Imagine cycling from Petaling Jaya in Selangor to Fraser’s Hill and down to Raub in Pahang. Then up again to Cameron Highlands and down to Lumut in Perak. This is hard core fun...
In road cycling, a “century” is a 160km ride. A century is certainly not trivial, but take five centuries, ridden back to back over three days, throw in a couple of big climbs and what do you have?
You have a get-together for people who have sprockets in their brains and an itch in their legs. This was called the 2014 PCC (Pedalholics Cycling Club) Interstate ride, a three-day, 525km fest of pedalling, camaraderie and lots of suffering.
The first PCC Interstate, held in 1998, attracted only about 20 riders on mountain bikes, but the 2014 event had hundreds of road bikers. The event was fully subscribed within hours it was opened for registration early in 2014 with participation from cycling clubs and individuals from as far afield as Penang, Malacca, Singapore and Sabah and Sarawak.
Early one morning, unsuspecting motorists in Kota Damansara, Petaling Jaya, Selangor were treated to the sight of hundreds of cyclists spilling out onto the road, led by a ride marshall’s car, which controlled the pace in the traffic.
The Interstate is a noncompetitive event, but many cyclists are competitive by nature, and as the marshall’s car pulled to the side a massed group of bikers were let loose after months of hard training.
The riders sorted themselves out into many smaller subgroups or pelotons, speed being the distinguishing factor. Riding in a peloton (a formation riding close together) is far more efficient than riding alone, as wind resistance is minimised for those behind the lead cyclists.
The group works as one, conserving energy, the same way that schools of fish, flocks of birds and insect masses stick together for the common good. The trick is to find a peloton which rides at your speed, and one which you’re comfortable with, as pelotons evolve their own etiquette and discipline.
The route was the scenic one, meandering through relatively little trafficked backroads.
The 40km climb from Kuala Kubu Baru in Selangor up to Fraser’s Hill in Pahang goes through a lovely, winding road dappled with sunlight and fragrant with forest scents. But when you’ve ridden 120km that day, it’s also daunting.
A crucial element to long rides is the support car. Most teams had their own, which carried family, drinks, food and moral support. As a last resort, support cars also carry riders unable to continue.
After a long and hard climb, there was the final reward and release for the day – the clock tower at Fraser’s Hill, a hot shower and hot meal waiting. At about 8pm, while we were having dinner, the last cyclist rode up alone, with a headlight. We broke into spontaneous applause, recognising true grit when we saw it.
The next morning, we glided down a steep and glorious winding road, with shafts of sunlight slanting steeply to illuminate the dense, misty forest. We whizzed past the now-somnolent, once-hotspot villages of Tras and Tranum, went through Raub town and thence onto a small road leading into miles and miles of oil palm plantations.
Around lunchtime, we pulled into the settlement of Sungai Koyan, with its single petrol station. This was the last watering hole, the last homely place before our turnoff onto the monster 83km, 1,500m climb to Cameron Highlands. In between, there was no succour if you ran out of water or food, only the bleached skeletons of past cyclists foolish enough to attempt the crossing unsupported. Or so it seemed, to our fevered minds.
The sun beat down relentlessly. Unlike the forested intimacy of the Fraser’s Hill road, this road was broad, sweeping and exposed. The stubble of what had once been lush rainforest covered the hills, a pitiful simulacrum of a tropical paradise, a logged over wasteland.
The incline was not steep, but we’d already ridden 90km that day. It was a slow, gradual climb, watching the tenths of a kilometer crawl slowly by on the odometer, with only your shadow for company for much of the way – for on long climbs such as these, pelotons fracture into atomic parts, each cyclist ensconed within his own mental solitude.
The support cars were crucial along this stretch. I was always on the lookout for ours, for it was helmed by an angel in human form who had woken early to cut fresh fruit and brew herbal teas, stashed in a big ice-box in the back. There were also sandwiches and other snacks. The angel’s husband was a co-cyclist who suffered with the rest of us in the shimmering heat reflected from the tarmac.
Sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for, because the weather turned clement, then dull, and then dark, before it began to pour. Parts of the road became sheets of running water. Being completely soaked, stopping for more than a short time brought on the shivers. The best way to keep warm was to keep grinding on up that inexorable road, peering past the falling mist of rain.
Eventually, the signs of Cameron Highlands appeared: vegetable farms under sheets of plastic, small farmhouses... The rain had petered out into a weak drizzle, but my speedometer had died in the deluge.
There was a long, particularly brutal uphill stretch, and when I reached the apex, I saw above me, the town of Ringlet. It was 5pm and my fingers and some other parts of my anatomy were numb. But my legs were still working. After a much-needed break at the petrol station, there was a final 16km to the hotel at Brinchang.
Though I had already done 180km, I had climb back on the saddle and tackle the last stretch, which had a series of nasty uphill hairpin turns before hitting a traffic jam at Tanah Rata. At Brinchang, finally, a warm shower, and a change into something dry and warm. At dinner, cyclists were still coming in past 8pm, but there had also been cyclists who had arrived hours before me.
The last day was our descent from Kg Raja, Cameron Highlands into the lowlands of Perak. The sky was blue, the sun was shining and there was a magnificent 60km downhill stretch (to Simpang Pulai) which I took at speed, aiming for clear strips of road between broken patches.
With the towering forest on one side and the sun-dappled country laid out like a map on the other, I was alone with my thoughts for many stretches, elated at being out here, the wind whistling past.
Soon, it was back to the lowlands, flat roads and heat. Our peloton regrouped at a petrol station, and we cycled the last 100km or so at moderate speeds, the speed demons having been scrubbed away in the past two days. This was one of the sweet spots of cycling: working together in a team, an unspoken bond of shared enjoyment, a sweet cadence in the legs, an opiate from the brain, and the miles vanishing in a blur of hissing road beneath.
We breezed through Perak’s Manjung district, small towns basking in the bright afternoon sun, under patches of cool shade from roadside trees, squirting water over ourselves at traffic lights as the heat rose in waves from the road.
We approached the final stretch, with its mangroves and dark rivers, and the peloton fragmented as the pace picked up. As I rode the last few hundred meters to the hotel, on a bluff overlooking the shining sea, I felt elated and suddenly sorry that it was coming to an end.
> The article is dedicated to the writer’s cycling friends.