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 :)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Debut

Feb distance: 433 km

Tuas, 96 km. The Year of the Horse was neigh neigh neigh, nay nay nay. Would the Goat Year be meh meh meh?

The year has changed. And so has my bicycle. While I've been on Matt Black before, this is the first time it's for a long ride not a commute of a few km.

I fine tune my shifters, seat post height and saddle position since my back starts to hurt.

This is a faster ride than my Little Red Tank. Is it the Racing Ralph tyres? The non-downhill rims? The frame geometry? For sure, it's not the non-series Shimano hubs. I wonder how much better the ride would be if the XT hubs of my Tank were on it.

Matt Black has two bottle cages but one can't hold a 750 ml bottle. Still, the bicycle seems faster and I might need less water for that reason?

Monday, February 16, 2015

Highs and lows

13-16 Feb, Cebu, Philippines, 301 km

Prologue
My bucket list includes a modest wish to cycle in all of ASEAN. The "easy", nearer countries are done. Two more to go: Philippines and Myanmar. Onward now, to the country of over 7,000 islands: Philippines, in a quick getaway.

Gearing up
View from Mt Busay
Day 1, 13 Feb, Cebu. This is my third trip to the Philippines, but first time I'm cycling there. When I get off the aircraft, 3 guys "help" me by pretty much just touching my bicycle box then ask me for tips. That took me by surprise.

Also surprising was when a motorcyclist shot out and almost side swiped me.

Most surprising of all was a climb up a 550m hill called Tops (Mt Busay). I'm glad I found it; the housekeeper at the bed and breakfast told me how to get there. I max out all my gears and I'm not even fully loaded. At one point, my speedometer shows 0 km/h, which means I'm going so slow, below 4 km/h, that the speed doesn't register. It's a wonder I didn't stall.

My ears pop and water bottle goes "psst" when I sip it.

Going downhill here is no fun. I ride my brakes but still go down at over 30 km/h; it is that steep.

Nightstop (for the whole trip): BugoyBikers B&B, run by a German who also runs a bicycle tour with three full time cyclists.

Herculean, sisyphean
Day 2, 14 Feb, Cebu.  We agreed breakfast at 7 and ride at 8. Past 7, the cook scurries in. "Sorry, sorry," she says and whips up breakfast. I wolf down eight slices of bread and two eggs. We needn't have hurried. Cook notices and asks me what I'm looking for. I point out that the guide is not here. She makes a series of calls.

Guide, G, shows up 45 minutes later. He didn't know he'll have to ride all day today. I choose the longest ride: over 70 km, though it is marked the most severe: "breathtaking", with gradients in some places at 19%, according to the guidebook.

We ride in the clouds. Downhill all the way, right? Wrong. It's a series of rolling hills. Down, then up. Interminable. Isn't this supposed to be the top? But up we still go, as slow as 3.6 km/h. My mind comes close to snapping. I tell myself: "Don't fret. Don't fight. Just sit back and pedal." So long as I pedal, the crest will come. One after another.

My sweat band gives up. Sweat drips into my eyes. Ouch.

Going uphill is tough. Going uphill on broken road is tougher; tyres lose traction going up and going down when braking.

As I head downhill, a jeepney comes up. Too close. I make a snap decision to ride into a gully filled with gravel. To brake here may break something. I roll out of the gully as another bus comes up. We pass with inches to spare. And there's cats and dogs crossing too.

The guide keeps going even after two hours of his. He stops only when I ask him to. We have just two short breaks and lunch. With two peaks at 700 and 890m, and total of 3,000m, he says.

The guides I met so far know their toys. "You have a strong bike."is it a Tank? I've only seen it online." "Nice saddle, a Brooks."
Copper mines, I'm told

G says today is he longest he's guided. "You survived back there. The Europeans I guided didn't make it. How old are you? How much do you ride?" I reply: "About 40 km per week." "You're the strongest ride I've guided. What's your secret?" "Drink Coca Cola."

Back in the city, G weaves and turns. I dodge traffic to keep up. Once, a pedestrian brushes against me.

As requested, G takes me to a bicycle shop, YKK. It is the biggest in town, and bigger than all but one shop in my country. It's even got Merlin and Lightspeed. The price tag is in six figures. Pesos.

Back in my room, I see the dirt from the aircon is still on the bed, though I did say the aircon was on the fritz. I raise the matter. The servicemen are other bike guides. They remove the entire unit to clean it and clear out the ants.

Sweet trip
Day 3, 15 Feb, Bohol. At around 4 am, the aircon shrieks like a banshee again. Dogs bark, roosters crow. I get out of bed at 0530 and prepare my own breakfast. The guide, D, is just 10 minutes late. But we needn't have hurried. The 0730 ferry is kaput. The next one is an hour later. So we do a fast and furious ride to Mactan and back. Sunday morning and the traffic is like a workday as we near 8 am. "People are going to church and market," says D.

