The alleyways are filled with throngs of people bustling around in the cool morning air. In the distance, beyond the broken ceiling of chipped concrete and spaghetti electrical wires, snow-capped peaks painted with amber brush strokes of the rising sun reach for the sky. Bikes and people jostle for space in the scurry of traffic. Dirt and dust hang thickly in air mixed with heavy exhaust fumes; it's little surprise that Kathmandu ranks among the world's most polluted cities. This chaotic city is not somewhere you'd expect to find a mountain bike champion. Then again, Rajesh 'RJ' Magar's story is anything but typical.
Magar was born and raised in the poor outer suburbs of Kathmandu, a typical setting for a Nepali boy to grow up, but a far cry from the world of recreational mountain biking. His parents moved to the city from their rural village 25 years ago in hopes of finding employment and education for their children. They did construction and housework to make ends meet but the Magars lived paycheck to paycheck, struggling to pay rent for a 12-by-12 room.
"I realized from an early age that I had to work hard," Magar says, "that I had to earn for myself." Starting at the age of 10, Magar worked odd jobs before and after school, which enabled him to give money to his family and save to buy his first bike. "Not many people ride bikes in Nepal, at least not for fun," he says, "they are really a tool for work and for transport." Magar found that he could increase the amount of work he could accomplish in a day by owning a bike. Yet as the years passed, he became obsessed with riding bikes, seeing the machine as a gateway for fun and exploration, not merely a tool. Magar built jumps in a nearby area of unused land and entertained local kids after school by jumping higher, farther and faster. "I played a lot of other sports as a child, but none gave me the same feeling as riding bikes," he says. "I fell in love with my bike."
And like kids the world over, the fascination drew him away from school.
"Sometimes I would just skip school to go and ride bikes, and then my mum would always have to come looking for me." Deepa Magar, RJ's mother, in a fit of exasperation at this newfound distraction, once sold his hard-earned bike for $0.90 in a bid to return him to education. "We can't read or write, " Deepa says of herself and Ram, RJ's dad, "and so we told Rajesh and his sister that they must study hard to be successful." Neighbors made disapproving comments to Deepa about her son's priorities—a path to success and security was, in their eyes, assured only through schooling.
But, despite his mother's disapproval, Magar wasn't deterred, and saw his lack of a bike as an opportunity rather than a hindrance. This was a chance to make a bike that "looked like a proper downhill bike." YouTube videos and Google images provided inspiration, and Magar remembers sitting at the back of class drawing and improving new designs for his bike, rifling through junkyard scraps to find the raw materials he needed to build it. With a beat-up steel frame, some plumber's piping and an old motorcycle shock, he began forging his own bike, and in the process began forging his dream.
"At that time there weren't really many races in Nepal, there are now more, but it's still a young sport," he says. After hearing from friends about a race near where he lived, Magar turned up at Hattiban, a forested hill south of Kathmandu where locals built a rough downhill track. He arrived at the race wearing sneakers and a soccer shirt. He had no pads on and was riding $3 pedals, but still needed a helmet and entry fee in order to race. Another rider offered to loan him a helmet and cover the cost of his race.
Magar was the youngest competitor there.
"I was scared to go down that track to begin with—the organizers didn't want me to race as they thought that my bike was too dangerous. But with some luck and false courage I managed to make it down and hit all the jumps and berms. The bike was amazing, it didn't break!" This early success caught the eye of the others racers, in particular Mandil Pradhan, a local mountain bike tour operator.
"You wouldn't believe what he was able to do on that bike" Pradhan says. "I saw this kid ripping on this homemade bike and thought, 'I've got to meet him.' I pretty much offered him a job straight away."
Pradhan hired Magar as a guide, but their relationship soon blossomed beyond that of an employer and an employee. He saw Magar's potential, and realized that he could help this "poor kid in torn-up soccer clothing" make a name for himself as a racer.
Pradhan lent him bikes from his rental fleet and began taking Magar to the handful of races that were held in Nepal. By the time he was 16, Magar was the downhill national champion. Since then, he's seen a meteoric rise in his racing career, winning three more national titles, plus garnering a string of other results throughout Asia, and was named as one of the 2018 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year. But it wasn't his racing success that caught the attention of current sponsors Yeti Cycles and Fox Shox, it was Magar's passion for the sport and his skill as a mountain bike guide.
Magar met Yeti's Chris Conroy and Fox's Jared Connell the same way he meets many foreigners: guiding them on natural singletrack that ribbons its way across peaks high in Nepal's Mustang Valley. With towering 8,000-meter (26,000-foot) peaks, white-washed villages and desert-like lower elevations, the 'world's highest playground' attracts riders from around the globe. When Conroy and Connell hired Magar to lead them to the best trails, they saw him as not only a guide, but an incredibly talented, determined and passionate young rider. They knew they could help him succeed.
With their support, Magar now sports the latest gear, cutting a professional image on the local racing circuit, and at races across the continent. But Magar knows that he needs to line up against the world's fastest riders at the Enduro World Series to really prove himself. "That is my dream—to race a full calendar in the EWS," Magar says. But it's not his abilities limiting him, it's the difficulty of obtaining a travel visa to enter Europe and the U.S. Right now, Magar's racing future lies in the hands of an embassy official behind a desk.
Even if his international racing dreams aren't realized, Magar has already made a lasting impact—his story is an inspiration to kids in Kathmandu and beyond. "He has shown people that with a lot of passion and hard work you can make a change," Pradhan says. "Of course luck plays a certain part, but he is extremely fast, and hardworking and that doesn't come down to luck; he's earned this."
Now 21, Magar is the breadwinner for his family. Although there are few footsteps to follow as he pursues a life of cycling and tries to break into the EWS, Magar is carving out his own path to success, and in the process inspiring others to pursue their dreams with both humility and determination. "I want to make my family happy, to make them proud, that is the plan," Magar says, "and I want to prove that there are great mountain bike riders all around the world, particularly in Nepal."
Watch Joey Schusler's "RJ Ripper" film chronicling Rajesh Magar's rise to riding greatness from humble Kathmandu beginnings.