Cycling in Himalayas

By Prasanta Phukon

On June 15, 20-year-old Winward Sangma and three of his friends started their journey from Shillong. Their destination was the Tilicho Lake, located at an altitude of 4,949 meters (16,138 ft) from sea level, in Nepal. What made his journey special was his transport, a BMX cycle.
While Sangma was riding a single speed or gearless bicycle, others were on road cycles with gears. On June 28, Sangma and co-riders Anup J Sarmah and Lalbieksang Faihriem reached Tilicho, the world’s highest altitude lake. Sangma became the first cyclist in the world to reach the point on a freestyle bike.
However, this was not the youth’s first record and he was competing against himself to test a cyclist’s tenacity. He created the first world record by riding from Shillong to Jalpaiguri, a distance of 565 km, in 24 hours.

The team of four — (from right) Winward Sangma, Hopesent Marak, Anup J Sarmah and Lalbieksang Faihriem

“Hopesent (co-cyclist Hopesent Marak) and I created the first record. It was the longest distance covered on a BMX freestyle. The journey to the lake was even more difficult as most of the time we had to ride on the steep Himalayas, which is actually an impossible task when you are on a BMX cycle,” says Sangma, who is inspired by 22-year-old British cyclist Kit Crane who has travelled to 86 countries with his cycle. He had also come to Shillong and Sangma had hosted him. Crane not only promotes cycling but also spreads awareness on environment.
Both Sangma and Marak are mountain bikers. Sarmah and Lalbieksang Faihriem are professional videographers. All the four are from Shillong who met at VisibilityZero in Shillong, the first skatepark in the North East. Sangma says the team was hosted by Pangro, an outdoor event management team in Kathmandu that promotes cycling community in Nepal. This crew helped them with permits, valuable knowledge about the place and much-needed guidance for this journey.
Though unofficially the journey to the lake is a world record, Sangma is still working with the Guinness World Records team for the official title.
“There are many processes involved and it takes at least 12 weeks after breaking a record to be verified with perfect documents and proof. We are preparing the logsheets to send them to the Guinness record team,” Sangma informs.
Lake Tilicho is in Manang district of Nepal that is 55km from the city of Pokhara.
Initially, Winward planned to go to the Everest Base Camp but they were advised against the risky ride. Then the cyclists decided on Tilicho, which is a part of the Annapurna Circuit. They had also planned to cycle all the way to the lake from Shillong but later dropped it and rode from Besisahar in Nepal covering a distance of 111km of hilly terrain.
Sangma’s family was unaware of the journey and thought he would be out of the city for 15 days for some work. But the journey took longer.


Sangma and his team had to go through a tough time throughout the journey because it was monsoon in Nepal. Due to the extreme weather, the team’s luggage, clothes and some essential electronic goods were damaged. Also, Sangma had problems with the brakes of his BMX cycle while riding through treacherous paths and he had to depend on the front brakes because his rear brakes were spoiled half way in to the journey.
“I had to depend on my physical strength and will power. We rode without taking a break and everyone was carrying a 15kg bag,” the young cyclist, an alumnus of St Anthony’s School, recollects.
The strenuous journey apart, the team had some terrible experiences. The four cyclists had to cross a wobbly bridge on its way to the lake and an hour after, the cyclists came to know that the bridge had collapsed.
As they got to the higher altitudes, oxygen level started falling leading to physical exertions. When they were just 20km away from their destination, they had to keep garlic in their mouth that helped them breathe. They mostly used the trekking route.
The arduous trail was accompanied by scenic beauty of the Himalayas that constantly refreshed the young cyclists’ minds and rejuvenated their bodies. By 10am, the snow would melt and mountain streams would start competing with the bikers.
After Marak stopped at the base camp of Tilicho, the trio continued. The entire journey was videographed by the experts in the team.
Sangma says he was physically unprepared for the record ride but had the confidence to face all odds. “I depended on my regular morning walks for a week before starting off on the journey. What played in my mind was if we could cover the distance from Shillong to Tura in a day why not a distance of 1,111 km in eight days,” he says with brimming confidence.
The four adventurers stayed away from hotels and rested in their tents amid the wilderness.
Like Crane, Sangma too promotes awareness on environment on his cycling expeditions. “This journey particularly was not only meant to create a cycling record but also to make people aware on the importance of saving trees and our Mother Earth by planting more trees. The route we took was an ideal place for spreading the message on climate change, which is a major issue. I also wanted to tell the world that even with a gearless cycle one can reach the heights,” he says.
Talking about the support from family and friends, Sangma says his parents understand his passion for cycling and always encouraged him. “Also, my principal in the college was supportive and granted me leave whenever I went on a trip,” says the student of Political Science at KL Bajoria College in Shillong.
Learning BMX tricks was never easy and Sangma has been doing this since he was seven. At 13, he had already started travelling. Back then, he would ride an Indian-made BMX and got his first S&M BMX bike, which he still uses, at the age of 17.
“It is a small but sturdy cycle. Many people had advised me to get rid of the cycle ‘meant for children’ and get a proper ride,” he says, adding that BMX is expensive and even a tyre costs Rs 4,000.
For the Tilicho trip, Sangma had tried to get help from the government but was disappointed when he was told that it does not support extreme sports. He finally got sponsorships from Zealot BMX, Procycling, Tod Fod and Red FM.
Sangma, who is already an inspiration for local youths, is looking for new challenges and he hopes to make more records.
At the same time, he wishes to get more funds so that he can do his bit to protect the fragile environment and promote BMX sports.
“We are the first generation BMX riders and our team does not want the second generation to face the same hurdles as we did. There are many hidden talents in Shillong and there will be many more in future. They should be encouraged and nurtured because youths are the pillars of a society,” says Sangma.