Shimla: Among the 100 mountain bikers participating in the Hero MTB Shimla race, a team of around a dozen riders stood out. Dressed in overalls which mimicked army fatigues, the motley crew seemed unique.

A few inquiries later, it emerged that they weren’t your average mountain biking aficionados, but seasoned riders, accustomed to the vagaries of the mountainous terrain. They were, in fact, representatives of the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) or the Armed Border Force. Led by Commandant Rajesh Thakur, the team participates in various mountain biking events around the region.

Not many can traverse the mountainous terrain quite like India’s Armed Border force. The team is stationed in Didihat, Uttarakhand, a remote area surrounded by hills where the temperatures drop to -30 to -35 degrees. The region shares its border with Nepal and China where Thakur’s team are meant to be on their toes all the time.

“The local population also migrates out of the region due to the temperatures. But we continue to patrol the area,” says Thakur. The team was formed two years ago as it was felt that the geographical location was restricting the manner in which the members of the regiment trained and exercised.

“The idea stemmed from the fact that we do not have proper grounds to train and push ourselves to the extreme limit,” says Thakur. “We found that mountain biking is the perfect way to develop the physical efficiency of a soldier,” he added.

After participating in numerous races over the past 12 months, the motive for the team has grown to mean something much larger that just a means to maintain fitness.

Spreading awareness

“The idea behind taking up the sport was also creating role models for the children in the area. Our flashy getup and cycles attract its fair share of eyeballs,” he said. “In the hills, youngsters tend are prone to getting addicted to drugs. We want to give the people in the border areas a chance to improve their lives,” added Thakur.

The regiment has bought cycles for the children in the area from their own pocket. A few are also trained by them “so that they don’t fall prey to drugs or evil influences in the region.”

The SSB mountain biking team consists of 40 riders out of which 15 took part in MTB Shimla over the weekend.

The team also involved three women cyclists, two of whom are training to summit Mount Everest next year. The team rides up to 60 kilometres daily and compete in small races across the region to stay fit and alert.

Preventing human trafficking

When not traversing through the mountainous terrain on a bikes, Thakur and his regiment are busy patrolling the border areas. Stationed on the border with Nepal, one of their key duties is to put a stop to human trafficking which has become rampant.

“Nepal is a poor country and many girls are picked up from there and sold to other countries in the flesh trade,” said Thakur. “We have saved so many girls like these. We help the Nepal army whenever we can and make sure we foil such attempts. The practice is common and rampant in the region. It is a said affair,” he adds.

The MTB Shimla edition, though, provided Thakur’s team a chance to step away from their high-stakes duty on the border and indulge in a weekend of mountain biking, a fitness programme which has now turned into a passion project for most in the team.

Members of Thakur’s team enjoyed a fine outing as they managed to finish in the top-three of some key events.

SSB’s Issac Rai finished third in Open Men’s Solo with a time of 06:05:47, while Poonam Rana finished third in Open Women’s Solo after clocking 08:47:19. In the team of two event, the regiment’s Dhiman and Hiranya finished second with a time of 04:15:00.

But for these riders, clearly mountain-biking is more than just these numbers.