Monday, December 16, 2013

Kuala Lumpur to Singapore - The Scenic Route

dawn on the road to Bukit Hantu

I do the Kuala Lumpur to Singapore commute a lot by car. Having a home in KL and a work-base in Singapore means I'm often doing the return trip on a weekly basis. Door-to-door it's almost exactly 400km. That's using the most direct way via the highway which was built for the purpose and goes straight through the more densely-populated western side of the peninsula.

Given the task of coming up with a challenging route on a bicycle that provides stimulating surroundings, good food and rest points, and yet avoids the urban areas, we decided that the best option was to route it down the less-frequented eastern coast. This meant the overall distance would be around 500km. We decided it was probably better initially to aim to do it in 3 days - to test the waters, so-to-speak. It also made more sense to do it southbound from KL into Singapore, even though the more interesting riding was at the KL end, it's just that most of the group would be at work in Singapore the following morning.

route profile of stage 1

Day 1 from Ampang in the east of KL involved the longest stage at 180km. Necessary to get us through to somewhere with the infrastructure to give us a bed and food amidst the eternal oil-palm estates that make up the majority of this part of the state of Pahang. En route we had an initial 50km involving 3 main hills - virtually all the climbing of the day - followed by a remaining 130km of moderately rolling terrain.

The start of this ride goes through some of the most stunning scenery I know. Though I've been riding these roads for the past 20 years, I can never take this kind of raw jungle beauty completely for granted. From the climb out of Ampang with it's panorama of the city, through Bukit Hantu with it's sharp gradients, and on through the lush jungle over Genting Peras, you are treated to idyllic cycling territory and very little traffic.

From the triple-peak of Genting Peras there's a great, fast descent on good road surfaces back down towards (albeit minimal) signs of village life and our second-breakfast stop at 50km. Kampong fried rice and coffee!

The subsequent long roll took us first through Kuala Klawang and then on through more jungle, farmland, and several other towns and villages until we stopped for lunch just before hitting the long, straight link that cuts directly eastwards through the intense dark green of the eternal oil-palm estates.

From there on the deviation from a straight line was mostly in the vertical plane. Long rolling straights through densely palm-covered landscape. By now the toll of the first 50k of hills was starting to affect stamina, and we rolled into the day's destination town with little more than fumes left in the tank. The good news was it hadn't rained; the bad news was: we were cooked!

Nothing that some cold drinks, beef Satay and consecutive orders of most of the rice and noodle dishes on the menu at the local food court won't put right. We hit the sack shortly afterwards since there wasn't much going on by way of amusement in this remote little town besides eating.

The next morning saw us drag ourselves onto the road with dead legs at around 8 after delaying the start with a few extra coffees. 160km of rolling awaited us. The initial trajectory was northeast on the Kuantan road until we hit the Mersing road around 30km in. From there it was a nicely varied 50km or so until we hit the coast road and lunch at Kuala Rompin. Chicken rice and wantan mee....we definitely raised a few eyebrows with double orders of food, but it was devoured in a few minutes, and was probably all but digested before we hit the road again.

Mersing, the day's destination, is a fairly well-appointed town with all the things one needs for a good after-ride afternoon. We arrived about 2pm after making some pretty good progress (helped by the extra rice and noodles....oh, and a tailwind). Afternoon recovery-tea was Singapore noodles with sweet-and-sour ribs followed by cendol. The nap was quickly followed by a fairly sumptuous dinner at one of the local red-table-cloth places. Steamed Garouper Teochew style with stuffed squid, wild boar curry, and beer.

You may have noticed that food starts to play more of a central role as a ride like this progresses!

Day 3 had us out a little later than planned but we made good progress on our continued journey down the coastline. We lucked-upon a great Nasi Lemak about 70k into the ride and thereafter also came across some great local fruit stalls. All good fuel keeping the hammer-fest in full swing!

Unfortunately the urban realities started to catch up with us again as we neared the city of Johor Bahru, especially with the school-holiday traffic, and since we had decided to take the more direct, rather than more scenic, route for the last stretch to meet our deadline, we inevitably found ourselves in heavy traffic nearing the causeway.

Our deadline was the urgent matter of some friends with a bottle of champagne and appropiate recovery food (french fries) waiting for us at the Soon Watt shop in Singapore's Changi Road. It was a great welcome to have waiting for us, and made the return to city streets that little bit more bearable. Thanks Mave and Suren!

So now that we've done it in 3 days, the plan is to do it next in 2. That may be a month or 2 away but there will be 3 guaranteed participants :)

After that, there's only one option left.......

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Chiang Mai Adventures

That which does not kill us makes us stronger - Friedrich Nietzsche

No, it's not a track stand. I was moving....just

This is the time of year to be in Chiang Mai. The "Cool Season" describes a period stretching between mid November and late January when the normal muggy heat in Northern Thailand is replaced by cool breezes and a considerable lowering of humidity. A time for pool parties and barbeques for the locals, but for the rest of us simply the best time to visit.

This is why we decided to run our first cycling adventure into this area in late November this year. The region still doesn't have that much fame as a cycling destination, which I find hard to understand. Among pro (and serious amateur) cyclists with (relatively) easy access to Thailand it's been a favourite for a while. Orica Greenedge are reported to use Northern Thailand for their hill training, which may eventually prove a secret weapon for them: the hills are definitely some of the hardest in the world.

