Longtime friends push themselves to the limit on their Ribble Adventure bikes and explore the dizzying heights of Nepal and India.
Five and a half weeks before the biggest trip of my life and I’ve just woken up from surgery to have my broken wrist fixed with a plate and screws. That doesn’t leave long to get healed. The surgeon said metalwork was the only option if I really had to go. Incredibly, there’s no cast and I get to start moving my wrist almost immediately after the op.
Roll forward to 20th October and we’re here, in the madness of Kathmandu. To avoid any more silly accidents while the wrist was healing, I haven’t ridden since my accident. So after a morning spent building up the bikes it’s time to see how the wrist feels, because one way or another it’s going to have to handle the next 5 weeks travelling across Nepal and down into India.
Our plan is simple and loose. Take a one-way flight to Kathmandu, go as far west as time allows, get amongst the big mountains along the way and then drop south to finish in Delhi and fly home from there. I’m doing the trip with long time bike buddy Ben, someone I know I can rely on in any situation and who’s also more than capable of doing the miles.
Both of us are lifelong riders of most bike disciplines but neither of us has ever spent more than a week away on a ride so this is exciting new territory for us. We gave up trying to plot a detailed route after we discovered that beyond a few well-known circuits, there just isn’t much info available online about biking across Nepal on mixed surfaces and even less in Northern India.
We’d marked out a few regions that looked interesting but ended up deciding we’d be better off working it out once we were on the ground. We’ve arrived in the autumn season to hopefully get the best of Nepal’s post-monsoon warm dry weather.
One thing the maps did tell us was that with the range of altitudes we were aiming to ride across, we’d need to be ready for a full range of conditions. Tarmac to trail, dirt to rock, dust to mud, extreme heat to extreme cold, sun to snow and rain in the middle.
After ruling out our various drop bar bikes (we expected to hit some technical trails) and our suspension rigs (too hard to fix if they fail), we decided we needed new bikes for the trip and happily landed on Ribble’s *Adventure 725.
Simple steel frames, great load carrying options, good geometry for going anywhere and clearance for big volume tyres that would make up for the lack of travel and protect our wheels from any problems.
It seemed to make sense for both of us to take the same bikes with the same specs to reduce the spares and also avoid finding mid-trip that one of us had picked well and the other not so well.
*The Adventure range has now been replaced by the Gravel/Adventure family of bikes.
A couple of nights in Kathmandu gives time for a day ride to gain some height, start acclimatising to the altitude and then drop back down to the city to sleep. Straight away my wrist feels good and from that point on its threat of ruining the trip was over. Thank you so much Harrogate Hospital orthopaedic team.
Riding out amongst the chaos of the ring road is the ideal shock treatment for us to quickly tune in to a very diﬀerent style of navigating traﬃc. It’s more like holding your position in a packed cyclocross race than riding on the orderly roads we’re used to in the UK.
Own your space, make it clear when you’re going to cut across the pack and have faith that at the last moment the other bike/car/truck will back down. We both loved it. Later that first day we would ride up and out from the smog to look back down on the city and get our first view of the Himalayan mountains beyond. Big moment!
Kathmandu is a crazy place, full of colour and noise and exactly the assault on the senses that we’d hoped for. In the busy tourist district, the endless outdoor equipment stores make us feel we’re following the footsteps of not just busloads of tourists buying knock-oﬀ North Face, but also some of the world’s most famous adventurers.
“It’s more like holding your position in a packed cyclocross race than riding on the orderly roads we’re used to in the UK. “
Only having a vague idea of a route, we drop by the Himalayan Singletrack bike store and ask the owner Jenny for her thoughts on our ‘plan’ and any general advice for riding in Nepal. Jenny is great! She quickly talks us out of heading to the high and remote Jumla via the Dolpo (“you’ll probably die”) and after a cup of coﬀee, we leave happy to take her advice and ride the well known Annapurna circuit instead.
This 100-ish mile loop had always been on our radar but we’d discounted it thinking instead we’d tackle lesser-known and quieter high mountain passes with the camping kit we’d packed. But we’d made promises to families back home that we wouldn’t take stupid risks, so in the course of one conversation over a coﬀee, we totally reshaped our trip.
