Photographs by Kaizad Adil Darukhanawala
Fancy a go at the circuit? Climb out from a dug-out section called Rocky Start. Scramble uphill through muddy grass. Pass the laughing crowd; don’t bother responding, any distraction will end with a faceplant. At the rise’s peak, head downhill-left for Aquack, muddy waters that make the rider’s legs waddle like a duck’s. If not blinded by the water, seek out Lost Gap, the left between two small rocks. This is crucial for a clean momentum-boosting run to Hopes Up; it looks easy at first but slowly destroys your soul as you attempt to climb it. Managed to get over? Head slightly uphill-right up Breather Lane to a sharp right-hander called What The.
You’re now aimed at Glug, a small pond at the end of a downhill slope called Backslide, self-explanatory when the grass-hidden camber kicks out the rear wheel and you make the sudden transition from seat to ground. This is also when Glug’s name makes most sense. Once rider and bike have righted course, it’s a straight run to The Other Side where the grass is greener but also hides several nasty bumps. After the short rodeo, it’s time to go around Rocks8, a big eight made by big rocks; the angle of entry is up to you. Exit Rocks8 and head back down past the crowd that’s laughing even harder now, and into the start-finish drop now called Rock Bottom. Which, incidentally, sums up your current physical state.
If you don’t know where you’re going, you need suspension of disbelief. That’s no metaphysical statement; when out on our Bike Slush Fest, you need shock absorbers that make you go, ‘Whoa, I didn’t even feel that.’ As such, perhaps it was questionable to take along a 51-year-old Rajdoot 175 on our voluntary annual battle against the forces of mud and monsoon. But then I told myself that all good ideas start off as bad ones, and given that we were taking along a mix of machines — a scooter, a commuter, the cheapest Indian dual-purpose bike, the hottest adventure bike right now, and a big ADV bike for reference — I thought an old machine might add a bit of sepia charm to the proceedings. And I was in for a surprise.
The order of machines described above consisted of the following: the Yamaha RayZR 125 Street Rally, I clearly fixated on that last word in its name; the Hero Passion Pro, a light and cheerful machine that punches above its weight the BS6 Hero Xpulse, a massive improvement over its older self; the KTM 390 Adventure because, well, because; and the BMW F 850 GS, the bike that BMW uses to train riders for its GS Trophy events. As usual, no modifications were made to any of these machines. As usual, we would come to regret that later in some cases. For example, the GS came with street tyres on it despite putting in a request for dual-purpose ones at the very least. You can imagine how that went.
Given that we were well short of hands (legs and spines, too), and also because they were probably suffering from cabin fever thanks to lockdown after lockdown, we called Ex-Men Ruman and Aadil to join us, and promptly put them on the GS and the Passion Pro respectively. Janak, rubbing his gloved hands with premature glee, took the 390 Adventure, while Kyle plonked his considerable self on the Xpulse. Varad, the resident go-fastest guy, uncharacteristically found himself on the scooter, while I settled for nursing my still-running-in Rajdoot through the storm. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better mixture in a pack of mules.
This year, we headed to Panshet on the outskirts of Pune, to a rolling patch of grass, slush, moss, water, all fun things that test the balance of man and machine alike. For my part, I set a course as best as I could on the Rajdoot, and then hung around pointing a finger and laughing at everyone else. But before I did that, I found myself pumping the Rajdoot’s kick until the ancient motor roared to life in a cloud of smoke; I couldn’t help but issue a silent apology to surrounding flora. The old motorcycle’s BS6 companions at least don’t choke the grass they trample. Then again, does a 51-year-old motorcycle stress the environment more or less than new ones?
I couldn’t care less as I clambered over the start, slithered up the rise, and descended towards Aquack, suddenly wondering if the Rajdoot’s air filter was waterproof enough. My helmet visor had fogged over long ago and now my spectacles were following suit. Watching out for obstacles through water droplets soon got tiring enough to not care at all, and by the time I reached Hopes Up, I relied only on my internal compass and bouncing off terrain in the general intended direction. Precision was neither the Rajdoot’s strong suit nor mine, just a water-blinded determination to reach the finish line. And a hopeful desire to avoid embarrassment, of course.
That desire suffered a minor setback at Backslide, though; the rear tyre was probably made shortly after the invention of the wheel and had no chance of holding its line on that sudden camber. Righting it wasn’t a problem, though, and the Rajdoot droned throughout the rest of the lap without incident. It bounced along, reminding me that the rear shocks are shot to hell. Its weight was easy to manage and its turning circle was tight enough to rotate the bike like ye olde gramophone records. And even though it rained throughout, it didn’t give up, surprising pretty much everyone present. At the end of the lap, it set a benchmark time of 2 minutes 2 seconds, something all the others would easily break. Not.
