I'm standing on the edge of a hot, red sandy field, part of a massive crowd cheering at an increasingly amplified volume. In front of us 20 or so bikers are lined up in front of an obstacle course on a scale I have never seen before. The riders take on the obstacle course one at a time, against the clock, and get disqualified if they let their feet touch the ground.
Barrels, ice blocks (in 35 degree heat) and an actual car are just three of the hazards between the competitors and the finish line. The start flag drops, and after 60 seconds of skidding tyres and nail-biting tumbles in clouds of dust, the survivors scream across the finish line.
This is how India does a motorbike festival. And I'm loving it
Rider Mania in Goa is Royal Enfield's biggest annual event, and a huge deal in India, where Royal Enfield is to biking what Chanel is to fashion. I've been a biker for seven years and Royal Enfields were my first love, and now I have the chance not only to ride the brand's new off-and on–road Himalayan for a two-day, 1200 km round trip from Mumbai to Goa, but also to watch India's finest riders compete at the festival.
Riding the Royal Way
First a little history lesson: founded in Worcestershire in 1890 to make guns, Royal Enfield moved on to motorbikes in 1909, and from 1911 supplied the British military with motorbikes and sidecars for WW1. 40 years later, when the Indian government were looking for a suitable ride for their police and army border patrols, Royal Enfield partnered with Madras Motors to build the now ubiquitous Enfield Bullets. Their latest model is the beautiful Royal Enfield Himalayan, built for both on- and off-road, which none of the others are. The annual festivals are a celebration of their favourite form of transport, and this time my fiancé Bingo and I get the chance to go along.
Flying into Mumbai in November, we have just two days to acclimatise to the heat, dust, jet-lag and frantic, life-endangering traffic (rickshaws, cows, buses and cars all competing for tarmac space in the congested streets), before we ride our loaned Himalayans south to Goa.
We are a group of 10: a mix of Colombian, Thai and European bike fanatics, whose age ranges from 20s to 40s (just two of us are women), who all share the same obsession. Most of the group are India newbies – except me.
Tackling the Roads Like A Couple of Outlaws
On our third day, a fleet of gleaming black or white Royal Enfield Himalayan bikes are delivered to the hotel; our luggage is loaded onto a truck, and we're off, destination: Goa.
I'll be honest, I have never been so nervous to ride a motorbike In My Life . Mumbai is chaotic, to put it mildly, and there don't seem to be any rules. It's a bit like being on the run and everyone is trying to kill you. As none of us have ridden in India before, we all have to wear full body armour, which means there is a lot of sweating in the 35 degree heat. I also acquire a full face helmet tan line, which is super attractive.
We are all experienced riders - some are even motocross champions - and yet all of that means nothing in the face of the screaming, teaming rat runs that confront us. I've never seen bike veterans of this calibre so close to sh*tting themselves.
Eager to be noticed (and avoid certain death), we start using our horns as the locals do - ie like they might go out of fashion, as we jostle for position in the five lanes of traffic that have somehow crammed into a three-lane highway.
Somehow we survive the pandemonium, and as we leave the city behind, the roads are quieter and the scenery gradually becomes more spectacular: brightly painted tractors, buses and motorbikes loaded with people, cars rattling along on the wrong side of the road, cows just hanging out wherever they like, and random speed bumps in the middle of the highway. Only in India would this much mayhem seem magical. The green and dusty landscape is peppered with women in colorful saris and the smell of spices hangs in the steamy air.
Wherever we go, I make friends with the street dogs, feeding them when I can and taking pics of all of them. I'm an obsessive dog person, but that's a whole other story.
The plan is to cut the trip into two manageable chunks of around 300kms a day, breaking our journey in the (unremarkable) town of Kolhapur, Maharashtra, for a much needed shower and bed for the night.
Where day one was mostly city and freeway driving (you can check out our route here if you fancy attempting something similar), day two (route here) is all back country, sometimes heading off-road on dirt tracks (which is what these Himalayans are made for), and up mountains, and weaving through small villages along battered roads with potholes that look like meteorite craters.
The landscape becomes even greener and more luscious as we cross into Goa, and finally reach Vagator Hilltop, where Rider Mania is held.
Rider Mania Was Just That, Manic
We dump our bags at Le Pearl Resort & Spa, 10 minutes away, and ride up to the event, where thousands of Royal Enfield riders, not just from all over India, but from as far afield as Australia the US and South America ( Royal Enfield fans are very dedicated), are congregating.
Instead of everyone standing around trying to look cool (as they do at most bike festivals), people are really getting into it, tirelessly cheering on their friends competing in one of the many races of the day, with names like Dirt Track, Slow Race, Carry Your Bike, Assembly Wars, Trials, Maze Chase and more. It is a hot, noisy, dusty, colourful slice of chaos (the people-watching alone is worth the trip ), and I love it.
We dance (the cheesy dance music was so bad it was (almost) good), we yell encouragement at the riders, eat masala dosas ( rice pancakes dipped into potato) from the many food stalls, and when all the heat, noise and dust becomes overwhelming, we whizz down to the beach (five minute ride) - or back to the hotel pool- to cool off.
Rider Mania info here. is, without doubt, one of the best Motorcycle festivals I've ever been to, and I have never seen anything quite like it. After two days, sunburnt and exhausted, we have to leave our beloved Himalayans and fly back to the UK.
British Airways has return flights from London Heathrow to Mumbai from around £436.
Tips and Tricks
+ Do it on a Royal Enfield. Quite apart from the bike's history, you can hire them pretty cheaply and they're so prevalent in India that you'll always be able to find someone who knows how to fix them, should you run into any trouble (and you most probably will) .
Royal Enfield arranges big rides which you can join, they can also help you if you have any questions about bike hire.
+ Don't let anyone fool you about protective gear. You'll be told that in Goa you can ride around without a helmet. If you are an experienced rider, it's up to you, but I would say definitely wear one in the evenings. Some of the locals are known to drink and drive on their bikes, and it just isn't worth taking the risk.
+ Take a strong probiotic and don't eat anything that would have been washed with water i.e.: salad, fruit and don't eat the roadside sauces that would come with (for example) a Masala Dosa, they top up some of the sauces with tap water and I can assure you, you don't want Delhi Belly.
+ Same rules apply on your plane ride home, they use that tap water in India. I ate the salad on my flight home and spent the next few days throwing it back up again, which isn't very fun.