Rolling downhill with Slade Gomes, Indian National Downhill Champion; as he talks in depth about his journey of getting into the sport, winning and what lies ahead!
Speeding Downhill with Slade Gomes
Flash, wham, bam, damn… and before you know it, a speed demon has passed you by and the Downhill race is over! Mumbai, based 22 year old Slade, talks about the commitment required on the downhill track and off it as well. The ladder of success which needs to be climbed one step at a time to literally descend rapidly down the serpentine trails.
Shortly before Slade boarded his flight to the USA, to continue the tryst with fast wheels, he spoke at length on the challenges and the joy of representing India at the Asian stage.
The Seed was Sown…
Like most Indian kids, Slade saw his father having a blast and wanted to follow in his footsteps. Unlike most Indian kids, his dad was having a hoot on two wheels in the dirt and was happy to see his son follow in the wheel tracks.
When he visited USA for the first time at the tender age of 7, the proverbial final nail was thrashed into his addiction for speed. He saw kids his age riding mini-motos. Something he dreamt of.
Like most middle-class Indian families, buying a bike for a child wasn’t affordable. And so that dream was left to linger.
But as Slade says, “You dream hard enough and it comes true.”
Santa Claus from France
One fine day, his dad met and later befriended a French motorcyclist in Mumbai who was also scrubbing his tyres through the sand. This kind gentleman saw the burning passion in the child’s eyes and gifted him a motocross bike.
A proper mini-moto for kids to learn on, the exact same model he had seen in USA a year previously. Christmas had come early for Slade!
From that moment on, riding became a celebration of an opportunity. An opportunity to let your hair down and ride hard.
Slade took to two wheels like a duck to water and spent all his free time on the farm. Thrashing out his new found freedom.
It was a proper competition bike with a powerful PW80 engine. It didn’t have a clutch, but it had enough for Slade to practice jumps and grow with the bike.
Until he literally outgrew the bike!
Parents generally worry about their kids outgrowing their clothes too fast. Slade had bigger problems with his bike suddenly too small!
His parents bought him a scrap Bajaj Byk for 7000 rupees and spruced it up. With dirt tyres slapped on, he went about doing the business, learning the art of operating the clutch.
It was a major step down from his mini-moto, but that didn’t deter Slade from piling on the saddle time with dedication.
A couple of years down the line and Slade had long since found and passed the limits of the Byk.
While Slade was busy thrashing his motorcycle around, his mum was keeping the figurative machinery oiled and working smooth. She was the backbone of the entire operation. Ensuring that Slade could dedicate the maximum possible time to riding, without compromising his education. A fine balance, possible only by the fine touch of a mother’s hand.
A not so Impulsive decision
After finishing his 10th boards, his parents got him a Hero Impulse. A decent Indian dirt bike.
A couple of days after getting the Impulse, he saw in the newspaper, that 8-times National Motocross Champion Rustom Patel, was providing affordable motocross training.
He jumped at the opportunity, hitting table tops and even managed a couple of falls on his first day. His gear included old stuff from his dad’s kit and some other things stitched together by his mum!
Seeing potential, Rustom signed him up for a couple of local motocross races. He took the podium in his very first race. That was a sign for a lot more future silverware!
5 months and loads of training on the Impulse and he had found its limits. Rustom was worried that he would break his bike in pieces if he kept at it and pushed Slade to get an import.
Fortunately (or unfortunately!) at the same time he was doing well in school. And took up a 7 days a week coaching class, along with his regular 11th and 12th classes.
Slade tried to remain equally dedicated to his education in the classroom as he was on track.
On Rustom’s recommendation, Slade’s dad sold the Impulse. After a tremendous search, they found a used imported Honda CRF 250R at a decent price.
3 days with the new bike in hand, he took 2nd place at a race! At that point of time he was racing in the Mumbai-Pune circuit and Rustom hoped to see him competing at the national level and eventually becoming national champion.
That wasn’t meant to be.
Along with podiums, Slade was racking up injuries. Knee surgery, dislocated foot and more were not just keeping him off the bike, but effecting his academics as well.
Juggling between track and classes turned out to be too much and one day Slade collapsed with over exertion.
