In Conversation with David Kumar, an incredible mountain biker from Shimla. David recently won MTB Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, after getting side tracked for 2.5 years due to injury. He talks about the trials & tribulations of his tumultuous journey with injury to return to the top step of the podium.
As a child David always wanted to be an athlete. His goal was clear, his sport wasn’t. He tried every sport he could get his hands (or feet!) on during his school and college days.
But team sports were difficult to excel at, since you are dependant on the rest of the team working hard and performing well. David worked his way through football, boxing, water sports, kabaddi, badminton, table tennis, chess etc. If he were not a cyclist today, he would have ended up being a table tennis athlete.
As a kid, he lived in Kinnaur, a beautiful part of Himachal, just 270 km east of Shimla. David grew up watching every summer bring a bunch of foreign cyclists riding their bikes to explore the pristine Spiti Valley. He didn’t know anything about cycling, other than that, he wanted to do it as well.
Fast forward a few years after his graduation, and David left home against the wishes of his parents. He shifted to Shimla in search of something.
David Kumar heads to Shimla…
David reached Shimla with a dream of pursuing his athletic ambitions. He along with his best friend from school, Abhishek were gung-ho.
In Shimla, David was introduced to the world of cycling. He bought an ordinary bicycle which he used to commute every day to the Sports Complex, so that he could go there to practice table tennis. Other than his daily commute, he would go on weekends to explore the countryside around Shimla. And that was the extent of his cycling…
…Till he heard about MTB Shimla, a 2-day MTB race held in and around the city. David had read about Shiven and Devender in the local newspapers, the stars of mountain biking. That was enough to inspire him to participate in his first bicycle race in MTB Shimla 2016. All that he wanted to do was experience a race.
He inadvertently ended up doing much more. Out of 130 participants, David finished 13th on the first day and 7th on the second day which included a lot of climbing. All his basic equipment notwithstanding, David ended up a fantastic 11th.
He was hooked to MTB racing!
A Mountain of Success!
After his first race, David went back and practiced like never before. While working a full-time job, he trained hard for the 2017 edition of the race. He won it in style and made sure that everyone sat up and took notice of the new kid on the block, David Kumar…
David won MTB Shimla first in 2017 and then backed it up in 2018 as well. He also raced the super hard MTB Himalaya, where a lot of talented foreign riders come to race. Amongst them, he finished a commendable top 10 in both ’17 and ’18. He was also won the best Indian and Asian rider awards.
2018 also saw him win the Hell Race held in Dharamshala, the first time he finished ahead of Shiven and Devender. He then went on to finish ahead of Shiven again in 2019 at the ROS race in Chandigarh. It was the first time that he bested Shiven in the XCO format.
2019 saw him win outright in MTB Garsha held in Lahaul. His performance graph was steadily ticking upwards. The experience of racing abroad helping him greatly. He went racing in South Africa in 2018, finishing a fantastic 5th in his age category.
He also raced the Algarve Bike Challenge in Portugal, an extremely popular race with 1200 participants. His team of two finished in the top 80.
David was 22 years old when he started racing. His trajectory was moving steeply up, just like the climbs in the Himalayas.
And then disaster struck…
La La Land Ultra
David has always had an adventurer’s mindset rather than a pure racer. Against the advice of many of his MTB colleagues, he participated in an ultra-endurance bicycle race from Manali to Turtuk, La La Land Ultra.
It was his first time racing this format and in July 2019, he pushed too hard and injured himself.
His growth and development as a mountain biker came to a screeching halt.
Living with Injury
Every time David got onto his bike to ride, his knee hurt. It was frustrating that the one thing he loved and lived for, he couldn’t do.
Life on the saddle was cut short viciously for David.
To maintain some semblance of fitness, he took up yoga, stretching and gym training.
Every couple of months, he would dust his bike off and head out for a ride. Only to be greeted by the pain in his knee again. He would then park his bike for another two months. This routine continued on loop for more that two years.
David says, the biggest challenge was not so much physical, as mental. Keeping sane while being restricted from doing what you love would have driven him mad with rage.
But he kept calm and channelled his passion in a different direction. He started a cycle store in Shimla, and the planning and execution required for running a business, kept him positive. He had something to focus on.
Nonetheless, it was difficult seeing all his friends going for races around the country, while he couldn’t even ride. He often questioned himself, would he even be able to race again?
“I live to race and now wasn’t sure if I could race again. I just wanted to heal and ride again and enjoy competing. For me only being able to ride was not enough. I wanted to compete. I tried to keep myself calm, one cannot undo what is done. I tried to stay positive and keep at it. If I was not strong mentally at that time, I would probably never have been able to ride and race again.”
In his store, he wasn’t just selling bicycles. He was also building dream bikes for himself. Unsure whether he would even be able to use those machines in a race!
Pillar to Post
After the injury, David went from pillar to post in search of treatment for his knee. It started with first visiting the local physios, who were neither helpful nor convincing in their sales pitch.
He then went national, and visited AIIMS, Delhi. After X-rays, MRIs and the whole gamut, the doctors pronounced that there was no pain. Except the fact that David experienced pain every time he rode his bike!
He even went international. On his visit to Germany, he visited sports physios there with a hope of finding a solution.
Thoroughly fed up with the experience, David started searching on the internet for remedies. He eventually worked a lot on strengthening and stretching of his muscles which had weakened with inactivity.