Chocolate Hills, background, Green Grass, foreground
On the ferry, I lie down on the sundeck (at least, it looks like one) for a snooze. It's more peaceful here, no dogs, no roosters, no aircon.

Bohol has rolling hills. Not as bad as yesterday, but I'm already knackered.

There's a 600m climb, then up steep steps to see the marvels of nature: Chocolate Hills.

We head back the way we came to catch the penultimate boat, at 1845. We have a night ride back to "the office" (that's what the guides call the B&B.



Over the top
Day 4, 16 Feb Mount Busay , Cebu (again). I'm up at 0630 but cookie doesn't come at 7. So I help myself to breakfast then head out to cycle.

It's a manic Monday morning rush hour. Yesterday, a pedestrian bumped me. Today, a jeepney passenger hopped off and ran into me. Good thing I held steady. The bad city air and frenzy gets to me. Too many lungsful of PM2.5.

Enough. I head back to the suburbs. It's nice and quiet but I keep heading into dead ends.

Enough. Back to the mountain. Mt Busay.  'm relieved to reach the top. Not just because of the tedium. I've to check out of my room. It's scary on the way down the second time round. I reach a max speed of 52.6 km/h. That doesn't sound fast but this is with overtaking and oncoming traffic.

I do one more lap around the area and call it a day. At noon, checkout time, the owner reminds me to checkout. He gives me more time so I pack my bicycle in air-conditioned comfort.

Epilogue
It's been somewhat of a bad trip. It was arranged at short notice. A day's worth of photos ruined because of wrong camera setting. A lighter wallet, because of an air ticket booking error. The assistant supervisor goes out her way to escort me to a rival airline, works out a low fare and gets me a priority booking. I get a flight home the same day - which then gets delayed by 1.5 hours. But then, any ride you can walk away from is a good ride. Despite the mishaps on the road, off the road and in my room, there's not a scratch on me. And I do get my bicycle back notwithstanding the change in airline.


Saturday, February 07, 2015

Afternoon delight

Seletar, 36 km. It's a cool afternoon, at 28 degrees instead of 33. There's a headwind, but I don't mind since I'm not going anywhere in particular.

The roads are mostly quiet, though, on the main roads, some vehicles came too close for comfort. Not 1.5 m away, more like 15 cm. Not spitting distance, but nose-blowing distance. Yucks.

At a traffic light, a door opens slightly, then shuts a split second later. Not that the passenger saw me. More like the driver said: "Not there yet." That door gift could've floored me. Imagine a hard edge against my face or knee cap.

I could've stewed over the near miss. but it's better to think about the otherwise delightful afternoon ride.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Shifting gears, changing lanes

Jan distance: 118 km

Seletar, 33 km. The weather is dry and cool, a refreshing change from muggy and hot. Instead of cycling in early evening, I'm on the road during dinner time. On a Saturday too.

I usually cycle on Sunday evenings. It's unlikely that people would want to drink themselves under the table and have a hangover on Monday. So, those inclined would drink on Saturday nights, no? Anyway, dinner time is too early to pub crawl, and so the roads would be safer, yes?

As I heard north, I turn right, on a whim, across what would usually be four lanes of sheer death. But the road behind me is eerily empty.

Besides those four lanes, the route is sort of quiet, with relatively long stretches without traffic lights.

As for my front derailleur, it shifts rather well. All it takes is a quarter turn. A quarter too much is too much. What a big difference a little turn makes.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Fiddling with fundamentals

Bukit Timah, 39 km.  Front derailleur is not shifting smoothly despite a new shifter cable. Worn chain rings perhaps? Or just poor adjustment? It makes no sense that the derailleur is over the biggest chainring but the chain remains on the middle chainring (which is what happened when the cable frayed on my 2014 expedition, but I've had the cable replaced). I turn the high adjustment screw, then the barrel adjuster this way and that. Until, finally, things click into place.

On the one hand, it's just fiddling. On the other hand, there are some fundamental principles involved.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Last light, first ride

Sembawang, 46 km. As was usual last year, I ride off into the sunset. This is my first ride of the year (excluding my last expedition which crossed two countries and two years - from last year into this year).

I'm in two minds. Last year, I looked forward to my 810 km expedition. This year, I'd to psych myself (a little) to go out and ride (a little).

Friday, January 02, 2015

Down to the waterline

Mersing to Pekan
Dec distance: 916 km (includes Malaysia trip)

25 Dec - 2 Jan, Singapore to Pekan, Pahang, Malaysia, 810 km

Prologue
I wonder if I should count this trip as an "epic" one since I did most of this route in 2003, so it's not some uncharted territory for me, unlike my other trips. Still, it is 810 km long and so it counts for something.

