Cycling is like life. Cycling with no goal is meaningless. What meaning is there cycling in circles? Or living aimlessly? Meaning comes from direction and destination. Join me in my life's journey on a mountain bike :)

Blogging since 2003. Thank you for reading :))

Sunday, May 08, 2016

What’s wrong with that?

Seletar, 25 km. This is how it is nowadays. No more running, limited riding, limited to the distance I

used for road tests.

Still, the piddling distance is not to be pitied. I can still enjoy the peddling, short though it is. It doesn’t have to be long to have fun. Just make the most of the little available, whether it’s km or other scarce things. Including time.

I pass an old building. In its heyday, it must’ve been bustling, given it’s size. Now, it stands silent, abandoned. “Useless”, some might say. It was something, now it’s nothing. It’s served it’s purpose, now it rests. What’s wrong with that? And who knows, it might be repurposed.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Taken for granted

Seletar, 25 km. I used to be able to cycle every weekend, but sometimes didn't want to. Now, it's hard to ride even if I want to.

When time is short, distance is short.

Cranking out the short, laughable distance today is an achievement, given the time and energy I've left after working 10 to 11 hours a day, six days a week for the past three weeks (inclusive of less-than-an-hour lunch hour). And more of that to come.

Since my discretionary time has drastically fallen, I’ve to make choices. Some things I drop totally (like running), some things I reduce, some things I maintain. To choose, I’ve to value things. Which means, some things which I’d taken for granted, I now appreciate more.

When there’s less time, there’s less time to waste, which means making a choice to do things I value more.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Many memories, many thanks

This wasn't there the last time I was here
Johore, Malaysia, 139 km. It was in 2003 when I started making day rides across the border. I like
riding abroad as it beats riding from traffic light to traffic light in this garden city or, some say, a city in a garden. A garden is cultivated by man, but wide open spaces is made by nature i.e. it’s natural, not artificial.

The place looks familiar, yet different. It's like meeting someone after years of absence. New roads, bridges and directions pass familiar buildings. To get to where I'd breakfast with my friends, I clamber up a slope: a heap of dirt one storey high.

Another side of Johor Bahru
Riding to Pekan Nanas, reality bites. The distant past has "dimmed" the distance and climbs. Memory is past, reality is present. Time has passed. I'm older, fatter. Well, my tyres are fatter, from 1.25" slicks to 2.1" knobbies.

In the little town of Pekan Nanas, there are two bicycle shops. The biggest one is closed. Besides me, there's another mountain biker standing there forlornly. At the other shop, I'm told, unsolicited, that I can upgrade my 26" wheels to 27.5". Interesting!

On the huge roads leading to the border, traffic automatically hold back to let me filter lanes, just because I glance back. That's one reason why I like cycling here. Instead of small places and minds, there are open spaces and hearts.

Thanks to my bike buddies who introduced me to this life. I marvelled at AF, who cycled in 2003 as if he has a GPS in his head: no map, no compass and gets to the destination without getting lost. As for me, I get to where I want to go after getting lost. Well, yeah, there are new roads and bridges :p

Monday, March 28, 2016

Right and wrong

Mar distance: 696 km

Woodlands, 46 km. Bikehop man is annoyed. He glares at me and says he knows what he’s doing. But it’s not by the book. Shimano manual categorically states “the chain’s level of strength [in A] is enhanced compared to the method in Fig. B”. He doesn’t even look at the instructions in my hand.

I've told this to two mechanics in two other shops before. Each time, they are surprised as they don't think there's a difference, but they do as Shimano says. But not this guy.

This will not do. I remove the chain and redo it under his supervision: I need to learn how to install a chain anyway. I’m amazed how a brand new gleaming chain can leave so much black oil on my hands. The pamphlet in the box says nothing about Fig. A and B.

It’s only when I download the full manual that I’m filled with horror. Besides the position of the outer and inner links, chains have a forward and reverse side. I’d a 50-50 chance of getting it right, but I got it wrong.

I break the chain and put it the right way round. It’s the first time I break a chain. Did I get it right?

Afternoon: to answer the above question, I go to another bakeshop and I’m told, there’s no way to tell. And I should’ve used a Missing Link anyway to join the chain. Well, what did people do before Missing Link was invented. Time will tell if I did the right thing.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

North, south, east, west

Forget about Fraser's Hill, Cameron and Genting Highlands.
The most serious climbs are in the land of Gunong Kinabalu
21-26 Mar, Sabah, Malaysia, 517 km

Prologue
I've cycled in every Malaysian state, from Johor in the south to the East-West Highway in the north of West Malaysia), and Sarawak in East Malaysia. But I've never been to Sabah, much less cycled there. Until now.

