When Luca Montoya, a tourist from Germany, tried to cross Penang’s Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge (also known as the Penang Second Bridge) on his bicycle, he was stopped by the police.
He was not aware that it was against the law in Malaysia to cycle on the bridge – Section 54(1) of the Road Transport Act 1987 – without first getting permission from either the Royal Malaysia Police or the Malaysian Highway Authority. Montoya could have been in big trouble; he could have been fined between RM1,000 and RM5,000 or sent to prison for up to 12 months.
Instead, the policemen who stopped him told Montoya to get off his bicycle and wait for a truck to arrive, so that they could help him get across safely.
Montoya, 24, talked briefly of the incident in an interview recently.
“I had a minor obstacle when I was crossing the Penang Bridge – which I later came to know is the second longest in South-East Asia (at 24km) – as the police had to escort me safely to the other side for security reasons,” he said.
Montoya is on an ambitious cycling tour of the world (or at least, some parts of it), a mission he started in 2021 when he went on his first cross-country cycling adventure or “bikepacking”, a term he uses to describe his travels. Bikepacking, according to biking website BikeRadar.com, is an “overnight or multi-day adventure on your bike”, in which the emphasis is on self-sufficiency and packing light.
In 2019, Montoya met a female cyclist named Nina at a hostel in Barcelona, Spain, where he lived for a while after moving from his hometown of Paderborn in Germany. Nina was travelling from Switzerland to Spain on her bike at the time.
“It was at that moment that I knew I was going to do the same thing, so in 2021 I cycled from Barcelona to Berlin in Germany. The 2,000km trip took me three weeks,” Montoya shared.
He wanted to continue his travels and start a new route, but was not able to because of Covid-19 travel restrictions and border closures. But now, after nearly a year of planning, he is finally on his second cross-country cycling trip.
This time around, he sets his sights on cycling from Singapore to Alaska in the United States. He flew into Singapore in March from Berlin with his bike and has been cycling through parts of South-East Asia since.
He was in Malaysia at the end of March and in early April, before crossing into Thailand about a week later. He ended the South-East Asia leg of his travels in Vietnam last week; he later flew to Australia and is currently in New South Wales, celebrating his birthday.
Montoya said he was fascinated with Malaysia during his brief visit here. “I was surprisingly impressed,” he said, referring to the people he crossed paths with, the food he ate and the places he explored.
“I wish I could extend my stay in Malaysia but it was the beginning of my adventure, so I felt like I just needed to keep cycling. The interesting cultures there gave me a reason to come back one day.”
He was also happy to have done the South-East Asia route as he managed to experience and eat so many new things while cycling through many places.
“I don’t worry about the distance that I have to cycle, and I always try to go for off-the-beaten-track routes. Unfortunately, sometimes, there are only so many options and I have no choice but to take the main roads. It’s not as fun, but then again, just being able to cycle is rewarding enough for me.
“I look forward to exploring the remote areas and meeting as many locals as I can,” he shared.
Montoya normally starts his day before the break of dawn, and spends about seven hours just cycling through villages, towns or cities.
“I cycle from 6am till about 1pm as it gets too hot to do so after that. The rest of the day is usually spent exploring the area and trying out delicacies as recommended by locals,” he said. Since he chronicles his travels on his TikTok and Instagram (@unknown.route) pages, Montoya often receives suggestions from users on where to go, what to see and, definitely, what to eat in the town or village he’s visiting.
To stay true to the bikepacking culture, Montoya often camps outdoors rather than stay at a rented accommodation. “I always carry a tent with me. But if I’m at a place that offers affordable stays, like budget hostels or guesthouses, I’d give it a try too, otherwise I’m content with just sleeping in my tent,” he shared.
And when he does camp out, Montoya makes sure that he cleans himself at a restaurant or shop before settling in for the night. If he needs to use the toilet but there isn’t any available nearby, then he will just “do his business” in the bushes, making sure that he does not make a mess or leave any trash behind.
Apart from his tent, Montoya also carries cooking utensils so that he can cook whenever he needs to. “I have a kitchen kit but I have yet to use it, given the plentiful and delicious food available in South-East Asia. Perhaps they may come in handy later!” he said.
Montoya added that one of the most important things that bikepackers need to carry with them is water, especially if you’re travelling through remote areas.
“You need to have enough water with you as there are places where you can’t get fresh drinking water for at least 100km. I’ll always check beforehand to see where I can get my hands on drinking water during my daily route.”
Although he does travel by air sometimes, Montoya said that he tries to travel mostly by bicycle. He uses a mountain bike, which is much bigger and more stable compared to a regular bicycle.
“Mountain bikes have thicker tires, making them ideal for off-road rides. I can mount all my bags and the bike still feels stable.”
A burning passion
Montoya has always loved cycling, and looks at it as a way for him to relax and unwind. When he was 14, his father introduced him to mountain biking, and he fell in love with the sport. He is always eager to be on the road with his bike.
“Cycling is like a relaxing ‘retreat’ to me. Even to this day I will not go to bed without preparing my gear and clothes for the next day’s cycling trip!”
So far, Montoya has not met with that many challenges during his trip, at least none that he could not easily overcome. The Penang Bridge police escort was perhaps the biggest incident that had happened, particularly because it involved local authorities.
In fact, Montoya feels that the hardest part of the journey is saying goodbye to the friends he’s met along the way.
Another aspect that he needs to be wary of is his travel fund. Montoya is paying for everything himself, from the savings that he’s made while working for about four years in Barcelona.
However, he does have a Patreon page – a crowd-funding page for creators in which they offer exclusive content, merchandise and other things – and there are a few people who are supporting him on that platform.
You could say that Montoya has also been pretty lucky in his travels, sometimes receiving free food and drink from strangers who recognise him from his social media pages.
Still, Montoya has no problems overcoming hurdles or challenges while bikepacking.
He said: “Not only does it give you a sense of achievement, you also pick up skills along the way. It’s a very fulfilling journey. I like bikepacking because it allows me to travel at my own pace and plan my own schedule, too.
“The decision is in your hands and you decide what you want to do, where you want to go and when to stop, without having to suit the needs of others.
“A trip like this teaches you discipline as well. Because unlike camping, bikepacking means you’re always on the move and you have to carry your equipment and supplies on your bike.”
His advice to those who want to start their own bikepacking adventure? Start small and explore places you’re comfortable with first, and also, get insurance coverage.
“It’s good to have a travel health insurance. Also, do some research on what kind of equipment best suits you, because you want to be as comfortable as possible, especially since you’ll be cycling long distance. There’s no point in wearing an expensive waterproof jacket if it doesn’t provide you comfort,” he shared.
The one thing that Montoya was hesitant about before embarking on his journey was the fact that he had to travel all alone. As someone who is more of an extrovert, Montoya enjoys being around people and socialising. But a bikepacking adventure is usually also a solo one, and he was not sure initially if he could overcome that, especially on long routes where one can easily get lonely.
“I think a solo adventure like this helps me to get to know myself and to take more risks than if I were to travel with someone. And frankly speaking, if I did do this with someone, that person would have to be really special!
“They must be someone you are comfortable with, as you’ll see them every day of the trip.
“But this is a journey of self-discovery, and I want to explore the diverse cultures found in different parts of the world. I want to see all this with my eyes, instead of through my phone,” he revealed.
“Nevertheless, I’m still excited to meet people who are on the same journey as I am, as well as people I meet along the way.”