The 10-14 days it would take to go around the Annapurna loop would mean having less time to ride west (which we were keen to do because very few western tourists go there) before dropping south to India for the pre-booked flight home from Delhi. On the plus side it would also mean a much safer way of getting above 5000m on our bikes with plenty of options for food and lodgings and a steady flow of people should things go badly wrong and we needed help.
Right back at the start of planning, before we even decided on Nepal, we spent time talking about the kind of trip we wanted. We both have a default setting of riding as far and fast as possible but we agreed this trip should be more about fun and soaking up the experience than ticking oﬀ any endurance achievement. Having that pre-agreed made the Annapurna decision incredibly easy.
So with a hand-drawn map from Jenny and our newly purchased Annapurna trekking permits, we roll out of Kathmandu with a great sense of adventure and freedom.
The next 4 days we travel along a mind-blowing route through rural farmlands, villages and towns of the hill country to reach Besisahar, the start of the Annapurna circuit. Those first days give us so much in terms of riding, landscape, people and experiences that the trip is already a knockout success.
Hot dry weather, dusty trails, 15-mile climbs and descents, jaw-dropping green valley views, an impromptu invite into someone’s home for tea and freshly made doughnuts, whole villages of kids walking to school through rice fields shouting hello. “Namaste, namaste”. Everywhere and everyone we passed… “Namaste”. This was what we had come for.
The Ribble bikes were dealing with the diﬀerent terrains brilliantly. Needing to carry such a wide range of kit meant that each fully loaded bike was weighing in at around 35 kilos. To help handle that kind of heft we’d made a visit to the Hope factory back home for some upgraded wheels, knowing that a broken rim or freehub could be a major problem.
Our shakedown rides in Yorkshire had also flagged up the need for a bigger rear cassette to help winch up anything steep, but other than these tweaks we’d kept the bikes absolutely as they were when they were handed over to us at the Ribble HQ in Preston. The standard spec WTB Ranger 2.8s were proving to be the perfect tyres.
Along with the springy steel frame, the big air volume of the tubeless WTBs was soaking up the hits, and the fast-rolling small block treads combined with the heavy loads gave never-ending oﬀ road grip in the dry conditions.
“The rules of the road are also becoming clearer to us; take any side you want and let everyone else work around you.”
Dry dirt roads do have their flip side though. Thick clouds of dust kick up into the air when the regular sight of a Nepalese bus or truck lumbers into view as they somehow plough over the huge bumps and dips. These battered old buses handle the kind of hits that I thought only Paris-Dakar trucks were built for and we quickly grew to love them for it.
Before long we’re happily adjusting to new routines; riding around 6-7 hours each day, snacking on incredible hot samosas and fresh fruit, finding a guest house to stay in at the end of the day, unpacking, repacking.
After weighing up the pros and cons of rack mounts and panniers we ended up going for soft bags all around, with the one exception being the excellent fork cages upfront. Lighter, quieter and less prone to failure the frame-mounted tail pack, frame bag and bar bag proved to be another success for us.
Finding the best arrangement for what to pack is an ongoing process with little tweaks and adjustments usually being made in the first hour or so of each day’s ride. Everywhere we go the bikes get a lot of attention; occasionally an approving nod from wizened old men but usually kids and adults alike laugh at the two westerners who can’t aﬀord a motorbike to carry their gear.
Leaving Besisahar to join the Annapurna circuit at 600m altitude marked the start of our 7 days climb up along a canyon towards the famous Thorung La Pass at 5400m. The Annapurna region was first opened to trekkers in 1977; today it has a dirt road covering a large amount of the circuit with just the highest sections (less than a quarter) remaining as pure hiking trails.
The dirt road proves to be way more interesting than it sounds, climbing up the constantly changing surface challenges us with the combination of weight and altitude becoming a bigger factor as we make our way ever higher. The landscape around us is getting more and more dramatic; time and time again Ben and I are left open-mouthed struggling to take in what we are seeing.
By now I am well and truly living the dream, riding over high wooden suspension bridges, rolling prayer wheels as we pass through villages, the mighty 8000m Manaslu is now close enough to actually start imagining the climbing routes to its summit. If you ever get the chance to ride this route, do it.
“Sleeping at a 4800m high camp before going over one of the highest passes in the world is no ordinary overnighter.”
As the elevation goes up, our daily distances are going down and by the time we reach 3,500m in the town of Manang, Ben is starting to suﬀer with the telltale signs of altitude sickness. We’ve been careful to read up on this before leaving the UK, making sure we understand the critical rules on ascending too quickly and how quickly and seriously things can go wrong.