Route
21 Mar: Kota Kinabalu to Tuaran vv, 75 km

My flight arrives around noon. Where is my hotel transport? A tour guide offers to call the hotel for me. A car* shows up. In my hotel booking, I'd specifically asked for a vehicle that can transport my 140 cm bicycle box. Can you fit a box that size into the boot of a car? Yes! If the car seats fold down. I assemble the bike and am off for an orientation ride and tour.

Rumah Terbalik
Rumah Terbalik, the "upside down" house, isn't really in Tuaran, but the outskirts. Photography
inside the house is prohibited. Most things are upside down: the floor is the ceiling and even the bed is upside down. Some details are off: fans to cool visitors aren't upside down, and typewriter paper hangs ue wrong way. Money on the floor sticks to the floor though.

I run out of daylight, no thanks to the late pickup from the airport. The sun sets around 1830. Roads within Kota Kinabalu are lit and wider than the main routes leading to towns outside it.

*If you're travelling by taxi, buy a coupon at the taxi kiosk in the airport. Ask for Avanza or Inova taxis; according to my sources, bike boxes fit into these models.

22 Mar: Kota Kinabalu to Kota Belud, 100 km

As Kota Belud is "only" 78 km away, I take a longer, scenic route to avoid the heavy metal mayhem that is morning rush hour. I swing by Universiti Sabah Malaysia, where some roads are signposted "10%" gradient. I guess that's why universities are called institutions of higher learning.

The road from Tuaran to Kota Belud is barren. Traffic is abundant and roars like an angry sea, but water and cooked food is hard to come by. I lunch on bananas from a roadside stall. For protein, there's a roach from the vendor's knife that crawled into my food, but I pass. When I see a shop named "Melody" it's music to my ears. It turns out to be in the outskirts of town. Town is so near, yet so far. My ears pop with the effort, or does that reflect the altitude?

To cope with the climbs, I max out my gears and wish I had more.  There's no place to sit in the shade, so I get off at one point and push to rest. If the gradient at  USM is undergraduate, then the climbs to Kota Belud are post graduate, and Laotian climbs are post doctoral fellows.

At one downhill, I ride my brakes down, slowing from 61 km/h to 52 km/h. I overtake a lorry, as I think that's safer than overheating my brakes.

It's hot, so hot in Sabah that I pass grass fires, some smoking when I pass by. When I check in, I find the heat has warmed up the contents of containers in my bag.

"Ki" + "Nabalu" = "Kinabalu", as in Gunung Kinabalu
23 Mar: Kota Belud to Nabalu vv, 99 km

Serious climbing starts about 20 km from Kota Belud. The route is barren. Happiness, or at least contentment, is when a food stall suddenly appears at the point of desperation. There's shade, music from the radio and friendly banter from the locals - not that I understand most of what they're saying.

The ride is a real grind. Traffic is sparse (but picks up after the junction to Tuaran), the climbs interminable. When my speed drops to around 4 km/h, I get off to walk, then climb back to ride as walking and pushing the bike sucks more.  I stop at a shop perched by the hillside. It has lukewarm "cold" drinks in an ice box; all the ice has melted. Stuff costs more up here. Trucks labour uphill, grinding gears and belching smoke as if panting.

There are some downhills but my heart sinks as I know I have to ride up on the way back. I think about turning back. After all, I don't have to do this. One thought stops me from stopping: if I turn back, it'll be temporary relief. How will I feel later, knowing I gave up? So I ride on, drenched in sweat. Where's the cool mountain air? I also break out my last resort: energy gel.

I'm also troubled by a knocking sound. Pedal? Cleat? At Nabalu, as I stop for lunch, I see that my sole is coming off. It's been flapping whenever I pedal below 6 km/h. This is the first time my cycling shoe sole has detached. Usually, they just disintegrate. They don't make them like they used to? I tie it with raffia and hope.

25 Mar: Kota Belud to Kota Kinabalu and its environs, 125 km

Traffic is relatively light. The sky, cloudy. Some moisture falls even, and it's not my sweat. Is this because it's Good Friday?

After Nabalu, I thought the last day of my ride woukd be a breeze. I forgot. There still are serious climbs, as a "10%" sign helpfully reminds. Someone has dropped small silver fish on the road. By now, most are dried fish that make interesting light brown fish imprints on the road. I was tempted to stop to photograph this accidental art, but the smell dissuaded me. As does the climb. If I stop amidst the toxic mess, I'd be hard pressed to roll uphill.