Exit (U2)
Day 1, 25 Dec,  to Kota Tinggi, 68 km. As I head to the border, I see many cyclists, some of them in Santa hats. For this trip, its just the three of us, and both of them are half an hour late.

Bak kut teh (pork rib soup)
The causeway is jammed. It doesn't help that some cars have broken down. After I get my passport back from immigration, the exit barrier doesn't move. I knock on the thick (bullet proof?) glass. The officer presses a button. Nothing else happens. She comes out and asks me: "What did you do to the barrier?" I duck under it with my bicycle and cycle away.

It takes us half an hour to clear both immigration checkpoints.

We're supposed to lunch at Mawai but I cheekily suggest Kota Tinggi, and that's where we end up for the night, instead of Mersing.

I happily dine on pork rib soup, which I first sampled over 10 years ago, in 2003. Even the friendly drink stall owner is there. He tells me his family is driving up today for Christmas dinner.


Morning has broken (Cat Stevens)

Rolling over rolling hills
Day 2, to Mersing, 95 km. 6.03 am and we're rolling. Outside of town, with no street lights, it is dark.
My light cuts through the darkness. The beam is faint until it splatters on the road into a blinking blob.

In the dark, it's hard to see if the road is rising or falling. It's hard to see the side of the road, but for the little white line by the roadside. Sometimes, the line is a foot away from the roadside. At other times, it's the width of a car. When my knobby tires scrabble to bite the asphalt, I know I've veered off the road because the distance of the white line from the edge varies. And when traffic comes towards me, their lights blind. I'm glad when dawn breaks.

The road to Mersing, with its rolling hills, is tedious. This time, there is little roadkill (just the occasional tiny snake or bird) to distract, unlike in previous Bike n Blade charity rides (when I saw pythons, monitor lizards and cats. The charity organisers got so bored with the route, they switched to Cameron Highlands this year).

The incessant drizzle becomes heavier. It's as if an angry man is jabbing me all over. I'm glad when we get to the hotel for a warm shower.

Nightstop: Embassy Hotel

Against the wind (Bob Seger)
Day 3, 27 Dec, to Pekan, 169 km. We cycle 30 km along a pleasant coastal road before we breakfast. Near Kuala Rompin, D breaks two spokes and has them replaced at a bicycle shop for RM10 including labour. The spokes are cut to length and bent to fit. D takes a taxi while the two of us press on to Pekan, a town called "town".

The sun is out. Dry from rain, wet from sweat. Cycling north in the northeast monsoon is no joke: we're cycling against the wind. Out of the blue, I see a small sign that holds out big hope: petrol kiosk, 15 km ahead. When I finally get there I have ice cream and 100Plus.

There are signs of flooding. One house off the road has water up to its windows. Kids make use of the "swimming pool" at their doorstep. At another house, a lady sits by the road, looking forlornly at her waterlogged home.

Hotel fit for royalty
The road is long. I can moan, or suck it up. Or even enjoy it. Since there's no escape clause, I look forward to a break every hour or so, preferably in a scenic spot.

I come across a flooded road. I pedal to "paddle" across. My reward after that: vanilla Coke. The shopkeepers offer us free samples of their preserved fruits. Such kindness to strangers.

We dine at KFC. We've heard the chicken is better than back home. Indeed, the servings are meatier and juicier.

Nightstop: An Casa Royale.

Holiday (Nazareth)
Day 4-5, 28-29 Dec, non-cycling days. Pekan. We're supposed to ride these two days. They do. They cycle in the rain, along the swollen Pahang River and part of  the flooded town. It is so bad, even KFC is closed.

There are 11 states in Peninsula Malaysia and seven are flooded, with over 200,000 evacuees (in one report, a quarter million people).

I have a cycling holiday instead, ie, a holiday from cycling. On my holiday, I drink tea, read the newspapers on my dry and comfortable room, watch movies, snooze and run for an hour in the gym while watching running videos. Being the sole person who signed in at the gym today, the attendant lets me use it though I don't have running attire. I'm in cyclist mode, you see.

The water is wide (James Taylor)
Day 6, 30 Dec, around Pekan, 98 km. It's stopped raining after two days. We cycle, off the main road
into flooded country roads until the water ahead appears to be top tube height (based on the height of the water reaching up a distant road sign).

Taking a boat to visit a home
I film my escapade until it the cross current makes steering too hard. The bicycle is like a boat, with the rudder in front. The road is impassable to cars.

At a coffeeshop, there is no coffee. At the hotel, no newspapers: no deliveries due to flood.

D and A head back to the hotel. As it's barely raining, I ride towards Kuantan. The northbound road is closed. Half of the southbound becomes northbound. I u-turn when I see cars parked by the road side. Only heavy vehicles plough through the water. I head to Tanjong Selangor instead and see the raging sea.

