Mountain Biking Experience in Bhutan

Bhutan’s top cycling event that attracts cyclists from around the globe ended successfully. Get more insights from the man who rode the dragon, retired Col. Tawpow Dukpa, a biking enthusiast, who spoke to us about racing the dragons and cycling in Bhutan.

Bicycling in Bhutan is fairly a recent trend and the sport has picked up popularity at quite a fast rate, when did your affair with the two wheeler begin and how often are you on the wheels?

It was sometime in 2009, I got an opportunity to ride a bicycle. From then on, I got interested and bought a mountain bike with accessories for about Nu.40,000/-. As I enjoyed my new found past time and equipment, I was at it on regular basis with increased duration of rides.

Since then, how far and high have you pedalled around in the country and which are your most favourite areas/routes/trails (both on and off road)?

Initially off-road was very limited, so I rode on the motor road most of the time. But as of now, many off-road dirt trails are available and more and more trails are being developed in many places.

This Year, you took part in the 3rd Dragon’s Fury Race (60 km) and the years before, in the 2nd (in 2011) and 6th (in 2015) Tour of the Dragon Race (268 km), the toughest Bike Race held in Bhutan. Tell us what goes into preparing for the race and what motivated you to participate?

With time, my skills improved and I started to think seriously of taking part in the Tour of the Dragon (TOD) race, which is 268 km with 4 high mountain passes en route.

I was interested to take part in the Dragon’s Fury Race from the start when it was inaugurated in 2015 but that year, I was participating in the 6th TOD as it was the 60th Birth Anniversary Celebrations of His Majesty the Fourth Dragon King. The route was very bad because of the East-West Highway widening works. I could compete only about half of the route as knee problem developed and moreover my program ( a pilgrimage to Singye Dzong and few more important religious places) was coming up in the next month, so I gave up the race about 5 km short of the Pelela Pass.

This Year’s 3rd Dragon’s Fury Race came by and I participated, although I did not have much practice. The 60 km stretch was completed in 5 hours 12 minutes.

At the Dantak Open Mountain Bike Race 2016

What does the day before the race-begin looks like and tell us about the participants you were competing against (gender, nationalities etc)?

The day before the race did not have any effect on me. I did not experience any pre-race anxiety or worry, nor great feelings of excitement. I was the oldest rider and all others were of various ages, some as young or younger than my children.

Please share your experience of the D-DAY, take us back into the day of the race on extremely challenging mountain roads of Bhutan (from START to FINISH of both the races)

The 3rd Dragon’s Fury was to start at 9 am but the officials delayed us till 10 am, therefore the warm day did give us some problems while riding up towards Dochula from the starting point in Mitshina. The last stretch from Dochula to Semtokha was in the heavy downpour but the remaining few kilometers was dry. Although I was the oldest rider once again, I was not the last to cross the finishing line, which was a satisfying feeling to have finished in a time of 5 hours 12 minutes.

The Tour of Dragon race starts at 2 am in Bumthang, when all of the people are fast asleep and maybe even having good dreams. The initial ride over Kikila takes about 30 minutes and some amount of excitement with the rushing crowd is felt. Once the downhill starts, it becomes quite difficult for the freshers because of the gradient and darkness, and because of the road conditions. I had a fall but it was not very serious.

Up along the Chhumey Valley the line stretches, the faster riders are way ahead by then and the slower ones get left behind. So the bunch of mediocre riders like us are in the middle wondering what must be lying ahead. Since the darkness does not allow us to see anything around, the ride is monotonous, also one must keep looking at the road as the surface is wet from the drizzle, mud and stones from the widening work.

After crossing Yotongla, it is a downhill ride once more and again one has to be careful of the gradient and road conditions. By the first light we reach Trongsa Town and then some change in the mood to ride sets in. After crossing the viewpoint, opposite Trongsa Dzong, the gradient more or less becomes easy to ride. Once you cross into Nyala Loom and Chendebji village, the sun comes out from behind the clouds and saps our energy.

