Words: Ouseph Chacko
Photography: Sharik Verma
I’ve had a six month long itch. You see, I live on a small island in the Andaman Sea and I’ve been aching to ride a motorcycle. I’ve been aching to ride it on a road longer than the ten kilometre stretch that serves as the main road on the island. So, to cut a long story short, that itch is why I find myself on a Triumph Tiger XCx, riding through Delhi in the peak of summer.
I’m wiping away the sweat that’s streaming down my face and burning my eyes. The ambient temperature on the Tiger’s digital display reads 44 degrees and right now, I am doing a slow burn in my Rev’It riding gear. Every traffic light and every traffic jam is a fresh reminder of what the inside of a sauna feels like. Someone points me ten kilometres in the wrong direction, someone else points me back in the right direction, I buzz past commuters on 100cc motorcycles and envy the bikinis they are wearing compared to my polar bear outfit. I almost pass out in heat exhaustion at one signal. Right now, I’m dreaming of the Andaman sea.
This seemed like a good idea a few days ago. A few days ago, I was sitting in the rain-drenched hills of Kerala reading a Facebook post by Vijay Parmar, the man behind the Raid de Himalaya. His post told me that Triumph, in collaboration with Xplorearth, his company, were organising a different kind of ride through the back roads of Himachal Pradesh. It said the five-day ride would be through spectacular scenery, over rocks, slush and on the edge of 4000ft drops into the valley. I signed up on the spot.
Back to the now and I finally find the exit to the Grand Trunk Road that will take me to Chandigarh. I crack it open, cool down a bit and add an hour to my Delhi-Chandigarh run by guzzling three litres of water and cooling my overheated internals at the first dhaba I find. I’ve made it out of Delhi alive – it should all be good from here.
Well, almost. I lose `500 to a Chandigarh traffic cop for breaking a signal hidden behind a tree on a roundabout. Oh well, tomorrow the ride starts. Tomorrow will be good.
What is all this about?
Triumph has been running the Tiger Academy for some time now. It is very different from the regular ‘let’s ride and screw everything else’ kind of ride. This is a school where most ride in gingerly and ride out powersliding while standing on the pegs. You learn stuff, you become a better rider. The Academy is usually a two-day event, held on closed grounds for people who want to learn how to ride the Tiger off-road, get some real skills, so to speak. Now, Triumph wants to take it a couple of steps further – they want to get owners to take on real world riding conditions and challenging terrain while learning the nuances of the Tiger’s riding modes and suspension setup. They call it the Tiger Trails and that’s where Vijay Parmar comes in. While most people his age sip on a cup of chai and read a newspaper in the morning, he’s out there churning up dirt on his Tiger or KTM 450 through some old mountain goat trail. He’s a great person to learn from and is part of the reason I wanted to go on this trip because I know I’ll do exactly that. Riding the back roads of Himachal’s Himalayas – that’s another reason I’m here.
Only the front brakes!
It is only the second day into the ride and we, me and nine actual Tiger owners, are eating hot Maggi at the top of Jalori pass. The 9km descent that follows is gravel, slippery mud and rocks. Vijay’s instruction, to our disbelieving faces, is that we must ride down only on the front brakes. Oh, and try to hit 60kmph on the way down. Now I know the Tiger pretty well but I’m apprehensive.
Only the front brakes?! In this drizzly, slippy mud?! My brain is telling me I’ll lose the front and fall. Yeah sure I’ll try it out but I quietly tell myself I’ll cheat – a few taps on the rear brake never harmed anyone. Turns out the ABS is superb – turns out I can grab a fistful of front brake and the ABS just sorts out the traction issues and slows the bike down. Turns out, I can hit a heart-in-the-mouth 60kmph downhill on a narrow mountain road and come out alive.
Vijay touches the rear brake callipers (if they are hot, they’ve been used) at the end of the descent to see who cheated. No one did – we’ve already learnt a lot in the two days of riding. The road riding brain is slowly rewiring itself to ride off-road. It is exhilarating.
The five-day ride is structured around a theory session before the day’s ride and then, the rest of the day is spent putting that theory into practice.