We dine at the hotel. Whether it's lunch or dinner, we're usually the sole diners. Each time, we get complimentary fruits and today, complimentary fries. The chef even came out once to shake our hands.

Blowing in the wind (Bob Dylan)
One joy of cyclo-touring: rest in picturesque cafes
Day 7, 31 Dec, to Mersing, 160 km. I've never spent four nights in a row in the same hotel before. We're supposed to cycle from Pekan to Segamat, then Kluang, Kota Tinggi, Telok Sengat then back home. Instead, we retrace our route, reducing distance cycled. The difference is, what was headwinds are now tailwinds as we head south instead of north. I think about the big comfy room as I cycle the barren road to Rompin.

The sun burns. We apply re-sunblock. We cycle into dark clouds overhead. It pours. The rain roars onto the trees beside the road. At my speed of up to 30 km/h, the rain, with its own velocity, stings.

Don't start too late (Black Sabbath)
Day 8, to Kota Tinggi, 94 km. New Year's Day. Up from a warm bed into cold damp clothes and socks. On the road at 6.10 am. We ride for an hour on rolling hills before breakfast at Jemaluang. It's not that there's no breakfast at Mersing, a much bigger town than Jemaluang. The wanton noodles here are reputed to be great. The shop (open from 0630 to 1630) is full and we share a table with a chain smoking local. It's not a public holiday in Johor.

Simply Red
My thumb hurts. Now I know why gears involve "thumb shifters". This is also "index shifting", so I use the knuckle of my index finger.

Lunch at a roadside shop that has over 30 cars parked around it. Business at Kang Kee Bak Kut Teh is so good, staff don't come to your table to place an order. Our table is 61 and that might not be the biggest number. Servers are from places including Myanmar.

A heads for home after lunch as he's got to work tomorrow. I'm tempted to follow A but it's a long way home for me; an American century away.

D and I head for Kota Tinggi. We're in before 2 pm. This is the way cyclo-touring should be. Some hours of cycling, 100 or so km with or without rolling hills (today's route is the former), then some daylight hours at our destination to do laundry, check bicycle and whatever we please.

Torn and frayed (The Rolling Stones)
Day 9, to Singapore, 126 km. After waiting a few years, I finally get to see Johor Lama, the old capital of Johor. In the 1500s, it fell due to superpower rivalry involving Aceh and Portugal and a sea-borne invasion.

Johor Lama
It is cool, windy and quiet on the ruins of the fort.

By this time, my front deraileur cable has frayed, since I hardly shift with my left thumb. With my right thumb in pain and my left shifter useless, my 27-speed MTB is now, well, pretty much single-speed.

At Telok Sengat, we sit for a couple of hours, shooting the breeze. Then we split. I cycle for home solo. I miss a turn and end up where I don't want to be: breathing the miasma and riding the pitted roads of Pasir Gudang. Traffic is heavy, with heavy traffic. Trucks pass so close to me, the slipstream first pushes me away, then pulls me along.

Epilogue
How did I end up in Pasir Gudang? I wanted to go west but to go west, I should've turned east ... Not intuitive. I hesitated, and took what seemed to be the safe, logical option. Which turned out to be wrong. But I made it anyway. Which sums up 2014.

PS: The title of this blog post is a song by Dire Straits.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Tampines, for the last time

From the outside, looking in. Destruction awaits, trash as fate
Tampines, 34 km. Once again, dark clouds scud overhead. Rolling thunder portends pouring rain.

Once again, the east is clear. I head east, to Tampines trail. I've raced here three times, so I visit it three times to say goodbye. Outside the main gate, I take a photo as a keepsake.

To me, you're the best place in this country to cycle. You had everything, from Monster Mud Madness to Moonscape to Upper and Lower Hamburger, and Wooded Wonder. Gravel, sand, earth, water, trees, ascends, descends and plains.

14 good years.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Tampines, revisited

Tampines, 40 km. Dark clouds roll overhead. Thunder rolls. The east has bright blue skies and small, puffy white clouds. I go east. To where I used to race. It is boarded up. Closed since 1 Dec, states a sign that asks for understanding. Yeah, right.

Well, as least the sign writer, and whoever approved it, has empathy.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Goodbye. Again

Tampines, 32 km. I heard it's gone, but I want to see it for myself. When the rain stops, I head out.
The road is still slick from rain and water sprays up. And down. It pours again. I haven't cycled in the rain for so long. I'm resigned to it.

When I reach the Tampines trail, I see it is indeed gone. I was here while it was being upgraded for the inaugural Youth Olympics. The place where I've explored and races several times is flat. It'll become yet another housing estate.

This is the place where I had fun and fear. My worse crash. Bicycle races, joy rides and a cross country race on foot.

Now it is gone. Flattened for flats. Goodbye.

This is a year of goodbyes. Some good, as in good riddance. Some bad, as in sad.