In late October I received a call from India. Did I want to go to Goa and join in the fun that is known as Rider Mania – the world’s largest gathering of Royal Enfield riders? The phrase ‘no-brainer’ came to mind as I looked out the window at the grey skies and rain over Cornwall and pictured myself on a hot, sunny beach beside the Indian Ocean.
To make matters even easier, the Indian government has greatly simplified the visa system and it’s now possible to get a visa online rather than via the lengthy, expensive and complicated procedure it was previously.
And so, three weeks later I found myself on a plane with my summer bike gear flying into Mumbai, the centre of all things Bollywood. A quick car journey up to the town of Pune where I was given a Royal Enfield Bullet (500cc) and also introduced to Kanchan, a local rider and proud owner of an Enfield motorbike, I was to be riding down to Goa with her and her Enfield bike club – the Guardians. Kanchan is a great source of stories and was one of the original members of the Bikernis.
6.30 the next morning saw me bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, but desperate to appear keen, being introduced to 20 or 30 people as we rendezvoused with the rest of the group on the outskirts of Pune. Inevitably the chai wallah (tea seller) was nearby and we drank several small cups of the hot, sweet, milky, spiced tea as we waited for the latecomers to arrive and had a briefing about the ride ahead – 430kms to the town of Vagator in Goa. And then we set off, a rather novel experience for me to just be part of a group and following the person in front, I’m always either riding on my own or leading a group.
The journey went well and the Guardians lived up to their name as they guided me through the chaos that accompanies village life in India: cows wandering round, pedestrians not heeding the vehicles, and the constant cacophony of horns. Yes it’s a challenge to ride, but it’s also an adrenaline rush as you weave your way through the traffic. The scenery changed from dry fields to sugar cane, and on to hills, woods and ending with a great ride along the Ghats road down to the tropical rainforest with lots of twists and turns on one of the best tarmac surfaces I’ve seen in India. Don’t worry folks, I didn’t let the side down and apparently impressed with my speed and control on the curves, overtaking most of the mainly male group with the sheer joy of loving the ride.
The small town of Vagator hosts Rider Mania and the place was packed with bikes – almost all were Enfields from veritable antiques right up to their modern-day counterparts. I was one of the odd ones out wearing full bike gear, boots and helmets each time I rode my bike – this is a beach resort and many tourists were in the flimsiest of clothes.
Rider Mania is an incredible event which attracts motorcyclists and enthusiasts from all over India, riding down from towns that can be as much as 2000 miles away and all proudly wearing their club t-shirts. There’s no rivalry beyond a friendly and bantering one and rather than gangs it felt like a big family with groups of far-flung cousins all meeting up. 5,000 riders attend – so rather a large family by anyone’s standards. I was quickly made to feel welcome and even encountered people I’d met in India on other travels including at the gate on the first day where someone in the crowd greeted me with the words, “We rode together on Khardungla last year.”
Multiple events take place from slow rides and trials sections, to arm-wrestling, the cleanest bike competition and the infamous dirt race. Guy Martin immortalised this race on TV last year when he rode across India on an Enfield to compete; and rather famously won the event. I’d seen the video and there was no way I was taking part – I was just here to give some talks about my travels, help out and generally soak up the atmosphere. Sarah Kashyap – a pint-sized ball of energy – had other plans. She is one of India’s top riders, having the distinction of being the only Indian female to complete the notorious Raid de Himalayas Rally (one of the world’s toughest rallies) and is employed by Royal Enfield. An injury sustained during the rally meant that she couldn’t currently ride and so she took it upon herself to convince me to compete. My list of excuses was plentiful and, I thought, pretty convincing:
- I have never raced in my life (and have no desire to)
- It looked very scary (and I’m a wimp)
- I didn’t have any race gear with me – no goggles, no boots (I was wearing my leather hiking boots), no knee pads, etc.
- I had other responsibilities at the event
- I didn’t even know whose bike it was that I was riding – what if something happened to it?
- And while we’re on the subject of bikes- this was most definitely not an off-road race bike
- I’ve got a broken toe
Oh yes, I maybe hadn’t mentioned that, but I’d managed to break my toe on the evening that I arrived in Goa – no alcohol or motorcycle was involved – I stubbed it on the doorstep!
