14 year old Chris Keeling is a professional cyclist and winner of several titles including Mega Kids Megavalanche, a popular event held at Alpe d’Huez, France which had Chris cycling down the French Alps and into the valley of Allemont. Labisha Uprety followed Chris, along with his father Stephen Keeling at the recently held Himalayan Outdoor Festival
A certain road beginning from Kathmandu leads northwest towards Kirtipur, initially passing through the noisy city. It then goes past the valley’s oldest university and slowly ascends along quiet roads where few people are encountered and even fewer shops are found. Musty old trucks with their bumpers screaming ‘HORN OK PLEASE!’ or some cheesy Nepali one-liners both follow and precede you when you make your way to Hattiban Resort.
The resort is connected to the main road by a dirt track that leads straight up towards a place you cannot see for another half an hour. A tilted banner hanging in mid-air that reads ‘Himalayan Outdoor Festival 2014’ in bright red lettering greets you as you begin the journey upward. A dense forest surrounds the dirt track, and once at the top and fairly out of breath, a seemingly deserted place turns out to be the designated sporting arena. There are people and families milling about setting up tents, competitors checking their bike gears and some already sprinting downwards while American, Russian and Nepali children gorge on hot dogs, their exhausted parents keeping a watchful eye from nearby.
I meet Stephen at the cycling registration where a small line has already formed. He is a tall grey- haired, bespectacled man in shorts who is good-humoredly harassing his friends to join him in the downhill race. His wire rimmed glasses glint in the bare sun as he genially introduces me to Chris, his son.
Chris Keeling is a gangly 14-year-old. Like any other 14-year-old, he attends high school, enjoys endless hours of playing DOTA and running in the sun with his mates until the dusty air of Kathmandu turns into a misty haze. So what is it that sets him apart from the rest? The fact that he rides a Commencal Meta AM mountain bike. One look at his neon green bike and even the most clueless among us can figure out that this lanky teenager is a serious biker. Last year he won the Mega Kids Megavalanche, a popular event held at Alpe d’Huez, France which has participants cycling down the French Alps and into the valley of Allemont. Chris also recently won the national downhill and national junior cross-country races. This year he plans to revisit his French trip to enter the full Megavalance race at Alped’Huez and has high hopes of placing well in the 15-17-year- old category. He also talks about plans for other races in France and Italy among others.
“There will be professionals competing in this category, not just amateurs,” says Chris. “It really will be more difficult this time.”
Chris’ father, Stephen Keeling is originally from Manchester, UK. He initially came to Nepal in 1992 as a VSO forester and worked in Baitadi until 1995. In 1994, Stephen met Rani whom he later married.
Sitting cross-legged next to me on the crunchy dry grass, I find Rani reassuringly easy to talk to. Her small crinkly eyes light up with curiosity as she makes small talk. ‘K bhannu, kaam garda gardai love paryo bhanau na!’ giggles Rani recounting their early days together. And the rest, as they say, is history. They wed and a few years later, Chris, or as his parents call him, Christu, was born.
I ask her if she too is at the festival to try her hand at a sport, but she shakes her head andsays she is only there because of her family. Beside her, I notice packs of snacks and energy drinks, should one of her men come flopping down with dehydration. Though the festival is a three-day event and Stephen and Chris had packed their bags to stay for the entire schedule, she laughs as she recounts how theycame back home the previous night itself. They are apparently never happy with the camp food and more often than not, refuse to admit it: ‘Bau chora lai khana pugena cha ki!’ she laughs.
Rani recounts a trip her husband and son made when Chris was only about 9 years old, when they went to the cold, unforgiving Thorang La pass in Manang. A few days later, Steve sends me pictures of his trips with Chris and among them is the one taken at Thorung La pass. Rani went into lengths talking about how it must have been a daunting trip, hiking during the off season and her child so young; but the picture simply tells you a tale of a father and son having discovered mountains with a backdrop of flags and festal arches; Steve, squinting at the camera, one arm around Chris and the son, a quiet look of determination on his face.
