Living talks to two young girls Saria Sato Bajracharya and Avantika Rana who have broken the status quo and taken up mountain biking. Like a boss.
When the entire country is queuing up outside gas stations, Saria Sato Bajracharya is seen soaring through the now empty streets of Kathmandu on her blue Commencal. She is returning from Chobar after her shift at Portal Bikes, an organization working in rebuilding efforts, where she volunteers. On her way, she will invariably draw stares, harassments and distractions. Some brazen ones will pull up on motorbikes and try to race her, passing demeaning comments simply because she is a girl riding a bicycle. Like the old adage goes - can’t teach old dog new tricks.
“I face more harassments than I can count. So I turn a deaf ear,” says the 18-year-old. “That’s not because I’m used to it, but because I can’t let these things discourage me from doing what I love.” This predicament exists not just in the streets of Kathmandu, but everywhere she goes. “Even when riding on trails farther afield, people are perplexed to see me. They can’t wrap their heads around how a girl could and why she would possibly ride bicycles.” Saria adds with a smirk, “They probably think I should just stay home and cook, like that’s happening.”
It’s a shame that even educated people don’t seem to embrace an individual’s choice of riding bicycles - or quite frankly, whatever the hell s/he wants to - regardless of gender. Harassing anyone on the road, as wrong as it is, is a safety hazard. “On more than one occasion, I’ve narrowly avoided crashing after veering off course after a motorcycle dude tailgated me.”
This draws a grim picture for Nepal. Saria contrasts streets of Nepal with those of Japan, where she spent most of her childhood. “I used to think it was mandatory for everyone to ride bikes in Japan,” she says, relating to the fact that everybody had a bike. “I didn’t face discrimination in Japan, whether by gender or age, in whatever I did.” She remembers her first bike, a green ladybug with a fancy pouch on the handlebar she got for third birthday. “My friends found it cool and everybody wanted to ride it. I would ride it with my grandfather to shops and with toddler friends around the neighborhood. I had no fear of riding in the streets, neither as a child nor as a girl.”
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Nepal, especially when the problem is not too far from home. Saria calls out a harsh reality, “Most Nepali girls don’t have the same liberty as I do. I’m lucky to get support from home to pursue a risky sport that doesn’t conform to Nepal’s traditions. My parents do want me to earn by myself to sustain mountain biking, which demands better equipment and accessories as you improve. And that I feel is all the more empowering. But I feel for girls who have their dreams and aspirations squashed by unorthodox dogma.”
As a matter of fact, her best moments of biking was a trip a couple of years ago with her mom and sister. No stranger to adventure and risks, the ladies were exploring new trails in Lakhuri Bhanjyang on the valley’s southern front. It was an impromptu 3-day trip with neither a guide nor having prepared well. “We got lost in the forest. There were enough drunkards to avoid in the trip, not to mention territorial bulls that chased them down the trails. But we had a world of fun riding awesome trails!” she reminiscences.
That said, Saria is not without her share of mishaps, including a bike ride to Godavari last year that was unexpectedly cut short. When she got knocked out cold after tripping over a rock in the middle of the road, she was taken to the ER by friends she was riding with. It left the most visible among her scars from biking. Saria maintains, “Falling down is a learning process and an important part of the sport.I learned that stepping back won’t help me learn.” She doesn’t shy away from making light of awkward situations she faces every so often, “It’s especially fun when you fall in someone’s fields and they come chasing after, ready to toast you! Riding with friends who always have your back, these ordeals make for good memories.”
A few times every week, she rides with a group to the outskirts of the valley. Saturdays usually call for a longer trip. “The group that I ride with is quite supportive and encourage more girls to join. The best thing about my squad is that the riders are of all levels and ages. Moreover, I see everyone teach each other of what they know best. I also get to lead the group every so often, which apart from improving my riding skills, has also instilled leadership qualities. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that mountain biking has changed me as a person.”
It was during one of these rides that she met a 14-year-old Avantika Rana. Don’t let her calm demeanor fool you - when she rides her bicycle, you would hardly believe that it’s been only a couple of months since she started mountain biking. “Riding with Saria and the usual suspects has significantly improved my bike handling skills and confidence. In fact, I participated in my first race just a month ago and landed a respectable fifth position,” Avantika acknowledges the importance of riding with a supportive group. “I too am lucky to have my family’s support for mountain biking. Balancing studies and cycling helps! I find time to ride bicycles after finishing school work.”
They are but among a handful of female mountain bikers in Nepal. “It’s just sad how at times you win a race not because of a great timing but because there aren’t enough women competitors,” Saria continues. This couldn’t be more obvious that in XC Championship a few years ago, when Laxmi Magar tore her certificate on stage because she was denied the title due to absence of other women participants. Not all hope is lost, nonetheless, as the number has risen over the past years, albeit slowly. Lamatar MTB Race in 2014 saw participation of almost 30 women cyclists, the highest in record for a mountain biking race. However, a majority of them were merely recreational riders without proper riding gear, skills or bikes.
But the duo wants to change that. “We women are wow-men!” exclaims Saria and shares her own experience. “I know it sounds intimidating and it’s always hardest to start. But once you get into biking, there is no other thrill you will enjoy more than that of the adventures you embark on.” Avantika agrees that there should definitely be more women mountain bikers and invites more ladies to join her on rides. “It would be a joy to help beginners learn biking, as I myself was once a rookie.”
Young ladies like Saria and Avantika have set perfect examples that the outdoors - mountain biking no exception - is not exclusive to men. Their stories prove that within short time and at any age, it is perfectly possible to pick up mountain biking and learn the trade. They are eager to bring changes in the biking scenario of Nepal by encouraging and training more women and youth to get into the sport, recreationally or even professionally. “Women in rural parts especially are fit and naturally athletic,” Saria points out, referring their need to walk hours on end and tough lifestyle. “It would be great to reach out to them and bring prospective ones to limelight and empower them in mountain biking.”
Now shifting gears from leisurely cross-country to more intense downhill, Saria and Avantika make a powerful concluding remark: “The stereotype of women being passive homemakers needs to be shaken from its patriarchal foundation. We urge all ladies to come out of your bubble and do something daring. After all, we too can do it! We can blaze the trails and tell naysayers to shut the hell up.”