"Visit Nepal" is the slogan plastered on the posters displayed around Kathmandu. Situated slightly north of India, Nepal may not be your first choice when you plan your next mountain bike holiday, however it is certainly worth considering. Nepal offers a whole range of 'high risk' sports including downhill mountain biking. The only way to describe the descents in the Himalayas is steep, so steep in fact that there is no skiing or snowboarding to speak of. So, for the globe trotting downhiller Nepal is a must....

The word amongst the hard-core riders in Nepal is that the rest of he mountain biking scene had better watch out. They enthuse that over the next few years the Nepalese are going to dominate global mountain biking and kick some serious international ass.

On paper it is easy to see their reasoning : the country is a mountain biking nirvana; the trails and paths are numerous and in close proximity to the city; the riding is done at altitude which is of benefit when they compete at lower levels and it is difficult to become bored with the multitude of descents on offer and as such training monotony does not exist.

The reality is that world domination is some time off.... The limited nutrition, spare riding time and the poor quality equipment the riders routinely endure certainly curtails their talents. It is as though they're riding with the handbrake on and don't realise it. Yet in the face of this adversity the locals trail skills and enthusiasm are second to none. If only somehow they could take the handbrake off ....then maybe....

I arrived in Nepal not really knowing what to expect. In fact I went there with a friend to 'chill out' after an epic round-the-world road trip on a mountain bike tandem blew up in our faces, or rather snapped in two!! -but that's another story. After a couple of days relaxing and getting myself together, I was itching to check out the local mountain bike scene and hit the trails. Word had it that the best riding was to be done at Pokhara and Kathmandu. My search led me to Kathmandu.

If you decide to go to Nepal you will hopefully arrive there under less stressful and more conventional circumstances than myself. However, prepare yourself for a slight culture shock. One of the first things to hit me (the second was a tree) was how materialistically poor the Nepalese are, yet oxymoronically how optimistic and genuinely cheerful they appear to be. The silver lining for the tourist is that this relative poverty means that living costs are minimal - I was able to stay in a shared twin room in a top dog hotel for only £5 a night and £1 bought me a full-hit steak dinner with all the trimmings. The real bonus is that you can get your mitts on a bottle of Nepalese rum for only a quid. What a bargain!

Very little of Nepal is flat and as such what you've got is a whole bunch of kick ass ascents/descents. The ascents are really only for die hard XC riders or down right masochists... or at least that was my interpretation the morning of the ride as I peered at the world through rum tinted Oakleys. Instead, a few pounds will buy you a bus ride to the top complete with an experienced mountain guide. It must be noted that catching a bus to the top is not necessarily for wimps or the faint hearted because a Nepalese bus ride is an adrenaline sport in itself! Armed only with a horn (not brakes) the drivers throw the buses around the hairpins at break neck speeds, thinking nothing about overtaking on a blind corner. The experience is like watching the closing scenes of The Italian Job on fast forward!

Don't bother wasting your time planning routes before you get there because there is no need. There are plenty of locals who will act as guides, give you advice, and show you around for a minimal cost. A good area to get started on is Nagarkot. Having survived the bus journey, I stayed the night in one of the numerous hotels at the top of Nagarkot which was aptly named the View Point Hotel. From the roof top seating area I watched the sun rise over Everest (it was well worth getting up early for) had a full English breakfast and then hacked my way down the 10km downhill to Bhaktapur.

The majority of the trails are adrenaline pumping, skill testing, switchbacks which are seemingly endless. They're a blend of fast fire road, technical rock mattress' and loose unpredictable dirt...it's a real mixed bag. They relentlessly wind themselves down the mountain side, through Nepalese plantations, hamlets and terraces, past temples and shrines and chai(tea) shops.

I was surprised to find that I didn't startle the locals as I sped past them at warp speed( have you ever noticed how you think you ride faster when you're hung over?) Instead I got cheers of "hello" from the elders and shouts and claps of excited encouragement from the kids. I was especially chuffed when a whole field of plantation workers surreally stopped their work and waved. Once at the bottom of this exhilarating and exhausting descent, I was breathing like a burst Hoover bag, with every muscle and joint in my body aching, my eyes were popping out and I had a huge 'cat who got the cream' grin on my face.

The mountain air was good and I had left my hangover somewhere near the top. I felt good ...God I love mountain biking. However, I obviously didn't look as euphoric as I felt because a chai shop owner worriedly ushered me into his shop, sat me down and gave me a cup of tea on the house, muttering the sympathetic words "you'll feel better". BETTER? How could I? I'd just had THE ride of my life.

DETAILS:

Getting there: A return flight from England will cost you £500 upwards depending on the airline and when you go. It is certainly worth shopping around because some good bargains can be found.

Accommodation: There is no shortage of accommodation in Nepal. If you don't mind the 'fly by the seat of your pants approach, then your cheapest option is wait until you arrive and choose the best option from the plethora of offers you will receive from touts. Remember, that in Nepal you are expected to barter - so don't pay the initial asking price. A good rule of thumb is to pay a third of the asking price. You could do a lot worse than to head for the Thamel area and check into the Hotel Lai Lai.

Things to do: Mountain bike hire is inexpensive. Very inexpensive- about £1 a day. However, don't expect any suspension. In fact you'll be lucky to get your hands on anything post 1995. A better option is to transport your own bike. Most airlines accept bikes as part of your luggage, but it is wise to check with your airline beforehand and pack it according to their regulations. Nepal is famous for it trekking and white water rafting and if you have the time, it's well worth checking out.

(c) Copyright 1999 John Metcalfe As well as being an MTB enthusiast, John Metcalfe is also a Sports Scientist and available for MTB training programmes e-mail: mtbfit@m- jmetcalfe.demon.co.uk .