The first thing Sarah did was produce a doctor who confirmed I had broken it; he strapped it up and pronounced me fine to compete – damn! She then continued by brushing away my other concerns and ended up by pointing out that there was a ladies race and it is very different to the ferocity of the men’s race, which was a factor in me finally saying maybe/yes.
Initially I only agreed to do the training session – 20 minutes in small groups with the helpful and patient (and how he needed that patience) Joshua. No other women in sight and so I was placed in a group with four blokes – I felt nervous, but it turned out that these guys had knocking knees as well – they had never raced either and in fact one of them had also borrowed some knee pads to race in. We cheered each other on and took to the track on our bikes. Gingerly I made my way round, thankful that it was a right-hand course so my left foot could stay safely on the foot peg out of harm’s way. I didn’t manage to pass anyone and even let others go past me. Joshua rolled his eyes each time he saw me slow and wave the other riders past – hmm, possibly not the killer instinct needed to be a top-level competitor
It wasn’t as scary as I had feared and I came off track feeling relieved, but also aware that I was actually quite crap. Sarah was not to be dissuaded though and announced my ride had been a total success. That evening over a couple of chilled Kingfisher beers in the Mango Tree – one of Goa’s best known Café Bars where we managed to be eating “dinner” at 1.00am and were back in for breakfast at 8.00am – she encouraged me to do the race.
In the cold (ok warm and slightly tropical!) light of morning I was having second thoughts, but no chance of changing my mind. DJ Jack Jigg announced he would be my pit crew, in between spinning tunes and entertaining the crowd, and marched over to my bike. Luckily my ignorance amused rather than appalled him and he sent me scuttling off for spanners and tape. The mirrors had to be taken off and the headlight ideally removed, but in the limited time we had we could get away with just taping it over. Ditto the indicators. The passenger foot pegs were tied up out of the way and as for the sari guard on the rear wheel – well we just have to leave that in place. At this point I looked around and realised that the majority of other bikes were already race prepped with all extraneous parts removed – in fact I appeared to be the only competitor with a sari guard and road tyres.
I entered the bike into scrutineering, which involved standing in the sun in a mass of people all supposedly queuing to have their bikes inspected and passed as race safe. The reality was a lot of jostling and pushing forward while I was doing my best Mary Poppins voice, “Excuse me, I do believe you arrived 20 minutes after me, so I’m not sure why you now think you should be in front.”
I used the opportunity to dry my vest and knickers draped over the back of the bike – I’d been for an early morning dip in the sea. After an hour I retreated to the shade of the marquee to keep out of the sun and watched the progress of the queue as it inched forward – dashing out every now and then to push my bike forward a bit more.
I somehow passed scrutiny and this was when it hit home that I would be competing as they handed me an International Race Licence. I signed for insurance and put on my racing bib with 93 inscribed on it – that’s it, I AM a racer I thought.
We had a couple of practice laps, where to my horror I found out that the track was different from my training one of the previous day and was now a much more gnarly course and all left hand bends – my poor broken toe recoiled in horror – or at least it would have done if it hadn’t been so firmly strapped to the next one. I was prevented from retreating by the tannoy calling for “Number 93” – gulp that was me.
I lined up with my fellow participants, once more with borrowed knee pads – these were a bit large and kept slipping down my leg, some of the others were race hardened riders, focussed on the track ahead and not chatting. A few were like me, nervously chatting, sharing our worries and wishing each other luck. And then we were off. I took it easy, following the others around the course. There were some tight bends and loose dirt – not a great combination by any standard. I was determined to complete my laps and stay upright, building up confidence and some speed by my third lap though, still nursing my broken toe and so being somewhat reticent about putting my left foot out on the curves. Then whoops as I headed out of the eighth bend and was on the long straight somehow I hadn’t straightened up and the bike went over. The crowd (had I mentioned the spectators?) went “ooh” I went “Oh shit” as I landed sprawling in the dust. I leapt to my feet and picked up the bike – hearing shocked comments along the lines of: “the lady lifts her own bike!!” Apparently this is unheard of in India. The Bullet is the country’s largest production motorcycle and is very much considered a man’s bike and therefore too heavy for a woman. However, compared to my 240kg BMW, this was easy to pick up and I was back up and racing down the track within a few seconds, completing my final lap.