Some traffic passes me. A car overtakes and comes headlong towards me. Other drivers follow. It was close. I'd rather have traffic tail me; when they do so, they're my impromptu safety vehicles: they block traffic overtaking from behind and deter oncoming traffic. They then give me a wide berth when overtaking from behind. It nice not to be scattered over the road like fish.

After two hours of riding, I am hungry. So it's true: glycogen depletion kicks in at the two hour mark.

I take some Horlicks Malties: one pack if nine tablets has 56 kcal. I'm glad to roll into Kota Kinabalu. I drop my bag off, then ride about town, looking for bikeshops and the coast.

Traffic
Traffic can be heavy on the road R1 that links Kota Kinabalu to Tuaran. The road is dual carriageway,

At times, traffic is hazardous.

Black Death, a black sedan, hurtles towards me. The driver either doesn't see me, or doesn't care. He neither swerves not slows. So, even if the road appears empty, the situation may change in a moment, as traffic can appear suddenly.

There's nothing to draft. Everything, except the rare pedestrian, goes faster. Even petrol tankers and trucks go fast.

Leana Niemand writes about looking into her rear view mirror as she rides in Sabah. Eyes at the back of the head would help too; otherwise, keeping one's  ears open would have to do. A container truck thunders past me. The road shoulder is barely a foot wide. It's a close shave, the kind without shaving cream!
but mostly without a road shoulder. Drivers are generally patient. A blue behemoth lumbers behind me, then overtakes only when it's safe. At first I thought it's going slowly and I try to draft it when it passes, but the driver really was waiting for a safe time to pass, then it thunders out of sight.

Other hazards
Besides traffic, there is, at times, broken glass by the roadside. There are occasional dogs, but the ones I see are almost always no bark, no bite. The mutts between Kota Kinabalu and Kota Belud are mute. But there are some mean mutts, between Kota Belud and Nabulan. One dog crosses the road to chase me half-heartedly. Further on, more mutts menace me. It's not funny, being chased uphill.

People
Like in Peninsula Malaysia, people are helpful, such as with directions. They ask the usual questions: ”Where are you from, where are you going?"

Hotel
Aston Boutec, Kota Kinabalu. Before my trip, I'd asked three hotels for help with
my 140 cm bike box. One never replied me. Another suggested taxi, including models (Avanza, Inova). The third offered complimentary transfer, and this is the one I booked. The hotel mixed up my arrival time, but a tour guide at the airport called the hotel for me (two thumbs up!) and a car showed up. How does a big box go into the car? Into the boot, with seats folded down. I've never seen this before.

Aston Boutec is cycling friendly, except for the absence of a lift. Air con, WiFi, sink and stopper (good for laundry) all work. My room was big enough for my conveyance. Food and convenience stores are a stroll away, and the hotel is relatively easy to find even at night.

Tang Dynasty Lodge Kota Belud is a "big" hotel in a small town. The room I have, Deluxe King, can fit five bicycles and still leave room to walk. Rack rate: MYR89 per night. It's not that hard to fimd, as its a small town but it helps to know first that the hotel sign is "TDL". But the aircon goes "piak" in the night and it's not cool anymore. The repairman washes the filter, then says he'll be back to top up coolant. I never see him again (well, it past 6 pm). I ask for a room change. I get a smaller room, but hotel receptionist says I pay the same price. I'd pay less if I'd walked in, but I used booking.com. In my new room, I kill six mosquitoes (and three the next day). Changing room at night eats into my bedtime.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

One bird, two stones, one bike, two rides

Woodlands, 73 km. I didn't ride last week. And riding this weekend is best avoided. At least, it would be prudent not to ride, with so many other things happening.

Some things, like household chores or reading a book, don't take hours. But riding a bike, like watching a movie, does.

Today, I combine two rides into one, doubling my usual paltry distance. I cycle within sniffing distance of coastal sea air until it gets dark.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Changing times

Woodlands, 60 km. Shimano used to be ubiquitous. Not anymore. Even neighbourhood bike shops carry KMC chains. The shops that deal with Shimano have no stock. The fifth shop I go to has SRAM, then directs me to the nearest Shimano dealer, which has the chain for almost half the price of a KMC chain. And that's why it's far easier to find KMC chains: it costs more and so has a higher margin?

How times have changed: Shimano chains used to be ubiquitous.

As Bob Dylan put it, "the times they are a-changin'".