It turned out that newer doesn’t always mean better, especially if the old thing is light and has 19-inch wheels. The laws of physics don’t change with time, after all. Case in point, Janak took off on the 390 Adventure, and pretty much kept spinning the rear wheel senselessly for the entire lap, stopping the clock at a whopping 8 minutes 27 seconds. He spent most of the time stuck at Hopes Up, as did Varad on the scooter, Aadil on the Passion Pro and Ruman on the GS. Only Kyle on the Xpulse got through the lap without much incident, setting the fastest time of 1 minute 58 seconds. And yes, the Rajdoot was second. But rankings are never the point of a Slush Fest. Especially not this time around.
After months spent indoors or thereabouts, properly reconnecting with motorcycles and the great outdoors was nothing short of a blessing. And I bet people are going to want to do this more and more. And then some more. What else could explain why Varad, Janak, Aadil and Ruman persisted at Hopes Up, even if clearly both traction and terrain were against them? And why did Aditya, our human winch, keep cheerfully pulling us out of the muck time and again? A Slush Fest is all about fun, but there are still important learnings to be had, the most constant one being the fact that we never learn.
For example, the moment Aadil took off for his lap, bouncing over Rocky Start, I wagered to no one in particular that he’d take a tumble. And he obliged in a reliably humorous manner. Not that I doubt his skill, just that over the years I’ve observed that gravity is somehow stronger around him. I also learned that no matter how careful the explanation, rain and mud will cause confusion. Take Rocks8; I should perhaps have specified the language of the ‘8’ because there were some that I couldn’t recognise, while Kyle forgot the exact number and made something like an ‘88888’ between the rocks — and still set the fastest time. None could beat the combination of farmers’ genes, a 21-inch front wheel and forgiving suspension. Oh, and did I mention we did all this after being pre-destroyed by a slippery trail down which Varad led us without warning?
However, far beyond the details lies the importance of motorcycles (and scooter) and what they let you do. I had fun watching the new bikes follow the old one’s tyre tracks and behave the same, but with their own twists. And the same absolutely non-negotiable things kept surfacing — light weight, off-road tyres and sufficient bottom-end torque. These three things keep things safe and in-control fun. Want to go faster? Add big wheels and long suspension, but always keep light weight in mind. For me, just being out in the soaking wet real world, watching 2T smoke mix with rainy fog was worth it. Next to its modern-day companions, the Rajdoot looked as old as the hills we were on. Did I expect it to do well, though? Yes, because it’s a motorcycle and that makes it relentless. Age is just a number, intent is merely a state of mind. And neither matters to a motorcycle.
Rajdoot 175: 173cc, 9 bhp, 1.37 kgm, 114 kg
Lap time: 2 min 2 sec
READY TO REST
We were all eager to see how the 390 Adventure performs in the slush. With the ABS set to off-road and traction control switched off, I was ready to set a quick lap time because that’s what KTMs are all about, no? It kind of turned out to be the exact opposite. Since the start was on hard, compact mud, the KTM easily climbed up, but the tyres got caked with mud and grass in no time. With next to no traction at the rear, the feisty nature of the engine made it difficult to keep the revs low to achieve any kind of traction. I walked the bike along more than I rode it. Also, the KTM developed a snag in its ride-by-wire system; without warning, the throttle would stop working and the only way to make it work was to switch the ignition off and on. That also meant turning off traction control every single time. At Hopes Up, given the lack of traction on grass and a kerb weight of 172 kg, I couldn’t get anything but the front wheel of the motorcycle up the slope despite repeated attempts. And every time it stalled or if the throttle stopped working, I had to carry out the traction-control-off procedure again. Argh! With a motor that’s designed to rev quickly, the weight that digs itself into the mud, and electronics that didn’t work as expected, the 390 Adventure took a lot of time to finish the lap. Next time, better to stick with sliding on the dry stuff with this one.