Phew, the practice was over. I gathered with my fellow riders in the shade of the competitors’ marquee and we congratulated one another and wiped our sweaty dust covered faces. I returned the knee pads to their owner and wished him luck on his ride. Next up were the men’s qualifying heats. Mayhem ensued as they threw their bikes around the track, multiple pile ups, thrilling overtaking manoeuvres and billowing clouds of dust. The atmosphere had shifted up a notch and the volume of the crowd increased. I was stunned at the ferocity and recklessness of the racers, feeling very relieved that I wasn’t a bloke.
I watched and tried to learn. Because an hour later my race number was called once more and I was scrabbling around for a skinny man with knee pads I could borrow. Phew, I got a pair just in time and rushed down to the starting grid… grid??? Good grief, we were now in starting tracks with a metal grid that would drop down to signal the start of the race (along with the waving of the requisite flag). Already nervous, I was now adding to my worries with concerns about riding over the metal bars of the grid. We were squeezed in with handlebar jammed up against handle bar. I was next to the race favourite, Urvashi, who was focussed on the track ahead. Looking around I quickly realised I was committing school girl’s error – my engine was idling and I had my foot on the rear brake, just as I’ve always been told. Everyone else was in race mode with both boots planted on the ground, bodies leaning forwards and all revving their engines. I rapidly followed suit.
The countdown started and then the flag dropped and the grid clanked down I held back a bit due to the jostling of handlebars and the metal grid as the line-up of bikes surged forwards. Going into the first bend, I saw a bike go down; sending others wide and I managed to get through on the inside. I was clear of the main pack of bikes and could concentrate on riding without having to push for space. The track was very different from how it had been for our practice ride – it had been churned up by multiple laps of male racers all fiercely competitive and riding hard through the dirt. The surface was now churned up into loose dirt more like sand or dust. I quickly realised my road tyres were no good in the loose stuff and I had to ride wide round every curve – because yes folks – the race bug had bit me and I was actually competing. Though it was more a case of just not wanting to make a fool of myself in front of the large crowds in the grandstand. They were all shouting and cheering us on and there was even a small but vocal group of Goa-based expats cheering for the lone foreigner in the race.
I held my course and rode as hard as I dared, fearful of falling. At this point I realised another disadvantage of the bike – it has a see-saw type gear lever where the gear change can be done with the toe or the heel. In my nervous excitement I was stomping on the foot peg a bit, which meant my heel was catching the gear lever and inadvertently changing up a gear each time, causing me to lose momentum. Crucially at one point the bike actually stalled and cut out. A rapid re-start, thank goodness for electric starts, and I was off again trying not to lose sight of the riders in front of me. I rode my heart out going round and round, with the straight in front of the competitors’ area being my favourite moment, though as I was going wide each time to avoid the loose dirt, I was in danger of taking out the flag man each time I passed.
I was so focussed on the race that I lost count of the laps until suddenly the flag was waved to show I was on my final lap. I made one last effort, almost managing to lap someone, though I let her continue ahead of me and then suddenly there was the chequered flag waving and by my reckoning there had only been two riders ahead of me – I was 3rd!! To my amazement I had achieved a podium place and in true Rossi style I raised my arms in the air acknowledging the crowd as I crossed the finish line in a state of exhilaration.
It took a while to get me off the track as I did the lap of honour, mistakenly thinking this is what everyone does.
I got back to the off-track area, joining my fellow riders in congratulating each other on a great race and posing for photos. The sweat was pouring off us, but we all had huge grins. The favourite had won, but somehow the first ever foreign woman to compete had managed a place on the podium. The Guardian Bike Club and the Bikernis were amongst the crowd congratulating me.
The award ceremony was very solemn as the announcements were made and I stood on the podium with my trophy held high, feeling on top of the world but also thinking, “Blimey, this is heavy, how the hell am I going to get this trophy home in my luggage?”
I was interviewed and photographed both on and off the bike, with people asking if I was related to Guy Martin amongst other questions.
I was feeling elated after what was one of the most nerve-wracking and intense riding experiences I have ever had. So many women came up to me and said how they loved the fact that I had taken part and were impressed at my bravery they were even more surprised that I had never been in a race before, I encouraged them to have a go and take part next year.
Talking of which, it was such a wonderful experience that I am planning on heading over for the event again in 2016. HC Travel will be able to supply bikes and sort out accommodation if anyone wants to join me. I am also hoping to have a surprise guest (though I can’t say who at this point, keep an eye out). Put late November 2016 in your diaries everyone.
I thoroughly recommend India as a riding destination and I’m looking forward to going back and hopefully battling for another podium place.