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Freedom

Feb distance: 520 km

Sembawang, 46 km. I used to think freedom was about space. For instance, prisoners have no freedom of movement; they are stuck in one place. But a prison sentence is not just about space; it's also about time, hence the expression "doing time".

At work, timelines and deadlines mean lack of freedom. Digital nomads might not be chained to a desk, but they might not have freedom of time, hence the expression "no time".

People who wander the world or, as Aussies say, go walkabout, have freedom. They might be constrained by weather and seasons which affect time and place of travel, but within those constraints, they have more freedom than a salaryman.

Today, I enjoy freedom. I stand by the water, feel the refreshing wind, smell the salt in the air, gaze on the water. I leave because I am hungry, and I know I have decent food to eat.

This is a simple life. I feel alive, and I have freedom of time and space.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Sight, sound and feel

Choa Chu Kang, 60 km. Cycling back home after cycling overseas is an adjustment. The traffic,
traffic lights and humidity get to me.

Ive flash backs to the places I've been: the cool mountain air in sunny Timor Leste, the winding road in Sumatra, even the star-studded night sky in Darwin, Australia.

Last year, I was sick of cycling, even of expedition planning. I felt I should cycle, didn't want to, but felt compelled to. But now. I'm glad to be back in the saddle, travelling. I don't tire of beautiful scenery, or perhaps I haven't seen enough of it. Moreover, seeing beauty on bicycle tires feels different from seeing it in a motor vehicle or photo.

If you're in some kind of funk, may it pass to.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Long winded

1-5 Feb, Sri Lanka, 414 km

Prologue
This isn't a particularly long ride, but it was harder than I'd expected. While the coast is flat, I didn't figure the headwinds would be so strong. Or so long winded. They blow all day, perhaps 10 km/h. No need to calculate the vector; I head north, the wind blows south. Most of the time, I go below 20 km/h, at its worse, 14 km/h. The weather is hot but not humid; a good thing about the wind is, the wind blows sweat and heat away.

Headwinds aren't new to me; I've faced them in the Outback. So I've learned to grit my teeth and grind on. While I've cycled over 68,000 km, Sri Lanka brought new experiences. I've:
  • been chased by dogs, but not a three-legged one.
  • raced before, but not while touring
  • gone hungry, but not had a liquid lunch of ginger beer
  • wondered how to keep my bicycle safe while I sleep, but not used two bedrooms before.
Beach Road: I like it a lot, because there's a lot of it
Route
1 Feb fly there, nightstop Negombo Village Guesthouse
2 Feb Negombo to Kalpitiya, 129 km, nightstop Randam Hotel fka Windy Lanka
3 Feb Kalpitiya and its environs, 141 km
4 Feb Kalpitiya to Negombo, 144 km
5 Feb fly back

Riding
I do some off road, single track, double track, dirt roads and roads. I know I'm lost when the trail peters out. To get back on track, I track like a hunter, looking not for footprints but tyre tracks.

Night riding: to clock more miles, I do some riding at night. It's not really safe. Cows, dogs and pedestrians don't have blinking lights at night. And the glare of oncoming headlights is blinding. Once, the timing of the passing vehicle was such that I saw pedestrians walking abreast by the roadside: just enough time to see them but too little time to avoid collision if they were near enough. A near miss.

Over 400 km, I see three other cyclo tourists. One of them was solo like me. We wave to each other / exchange thumbs up.

Roads, traffic and other hazards

I like watch dogs ie dogs who sit there and watch
Traffic is heavy along the A3, which refers not to paper size but the road connecting Colombo to Negombo and much else. I ride along the road shoulder, because, as one guidebook put it, bus and truck drivers "consider cyclists a waste of valuable tarmac ... get out of the way quickly". You're "at risk not only from traffic coming from behind, but also from oncoming vehicles overtaking another vehicle". The good news is, traffic thins out north of Negombo.

I never really felt menaced; I've felt more menaced cycling in a carpark back home.

Roads are generally ok, though a guidebook mentions cycling is "eyes down", to negotiate potholes and chickens. There are poor road surfaces sometimes, but that's off road; in my experience, the main roads are ok.

I get frazzled on my last day of cycling, when I go to the beach at Negombo. It was harrowing as the road to the beach is narrow: it's jammed with traffic and a wedding procession. To win the race against the sun, I squeeze past whatever gap I see, including on the pavement, to get there and back to my hotel to box up my bike and wash up.