As a result he reduced his racing.
An unpleasant experience with a Red Bull motocross sponsorship program left him disenchanted with it as a career and pushed him towards academia.
Motocross continued, but only as a hobby. He was still racing and finishing on the podium!
The Call of Pune…
Slade got through Symbiosis, Pune, to do his mechanical engineering. A blessing because the city is a hub for motocross.
It didn’t pan out as hoped. His parents didn’t allow him to take the motorcycle along. It was too risky to ride motocross away from home, with his parents not there to look out for him.
But an addiction doesn’t just go away. He would travel to Mumbai twice a month, just to ride his motocross bike. He ended up winning his last ever motocross race and then withdrew from competitive sport.
It was too taxing to manage his engineering and motorcycling simultaneously.
Choosing the Red Pill
Slade chose the red pill! What was motocross’ loss would eventually be cycling’s gain.
He got a cycle. A basic Raleigh Nomad hardtail on which he would ride to college. Those rides soon extended to villages around as he would chat up farmers of the area.
Addicts are always on the lookout for something to give them a high. Slade was no different. While pedalling his cycle, he saw berms in bullock cart wheel grooves.
The forest was alluring, so he went to check it out on his cycle. Pushing up and then rolling down. Again, and again, and then some more…
As Slade says, “it became an addiction as a remembrance to motocross.”
One day he came across a pile of mud dumped by an earthmover. He imagined it was a motocross jump and went over it on his cycle like superman. Unfortunately, his cycle wasn’t super and it bent and broke under the impact!
The impact was mental as well, it was an epiphany. He knew that is what he wanted to do, without knowing anything at all about downhill as a sport.
Downhill with Slade Gomes commences!
Slade organised forest excursions with his classmates, so that he could explore the place for riding. Within a month he had scanned the hill and wanted to build one track which could encompass it in entirety.
He borrowed a shovel from college and started digging. His roommate, Vishal, pitched headlong into the maddened fervour. They would dig for 13 days a month and then ride for a day, sharing the bike between them.
Girls in his college would joke about him spending time on childish things like cycles, while ignoring the lot of them! ‘Bachon ka khel hai’, they laughed.
The digging regimen lasted 8 months, before the track was ready. A regimen which included sleeping at 9 PM, waking up at 4 AM to study, then digging from 7, attending classes at 9, attend his formula car building project and then dinner at 8. Rinse and repeat!
He didn’t attend parties, he didn’t live the life of a college kid. He was possessed with digging, building and riding.
Why was he doing this?
“Even I wasn’t sure what I was doing. Yet everything felt like moving ahead“, says Slade.
Like motocross, he hoped, 8 racers would be at the start line together and fight and wrestle their way to the bottom on their cycles!
While track building Slade was sure he was bringing a revolutionary new sport to the country. To his dismay, the internet disagreed.
He found online a downhill race being held in Himachal. At least he would be the first in Pune, he consoled himself. Sadly for him, the Himachal race was won by a Punekar!
And that is how Slade got introduced to Piyush Chavan, ace Indian downhill biker, and then reigning national champion.
Piyush immediately introduced Slade to the group of downhill riders in Pune. He was in awe, some of them had proper downhill bikes and even sponsors! They invited Slade to a local downhill race.
At the race, Slade was left with his jaw hitting the floor.
He reached there with a bruised and battered Raleigh, suspension with minimal travel, jammed shifters and no knowledge of racing. The only good things on his bike were new tyres and a motocross handlebar.
He took the ultra-wide handlebar from his motorcycle and slapped it onto his ultra-cheap bicycle. The comical looking cycle’s handlebar was bigger than the wheels! To top it off, Slade was kitted in his old motocross gear.
Compared to Slade’s circus bike, some of the racers had DH bikes. But more impressive for Slade was that some of them had girlfriends! In stark contrast to the college girls, who teased him for still playing ‘children’s games’.
It was time for the others to get impressed. Slade went ahead and broke the hardtail record on that track in the seeding run. A record which stands till date.
The seeding run saw him just 1 second behind Varun, who was riding an enduro bike. Slade’s enthusiasm got the better of him as he rode beyond his abilities and crashed out in the race, but still managed 4th!
