I have never ridden a motorcycle in such testing conditions ever, encountering numerous water crossings, endless stretches of ankle deep slush and inclement weather. Now, in the comfort of my office chair in an air-conditioned room, I just cannot wait to do that stretch again. And if I have to do it again, I’ll stick to the new Triumph Tiger 800 (the XCx next time) for the adventure as I have been blown away by the motorcycle’s capabilities. The abuse it can sustain with a smile on its face – like Rocky Balboa taking blows one after the other, only to be ready for another bout instantly.
This was the second year that Triumph India was holding the Splendid Spiti ride with Vijay Parmar and his team of off-road specialists at the helm. Shimla was the starting point for the ride but the bikes were in Chandigarh. I was handed the keys to the Tiger 800 XRx, the mid-spec, road-biased Tiger.
My Spiti experience began with a ride to Sangla. Sangla is not really in the Spiti valley but Vijay wanted us to get acclimatised slowly and get ourselves comfortable with broken tarmac.As I was given the number 18 for the ride, I was at the trailing end of the second group, led by Shayne Singh, with Overdrive’s Shumi ahead of me and Autocar India’s Rishaad Mody in tow. With spits of rain every now and then and the roads were already far from being grippy, a few of the owners had issues keeping pace with the group leaders. Thankfully, this was not one of those convoy expeditions where we had to maintain our spots and overtaking was frowned upon.
All play and no learning makes Jehan a stupid rider. Thus, at the fuel stop in Narkanda, Vijay sir told us to drop tyre pressures from the recommended 36-42psi front-rear combination to something as low as 20-24psi. Most of us, including myself, were hesitant. To put our fears at ease, Vijay said to drop it in a progression and not at once to get a gradual feel of the change in dynamics. I dropped it to 24-28psi and set forth for the next stage. Grip levels improved dramatically. It is surprising how nimble yet confidence inspiring this 200+ kilo Tiger is in not so ideal riding conditions.
The sun came out just as we finished a lip-smacking lunch of rajma chawal and aloo sabzi. We made a quick dash for Sangla thereafter. Vijay in the lead, Shumi, Rishaad and I were gunning for it. The three of us have spent considerably more time on tarmac than off it. Hence, the three of us were adopting the natural road riding body-out stance around bends. Vijay on the other hand was throwing his Tiger down into the bend while his body was upright. Vijay had another lesson in store for all at the end of the day. Professor Parmar told us the harm of adopting our style in the forthcoming couple of days. Adopting the off-road style would come in handy in numerous situations. It would keep our centre of gravity inside the motorcycle’s dimensions and not outside like usual. And in case we had an accident, it would be easier to jump off the motorcycle and not trap our legs under its immense weight.
That evening, the Professor turned into Doctor Parmar. We were climbing altitudes going ahead. He monitored our blood pressures, beats per minute and the oxygen levels in our blood. This was done to find out the ones who would probably have issues as the air thinned out. Clearly, I am not by any stretch of imagination what you would call an ideal body structure, more a potato structure. Years of stuffing my mouth with fried chicken, red meat and obviously potatoes, reflected in my blood pressure being borderline high. Doctor Parmar peeked through his glasses and told me to shape up.
We had three options for the following day’s adventure. Option A – head to a nearby trail to the Sangla Kanda glacial lake. Option B – ride up to Chitkul, the last inhabited village near the Indo-China border. Option C – chill in the hotel. I had a Triumph Tiger 800 XRx. That meant road-biased dual purpose Metzeler Tourance tyres, not-as-long-travel-as-the-XCx’s suspension units from Showa and not as high ground clearance as the XCx. I was going to opt for B. Shumi on the other hand had to rush back and chose Option D – riding back to Chandigarh. I fell prey to peer pressure. Rishaad and Trishy Gill, one of the Tiger owners who I had struck up a conversation in the period with, were pumping me up for the trail and finally the Professor said, “Don’t worry, Jehan. You’ll have fun!” Option A it was.
You search for it on Google and it will say the trail is hardly five kilometres long. Shouldn’t be a problem right? However, it almost took the life out of me just to reach the top. The trail began through small settlements until we reached flat land 20-minutes later. We had another small lesson there on how to grip the motorcycle with the thighs correctly and stand pigeon-toed on the bike. “Don’t try to be macho and try to kick the bike up. You’ll break your femur. Broken levers heal faster than broken legs,” said Prof Parmar as we began the remainder of the trail. Tyre pressures dropped further. Off-Road mode activated after scrolling through the coloured-TFT dash. Traction control disabled. We began our assault.
Man was it gruelling. It took us close to three hours going up to the lunch spot. I did drop the bike a couple of times and required help on more occasions than I can count. And despite it falling down, there were hardly any scratches on the motorcycle. Damages? Only the lever ends which snapped off. According to Vijay, he would give the trail a rating of 3 (the maximum) as it had nearly everything that comprises a great off-road trail apart from river crossings. But it was worth it!
I lost my way to the hotel. I took a turn earlier than the one intended. By the time I realised it was the wrong way, there was no place to turn back. I rode all the way down to the river banks and back up a different road which landed up right at a spot where it was a climb through boulders. Confident of my recent success with trail riding, I kept the momentum going. Several clanks, boinks and thuds later, I was back on track.