Somewhere in the distance, static is heard as microphones are adjusted and a moment later, a booming female voice announces that the downhill race is set to begin. People begin to gather around the edges of the sloping path as cyclists position themselves. I cannot recognize Chris in the mass of helmets and other gear. As a whistle blows off, a cyclist at the front races downhill. This is not a straight path, it is crisscrossing and has highs and lows where the cyclists show their stuntmen-like skills. Because it is a time-based race (a time trial), solo participants try and beat each other’s timings.
Sometime later, a bright neon green bike emerges and cascades downwards. It delivers a perfect ride at one tricky corner to loud applause but falters at the next one and effectively ruins the run, clocking in at 3 minutes 50 seconds and eventually finishing third. The biker slumps at the end of the track deliberately and takes a long while to get up. Of course, it is Chris.
Failure gets to the best of us. When I try to get in a word after the race, Chris is too worked up to talk to me. He seems heavily disappointed at his defeat and would reveal to me the next day how failure does not only anger him but also pushes him to get better. His mother is heartwarmingly undaunted, as she tells anyone who will listen that her son came third even after a distressing performance. It is obvious she is proud of him even though she hopes that Chris will take an interest in the written word as much he does in athletics. But that doesn’t stop her from telling me how as a kid barely older than five, Chris had taken it upon himself to teach the local kids cycling on his own bike.
It is midday when the skies open up and torrents of cold showers come our way. People run for cover as Stephen finds me and hands me a warm cup of coffee and because there is so little space to take shelter, we end up talking in the downpour, water seeping into our coffee mugs.
“Chris has been cycling since he was one year old. That was when he got his first bike. Nobody egged him on to take up the sport; he just naturally picked up its rhythm and took it from there. I think that is an effective way to raise your child; that you expose them to things and let them decide what they want to do,” says Stephen. Stephen is an avid sportsman himself, who enjoys hiking and cycling. When I ask him why he keeps putting his body through such relentless exercise when he is not going to perform professionally, he tells me that sports make you feel good. Also he gets to see the ‘real Nepal’ that way, with its scenic landscape, the remotest of locations and in a predominantly English accent, he says, ‘Nepal bhaneko Kathmandu matrai hoina!’
Stephen denies having trained Chris in any way to help him achieve success; someone who seems to believe that credit should only be given where it is due. He talks of a time when Chris used to join him on many of his cycling and walking trips, but now that Chris has grown older, he prefers to go around on his own or with his friends.
The next day, Chris replies to his father’s accusation with a resounding, “Well he cycles too slowly! I have to keep waiting for him to catch up!” That being said, Chris has quite a few fond memories of his father and him getting sporty together, the most recent one being the national cross-country championship race, where both took part and Chris won in the junior category.
Did Stephen win too?
Chris laughs. “No! To tell you the truth, he hasn’t won any medals yet!”
As Chris turns up round the corner, his father calls out to him and asks the usual fatherly questions, including ‘Ke khayau?’ to ‘ Ghar gaira ho aba?’. It is slightly amusing to see a white guy so obviously foreign, speak absolutely perfect Nepali. Chris is clearly not amused.
Only the next day, as Chris is more relaxed does he talk about how his days are filled with browsing DIRT mountain bike magazines and encircling his favorite pathways that include the one from Kakani to Sundarijal. Does he think that cycling is maybe not a very lucrative career to pursue?
He says he does realize that Nepal has no real cycling championships as yet, but is hopeful for a better future as such. He hopes to see mountain bike tracks getting built in the country where cyclists and bikers have only nature to lean on. He adds how he really wants to represent Nepal internationally.
Hailstorms begin to hit the ground as Steve shakes my hand in farewell, his glasses speckled with rain. I wipe mine and squint at the horizon; there is a storm coming.