From the first race itself he had made an impression on the downhill community of Pune, both with his bike and skill.
“As I learnt to ride downhill, I used to fall on every ride following Piyush and all. By then it became a full time addiction.”
And every fall meant broken bike parts. As the rides became a daily affair, so did the visits to the mechanic!
To compound matters, Slade’s college shut down the campus hostel and he had to shift 8 km from the track which he had toiled 8 months to build.
His dad got him a secondhand car to travel to the track, so that he could practice daily. His mornings would begin with a ride on the trails, before heading to college. Where he would spend time between classes napping in the car!
The saga of the daily breaking bike continued and Slade’s dad decided to get him a better one.
Slade knew that they could afford a hardtail around 35k and not much beyond.
A full-blown Downhill bike was beyond economic reach. Even a full-suspension cycle seemed beyond the realms of possibility.
Slade’s dad was ready to take a loan to buy a good cycle and upped the budget to a lakh. Even that wasn’t enough, as most decent bikes for the purpose costed twice as much.
Fortune favours the brave and the many hours of hard work was rewarded with some luck at finding a good deal. He got an all-mountain Lapierre Zesty at a bargain basement price of 1.5 lakhs.
His dad had stretched the budget to breaking point, yet made it happen.
His riding buddies said it wasn’t the right bike and he would have a lot of trouble.
But Slade believed, “rather than crying that it wasn’t good enough. Step one was respecting whatever opportunity I got. And for me it was 20000 times better than the hardtail Raleigh.”
After riding around a bit, Slade has now come to the conclusion that for the tracks and facilities in India, an all-mountain/ enduro bike makes more sense, rather than investing in a downhill machine. The latter is overkill for the sort of riding involved.
Being an underdog helps, as Slade found out, “It was fun to be the under powered guy to challenge the guys with the better equipment.”
More often than not, cyclists tend to get caught in their own hubris.
Fancier machines, apparel and equipment takes precedence. Focusing excessively on competing ensures you take your eyes off the actual prize.
Slade had been guided otherwise, “Dad always taught us, ride your heart out and enjoy it, rather than just competing.“
Playing Catch Up…
While Slade was getting faster with every race, there was no denying the fact, that his strongest competition, Piyush and Gautam Taode were racing with 7 years of experience. Slade in comparison had been riding for a little more than a year.
The million dollar question, how to catch the guys ahead?
There were two things Slade needed, “one, practice more than them. Two, find a magic bullet to make me faster than them!“
And what was the magic bullet you ask?
“My best training happened because of trail building and not riding. When you build a trail, you ride it in your mind 100 times.“
Slade went about building, alone or with others, all the trails in the vicinity. 5 he did alone and about 15 in total. With all this building he was getting faster.
Till he started matching Piyush’s times.
At that time, the general thought was that you needed a downhill bike and sponsorship to go fast. Slade had neither and was doing a stellar job of dispelling the theory.
But he hadn’t raced the two fast guys yet on a full-suspension bike. And there is more to racing that just going fast, as Slade was to learn soon.
2017 National Championship
With Slade’s constant improvement, the boys convinced him to race at the National Championship.
Once again, he was over enthusiastic and pushed beyond the limits. He wanted to win at any cost.
“At the seeding run, I wanted to go for the record. I ended up crashing, broke the levers, my helmet and reached down devastated that I cannot do this.“
At the start of the race, he was on the verge of tears. The desire to win coupled with the knowledge that he couldn’t.
Gautam Taode taught Slade something, which people generally learn from the other Gautam, Buddha! To be calm…
Slade rode the race slow and learnt something along the way:
“Ride slowly, as fast as you can.“
That knowledge landed him on the podium, just one second behind 2nd placed Gautam. Piyush, the winner and Gautam would go on to represent the country at the Asian Championship. Leaving Slade to lick his wounds about the 1 second!
The positive takeaway for Slade was that he was third in the country and not just the Mumbai-Pune community. He had finally reached THE level.
Bob the Builder
There was a small hill near Slade’s house. Too small for a downhill track. Until ‘Slade the Builder’ went at it like an unbridled pit bull.
He ended up not just building 9 trails, on what is now known as the Pashan Skills Park, but a community as well.