After Chendebji the gradient starts upwards and then the sight of the road with the riders ahead, gives us, the people at the rear, a disheartening feeling, having to catch up all the way. The areas near Sa-Duksum-Num-Duksum and the last climb nearby the Langtel village in the afternoon sun gives us, the riders a hellish feeling. Once over Pelela till Wangdue Bridge, the ride is fun, only the hand takes a little bashing as the weight of the body comes on to your hands.

From Wangdue Bridge up to Mitshina is a pleasure ride but the next 30 odd kilometers climb from there to Dochula takes the toll on the riders. As one has been riding for over 12 hours and 200 km, plus the tiredness sets in and road surface seems to hold onto cycle tyres. To get rid of the pain in the legs I had to get down and walk for short stretches on a few occasions. By the time I was about 5 km away from Dochula the darkness fell and the ride was once again becoming unpleasant. After crossing Dochula, the downhill ride was relaxing for the legs, but hands had to bear the brunt.

I crossed over the finishing line at Thimphu town square after what seemed like donkey’s ages. It took me 18 hours 30 minutes to complete the race. On dismounting, my legs were shaky and wobbly. My wife and children were waiting there, quite concerned that I was so tired.

For the cyclist or the bikers out there who have never been to Bhutan, can you describe the road or the route in few words (what to expect)?

Lighting should be good, in order to avoid mishaps from roads under repair and loose mud that becomes a porridge after the rains. As the cycles were stripped of many parts, the muck thrown on the front and back were becoming a problem at places, the cattle had their share of dirtying done with dung and that give us hell.

From 2018 or thereafter, the race should be enjoyable as the road widening activities would come to an end.

Any memory of challenging situation during the race or while cycling around? How did you deal with it?

I was lucky not to have any severe problems. I had a fall while riding down hill in a gravelled area, early in the race and that gives me aches by the afternoon.

with The Prime Minister of Bhutan. Pic courtesy@ official fb page of the PM

Not everyone who participate manages to complete the race, and you have not only completed it but you even outran the participants who were much younger than you. Tashi Delek (congratulations) la on your accomplishment. The race has seen many winners of different nationalities, who was this year’s winner and who was the fastest “Son of the Dragon” so far?

Thank you for the compliments.
This year’s winner of Tour of the Dragon race was our very own bhutanese biker Sonam and a biker from Nepal Rajkumar Shrestha won the runner-up position. They had an interesting anecdote. While riding downhill from Pelela, the bhutanese cyclists tyre got punctured and he did not have a spare on him. The Nepalese cyclist was kind enough to lend him his spare tube. After repairs the bhutanese cyclist dashed and caught up with his benefactor but was hesitating to go ahead. The Nepalese gentleman was so good as to tell him to go ahead.
On my last few Kilometers to Dochula for the Dragon Fury Race, Sonam caught up and went ahead. I tried to keep up but he seemed to have more energy and catching up was impossible. The route is more downhill beyond Dochula and since it was drizzling heavily, I did not want to have any unpleasant happenings.

This annual event held every September is considered one of the toughest one day mountain bike race in the world, give us three reasons why a cyclist should not miss it.

A) The pristine environment with scenic views from beginning till the end.
B) Four high mountain passes to be crossed with challenging stretches of road so far.
C) Personal achievement.

Apart from the mountain bike race, please share with the bike lovers out there what kind of cycling experience awaits them in Bhutan and why Bhutan is the perfect place for a scenic two-wheeled holiday. (off road, on road/traffic?)

I have done a number of ridings/practices and I haven’t had any bad mishaps. On the whole if one keeps to one’s side and not be rash/careless, it is fun to ride on the highway and other available roads. Around Thimphu, quite a number of trails are being developed and they are interesting.

Is this experience something for you? Want to include this event in your itinerary? Get in touch with us to curate a dream trip that enables you to experience your passion in exotic Bhutan.