pace, he would cramp. He slowed and that allowed Devender to catch him and then get past him.
The gap between Shiven and Kamlesh kept yo-yoing, but the positions remained unchanged. Adonis recalled his 4th place two years ago in Uttarakhand, where he lost the podium spot to Kiran. He regretted that loss for a long time.
The memory of that loss spurred him on. The moment he saw Devender upping the pace on the last lap, he sprinted for the last time, gapped him and then comfortably held 3rd position to the finish line.
Shiven who was comfortable for the most part, found an obstacle in his path with just 500 metres remaining of the 40 km race. There was a herd of buffaloes crossing the race track and Kamlesh was just 12 seconds behind. A gap which could disappear in the blink of an eye. Shiven kept one eye on Kamlesh and another eye on trying to find a gap between the bovines.
Fortunately for Shiven the buffaloes acted like a barrier for Kamlesh as well and the two held position all the way to the finish line. Three fast men finished on the podium.
Shiven won it, with Kamlesh in second and Adonis in third. Devender was a close 4th, though he goes back content with a bronze medal in the ITT. Adonis also became the youngest rider to win gold in Men’s Elite at the ITT.
Women’s Elite XCO
For Pranita, this was her 6th nationals and she had been on the podium from the beginning. She has also represented India at the Asians and knows the difference in the level of cycling here and abroad. Her goal was not to win. Her goal was to compare herself to the elite men, and see how far off she was.
She set off from the first lap and didn’t let anyone come within striking distance. But she suffered from ill health before the racing even began. Yet she was happy, because she was faster and more comfortable on the technical sections, thanks to training with a DH rider. Pranita eventually won the race by a few minutes, which was still less than the 5 minutes by which she won in the previous championship.
If Pranita’s pre-race fever was bad, then Joysna was considerably worse off. 3 days before the racing began, she went over the bars on a practice lap. On Friday, she started off with a hairline fracture in her wrist. Riding through the pain barrier, she managed an incredible 3rd in the Individual Time Trial and a 4th in the XCO. The pain was so much, that she was not wanting to race the XCO.
Rutika was racing her 3rd nationals. Her previous best finish was a 5th place and she was hungry for more. With some intense training prior to the nationals with the Nashik racers, she was desperate to be on the podium. As she said, during the XCO, she couldn’t see any other rider on track, all that she could see was a medal! She eventually got two of them, winning two silvers. One each in the ITT and XCO.
Priyanka, another girl from Maharashtra, went on to take the bronze in the XCO race.
As per Pranita, the level of racing in the women’s category has gone up considerably in the last few years. Joysna agrees, there are a lot more women in mountain biking than earlier. Yet, there is quite some distance to go before reaching the Asian level. The both of them have been training hard for the technical bits and will give serious thought to participating in the Downhill races in future.
Best Amongst The Rest
It wasn’t just these elite podium holders who got people’s attention. There were other’s who showed potential for the future. David Kumar and Ashish Sherpa from Himachal Pradesh were quick. Vijay Parkash from Chandigarh progressed tremendously from one championship to the next. KKR, though finished in the same position as last year, was stronger than before.
Naman Vij, Hasmukh Gowda, Ronel Singh, all have good things in store for the future. Charith Gowda has all the potential to be the next big thing. And according to his former teammate, Adonis, he can do really well with a little more guidance.
Keep your eyes open for these fast boys coming through the ranks…
The Mountain Bike Ilk
These championships aren’t just about winning and losing. It is about being part of a strong community. Racers befriend each other and help each other out as well.
Anuj Kalmane, the co-author, of this piece, was both at the receiving and giving end of this helpfulness. In his ITT, he was helped a lot by Shiven and Ashish. Because of bad health he sat out the XCO and went about helping most of the racers.
As Anuj said, “I wanted to help them all out so they could destroy each other more!” Cyclists are sadists, aren’t they…
An End is Just Another Beginning
The fast boys and girls are doing an incredible job of upping the level of the sport in India. And as they challenge each other to greater heights, they are also popularising mountain biking.
More young men and women will take up mountain biking and hopefully the next nationals will also have record participation and more records will be shattered.