How the ‘world’s tough­est one-day bike race’ could put Bhutan ahead

Bhutan Times - - Home - ( Source : BBC)

The reclu­sive king­dom of Bhutan has for years granted only lim­ited ac­cess to tourists. But the coun­try is now slowly at­tract­ing more vis­i­tors - and one way its do­ing so is through ex­treme sports, as film­maker Alex Bescoby re­counts.

It was 2am on a chilly Septem­ber morn­ing in Bhutan, and a gru­elling 268km ( 166 miles) slog lay ahead.

Be­tween me and the fin­ish line in the cap­i­tal, Thim­phu, lay four moun­tain- passes each more than 10,000ft high ( 3,050m) and a feat of en­durance that has taken world- class ath­letes more than 11 hours to com­plete.

As the or­gan­is­ers of the Tour of the Dragon ( TOD) point out, real dan­gers awaited.

The TOD has been billed as the “tough­est one- day bike race in the world”. Be­tween the rough un­du­lat­ing ter­rain and the po­ten­tial to run into wild tigers, leop­ards and wild boar, it wasn’t hard to see why.

Only 47 oth­ers took part and most were, un­like my­self, per­fect cy­cling spec­i­mens from Bhutan and abroad. ‘ It’s my dream’ Be­side me at the start­line was Wangchuk Nam­gay, the youngest rider at just 17.

“It’s my dream to com­plete this race,” he con­fided.

He had never rid­den any­where near this dis­tance be­fore, but his nerves were damp­ened by the months of train­ing he had put in, and the po­ten­tial to win the first prize of £ 1,500 ($ 1,950).

On my other side was a more sea­soned Bhutanese rider, 46- year- old Rinzin Norbu, who was un­der­tak­ing his eighth race.

“Has any­one ever died do­ing this?” I asked him, in­creas­ingly ner­vous.

“No, not yet”, he grinned. “Our prime min­is­ter broke his jaw. It didn’t stop him fin­ish­ing.”

It’s a good in­sight into the peo­ple that thrive in this na­tion of just 750,000, tucked be­tween In­dia and China, and nick­named The Land of the Thun­der Dragon.

Bhutan’s Prince Ji­gyel Ugyen Wangchuck a pas­sion­ate cy­clist, founded the TOD in 2010 as a chal­lenge be­tween friends. But such is the ven­er­a­tion for the royal fam­ily in Bhutan, the race has be­come a na­tional event.

The 34- year- old prince, dressed ready to race, stopped to greet each rider per­son­ally. Heads were bowed and backs straight­ened.

“Pace your­self, and stay safe,” he told me in a re­as­sur­ing tone.

Min­utes later a rum­bling prayer from saf­fron- robed monks built to a crescendo, and the start­ing gun set off a cloud of con­fetti.

Be­fore sun­rise, dark­ness was the big­gest dan­ger.

The cheap torch I’d strapped to my han­dle­bars failed to spot cows emerg­ing like bovine ice­bergs in the pre- dawn fog. They re­fused to move - pos­si­bly due to a lack of fear stem­ming from the ban on all an­i­mal- killing in Bhu- tan, or per­haps due to the co­pi­ous marijuana grow­ing wild around us.

When the sun fi­nally rose five hours later, it brought its own prob­lems. The tem­per­a­ture rock­eted, and my skin turned bright- red in the thin moun­tain air.

The five- hour up­hill slog that fol­lowed de­served its own cir­cle in hell. Bhutan only paved its first road in 1962, and large sec­tions of the route re­mained a workin- progress.

As I inched for­ward in the low­est gear through mile- af­ter- mile of trea­cle- like mud, the air turned blue with my in­creas­ingly in­ven­tive swear­ing.

I found my­self dead last, mak­ing painfully slow progress. The driver of the sweeper bus be­hind me al­le­vi­ated his bore­dom by live- stream­ing my ef­forts across so­cial me­dia via his smart­phone. Cul­ture vs cash Mo­bile phones only ar­rived in Bhutan in 2003 - just four years af­ter the tele­vi­sion - but the coun­try is now reach­ing 100% pen­e­tra­tion rates.

Its thinly spread pop­u­la­tion once re­lied on mes­sen­gers trav­el­ling weeks on foot through pre­car­i­ous moun­tain passes.

But now so­cial me­dia is con­nect­ing the Bhutanese like never be­fore, as well as broad­cast­ing my suf­fer­ing across the coun­try in sec­onds.

And it’s not just smart­phones that have taken off in Bhutan. The coun­try’s tourism in­dus­try is also on the rise.

Bhutan has tra­di­tion­ally re­stricted tourism to the wealthy few, us­ing steep daily visa- fees to safe­guard its pris­tine en­vi­ron­ment and proudly in­de­pen­dent cul­ture.

But a part­ner­ship agree­ment with In­dia has seen large num­bers of tourists vis­it­ing Bhutan visa- free in the last few years.

Many bring their own cars and sup­plies, and stay only briefly in the grow­ing num­ber of high- vol­ume, low- bud­get ho­tels pop­ping up across the coun­try.

While some wel­come the ex­tra rev­enue and in­ter­est in Bhutan’s unique his­tory and cul­ture, it’s an is­sue caus­ing rare dis­agree­ment in a coun­try fa­mous for fo­cus­ing on “Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness”.

Find­ing the right bal­ance will likely be top of the agenda for the new gov­ern­ment formed af­ter Bhutan goes to the polls for only the third time in his­tory in Oc­to­ber.

So per­haps cy­cling could be the coun­try’s way of strik­ing that bal­ance - at­tract­ing in­ter­na­tional ath­letes while show­cas­ing the best of its cul­ture and en­vi­ron­ment.

Bhutan is tra­di­tion­ally known for its ob­ses­sion with archery, its na­tional sport.

But the Bhutan Olympic Com­mit­tee ( BOC) has been in­creas­ingly keen to see Bhutan’s young ath­letes con­sider cy­cling as an op­tion.

Its sec­re­tary- gen­eral, Sonam Karma Tsh­er­ing, be­lieves the pres­ence of world- fa­mous cy­clists tak­ing part in the TOD could in­spire a fu­ture Bhutanese world­cham­pion. He feels that Bhutan’s un­for­giv­ing ter­rain is the per­fect place for elite cy­cling to take hold.

The royal fam­ily’s pas­sion for cy­cling has also helped.

Bhutan’s beloved for­mer king, now in happy re­tire­ment hav­ing ab­di­cated in favour of his son, can be seen cy­cling dressed in his tra­di­tional gho most days in the hills around Thim­phu.

Back in the un­for­giv­ing moun­tains, my race to­wards the fin­ish line con­tin­ued.

Af­ter more than 14 soul- de­stroy­ing and awe- in­spir­ing hours, I fi­nally sur­ren­dered at the 200km mark - a dis­tance sur­pris­ing both me and my grow­ing on­line fol­low­ing.

“Ah, the last man stand­ing”, quipped Mr Tsh­er­ing as I limped into his of­fice at the BOC a few days later to dis­cuss his vi­sion for the race.

“It could be the Tour de France of Bhutan!” he de­clared, only halfjok­ing.

While the race was over for me, the BOC has high hope for at­tract­ing more rid­ers than ever for next year’s 10th TOD. But there is a limit, Mr Tsh­er­ing in­sisted.

“We want a world class race without sell­ing our soul.”

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