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.
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?"
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.
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.