Where most road engineers of the world seem to try to keep gradients from staying above 10% for too long, maxing out at the occasional 15% or so, the Thais build roads that stay consistently at gradients approaching 20% for sections lasting several kilometers. 25% is a regular occurrence on paved roads around here. Compact cranksets are the order of the day!

There are a lot of hills, and a lot of roads around here too! Mostly not very busy, and surrounded by some breathtaking flora and occasional encounters with rare fauna. There are also plenty of villages and enough roadside cafes and amenities that you can usually count on finding somewhere for a snack or to fill a bottle. But not always - hence the support car.

For this trip I was accompanied by only one other rider. We'd decided that we'd stick to an out-and-back format for the rides for maximised relaxation, quality of food, and availability of massages in Chiang Mai. Clarence flew in from Hong Kong the day after I arrived and we prepared well at an excellent restaurant near where we were staying in the northwest of the city the evening before the "grand depart". Awesome vegetarian Thai dishes washed down with some good French wine. My sister Clare was driving support and was also responsible for most of the food recommendations.

The first day started the pattern of beginning rides at this incredible coffee outlet on Nimman Road called Ristr8to - 2 Brazilian lattes please :) - seriously some of the best coffee I've ever tasted! Great, friendly staff and a very welcoming ambience - with a giant coffee roaster in operation most of the time at the back of the cafe, lending the room it's rich aroma.

The morning evolved onto the road for the warm-up stage which took us up the 1400 meters of Doi Suthep, the mountain that hovers above the northwestern suburbs of Chiang Mai. A bit busy with tourists and the ubiquitous Songtao traffic, the road is wide and well paved with plenty of room for all. The tourists mostly are aiming for the temple half way up, after which it's quieter, and the gradients only start getting nasty nearer the top. From the top of the hill the road heads down some steep banks to a Hill Tribe Village that, amidst the stalls of tourist junk, provided some decent food and refreshments. The ride ended back in the city for a western lunch (smoothies and sandwiches), more coffee, and the afternoon massage.

Day 2 involved a drive out to start the riding about 47km from the summit of Doi Inthanon. At 2600 meters above sea level this is Thailand's highest peak, and since we started from about 200 meters, we ascended most of it. After the gates to the national park there is a section of a couple of kilometers which gives an introduction to the gradients to be found further up. Ouch.

At 40km from the start of the climb to the summit, this is the longest ascent - which should make it the most gradual, right? Wrong. The last thing you want when you know you have 2400 meters to ascend is to find yourself, after several kilometers of upward grinding, on a nice descent. In this case what goes down must go up again. There's a lot of flattish rolling in the middle of this with most of the really nasty bits at the end when the oxygen is also in short supply.

Not having really got our gearing right, there was rather a lot of grinding going on - fine for my low-cadence friend from Buxton who soldiered on unperturbed grinding his 39x25 (I now call it the Buxton Compact!). For me though, I'm happy at around 90-100rpm, so long sections at below 50rpm don't go down well with my lower back.

Nevertheless, all suffering ends at some point and we slowly made it to the top, though at over 3 hours our average speed was well below 15kmh - and probably more like 7kmh for the last section. The payback started at a rest area on the way down at around 5km from the summit with some great Thai sausages, spicy eggs and Som Tham (papaya salad).

The day after the Mega-Doi stage was designated as a recovery ride. After the obligatory coffee indulgence, we met up with a couple of the local riders for a spin through the flatter bits of the countryside along the Ping river. Time for socializing and allowing the legs to get a bit more of a spin going before the last stage in our festival of gradient.

By this time we'd found so many outstanding places to eat we decided to return to one of them for a repeat order on Clarence's last night in Chiang Mai. More amazing Thai delicacies washed down with German beer. The food in Chiang Mai is already reason enough to visit this place. Plus the people here have simply the most open and friendly nature and are a joy to be served a meal by.

Day 4 had us facing the Mae Rim to Samoeng loop. A 90km route, basically around the base of the Doi Suthep mountain which involves one major climb of just over 17km up to around 1100m, a super-fast descent and then a fairly brutal but shortish climb up some switchbacks that has you rising 280 meters over a distance of 2.3km, before a descent back down towards the city.

Andrew, one of our local friends with a strong knowledge of the off-road scene in the area, joined us for this ride and his local knowledge peppered the ride with interesting insights into other types of route available within riding distance from Chiang Mai. Along the way we passed the elephant camp and some strawberry farms before the road got quieter and more scenic. This is a really gorgeous route.

The day's ride ended back in the city with more smoothies and sandwiches. This was the end of the road as far as the cycling went, and though I had a couple more days of uninhibited refueling ahead of me, Clarence had a flight to catch.

It's hard to match a place like Chiang Mai for running this type of cycling break - especially at this time of year. I really don't believe there's anywhere else on the planet that ticks so many boxes on the list of ideal things for cycling bliss.

It was so much fun that we've decided to run it again in January 2014 before the end of this cool season!

Anyone interested? Chiang Mai Adventures

A great bike shop in Chiang Mai which you can rely on for spares and mechanicals