There was a major issue on day three. No, the bikes were absolutely fine. The five of us that made it to the top plus a couple of the support and media crew members suffered stomach upsets. Apparently it had something to do with the packed paratha lunches that screwed up our digestive systems. I tried all remedies to keep myself from soiling my pants on the ride. I took allopathic meds which had funny names like Lomotil and Roko. I consumed raw tea leaves. I filled my hydration pack with ORS. Luckily, my stomach didn’t give me any trouble in the day.
The road until the town of Pooh was fantastic. Pristine tarmac allowing speeds to be as high as possible. Thereafter to Spello, the road was under construction and that put our off road learnings to the test. I had begun to lower the motorcycle and keep myself upright. Luckily, it became tarmac again after Khab. This was one of the fastest and perhaps one of the top three stretches of the ride. It was fast with numerous hairpins and the drops were heart-pounding. Once at the top in Nako, I had all the time in the world to appreciate the sights. I had never seen blue skies as deep as they were with a brilliant cloud cover. It was the closest I have been to heaven. My phone hadn’t beeped since the time we left Khab and was told it would be the same until day after when we were nearing Manali.
Tabo to Kaza was extremely short, 50km to be exact. However, just ten kilometres prior to Kaza, Professor had made plans for us to get muddy in Pin valley. We literally rode up to the banks of the Spiti river. As I parked my Tiger on firm ground, I fell into a tranquil state of mind. The serenity and the calmness of the surroundings, unmatched. The Himalayas have that effect on you. They also make you seem so small and insignificant. As I saw my colleagues trying their hand at powersliding, I just sat there staring into the distance.
I felt so relaxed and energised that we had a baller ride thereafter to Kaza. Rishaad, Trishy and I were zipping right behind our guru. Oh, what a blast we had. We were hitting triple digit speeds on sections that I would be scared of doing at the start of the ride. Succulent meat awaited us at Hotel Deyzor in Kaza.
I made the biggest mistake on the final day. Thinking that the day’s climate would not be anything other than sunny yet breezy, I packed my jacket’s rain liner, my rain coat and waterproof poncho in the luggage that was loaded daily in the trailer. In the first couple of kilometres itself, the chill began kicking in. As we reached Kibber, it was fully set in. I was shivering. My teeth were chattering. I was holding the tank with even more vigour. Here’s when the Tiger’s heated grips came in extremely handy (pun intended). 10km after Kibber and the brilliant stretch of asphalt turned into a pitiful state of rubble, dirt and small boulders.
I gulped down couple of cups of chai in Losar, bringing some much needed warmth to the body. The police station on the outskirts of Losar marks the start of the Raid de Himalaya stage which ends right at Gramphu. The record time set on the stage is some 78 minutes. As it turned out to be, we took 5 hours. The ascent to Kunzum La was just the start of the torture. I desperately needed to relieve myself once we reached Kunzum La. The chill found another way to cause me discomfort.
The dhaba at Batal provided some much needed comfort. I gorged on Maggi and biscuits while my addiction for chai had reached new heights. Our columnist, Vir had suggested in his monthly ‘Greatest Indian Roads’ section that the stretch from Batal on to Gramphu should be on every biker’s bucket list. Well Mr Nakai, I checked it off but it was mentally draining. I managed to escape ahead in the first group as disaster struck behind. Rishaad crossed a small water crossing before a pipe burst behind him, causing a severe landslide.
400m later, there was a river crossing as wide as the pitch of a football field. The current was exceptionally strong. The bed was full of rocks and as we discovered later, when we saw an extremely ambitious Innova driver crossing the stream, contained a massive drop. We built miniature ramps with the help of the gathered locals. One by one, we got each other’s bikes across as four others surrounded the one crossing to keep him from falling over. If we would have waited for the others it would be more than three hours before they would appear. We did encounter water crossings later on as well but none as arduous as this one. Another chai stop was much needed at Chhatru.
The climb up to Gramphu was 18km of pure slushy terrain with the motorcycle constantly trying to tip over. You just have to be gentle with the throttle, leave the bars loose to allow the front to find itself and ultimately grip the bike with the thighs. And while I did have my moments, I did not drop the motorcycle. I was spent. The skies had opened up along the way. Surrounded by lush green slopes, the Chenab river was flowing with much more serenity than Spiti. The road lived up to the Raid’s tagline – “Making grown men cry since 1999.”
As I turned left at Gramphu, I cried out with joy for there was tarmac. The smile was quickly wiped off as the asphalt lasted for hardly a few hundred metres. Broken tarmac with the occasional slush pits lasted right until Rohtang pass. I sighed in relief, propped the Tiger alongside a rock and lay there basking in the sun. Even though the road ahead until Manali was a complete pittance, I was content. Content with the knowledge that I finished the ride.
As I relaxed in the comfort of my warm cosy bed at the Johnson’s Café in Manali, I just thank my stars for what is one of my highest ranking motorcycle riding experiences till date. The Triumph Tiger 800 was my faithful companion throughout. Even though I scuffed her, she never whimpered. I cannot ask for a better motorcycle that is as apt for India as she is.