As this year’s India Baja 2017 cross country rally begins in Jaisalmer on Friday, it is possible that many eyes will be trained on Sarah Kashyap for the duration of the three-day race. For, Sarah, is somewhat of a pioneer in the cross country rallying circuit in India apart from being the only girl in the two-wheeler competition at Baja 2017.
The Baja rally — featuring two legs, divided into six stages that cover 430 km over the treacherous sand dunes and overpowering heat of Rajasthan — is designed to test the mettle of the best. But Sarah is not worried.
She is, after all, the country’s only woman to have successfully completed the Raid de Himalayas and the Desert Storm, India’s main cross country rallies. At the former, her bike slid on ice and fell on her on the last day of the rally at the Rangdum-Srinagar stretch, breaking her collar bone in the process. However, rather than calling it a day, Sarah powered on, fighting crippling pain and gruelling terrain, to finish the race.
There are some triumphs you won’t find in the record books. This was one of them.
At Baja, she is chasing another such invisible victory.
This year, the India Baja has raised the stakes after becoming a part of the Dakar Challenge Series, meaning the winner in the two-wheeler category will be given a direct entry into the prestigious Dakar Rally, which will begin in Peru in January next year. The winner also gets an entry into the Merzouga Rally, to be held in Morocco in May this year.
Sarah, though, has set realistic goals for herself.
“I want to finish on the podium in Group B (Indian bikes with foreign parts category) and among the top 10 overall. That would be a good result,” Sarah tells Firstpost. “In fact, even to finish races such as these is difficult. Focusing on endurance and fitness is extremely important. It’s like you are preparing for war. But the more sweat you shed, the less you bleed on the field. Having said that, the desert has a way of making you give up. That is why I have spent a few weeks training on sand in Jaipur,” she adds.
She used to be an anomaly on the circuit when she started out three years ago. Now, she says, there are a handful women giving this arduous lifestyle a shot.
“I won’t say that men and women are exactly equal. Women are somewhat physically weaker. But in racing terms that just means we have to sweat a little extra to get out situations which require strength, like when you have to lift your bike up in tricky terrain. It is difficult being a woman rally rider, but it’s not impossible.
“I also won’t say that I’m my only competition. I’d be sitting at home if that was the case,” the Chandigarh girl says before adding that she has been taking tips from the male competitors, particularly the poster boy of Indian motorsport, CS Santosh.
“I used to follow him from before he raced at Dakar and shot into national consciousness,” she states.
She will need all the tips she can get as she attempts to cut through the desert in Rajasthan. The terrain, after all, is far from what one would call one’s comfort zone.
However, Sarah is not particularly fazed by the challenge at hand, having left the comfort zone behind many years ago. Ever since she was a youngster, she did things that would make people do a double-take. During her six years at the Wales University, where she studied for an MBA degree, she did various odd jobs, from being a Google product trainer to being a bartender to working at a Pakistani halal shop. She also worked with people with learning disabilities for a brief while. However, upon graduating, she realised that jobs were hard to come by in the middle of a credit crunch, which led her to return to India, where her life took another strange turn.
For six months of her life, she taught English to engineers at Chandigarh’s Chitkara University, in a module which was called life skills.
“I have never been shy to try new things,” she says nonchalantly.
It was that attitude that led her to become the first woman to work in the rides and community team of Royal Enfield, a cushy corporate job. However, cushy does not interest Sarah. That is why she quit the job to become a full time rally rider. So that she can go to ‘war’ on terrains like those she will encounter at India Baja.