Saturday, October 18, 2003

Majestic mountains, mean machines
Roopinder Singh

A competitor kicks up dirt as he takes a turn between Sarchu and Patseo on Day 4 of the raid. 
A competitor kicks up dirt as he takes a turn between Sarchu and Patseo on Day 4 of the raid.

THE roar of the engines, screech of the brakes, squeal of the tyres, all echo in the mountains as Raid de Himalaya passes through the lap of these mountains at this time of the year for the fifth time. By now, locals have it on their annual calendars, just near festivals and fairs that so dominate life in the region. They even keep an eye on the participants, and can identify those who come earlier for the recce.

The men and the machines are tested to the limit, and a bit beyond. The just-concluded 5th Maruti Suzuki Raid de Himalaya brought forcefully home the pleasures, the pains and, yes, the perils of pitting yourself against the mountains. As Raswinder Dhaliwal, an official at the raid, pointed out: "Mountains always win." Of course, and the trick is in preparing well and pushing your luck, so that you can push the bubble.

This is what Sunny Sidhu, this year’s champion, did. His vehicle had broken down last year, but that did not stop him from driving fast and furious. He was, however, well supported by his service teams, which managed with just a few hours of rest between various stages. The lad from Chandigarh and his co-driver, Gurbir Singh Pannu, were widely appreciated for coming to the rescue of Sandeep Sharma and his co-driver, Kulbir Singh Dhaliwal, when the latter’s Gypsy went off road and fell into a gorge at Bahali, near Khatrala, about 92 km from Shimla. This was the only accident on the rally this time, and fortunately, the two escaped with minor injuries.

The competitors had little time to appreciate nature
The competitors had little time to appreciate nature

Tough terrain! On Day 2, near Chhatru
Tough terrain! On Day 2, near Chhatru

When the going gets tough, the tough get going
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Photos by the writer

Sunny and Gurbir were roundly cheered for displaying sportsmanship, since their stopping cost them at least six minutes of time in the first competitive section. Well, the men still managed to win the championship convincingly. They were also awarded the rolling trophy named after the two competitors who lost their lives when their vehicle went off road near Shimla during a previous raid — N.L. Chaudhary and Jasminder Pal.

The preparations for the raid start more than six months in advance, both by the organisers and by the competitors. Government clearances are sought and obtained, road books are updated and new routes introduced by organisers, even as the competitors get ready by finding out ways to enhance the vehicle performance. As time approaches, more persons get involved, the reconnaissance starts and the build-up is tremendous.

Vijay Parmar was the head honcho of the Himalayan Motorsport Association, which organises the event. Parmar, a former motorcyclist, is a Virgo who is meticulous in his planning.

The terrain was tarmac, with rough patches. Most of the competitive sections were on roads less travelled and the scenic vistas that unfold even as competitors hurtle down the Himalayan mountain roads are tremendous, even for those who have just a few seconds to glance at these.

The motorcyclists, 23 in all, were flagged off from Shimla on October 7. These hardy boys performed impossible feats, even as they battled temperatures as low as -28`B0C over certain stretches. Everyone falls down, but carries on, unless the bikes let the drivers down — what else do you do if you have two punctures, one after the other? If you check in beyond the maximum permitted lateness (MPL), you are excluded.

Among the bikers was a colourful TVS contingent. The prize for guts, however, went to Bittu Sondhi, who has been suffering from bone cancer but has been a force to reckon with on the rallying circuit. This Delhi boy’s mobike skidded near Baralacha La and he injured his wrist, though not seriously. The ice patches caused many a skid, and some falls, though the riders managed to escape serious injury.

This year’s champion, 23-year-old Sukhjinder Singh Rana from Anandpur Sahib, is a natural. He has won positions in all the 11 motoring events (rallies, raids, motocross) he has taken part in, except for the raid last year, when his mobike broke down. His first rally was SJOBA in March, 2001. When the prizes were announced for the fastest biker in each stage, he swept five of the six prizes, and when the time came for him to be awarded the overall trophy for the best motorcyclist, he requested permission for the members of his team to be allowed to step on the dais to get the trophy. Classic sportsman sprit! He richly deserved the John Mark James Trophy for embodying the spirit of the Raid de Himalaya.

The classic raid was called X-Treme this year, and another category was added — Reliability Trail. Thus, regular, unmodified, four-wheelers could enter in the competition for the first time and have an experience of the raid. Scorpio, Palio, Santro, Alto, Zen, Maruti 800, this was the colourful line-up. In the end, it was the Alto driven by Sirish Chandran and Yogendra Pratap which won the first prize, though Anila Khirme’s Scorpio had been leading, till the time she checked in 10 minutes early at the last time- control point. She still managed to win the first prize in the SUV category.

Bike champion: Sukhjinder Singh Rana
Bike champion: Sukhjinder Singh Rana
. Photo by Vivek Sharma

Out of 12 vehicles that took part in the event, 11 completed the race. The only dropout was a Maruti 800 driven by a young couple from Mumbai. Boulders had damaged the car’s undercarriage and it did not make it after the first day. On the other hand, another Maruti 800, with larger tyres and a raised suspension, even won a prize. Its navigator was 51-year-old Vipal Rekhi. He was not the oldest on the raid circuit this year, with Col D.N. Tankha at 70 and H. Kishie Singh somewhere in between!

Camp "Shiver Shiver" in Pang was aptly named, with temperature touching –28`B0C at night. A participant who liked to drink water during the night found his water bottle frozen when he groped for it. He moved it into the sleeping bag and was rewarded with chilled water a few hours later. The champion of the moment was little Mehak Handa, all of 8 years, who never complained of the cold that night.

Other children who made a difference to the raid was the gang comprising Imaan, Tara, Ria and Arjun, who have been uncomplainingly preparing the dockets of the competitors for the last five years — a task that many seasoned bureaucrats would find challenging.

The men got together to play in the mountains, and many followed the tradition of lighting aggarbattis and prayed as they crossed the Rohtang pass. Rohtang means Mountain of Bones in Tibetan. If you have crossed it and come back, you have much to be thankful about.