KTM 390 Adventure: 373.2cc, 43.5 bhp, 3.78 kgm, 172 kg
Lap time: 8 min 27 sec
Riding in slush and muck unequivocally forces man and machine back to their most basic. As a rider, it’s a reminder to master that finest and most underrated skill of motorcycling — balance. For the machine? Well, the Hero Passion Pro, a commuter vastly outclassed by most of the bikes present, is testament that when it comes to battling nature, it’s the basics that matter the most. The F 850 GS, with its electronic everything, couldn’t keep up with a bike that costs less than a wire-spoked wheel from Munich. Why? Weight. You can’t engineer yourself out of weight, and the Hero proves that. I rode through slush, water and the most slippery grass imaginable in pouring rain, and that yellow commuter waltzed through it all. Did I fall? Of course. It’s a Slush Fest, and a motorcyclist having a good time invariably does something stupid. But it wasn’t a problem, because the Hero was easy to pick up, easy to push, and nothing broke when it fell. And lying in the dirt gasping for breath after pushing one of those bikes out of a ditch made me wonder whether we’ve gotten ADV bikes hopelessly wrong today. We don’t need a 200-kg bike pumping 100 bhp with five rider modes, an enduro ABS and traction control system. We just need a bike that is light enough to pick up when it falls, without an electronic brain that starts having an aneurysm at the first sign of a heavy downpour. The Passion Pro is ‘Oh, so basic,’ but in that simplicity lies the most important lesson. I hope manufacturers and riders take note.
Hero Passion Pro: 113cc, 9 bhp, 1 kgm, 118 kg
Lap time: 3 min 5 sec
CHRONICLES OF HERNIA
If there’s any doubt in your mind about just how counterintuitive riding in the slush is, try doing it on a BMW F 850 GS. Frankly, all the GS wanted to do was to make a GS-sized hole in the ground, with a rider lodged permanently underneath it. A shrine to agony, dismemberment and stupidity, you could say. First of all, let me say this: never put road tyres on an adventure motorcycle and if, for some reason you do, please make sure you never ever ride it. As my sore arms will vouch for, the GS was an absolute riot off the road — from the perspective of the persecuted, that is. There was absolutely no way I could get the GS to go in a straight line except, as you can guess, when I wanted it to go in anything but. To the motorcycle’s credit, it felt robust, communicative and quite manageable, which explains why it was returned to BMW Motorrad the way it arrived rather than in a gunny bag and with a long apology letter. Its many rider assists make life easier (wet tip: stay in Dynamic which lowers the rear, turn ABS on, traction control off; Enduro Pro is best left for dry surfaces) and the crisp throttle response somewhat shrinks the motorcycle, making it seem like a fun plaything. Except, don’t actually fall for it — unless you are supremely experienced — because the GS is a very big, very heavy motorcycle and it can make you very popular on Instagram, for all the wrong reasons.
BMW F 850 GS: 853cc, 88.5 bhp, 8.77 kgm, 229 kg
Lap time: 9 min 55 sec
Having had plenty of fun on motorcycles last year where I almost drowned one of the bikes, it was only natural Kartik decided to hand me the least ‘risky’ machine for this year’s Slush Fest, the Yamaha RayZR Street Rally. A scooter. But what worked in my favour was the slimy and slippery grass of the circuit. Between watching the boys with the big toys struggling to keep the bikes straight and me trying to keep a straight face looking at them grappling for a footing, I realised that despite the horsepower handicap, the RayZR was a fairly capable machine to be thrown into the deep end. It sure did struggle on a few of the obstacles like Hopes Up, which felt like an eternity to get over, but when I got back and saw the stop watch, it was not a bad time at all around the tormenting course. I’d go so far as to say it was actually respectable — because it wasn’t last! Imagine all those bikes like the BMW and the KTM beaten by a 125cc 8-bhp scooter! Guess who had the last laugh? Yamahahaha!
Yamaha RayZR Street Rally: 125cc, 8 bhp, 1 kgm, 99 kg
Lap time: 8 min 27 sec
Of the lot, the Xpulse seemed to be the best suited for this year’s Slush Fest. The stock long-travel suspension bolted onto proper 21-inch and 18-inch all-terrain rubber at either end coupled with linear low- and mid-range grunt saw the Hero float effortlessly through the course. At Rocks8, I goofed up and took two laps instead of one, and despite this, the Xpulse trounced the competition. I must admit that this feat was all down to the Xpulse, with little or no credit to yours truly since I’m not an off-road rider of any mentionable pedigree. The seat height was perfect and the rider triangle felt extremely natural on the trails. That being said, the Xpulse needs to lose several kilos. The Hero’s 157-kg weight is very apparent in the slush. To lose some bulk would make the Hero much easier to muscle around in the mud. Another niggle I had was with the seat. Sure, it was adequate off-road because one is mostly standing on the footpegs, but getting to and back from your favourite trails would be a rather uncomfortable ride if you lived more than an hour away. The width of the seat is way too narrow and the pillion was literally sitting on the rear grab rail. But the big question here was whether the Xpulse made me grin with delight. The answer to that is a resounding ‘Yes!’
Hero Xpulse 200: 199.6cc, 17.8 bhp, 1.67 kgm,157 kg
Lap time: 1 min 58 sec