Asian Games: Nepalese mountain biker mounts unlikely challenge

Ajay Pandit Chhetri, 26, a bike mechanic from Nepal hopes to beat the odds when he toes the line at the Asian games in October

KATHMANDU (AFP) — A short and skinny former bicycle mechanic from one of the world’s poorest countries is hoping to beat the odds and surprise Asia’s best mountain bikers at the Asian Games.

Nepal’s Ajay Pandit Chhetri, who is 5-foot-4 and weighs just 106 pounds, is a shopkeeper’s son who won his first race on a borrowed bike.

When he makes his Asian Games debut in the cross-country race on October 1, he’ll be riding a bike that costs far less than his competitors’ cutting-edge machines.

But in his favor is a life steeped in mountain biking after spending years since childhood riding Nepal’s remote Himalayan trails.

And in Incheon, South Korea, Chhetri believes he can make an impression by finishing in the top five.

“Even now, those racing against me in South Korea will have bikes costing double of mine,” Chhetri said. “It is like a fight between a khukri (a traditional Nepalese knife) and a gun.”

Chhetri has been Nepal’s national champion since 2009, quite a feat considering he couldn’t afford his own mountain bike when he won his first race at 15 years old.

At the time, even a low-end mountain bike costing about 20,000 rupees ($205) was out of his reach, until well-wishers pitched in to help him pay for it.

“It amuses me when people get surprised by my achievements,” he said. “I may be thin and short, but my hard work and preparation has brought me this far.”

Chhetri’s love of mountain biking comes from long before he dreamt of winning medals. As a young boy, he spent his free time riding around hills on the outskirts of Kathmandu.

“I was always good at sports, but cycling appealed to me because it is all about an individual’s effort. It is about what you can do,” he said.

His evolution as a competitive racer came almost by chance. Tired of going to a mechanic every time his bike broke, he joined a workshop to learn how to fix it himself.

Soon, his expertise as a mechanic brought him into contact with mountain bikers visiting Nepal, who opened his eyes to the possibilities and prompted him to enter his first race.

“When I was repairing … those powerful cycles, I used to dream about owning them. Now I know that dreams can come true,” he said.

Chhetri, 26, has spent the past four months training rigorously for the Asian Games, but he has continued to taste success along the way.

Last week he became the first foreigner to win the 268-kilometer (167 miles) Tour of the Dragon race in Bhutan, smashing the course record by more than 30 minutes.

Chhetri’s experience of Himalayan terrain helped him navigate the hilly course, including four treacherous mountain passes, three of which were over 10,000 feet.

He is no stranger to competing at altitude, having won Nepal’s annual 400-kilometer Yak Attack — dubbed the world’s highest mountain bike race — four times.

The race kicks off in Kathmandu, traverses the Annapurna mountain circuit at more than 17,500 feet and ends close to the Chinese border.

Although Nepal is “naturally blessed with a terrain perfect for mountain biking,” Chhetri said a lack of government support and insurance discourages riders from turning professional.

“Often we don’t take on challenging routes even if we want to because there is no insurance to fall back on. What will happen to me if I break my bones?”

Chhetri is traveling to Incheon with 197 other athletes who will represent Nepal in 24 sports, including athletics, martial arts, and wrestling.