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 :))

Monday, October 06, 2003

The examination

Fri 3 Oct - Mon 6 Oct
Penang, 62 km. Going for the Penang Mountain Bike Jamboree is like going for an exam in school. Stories abound of how tough it is. But I'm clueless since my toughest off-road experience was just one ride to Bukit Timah Hill (on semi-slicks) and another to Sentosa (on slicks); that's how clueless I'm about off-road. About 250 cyclists head for the start point at Penang Youth Park. WH tells me not to be so tense. But the only uphill "tests" I've taken are riding up Kent Ridge, Nanyang University, Mount Faber and Telok Blangah hill. It doesn't help that I realise I've left my medication in the hotel; the very thought makes me sick to the stomach.

We wait to start our ride, just like we waited to start to our exams. While there are hundreds of cyclists, each of us is alone. No one can ride for us, just as no one can write for us. Off we go just after 8 am. I'm somewhere at the tail, reluctant to start my journey into the unknown. A roadie at heart, my instincts kick in and I spur my Iron Horse onwards, then rein back to pace myself. We reach our first obstacle - a landslide caused by rain.

It's been raining since Thu 2 Oct. When we reach Penang from Singapore on Fri, the 40 hours of rain makes front page news in The Sun newspaper: "Rain havoc in Penang". (While the Sun newspaper is readily available, the real sun isn't. The article is helpfully illustrated with a photo of people wading in water, plus a story of a capsized fishing trawler.) Our shoes and ankles sink in the mud, as we clamber up the 2-metre pile of mud and foilage. We're so slow, a pedestrian overtakes us. The queue builds up behind me. No turning back now. We are jam packed and I am stuck. It's every man for himself on this mudslide (though I hear others later formed a human chain to pass along bikes). I struggle to manhandle my heavy horse up the mud. When clear of it, I push my tyres into the constant stream of water flowing by the roadside to wash away the mud from my rims. The road is so steep, I'll need my brakes.

I keep pushing my bike uphill. My calf (leg, not pet cow) protests at the treatment. Some intrepid bikers actually pedal, but many give up. What's the point of cycling, I say to myself. Walk or ride, it's about 4 km/h anyway. Only in some stretches do I get to ride. This 7-speed horse is heavy and I get a full-body workout. As I push my bicycle with one hand, it tries to bolt and U-turns. Clever horse! I'm the sole rider of an Iron Horse here and the only one with a rigid bike. Around me, Giants, Specialized and Scott bikes abound, with a smattering of Cannondales, Gary Fishers and Santa Cruz. And a single speed bike!

Round the bend
We struggle on. Some cyclists seem to rest at every bend on the road. At each bend, I look up. The road continues to loom ahead, bend after bend. Talk about going round the bend! I tear off my makeshift rain gear: a laundry bag. I'm soaked in sweat. Somewhere along the hill, I top up my water bottle with "alpine water". There's no food. I'm glad I'm up at 5.30 am to get breakfast of bread and jam from 7-Eleven. (No breakfast at the hotel - it's too early.) I see some riders coming downhill - what's going on? JC the Mechanic Smurf yells at me: "Don't give up, you're near the top!" A girl shrieks as she goes downhill. I somehow make it to the top, then ride my brakes down the 40-degree slopes cautiously at about 30 km/h. So glad I'd tweaked the brakes in Singapore; these are the original brake pads. Plus original tyres and inner tubes, no puncture in them since Feb 95.

The off-road begins, downhill. It seems seductively easy at first. Then I see yawning chasms just inches away from the trail. I could fall off and no one would know, since cyclists are now rare sights on the trail. There are also wooden bridges barely wide enough for a biker and bike. Gullies. Slick rocks. Tree trunks. Each step of the way, I heave my horse ahead of me. At the point where there are two tree trunks, my horse falls, taking me with it. I gash my shin on the chainring. I pull up my sock to cover the wound, but my sock recoils at the horror and flops down again. The foilage I ride past embraces the abrasions. Ouch, ouch, ouch. Soon, I'm numb to the pain and soon, the mud covers the wounds.

How bad is the wound? I think of stopping at the waterfalls to wash up - after all, I've loaded up for the first time with alcohol swabs and big plasters. But I go on; maybe there's a first aid post somewhere. I come across a casualty. I have nothing for him except to show concern. He says he's been having leg cramps and waves me on. Now and then, when I come across cyclists, I make way for them. About 10 of them pass me by. Sometimes, I'm embarrassed to hold them up. Other cyclists pass by as I stop to shoot photos and then wrap plastic around my camera each time after that.

One memorable spot is where the trail is almost vertical. A volunteer stations himself to lower bikes one after another. I warn him my horse is heavy. He gasps after holding it with one hand; while that works with aluminium hardtails, it doesn't work with my bike. At another spot, a rider kicks his Specialized downhill and slides after it. Other cyclists carry their bicycles down. As for me, I wheel my bike wherever it goes. Sometimes, I scoot along with my left leg while my right leg remains strapped to the bike with PowerGrip. I'm so glad I didn't use my clipless pedals. Once, my front wheel plunges into a hole and comes to a dead stop. My right foot comes free and easy. Only the paranoid survive. I warn the rider behind me about the hole. He asks me: "Why did we choose this hobby?"