For example, after that mad descent at Jalori, our night halt is at Sonaugi guesthouse, a lovely homestay about twenty kilometres out of Manali. To get to the guesthouse, you have to ride down what feels like a 70-degree slope to get to the parking lot. Not as easy as it sounds when you have the momentum of a 200-plus kilo dual sport bike nudging you down. That stint down Jalori – that made this much less of a challenge than it would have been if we had been thrust down the slope straight away. What I liked was that through the whole ride, Vijay would keep making us change bike settings, explaining why we were doing it and what to expect of the bike after changes were made. Things like how to set compression and rebound damping for a particular kind of terrain, the big difference tyre pressure makes, what to do in a hill climb fail and even riding stance off-road. All of it requires a bit of a brain rewire because off-road, you ride very differently from when you are on the road. It is stuff that the owner’s manual won’t tell you, stuff that no one at the dealership will tell you and it is knowledge that you gain only from years of experience riding off-road and taking part in rally raids. This five-day session then is a direct, concise download from a man who has experience in these things. It proves very useful.
It is springtime in Himachal…
… and that means only one thing. Your day can only start on a good note. You wake up to views of snow-capped peaks, you get sunlight streaking through the tall pine trees that surround you while you breathe in cold mountain air and nurse a hot cup of chai. Your stomach is growling partly in anticipation of a killer breakfast and partly because you have butterflies thinking of the challenges that lie ahead today. That’s the other part of this ride – that feeling of peace that I seem to get only from riding in the Himalayas. I find myself enjoying the small things. I find myself feeling mildly giddy, hugely free.
You then gear up, you warm the engine up, banter with the other nutcases on the ride – oh, I must tell you about them. There’s Amit Sadh, he’s a movie star. He started riding by taking an Enfield up to Ladakh when he was 17. Then there’s Tajeshwar who’s determined to get his Street Twin through everything the Tigers go through, Atul Sharma who’s brought the huge Tiger Explorer with him, and Ankit and Samar who rode all night to make it to the start in Chandigarh. Oh there’s also KPS Dham, an Indian Air Force pilot who is here to de-stress and Rajeev Bansal who has come all the way from Jaipur. They’re good eggs, all of them. It is extremely nice to ride with them. I’ve also been riding with them these past couple of days and I can see how confident they are getting riding on these loose surfaces.
Anyway, the ride bit of the day starts when the digital oil temperature gauge shows five bars. That’s when everything is up to operating temperature. You then start slowly, feel the bike, that triple engine is a sweetheart. It’s so responsive, it is so smooth and my ears are addicted to the sound it makes. I love that the bike is so effortless, it doesn’t struggle to climb any of the steep slopes around here. It’s adjustable traction control, ABS and engine maps are nicely tied together and the whole bike feels so easy to manage once you get the hang of the weight. The WP suspension on the XCx is also superb – you can throw it at anything and I’m surprised by how much of a beating the bike can take.
Vijay explains that we are avoiding main roads and so, our little convoy through the hills and takes a lot longer to get to the destination than if we were to go as the state transport bus flies. I like this kind of riding. We roll through dense pine forests, slide through the tighter turns, avoid grazing cows and generally look like a Martian convoy to the sleepy villages we pass through.
The last day of the ride. Vijay tells us it is going to be five kilometres of hell and then teaches us a few tricks on how to ride through hell. Our ride is a narrow dirt track to a place called Mati Kochar high above Kullu. It rained heavily last night and that little dirt track is now a deep slush track. This is fine except on one side, your constant companion is a huge drop to the valley floor, or at the least, a painful drop onto the next pine tree. Vijay wasn’t kidding about hell. That five kilometres was probably the second toughest thing I’ve ever done on a motorcycle. We slip, slide and walk the bikes up that treacherous slope and somehow I make it up without taking the short flight to the bottom of the valley. At the top, there’s a lone government guest house and nothing else. We park the bikes, dig into the packed lunch and watch five Himalayan griffons soar through the valley below us. This has been an excellent ride. It has been an awesome learning experience. I vow to do more of this. Vijay tells me about the next ride to Zanskaar soon. Triumph. Can I have a Tiger please?