Of the 168 riders who participated in the 2015 Dakar, only 79 managed to successfully complete the punishing race. C S Santosh, arguably one of India’s best riders, not only took part, but also finished in 36th position! The fortnight-long rally comprises 13 gruelling stages spanning over 9,000 km of the harshest terrain.
All through the 9,295km race, there was never an easy moment for 30-year-old Santosh. He fell several times, ending up with an injured shoulder, a bleeding nose, and even a broken toe. There were also times when he had to carry out running repairs on his bike without any assistance.
It didn't come easy, the experience necessary to deal with these issues, but Santosh had rather good practice grounds – the Big Rock MotoPark. Santosh's own creation, this 45-acre Mecca for off-road enthusiasts is about 60km from Bangalore, in Kolar. The facility includes a tight, tricky motocross track, next to which sits a faster and more advanced offering. This is then surrounded by acres of woods that offer a trail-riding heaven. One of those trails then snakes its way to “Big Rock”, a granite mountain that looms over the mango orchard-cum-chicken farm-cum-dirt bike training centre. This is where Santosh practices riding and gains valuable experience.
Big Rock is by no means a half-hearted effort. Sitting in a warehouse are five Honda CRF 230R off-road motorcycles, shelves upon shelves of helmets and boots in all sizes. There are boxes and boxes of jerseys, pants and armour, all to cater to the diverse enthusiasts that come here to get a taste of Big Rock.
It’s a rule. You will fall. I fell, and it wasn’t the first time while riding off-road. After a briefing session to familiarise me with the simple but sturdy CRF and a few off-road basics, Santosh starts me off on the tight motocross track. There is a fair amount of reprogramming required to get a sense of control on the dirt. So I start off by following him around for a few demonstration laps. Then it’s my turn at the front. As Santosh tails me, he hollers instructions.
“Edge of the seat!” he reminds me as I get ready to turn into a sharp left-hander. With that reminder, I tip the bike into the corner but settle onto the right edge of the seat and keep the body vertical, which is diametrically opposite to what you do on tarmac. But first, you need to weigh down the front wheel by sitting far forward on the seat, so much so that when you come to a standstill, your feet should fall ahead of the footpegs. Second, when in motion, you stick the foot on the inside of the corner next to the front wheel. Every little bit counts. Once it looks like I have got the hang of these basics, Santosh asks me to give the advanced track a shot. Table tops, whoops and 15-feet drops keep me on my toes, literally. My legs start feeling wooden and jellyish at the same time. At a sweeping left-hander, I decide to give my legs a break. Just then, I lose the front, and my tired body has nothing to fight back with. Wham. Thankfully, dirt is a lot more forgiving than tarmac. You get up. Fix bike. Fix posture. Repeat.
As it turns out, fixing the bike is easier than fixing my posture. Two kicks to the front wheel has the forks sorted. My body posture though takes more time.
“Have you done dead lifts?” asks Santosh, and then tells me to replicate that posture on the bike. Later, surfing over the completely unpredictable forest ground, I am forced to stand and I try to fine-tune my posture. When I get it right, with the calves and knees pressing in to hold the bike, the results are magical! Suddenly, the bumps become distant, energy levels don’t plummet and steering the bike is just a question of adjusting the weight on the pegs. It almost feels like flying!
Santosh is observing closely and is upping the ante accordingly. He throws new challenges at me, one at a time. My first reaction to each successive challenge is an incredulous “No way!”. But, with just a few quiet words and a quick smile, he instils a sense of confidence. And gets me to give each of the challenges a shot. I skirt a dried-up well with just the edge of the tyres getting bite from the sloping mud. I climb a wall of mud only to find that once you get to the top, there’s nothing but another drop on the other side. Clutch and throttle control are practised by assaulting muddy slopes from a standing start. As I come out of each challenge unscathed, I unwittingly get closer to the ultimate challenge. Big Rock.
Hell, NO! That’s what my mind screams as we ride up to the 45-degree-incline rock face. Broken chips, lumpy water-worn sections that look ready to chuck the front wheel into the air, occasional shrubs, more rocks and sections that look near-vertical, loom in the distance! Hell, no. Thank you very much. Santosh whips out his clincher one more time, “I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I didn’t think you could do it.”
Around 45 minutes later, white-faced, with cold palms and a heart rate that’s bordering on bursting, I make it. Phew! But as I look around to take in the view, I feel euphoric! From our perch, the farmland looks sliced up with a neatness that only great altitude bestows. At that moment, it’s clear that just one day at Big Rock has changed my off-road abilities by such an extent that the internet-sourced learning of the last two years is a mere speck in comparison.
Memories of Big Rock will last me a lifetime because this place got my adrenaline pumping like never before. Sure, hard-gripping race tracks get me excited too, but, this made me feel like there’s a true challenge I need to conquer. The facility offers India’s only off-road proving grounds, where the off-road motorcycle is also provided to you, all part of the very reasonable registration fee. As an off-road enthusiast, Big Rock isn’t something that needs to be sold to me. But for other bikers who have never sampled off-roading on two wheels, it is an easy doorway into a world of possibly unlimited adventures. If you’re an avid biker, do experience it. Big Rock and Santosh only make it a safer and richer experience.
And who knows, maybe someday, you too can conquer the Dakar!