Queen of the Mountains
September 12, 2019
How one woman’s dedication to cycling has taken her places few Nepali women have ever reached. From the pages of Issue 4: Plans Change.
By Jennifer Gurecki | @yogurecki
What would you do if you were standing on the podium after a big win, and as the men were handed checks with ample zeros printed on them, you were awarded a congratulatory paper certificate? If you’re Laxmi Magar, one of the top women cyclists in Nepal, you’d rip it up, walk away, train harder, and win again.
From the outside looking in, it might appear that this brazen cyclist has risen out of nowhere, but that’s not the case. Despite her seemingly quick rise to the top of the cycling scene in Nepal, Magar has dedicated her entire life to the sport. She got her start on the rough football fields in her home town of Nuwakot. As a child, she would rent a bike for one rupee an hour and find open places to ride. She couldn’t reach the pedals so she would sit on the saddle and her friends would push her. Once her legs caught up with her tenacity, she borrowed bicycles from her relatives. But it was rare to find bikes, she said, particularly for a girl.
It wasn’t until Magar finished secondary school and began focusing on her studies at university that she found cycling again. She had left home, was living on her own, and couldn’t afford the bus fare. She picked up an old second-hand bike and started riding to and from school and work. As she learned how to deftly dart through the Kathmandu traffic, she realized that she could go faster than all of the vehicles on the road. At the same time, she started riding with a handful of Sherpas (one of the ethnic groups native to the mountainous regions of Nepal), and she became stronger both physically and mentally.
“People think that I just popped out, but I started my life with zero. It was a tough life but I managed. It’s the hard work and years I have spent time on a bicycle and my experience and dedication. I left my father’s place. I rented a room and I rode my bicycle to work and at the same time, I went to university. I studied, I worked, I raced. People don’t think that I had done training a lot before the race, months and years, and the cost of maintaining a bike and traveling. When I win, they see just the winning part.”
It was when she started beating the boys that things got really interesting. They believed they were entitled to be in front of her: men lead, women follow. But some know me as a friend.” It’s the latter that is exemplified in the way that she supports other women in pursuing a sport that has become her life and her livelihood. She sponsors other cyclists who are serious about the sport. She volunteers her time as a coach and organizes cycling clinics. She’s started a cycling training center in Kathmandu. And in the offseason, she dedicates her time as a swimming coach for girls.
“Now I can find mountains on my bicycle. It’s the happiest thing. I can see the views from the top. Enjoy the breeze. Enjoy everything.”
Well, not everything.
Despite the rise of cycling today in Nepal, Magar is still an anomaly. Anyone who has pushed the boundaries and chosen a life outside of societal norms can find themselves lonely, despite the perceived success. “In the context of Nepal, mine is not a regular life, spending life as a racer and athlete. It was not preferable life according to my father, but I chose it, and it became my addiction. That’s why I didn’t look for the life to settle and make a house and a family and a relaxed life and wait for my husband’s income. I didn’t look for that one. I looked for cycling.”
What she's found in trying to make a career out of cycling is what many women athletes around the world face: sexism. “There is no equal opportunity. I don’t think women are treated equally or provided opportunity equally in Nepal or in South Asia. My race experiences are so bad,” she said remembering the times that prizes were promised only to find out nothing would be given after she traveled, competed, and won the race. “I forgot to laugh now because I’m so much sad with events and treatment from the South Asian organizers.” Magar responded the only way she knew how: challenging the race organizers, demanding a women’s category, and continuing to train, compete, and show up.
Her attitude and absolute dismissal of the status quo in Nepal has earned her a bit of a reputation. She’s the type of woman whom many people misunderstand. Her quiet yet take-no-shit approach has intimated people in her cycling community. “Some people know me as Queen of the Mountains,” she said, “and some know me as a friend.” It’s the latter that is exemplified in the way that she supports other women in pursuing a sport that has become her life and her livelihood. She sponsors other cyclists who are serious about the sport. She volunteers her time as a coach and organizes cycling clinics. She’s started a cycling training center in Kathmandu. And in the offseason, she dedicates her time as a swimming coach for girls.
If she was born in the Western world, Magar may have already risen to elite athlete status, but because she’s Nepali, she is virtually unknown to major sponsors, the media, and subsequently, the public. Her ability to obtain visas to travel, the low wages, the exchange rate, and the dismissal of women cyclists will continue to present roadblocks to her success. But that isn’t going to stop her. “I am with this mountain biking industry—I’m taking my body and bike together as a soul and body.” It is precisely that level of dedication and intensity that Magar will need to rise to the top of a sport that is predominately white, Western, and male. One can only wonder what the excuses will be if she ever has the chance to pass them by.
Training and competing as an elite athlete isn’t cheap, and as a Nepali woman, Laxmi doesn’t have access to the sponsors and support that her Western counterparts do. You can change that by sharing her story and purchasing a piece from our Queen of the Mountains apparel line. We’re giving Laxmi 10% of all sales to help her pay for spare and replacement bike parts, travel costs, and competition fees.