One of the advantages of being on the popular Annapurna route is that it’s easy to pick up the Diamox medicine which helps the body cope with the reduced levels of oxygen and the resulting build-up of carbon dioxide in the blood. The drugs work quickly so after a rest day we are able to continue upwards toward the pass, only to need another rest day at the final camp when I also start feeling sick and need to hit the pills.
Sleeping at a 4800m high camp before going over one of the highest passes in the world is no ordinary overnighter. By now we’re extremely glad to have packed enough cold-weather gear to handle the sub-zero temperatures that mark the period between sunset and sunrise. Going out for a pee in the middle of the night I’m rewarded with an unforgettable display of stars stretching across the perfect black sky above me.
We wake up at 5am on our last day of climbing to a brisk -2 degrees C inside our room. The final push to the summit is indeed going to be a push. Some days ago we’d left the dirt road behind and the trail in nearly all of this final few miles is just too steep to ride up.
After a bitterly cold hour or so the sun creeps across our faces and we can enjoy a final couple of hours of pushing and occasional peddling in perfect blue skies with barely any wind. This is brutally hard work, the weight of the bikes seeming to be at least doubled by the oxygen levels now at just 55% of what our bodies are used to.
Arriving at the pass on the edge of the Tibetan plateau is a huge moment for us and blessed with fine weather we can take our time to reflect on what will very likely be the highest elevation we’ll ever stand, let alone ride a bike. Just how lucky we were is all too starkly underlined by the storm that hit the pass at this time of year in 2014. Around 350 hikers were caught out by unexpected blizzards and avalanches and tragically 43 of those were killed.
Turning our backs on the colourful prayer flags stretched out along the high point of the pass, we drop into the huge descent on the other side and quickly find our heavy rides and cheerfully cheap disc brakes at their very limits on the steep loose gravel with some obviously big consequences to any mistakes. The land drops away below us in what seems a bottomless descent.
But yet again the Ribble’s step up to the challenge and deal with the steep technical trail. An hour or so later and 2000m lower we’re swapping high fives and knowing glances after riding unscathed down the most sketchy section of the trip by far and heading into the Mustang region’s holy town of Muktinath, (if you saw it, yes, the one in the recent Top Gear Nepal special).
Not having done too much pre-trip research on the Annapurna route it comes as a pleasant surprise to find ourselves riding the next few days down into not just any gorge but in fact the world’s deepest one, the Kali Gandaki. Utterly diﬀerent to the other side of the pass we’ve spent the last week travelling up but equally stunning, this is a barren, huge open space with around 10,000 ancient man-made caves dug high up into the sides of the valleys.
Here mummified human remains and Buddhist artefacts have been discovered but still, to this day, no one knows how the caves were created. Heading south now and constantly downhill we get exposed to some vicious headwinds and have our only experience of rain for the whole trip; a 40-minute deluge that turns the trail to an instantly greasy mud which makes us realise just how much harder things could have been.
Incredibly by this stage we still haven’t had a single mechanical problem or even a puncture. A strict code of silence has developed on this subject, clearly, neither of us wants to tempt fate, but for sure we’re both thinking about it. We feel well prepared for problems though.
Each of us carries a spare tyre, plus plenty of tubes and along with that, we have a complete spare mech, a chain each, spare spokes and pawls for the freehubs. In some respects you make your own luck, so we’re being careful to add some pressure to protect the tyres before long descents and our chains are getting a good going over with a toothbrush and fresh lube at least once or twice a day.
A few days later we take a mid-trip rest in the tourist hub of Pokhara to buy souvenirs and ship them home. We also take the opportunity to send our camping gear back, it’s become clear by now that we weren’t going to need it. Nepal is proving to be an easy country to travel around with people seemingly everywhere and always some option for a roof over your head at night.
It feels good to take a couple of days oﬀ the bikes to let the body rest and give some sensitive bits of skin a chance to recover. Thankfully a decent beer is never far away in Nepal and our favourite one, Gorkha, goes down very well with dhal bhat. This famous national dish of rice, veggie curry and dhal have the added bonus for the travelling cyclist of coming with unlimited extra portions wherever you find it. And it’s on the evening menu absolutely everywhere.
