Nepal is not exactly renowned for its mountain bikers. But in this corner of the Himalayas, the hardcore sport is on the rise—and 21-year-old Rajesh Magar is in the lead.
His phenomenal talent, infectious energy, and unexpected story have made him a National Geographic 2018 Adventurer of the Year.
“He’s not just a fast Nepali,” says Joey Schusler, a mountain biker and filmmaker who nominated Magar for the honor. “He’s truly a professional.”
“I’ve never, in my whole life of mountain biking, heard of or seen a story like this.”
Though his parents are from Solukhumbu—“the eastern part of Nepal, where Everest is,” Magar adds helpfully—he and his sister were born and raised in the outskirts of Kathmandu. Like many Nepalis, they struggled to make ends meet. Magar grew up lending a hand to his father, a bricklayer, and his mother, a housekeeper.
“I used to ask my mum repeatedly to buy a bicycle,” Magar says. “She’d give me hope, saying right now we don’t have any money, but she would buy me one when we do.”
When he was about 10 years old, generosity corrected his course for the first time: An employer of his mother’s, seeing Magar’s interest, gave him a BMX bike. Though he didn’t know how to ride, he threw himself into practice. “I would always keep getting lost on my bicycle,” he says, “I would never be home.”
Eventually, Magar bought a rigid mountain bike from a friend at school. While teaching himself how to ride by devouring YouTube videos of famous bikers, he started thinking about not just the athletes’ technique but their gear as well—the frames’ angles, the head, the nuts and bolts. What would it take, he wondered, to make his bike look like a proper downhill bike?
That’s where things started to get a little wild.
“My mind was so crazy about mountain biking,” Magar says. He sketched modifications, found spare parts, and talked a neighbor through how to weld everything together. He swapped in a softer motorcycle suspension, adjusted the head angle, replaced the sprocket, and fit in some nicer cranks. The result? “Franken-bike.”
“This thing was totally whacked together,” Schusler laughs. “And he would show up to races with it and do really, really well.”
It was Magar’s first racing machine. The then-17-year-old rode the Franken-bike in his first race, the 2013 Nepal National Championship, where he placed sixth.
In America, mountain biking is a rich person’s pastime (or an upper-middle-class person’s, at least). In Nepal, where class stratification is more pronounced and incomes are generally lower than American averages, it’s even further out of reach.
Even setting aside competition entrance fees, travel costs, and loss of time on the job, the bikes themselves cost a pretty penny. Mountain bikes in the U.S. average $5,000. In Nepal, where the legal minimum salary is about $92 per month, that equals roughly four and a half years’ wages.
To buy the frame that became the Franken-bike, Magar did odd jobs to save up for the $25 cost. Five years later, he’s competing on a machine worth $12,000. To get from one to the other has taken immense dedication, tireless work—and a bit of luck, in the form of an unlikely brotherhood.
In 2014, Mandil Pradhan came across Magar getting in some practice on a trail outside Kathmandu a few days before the Nationals. Pradhan, a racer, bike distributor, and owner of bike tour company Himalayan Rides, was amazed by his talent and loaned him a high-quality bike to compete on. When Magar came in fourth place despite riding a new bike with a chain that broke midway through the course, Pradhan offered him a job.
“Mandil dai gave me an opportunity at a time when I hadn’t had any before,” Magar says, referring to Pradhan as dai, or brother. Working first to maintain Pradhan’s fleet of bikes, then as a tour guide (with some prize money thrown in), Magar has been able to support his parents and sister.
“Through the last four years, I have learnt a lot from [Pradhan] about riding, guiding, and life in general. I can go to him whenever I need advice or support and I know he is there for me,” Magar says.
Out of school, with a good job, riding top-of-the-line bikes, Magar—with Pradhan’s mentorship—has been able to attract more sponsors. Last year, he won his third consecutive National title. He’s also snagged trophies from downhill races in India, Singapore, Thailand, and China.
“It’s been awesome to see him grow,” says Pradhan. “I feel very proud to have been a part of his career from the very beginning.”
It’s a fruitful partnership—one that, as Schusler points out, bridges the class divide still very present in Nepali society. But there’s more barriers yet to break.
DOWN THE ROAD
“It feels a little like a separate world,” Schusler says of the Asian mountain bike scene. Some racers are on the brink, but no one’s quite made a name for themselves in the highest level of global competition: the months-long challenge of the Enduro World Series. A proud Nepali, Magar hopes to be not just the first from his country, but also the first Asian to take a title.
“Mountain bikes are one of the things that can break down those cultural barriers pretty quick,” says Schusler. “You share that interest, that stoke.”
Travel is tricky, though: It’s tough for Nepalis to secure visas to enter Western countries, Magar says. He’s working on gathering a sufficiently thorough travel history—and, with Pradhan’s help, putting together a bank account with the requisite $15,000—to apply for travel to Europe and the U.S., where he can train at a higher level.
But visas aside, it’s all downhill from here—which, for Magar, is a good thing.
“I love everything about mountain biking,” Magar says. “When I’m on a bike, I forget about all of my life’s problems and issues. I appreciate nature, the trail, the bike … mountain biking takes me to a place where I feel totally free.”