Like trekking, mountain biking can be done independently or as part of a tour – which can simply mean teaming up with a guide and perhaps a couple of other clients for a day or more. With mountain biking, the specialized equipment involved and the difficulty of route-finding makes tours an attractive option.
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An organized bike tour will save lots of pre-departure time and headaches, and maximize the chances that all will go more or less according to plan. The itinerary will be well planned, avoiding the dead ends and wrong turns that inevitably come with a self-organized trip. Decent bikes and all the necessary gear will be provided, and guides will take care of maintenance and on-the-spot repairs. Guides can also show you trails you’d never find on your own, keep you off (dangerous) paved roads and help interpret Nepali culture. On longer tours, a “sag wagon” will tote heavy gear, provide emergency backup, and whisk you past the busier or less interesting stretches of road.
A one-day guided trip will typically cost around $35–50, including bike hire, while longer excursions including vehicle support and accommodation work out at more like $120 per day. Generally, you get what you pay for – and it’s worth checking exactly what you’re getting. Many overseas companies offer mountain-bike tours, but almost all are actually organized by a few operators in Kathmandu, and you can save money by booking directly with them. They usually require a minimum of four people for vehicle-supported tours, but shorter customized trips can be organized for just one or two people. Pokhara also has some good mountain-bike shops which double as tour operators.
Cycling independently takes a certain pioneering spirit and a greater tolerance for discomfort. It’s up to you to rent or bring your own equipment and to arrange food and accommodation; if starting from Kathmandu, you’ll need to organize transport out of the city or else put up with some ugly traffic. You’ll definitely make mistakes finding your own way, which might mean spending more time than you’d intended, getting lost or having to backtrack, or spending more time on trafficky paved roads and less time on trails. However, you’ll have more direct contact with local people than you would with a group.
Day-trips in the Kathmandu and Pokhara valleys are the easiest to do on your own, since you can rent bikes in both cities. Though you probably won’t find the more obscure trails, you’ll no doubt stumble upon others. If you’re riding long-distance without vehicle support, you’ll have to tote your own gear and may find yourself spending nights in primitive lodges where little English is spoken. This will be par for the course if you’re on a long tour of the subcontinent, though, and the going is certainly easier in Nepal than in India: the roads, for the most part, are less busy, and there’s less staring, hassling and risk of theft.