2 years after he was originally injured, David was ready to face his demons. He stood at the start line of the Grey Ghost MTB Challenge in Lahaul. Still suffering from injury and nowhere close to full fitness, he raced there. Only to finish on the podium behind his friends and competitors, Shiven and Devender.
The podium was the light at the end of the tunnel. It gave him hope that he could work towards rebuilding all that he had lost.
Ground Realities at the Nationals…
After standing on the podium, David raced the Himachal state championship, where he finished 2nd. He managed to beat the reigning national champion Shiven again.
Going into the 2021 MTB nationals, his expectations were realistic. In the heat and flat courses of Maharashtra, David knew he stood no chance. XCO format of mountain bike racing was never his thing. Longer courses of XCM format are where his interest lies.
To top it off, David’s biggest weapon is his climbing prowess. And the course at the nationals, doesn’t allow him to show this skill.
David wasn’t disappointed about not finishing on the podium. He was happy to once again be racing with the best in the country and see their level. Some times meeting old cycling buddies and making new friends is more important than any silverware!
(Off)Road to Recovery
Other than the nationals, every time David raced, he finished on the podium.
The base fitness was there, but he was nowhere close to his 2019 level. The top MTB athletes of India currently enjoy a perfect training regime and athlete’s life, where they can focus only on cycling and nothing else. David still has to juggle between his store and finding time for training.
Before his injury, he would end up riding 1000 km a month as part of his training. Now he cannot find the time to go anywhere close to that kind of mileage. To add to his woes, in India, we don’t have a set racing calendar. You never know when a race might be announced and you head there, without structured training for the event.
The only race on his radar was MTB Tawang, a 3-day stage race in Arunachal Pradesh, which he spent a month training for properly. Even with this training, he had absolutely no idea, where he stood in comparison to the top guns of the country.
MTB Tawang with David Kumar
Since the time of his injury, David had only heard of the upcoming MTB racers in India from the Army Adventure Wing. He had never raced Kamlesh Rana and Prakash Thapa in an XCM race. Shiven was the only known quantity for him. And these 3 had locked out the podium in the 2021 edition, separated by just a minute.
Nobody expected anybody to defeat these 3 top guys. Most didn’t even expect David to finish in the top 5, he was such an unknown variable in the race.
From the first day of racing David was surprised. A 66 km stage turned into a 75 km stage. There was no marking along the route, nor any hydration points. The altitude was around 1500 metres and it was hot. To compound his misery, David had worn a warm jacket expecting cold, and was carrying just 650 ml of water!
The last climb was supposed to be 12 km long, it turned out to be 20 km! The last 15 km David didn’t have a drop of water. He was forced to race to the finish line thirsty and dehydrated.
In the last few kilometres, David found himself with Thapa and Padam Bahadur Ale (also from the Indian Army). The army duo were trying their best to work together to break David. But he clung on and withstood the onslaught.
After trying and failing to gap David, the army boys asked him to lead the trio. David’s acquiescence saw him at the front and soon after attack hard. Thapa and Ale managed to survive David’s attack, but wilted under the unforgiving pressure being applied.
David eventually went on to win the first stage by around 4 minutes. He had truly set the cat among the pigeons.
With David having taken the lead, he was firmly in the crosshairs of the 15 member army contingent. Their target was simple, to break David. David’s goal was equally simple, to stick to them like a leech!
The second day was a short stage with just 1000 metres of climbing over 54 km. A ‘flattish’ stage, which saw immense pressure being applied on David. But he didn’t crack.
With a few kilometres to go, Shiven attacked, but nobody followed him, as he was too far back in the overall standings. David hung on to his immediate competitors to finish the day with a bunch sprint, losing almost no time to his rivals.
The third and final day was the most difficult with 50 km and 2500 metres of climbing in store. It was climbing from almost the beginning to the end. And the climb ended in the midst of snow and ice at 4700 metres. A day to remember for everybody.
Thapa went on the attack from the outset. It was a do or die strategy. Only 6 riders could follow that hot pace in just the first 5 kilometres. David started doubting himself, he knew he couldn’t keep up with that pace and feared that he would get dropped.
That pace was too hot for everyone, including Thapa. He asked David to take the lead at the 7 km mark, and at that moment, David knew that his grasp on the win solidified. As the race progressed, one by one all the riders got dropped from the lead group. Shiven and Rana were the first to go, then Ale got left behind. After 12 km it was just David and another army rider who wasn’t a threat in the overall timings. The two rode together to the finish line, for David to take the race win with a whopping 26 minute gap to second placed Prakash Thapa. Rana and Shiven finished 4th and 5th respectively.
David Kumar was back in business…
Joy of Winning
Winning anything is always a joyous occasion. To win against top class competition after years of struggling with injury was the icing on the cake. To beat the best in the country by 20-30 minutes was the cherry on top.
But for David
“It was not about winning. The happiness was about knowing that I am still one of the best climbers in India.”
We asked David about the lessons he learnt through the rigours of his injury. And what other younger athletes can learn from his mistakes:
“My biggest mistake was that I pushed my body beyond its limit. You need to know your limit. When you feel your body is giving up, it is best to stop. It is not your last race, you can try again in the future. Being smart is the best.
There is no shame to give up in a race. It is better than getting injured or ending your career.
If you practice any sport, then do cross training as well. For cyclists, don’t just stick to cycling for overall strength. Cross training helps with preventing injuries as well, by increasing the strength of muscles not used in cycling.
Injury is a part of an athlete’s life.”