Besides the rest and constant eating, the layover in Pokhara has also given us time to come up with a plan for the remaining weeks of our trip. Seeing some wildlife appeals to both of us and there are a few areas in Nepal where wild tigers can be seen, so with that in mind, we make the Bardiya National Park 450km away to the west of the country our next goal.
This leg of the trip finds us travelling on better quality roads and we’re able to knock oﬀ some big distances, covering 80 very lumpy miles on one particularly huge day which we finish oﬀ with an unexpected 20-mile climb up to Tansen, a town perched high above the surrounding region.
This surprise killer climb has us riding well after sunset, something we’d been keen to avoid doing and we’re utterly spent when we eventually climb oﬀ the bikes. We wake up and slowly realise why the hotel we’re staying in is called The White Lake. Far below us, there is indeed a white lake with rolling hills around it and then Ben looks closer and points out that the lake is, in fact, a thick layer of cloud. That really was some climb.
This would be our last day of truly big hills because continuing to head south in Nepal eventually brings you to the flat southern territory that runs along the border with India. Riding across the relentlessly flat and straight roads in this hottest part of the country we agree to forget our hang-ups about taking an easy option and to save time we decide to find a jeep that can leapfrog us straight to the National Park.
This proves harder than we expect. After asking around in the last town before a particularly barren 50-mile basin, we eventually make friends with a lovely guy who phones various friends and family to see if anyone with a vehicle is willing to take the job.
We’re so grateful when after a couple of hours a man with a jeep does, in fact, turn up that the condition of it is the last thing on our minds. But we can’t help but notice the state of the tyres as we help to lash the bikes onto the roof and guess this might not be the slam dunk we imagined.
Sure enough, the 4-hour drive turns into an 8 hour epic with two blowouts and some desperate eﬀorts to fix then buy tyres. Putting aside the fact we almost died, it’s another great chapter to the adventure and the bikes pick up some good scratches and scrapes to remember it all by. As well as the patina of scrapes, we’ve been travelling with a Sharpie and asking people we meet along the way to sign their names or write messages on the bikes and by now they’re looking very well travelled.
After a few days of wildlife spotting, including a slightly crazy full day spent walking in deep jungle tracking tigers armed with a wooden stick (in hindsight we’re genuinely pleased we didn’t find one), it’s time to ride again and head into India.
This means more riding across flat country and it turns out that once we’re over the border the scenery becomes less inspiring and the towns way less appealing to stay in. So we improvise again and decide to spend a final few long days in the saddle to get us to the large city of Lucknow where we will box up the bikes and take a train for the final 500 kilometres into Delhi.
Many hours spent riding on flat straight roads often cause problems brought about by staying in the same position and we both suﬀer from pressure points on our hands and wrists for these last few days. Our final day on the bike is a pan flat 80 miler so we decide to dig in and see how quickly we can get it done.
We draft each other through the heat, along the hard shoulder of an increasingly busy dual carriageway, finally managing a very solid 17.5mph average. We climb oﬀ our beautifully dusty rigs for the last time in Lucknow, finally laughing out loud about having completed the entire trip without so much as a puncture.
Having ditched our original cardboard boxes back in Kathmandu, we always knew that finding fresh boxes to pack the bikes in for the journey home might prove tricky. So after a day spent trawling the busy streets of Lucknow, we feel lucky to score two fine examples from the dark basement of a bike shop run by a mute owner.
After this logistical win, the final unexpected hurdle turns out to be a problem with getting our bikes booked onto the train to Delhi. Despite a long exchange with the Lucknow station director and several phone calls to the train company we end up improvising again and arrange for a national courier to take the bikes ahead of us.
They get collected from the hotel lobby the next morning and begin their own solo adventure without us, roped to an old pedal rickshaw as it weaves slowly oﬀ into the city traﬃc. ‘Look after them’ we say, ‘they’ve been good to us’.
– Ryan & Ben
If you enjoyed this, why not check out YouTuber Katie Kookaburra’s bikepacking adventure, exploring the beautiful coastline of Northern Ireland. Read it here.
In search of new cycling adventures, Jane headed to Scotland’s west coast to take on the Five Ferries Island Hopping Challenge. Find out how she got on here.
Ex-pro rider and Ribble ambassador Lawrence Carpenter had a spontaneous idea, to fly to Morocco and ride back to London. Read about this amazing adventure here.