Dogs are are all over the place, usually sleeping by the roadside, sometimes trotting about, almost always in packs. Almost all the time, they ignore passersby, but I am chased twice, once by a three legged dog.

People
Locals are friendly (at least, I've not met any unfriendly ones). It's not just kids who're pleased to see a cyclist. Even adults go "hello", "hi", "good morning". One waiter in an eatery asks personal questions, not just "what is your name, where are you from" but also age and family status. And I got one question about how much my bicycle costs.

Once in a while, there are lycra-clad roadies.
Most of the time, locals are on steel, singlespeed bikes.

A worker sitting by a hut offers me food as I cycle past. A student going for night class chats with me as he cycles alongside. A guy with crutches rides his motorcycle alongside me, his sweepstake tickets riffling in the wind. He offers a hand. I realise later he wants to pull me along, when I see the student's father do just that.

Most of the time, I cycle below 20 km/h, because of headwinds and my load. One afternoon, two guys on a singlespeed bicycle pull alongside me. The passenger is sitting on the top tube. " Race", the  cyclist says, and he pulls away. The race is over in seconds, when one of them drops his phone onto the road. The cyclist catches up after he ditched his passenger then zooms off at 35 km/h. Instead of racing him, I draft him instead, to his disappointment.

Fried roots? 

Refueling aka food and beverage
Short eats are aplenty, in "hotels" (even small shops call themselves that).  Meals that fill are less available. Except in tourist areas, most people dine at home, so there's little demand for filling food. I eat what I bring: cereal bars.

One night I have rice and curry. Another time, I have what seems like fried roots. There are also scattered bakeries. Most of the time, it's short eats and provision shops.

At a "hotel" (eating place).
The ad above, EGB, is for ginger beer
Food stalls usually serve drinking water. If you're squeamish about hygiene, well ... No tongs or gloves are used when handling food - more likely, the food handler handles grubby money then food. Customers may eat with their hands; if you do, use the pitcher of water available for that purpose: don't drink from that!

An alternative to short eats is ginger beer; I quaff the 1 litre version. It's refreshing, calorie rich and not sickly sweet unlike some short eats.

Accommodation

Mosquitoes (Anopheles type, 1 cm long), are everywhere in the hotels. Mosquito nets are standard issue in the places I stayed.


In all my travels (over 68,000 km by bicycle, I've never encountered the desperate situation of being unable to find my hotel despite repeated attempts. Until this trip, at Kalpitiya. 

Randam Hotel. On the second night, I use the upstairs room
while my bicycle is in the ground floor, courtesy of housekeeper
It's getting dark. I ask some bystanders but they don't know. At a random hotel by the road called Randam Hotel, the staff say it's the hotel I'm looking for, though the name is different. Even the phone number is different. I have dinner instead and as I'm eating, a guy shows up and says he's from the hotel I'm looking for ie Windy Lanka. He leads me to ... Randam Hotel. Ok, whatever.

The room is dingy and kind of dirty. The lights flicker too, so I ask for a room change the next day. But different people give me different prices for the room. I end up paying a higher price after some bargaining. It's clean and bright but when I get up in the night, I have a feeling. Spooky. 

The next morning, I get up early to ride. It turns out I'm alone in the hotel, locked in. Exit via window, then the housekeeper comes, unlocks the door and makes nice Ceylon tea for me.

The other hotel I stay in, at Negombo, is hard to find as it's in a residential estate that twists and turns 3 km from the main road. The housekeeper there is fascinated by my bike packing. He lets me take a shower and serves me a drink as I wait for my night flight. 

Reflections

It's been said once you learn to ride a bicycle, you don't forget how to do it. That's procedural memory I guess. As for other details, that's declarative memory. What does 50 psi feel like without a tyre pressure gauge? How do you remove this rack?  I needed to refresh my memory. Which means, I haven't been touring enough.

I didn't expect this ride to be tough. It's flat, as expected but I didn't expect incessant headwinds that cut my speed by 30%, which means I work 30% harder. Of course, I should've realised that when a hotel is called Windy Lanka, that's what it means. But then, the hotel changed name too so it wasn't windy!? As if this ride isn't hard enough, there isn't much food to be had. My "lunch" comprises "short eats", ie, sweet snacks and became a race against the sun. I did enjoy the ginger beer though :)

When I came home from Indochina, bread became part of my diet, because of the magnificent French bread. And now, I take ginger with my tea.

General

Visas may be required, may be on arrival. See http://www.eta.gov.lk/
Weather varies, depending on which part of the island you're on and when. See http://www.lonelyplanet.com/sri-lanka/weather