Seeing his dedication to building, others joined him, both to build and to ride.
To help the cause, Slade had everyone park their bikes in his house, so that they could ride there every morning without having to cart their bikes along.
He would study, sitting in the midst of all those bikes! Naturally, he became the coordinator for the DH community as more and more wanted to ride at Pashan.
Currently with Slade out of Pune, Abhijeet and Virendra have taken over duties of Pashan. Building the trails and community as well.
His engineering studies helped with riding as well. Rather than attacking every track in daredevil mode, he would take a more thoughtful approach.
Whilst choosing lines, he would often do it differently from others.
It was most obvious in berms.
Most would ride the berms like a turn, using the banking to its maximum. Slade would use the potential energy of the suspension. Transferring energy from his body to compress the suspension entering the turn and then using the recoil to springboard himself out of it.
As a result, he was almost always fastest through the berms.
His engineering also helped immensely with trail building, which eventually translated into more speed on the trail.
Doing his engineering in Pune was also the reason why he got into DH cycling in the first place! His downhilling then translated into a 6 months college internship with premiere custom cycle manufacturers of India, Psynyde, Praveen Prabhakaran’s brainchild.
Working with Psynyde further helped him roll faster. Academics and cycling complementing each other along the way.
Managing sport and academics simultaneously is hard and Slade knows that it was only possible thanks to the guidance and encouragement of his mother.
Piyush in the meantime had shifted to New Zealand and believed that Slade had outgrown his Lapierre and deserved something better.
Slade’s dad also felt that the difference between the podium and win was a better machine. He decided it was time to up the ante.
After considerable research and thought, Slade decided to get an enduro bike rather than a full blown DH bike. It wasn’t just him, the trend was catching on amongst others as well.
To further the enduro bike cause in India, Harith Noah, ace motocross rider and currently racing the Dakar Rally, wiped the floor with the competition in a local DH race on an Enduro bike. Unfortunately Slade was unable to participate in that race due to a punctured liver.
Piyush found a Trek Factory Bike in New Zealand at half-price and brought it down to India for Slade.
Slade was one of Piyush’s biggest competitors, yet he went out of his way to help him with machinery. That community spirit was something severely lacking in motocross, which Slade cherished amongst the DH boys.
2018 National Championship
Two days after Piyush brought Slade’s new Trek to India, he went ahead and won the 2018 National DH Championship!
Slade was obviously ecstatic at winning, but also felt bad for Piyush, “I really respect him, because he took all that trouble, even though I was a real threat for him. He put his title on risk. The community is that strong. Your strongest competitor is helping you out.“
After being crowned National Champion in 2018, Slade attended his first party in years! And was back on the trails training the next morning.
The championship was not just won by his hard work, but the support of his family and friends as well. Vinay, Gary, Ruturaj, Abhijeet and Virendra were a major support for his riding. Shreya, Slade’s girlfriend, was also extremely supportive of him spending hours chasing his passion.
Even though Slade won in 2018, he didn’t get selected to represent India in the Asian Championship.
In 2019, he was busy filling out college applications and applying for student loans when the National Selections were announced.
The selections were being held in front of the CFI officials and the top guys would go to Nepal to race.
Slade was unable to prepare for the selections, managing just a couple of days on the bike.
Yet, he won by a whopping 7 seconds.
South Asian Games in Nepal
Selections sorted, a bunch of Indian cyclists, road, XC and DH headed to Nepal for the South Asian Games.
The Good. Indian athletes were taken care of really well by the officials, who made sure everything was prepared in advance for the comfort of all the sportspeople.
The Bad. With the focus diverted to education, Slade was unable to devote the number of training hours as he would have liked before the South Asian Games.
The Ugly. On the journey to Nepal, Slade was sick as a dog, throwing up regularly and unable to keep anything in his stomach.
Slade met a downhill inspiration there. Rajesh Magar. (You can read about him in this excellent Nat Geo article).
Rajesh had previously won the Asian Championship, and Slade expected to lose by a massive margin.
As he expected, he did eventually lose by 5 seconds. Given the circumstances of Slade’s health, it wasn’t all that bad.