Clear skies
Uphill, it gets so misty in the clouds that I turn on my rear blinkers. On the way down, I catch sight of sea level through the trees. A welcome sight. I haven't asked any marshall "how long more" because I don't want to know in case they give me bad news or tell me "almost there" when it's not. Seeing civilisation within grasp is exciting. I exit the trail near a rubbish dump. I'm now on the main road. Some officials stop traffic just for me. The road is the best part of the ride! I sprint at 33 km/h on my knobbies and mud-encrusted drive train. The mud flies off the tyres, adding to the collection of grit in my mouth from the trail. By now, I've stopped drinking because my waterbottle is mud-encrusted all the way.

I reach the finish line. There are several tents there and I'm not sure where to go - the vibrations from the trail are still addling my brain. I get my medal (which states "Phew, I survived" at the back), down some fluids and food. Time: around noon. Position: 96 out of 250 (I'm told 350 riders registered).

The first cyclist comes in around 10.30. It seems they pedal most of the way and are ahead of the pack from the start. The first Singapore rider is position #8. Most of the SACA cyclists finish the ride by 11.30. One of them asks me: "You just came"? While waiting for my assorted pals, I head for the first aid tent. The kid washes away the mud, which means rubbing the wound and applying alcohol to intoxicate the skin. Ouch, ouch, ouch. The kid stops. I say, go on. After the ride, we compare wounds. Some had fallen on the metal drain covers. Major abrasions. TYS and LKS suffer brake failure. I fix TYS' brakes for the ride back to the hotel; that she came soon after me without brakes is testament to her riding - and tumbling - skills. This is my wildest cycling adventure to date. I'm glad I came. I'm glad it's over.

After the ride, I watch the SACA cyclists look after their bicycles before they go for lunch. During dinner under a big tent, we eat in the downpour and watch the video of the ride, reliving the memories, the agony and the ecstasy. I ask rider #8 about my bike; he suggests I lighten my wheelset (some cost $1,500). We also hope to win big lucky draw prizes. Belgian W gets a Scott racing frame. There are also Giant frames and a Santa Cruz. Me, I get a t-shirt.

The beginning, the end
The journey to Penang starts with a ride on a pick-up truck to Beach Road. First time my horsey has been on a vehicle and so far away. The bus company wants us to box our bicycles so we don't damage his upholstery. I sandwich my bike in between two sheets of cardboard. We reach Penang via overnight bus. Our hotel is called "Waterfall". In case we forget that water falls, the ceiling leaks in places. That's the only let down; the staff are kind.

My first ride in Penang is on Sat 4 Oct. If it's a warm up ride, why do I feel cold? It's the rain. It rains so hard, it hurts. My mobile phone drowns despite two layers of plastic. We cycle through padi fields and village tracks. There's just over a dozen of us. I ride today just in case I chicken out on Sun. I'm cold, muddy, miserable and behind. My headset is loose again as usual and I fix it by hand. My bike computer doesn't work. I stop and figure out why - the wheel is the wrong way round. Duh! I chant to myself: "I am having fun, I am having fun."

On Mon, after an overnight bus ride back to Singapore, I cycle home in the drizzle. Piece of cake, after the torrential rain in Penang. I get home safely despite the bad omens of two accidents I see. And a few close calls, including a man at work waving a broom that might've gotten in my spokes, and the usual drivers whose optic nerves aren't wired to see cyclists.

Hall of fame
  • "Making it possible" award to Ling the Merciless and Tchi Mun for arranging the transport and accommodation in the SACA entourage. To Jarod (and Roland) for the pick-up ride to Beach Road. And to Sue Ann, Derrick and the many volunteers who marshalled, stopped traffic, first-aided, fed, watered and cared for hundreds of us in Malaysia's biggest mountain bike event (a Guiness world record)
  • "Grateful thanks" award to the the strangers who helped or simply offered encouragement though they too were going through the same thing
  • "Cheerleader" award to Winnie, Bikerboey, James the Mechanic Smurf. Special thanks to Winnie for telling me about the ride, to Bikerboey who warns me to go with knobbies, to James for the big spanner to fix my headset and to Papa Smurf Nik for telling me: "You came all the way here, at least go and see the Penang trail."
  • "Broken skin but no broken bones" award to those who completed the ride without brakes
  • "Flash" award to the speedy bikers who pedal while others walk. Beykha, of course, already has an official award for being Queen of the Hill, reaching the top in 43 minutes.
  • "Power Man" award to Lynten for using a single-speed bike and to Lioe for riding with the heaviest bike and yet remaining cheerful.
Tech note My new Shimano M082 shoes are now broken in. I've damaged it after removing the studs, but it's safer (and lighter) for use with PowerGrips. And bike has shown how weight is a disadvantage except for boxers and sumo wrestlers. Time for a new bike? It's hard to say goodbye, horsey has served me faithfully for so many years. It hasn't abandoned me, how can I abandon it? As Papa Smurf says, the best bike is the one you have the best memories of. And this ride up "Pain-ang" Hill certainly counts as one of them.

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