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  • Dean Bainbridge

Kinda Long Way Down

The pinnacle of my bike riding joy happened last year. On one of my final days in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, my friends Anup and David from INSPIRE BHUTAN had a special treat.

Half way down and entering the warm valleys

I like riding my bike. Not in a lycra clad roadster kinda way. I’ve always been a fan of a mountain bikes and isolated trails. I avoid roads as much as possible. And me and lycra would not be a good combination.

When planning the Bhutan itinerary, I asked Anup if we could do some bike riding. Downwards, preferably. He said one of the high passes we were visiting could be good. We would drive up, hike around the top, and we could cycle down. To be perfectly clear, this pass was the famous Chelela. A 4000 metre high pass that stands right near the boundaries of Bhutan, Sikkim (India) and Tibet (China).

So, I met the guys in the car park of the hotel in Paro. David had picked up our gear. I looked in the back of his SUV and there’s a pretty sweet Trek bike. Only problem… one bike.

I said, ‘Am I doing this solo?’.

They nodded.

‘We’re not good on bikes.’ they replied.

I gulped.

We made our way up this beautiful mountain through forests of rhododendrons, giant cypress trees and cool gully breezes filled with the scent of wildflowers. In the back seat, I listened to the guys talk crap to each other in Dzonga, their wonderful native language, while I quietly crapped myself. The only consolation at the time was that the traffic up and down the mountain was barely a trickle and the the road surface was flattish with long patches of actual bitumen!

The switchbacks wander down and around into the valley below

At the top of the pass, David made me the best cup of tea I’ve ever had. It would settle my nerves. I went for a stroll by myself and meditated for a while before Anup collected me. A member of the royal family arrived (as they tend to do when the population of the kingdom is less than an average city) so we bowed and hiked down to an ancient nunnery perched on the cliff. That’s another story.

There, David met me with the bike and I geared up. The guys had agreed to follow behind me like a support vehicle. I felt calmer knowing that they were not far away, and my strategy would be to leap off to the high side of the road. Sure, leaping into the middle of the road ran the risk of oncoming traffic, but when the shoulder of the road descends a few thousand feet into the Paro valley, I preferred to take my chances with the traffic.

I set off slowly, getting a feel for the bike. It felt responsive and sturdy. As the switchbacks kicked in I found myself going wide on the bends and then hunkering down on the straights. Needless to say, you gain speed very quickly. I’d estimate a top of 60-65 kays. My support vehicle was way behind and the sensation of that cool thin air ripping through my clothes was electric.

If you’ve seen ‘The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty’, this was my ‘skateboard through Iceland’ moment.

Then I realised two important things. Firstly, don’t lose sight of the car, idiot! Secondly, why the hell are you rushing this?

So I hit the anchors and stopped. For a long moment, I was all alone. No humans in sight. No sound but for some birds and the whistling cypress trees. That was the real treat. I touched the dirt. The trees. The road. Soon I heard the engine of the SUV approaching. The guys were impressed with my bike skills but a bit concerned that I’d raced too far ahead (and didn’t want to lose a guest on their watch!) They were absolutely right through.

I rolled it forward around a few bends and we all stopped in a clearing for some lunch. I had been flying down Chelela for twenty minutes and assumed we would be getting close to the bottom but Anup told me we were not even half way down.

With David and Anup for a pitstop picnic

Sure enough, I continued the rest of the descent at a leisurely roll - with several hairy corners and thrilling dips - but safely rolling away. Often standing up on the pedals to really feel the wind catch me. I took in the valley views once the big trees had thinned out. I waved to the casual occupants of cabins along the road. I said hello ‘kuzoo kuzoo’ to charming little kids who wondered what the hell I was doing.

A bit under and an hour from the launch point I made it to the crossroad that marked the border to Paro and civilian traffic. It was time to end the sweetest ride I have ever experienced, and one that I hope I can do again. Or at least find a bike like that one!

Bhutan was a series of unbelievable adventures sandwiched together. The Chelela Pass hosted several, but ‘The Drop’ was unforgettable.

Proof... 4000m up in the Himalayas

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