Nepal had 4 riders in the downhill race and they expected to sweep the top 4 spots.
In the seeding run, Slade managed to finish 3rd and 6 seconds ahead of the guy in 4th. It sent the Nepalese boys in a tizzy. They held an impromptu meeting on the track to deal with the Indian intruder in their plans.
Slade finished 4th, 2.8 seconds behind the podium and ahead of 1 of the 4 Nepalese riders.
His run got disrupted by a rather ‘flat’ section on a DH course! He had to pedal through that bit with his weakened body and was drained by the effort. With nothing left in the tank to push to the finish line.
The positive takeaway, as per the marshals, Slade was actually faster than Rajesh in the technical bits.
Slade’s 4th place was India’s best performance at this level in DH racing. He finished a humongous 18 seconds ahead of the rest.
Travelling, representing India and racing with the considerably more experienced Gautam, taught Slade, that winning and losing can happen long before the rubber even rolls in the dirt.
India doesn’t have an established cycling culture, much less that of downhill riding.
Every Indian cyclist who wants to improve, ends up going abroad to train, be it road, XC or DHers. Pitting yourself against the best who are training at the heart of the sport helps immensely.
Slade after finishing his graduation headed to Europe for a month long road trip with 3 riding buddies.
Their first port of call was the Crankworx festival in Innsbruck. One of the largest mountain biking festivals globally.
There were 160 elite downhill racers competing, with around 90 of them choosing to ride enduro bikes. The competition comprised of factory riders with mechanics, physios, trailers and spare bikes. While the Indian boys had one pickup truck between the 4 of them!
Out of the 160 racers, only 6 didn’t have any sponsors. Slade was 1 of those 6! He was riding with worn out tyres, while the fast guys were slapping on new rubber every 3 runs.
Respect What You Have!
Rule 1: Respect the opportunities you get. Slade stuck to this rule and gave it his best, no matter the advantage the competition had over him.
He knew he couldn’t win or even finish close to the winners. His target was a humbling top 80. He missed his target and finished 109th, which wasn’t bad considering the circumstances and the level of competition.
The biggest difference between riding in India and in Europe was the length of the tracks. In Pune, Slade was habituated to 2 minute tracks maximum, most closer to a minute.
Innsbruck’s ‘short’ track was a 4 minute track! For the first couple of minutes Slade was going at a good clip, after that exhaustion set in and he was struggling to hold onto the handlebars.
Close to the end, he fell off the bike on a slow speed root. A fatigue induced error. He lost 10 seconds during that fall, the difference between finishing in the top 80 or not!
With this experience under the belt and better fitness, Slade believes he can crack the top 50 at his next attempt. The current Indian level is mid-pack on the global stage.
Returning to India was a shocker, as he went from 7 minute trails in the bike parks of Europe to 25 second trails in Mumbai. A culture shock!
Motocross vs. DH
Racing motocross helped Slade considerably when he made the switch to downhill riding. But it wasn’t the element of speed which helped.
It was the ultra-competitive nature of motocross vis-à-vis the more relaxed and community driven downhill racing.
As Slade says, “The mindset of motocross aggression I brought in downhill.“
Motocross injuries would be rare but severe. While riding downhill, injuries would be more regular, but chances were you could walk away from them. Both forms of sport are inherently risky and not for the faint of heart.
Back to the Future
Slade is currently in the US doing a masters in Motorsports Engineering in Indianapolis.
He hopes to continue his run of form in DH racing there as well. Not on the world stage, but at the very least winning local races.
His vision is to help grow a young talent from India to be able to compete one day at the global elite level. Racing and winning against the best.
If the Nationals are held at the end of the year, he will surely be back in India to defend his title against the veterans and young challengers.
His advice for anyone who is looking to reach the top is to find those spare minutes tucked away every 24 hours. You can do a lot more once you find that time…
The gorgeous images of Slade’s Trek and Honda clicked by the talented young Sandip Sakharkar.
All other images courtesy Slade Gomes.
Read about Slade’s win at the GHV Endeavor Pump Track here. Also read about the explosion of Mountain Biking in Ladakh. And Neha Tikam’s meteoric rise and endurance cycling win at Deccan Cliffhanger.