Friday, January 15, 2016

Cycling In Malaysia - New Year In Cameron Highlands With Equipe Nomad

I'd been looking forward to this ride for some time. The bulk of our ride operations still revolve largely around standard 2 or 3-day weekend lengths, so the opportunity to do a hard 4-day ride with a day in the middle for some highland respite on the first day of 2016 in the tranquil coolness of Cameron, was a buzz indeed.

The ride is basically a festive version of our Tour De Titiwangsa, named after the mountain range that gives us all the highest roads in peninsular Malaysia. Devised last year as a possible fledgling stage-race in 4 daily stages looping out of Kuala Lumpur, taking in the lofty altitudes of the Cameron Highlands as well as Fraser's Hill on a circuit that re-entered the capital city after 4 hard stages and around 600km.

The big difference in this occurrence was to take one day off in the middle to smell the roses (and strawberries) in the cool surrounds of the Cameron farmlands, before descending back down to the heat of the tropics for the final 2 stages.

My fellow travelers on this one were originally to be 3 riders: Vicki and Hari flying in from Bangalore, and Paul in from New Zealand. As none of them voiced any major concern about distances, ascent or preparations, one could assume that these were fairly experienced riders, well able to handle a decent pace over the proposed route.

Unfortunately Vicki had picked up what seemed to be a particularly vicious flu by the time she arrived, and really wasn't fit for cycling. Terrible news for her since she'd been gearing up for this ride for months. It also meant 3 riders instead of 4, which makes quite a difference to group dynamics. That left three to try and generate the morale, and momentum, of a peleton for the journey ahead.

Day 1.

Kuala Lumpur to Teluk Intan. 171km. Elevation gain: 314m.

We started out just after 7am from our base hotel through the back roads of Gombak, a northeastern suburb of Kuala Lumpur, wending our way west through the early morning traffic. Within an hour we were on quieter roads moving firmly away from the capital and down to the coast at Kuala Selangor. The traffic is a necessary evil really - if you want to ride door-to-door - but Malaysian drivers are a tolerant bunch generally, and the sight of 3 lycra-clad MAMILs weaving through rush-hour traffic still has novelty value in these parts. A first hour then getting through the built-up bit before we could start to enjoy our surroundings.

A quick refuel around the 50km point, and then we settled into a good pace along the coastal roads. This stage can be a bit daunting, faced with 170km of almost pancake-flat, long, straight roads, and as the sun hits it's zenith it can wilt the resolve. I just settled into time-trial mode and pulled away on the front of the group. Imagining myself the Super-Domestique - or even Road Captain - to get me through the day. A boy playacting his heroes - just another romantic delusion, comparing mine to the roles played by the pros in the Grand Tours. Actually, as the only paid member of this little peloton, it is my duty to deliver these guys to the more interesting - and challenging - bits of road with some zip left in their legs, so it's not that far away from the truth.

We stopped for a noodle lunch in the town of Sungai Besar with about 50km left to go to our day's destination. As Malaysian towns go it's a tad curious, with an untypical sparsity of restaurants in the main area. We've been here before though, so we know under which rocks to look. Luckily my fellow travelers are all keen on the local fare, so there was no issue with the selection of Malaysian Chinese dishes on offer, and we all took some much-needed nutrition on board.

For the remainder of the stage we made fairly good time, and arrived at the finish line in the seaside town of Teluk Intan shortly after 2pm, were quickly checked into the hotel, showered and soon enjoying a pretty good latte in the lobby. For me, the local mini markets provided the recovery meal of milk and almonds, after which a bit of catching up on the internet, and a short nap, took us through to dinner.

I look forward to dinner in Teluk Intan more than any other stop on this tour since we discovered a great seafood restaurant on the outskirts of town, and though there are many food options within walking distance from the hotel, the 10-minute drive is well worth it.

Day 2.

Teluk Intan to Tanah Rata. The "Queen" Stage. 150km. Elevation gain: 2182m.

A rather slow start to the day saw us hit the road around 7.30am as we began the stage's early sections getting through another 80km of flat before beginning the long ascent up to the Cameron plateau. More long, straight flats. More of me doing my Bernie Eisel impersonation. We stopped for a second breakfast - southern Indian style - in the town of Kampar, just off the main Ipoh road.

At the 75km point, as the gradient of the road started to vary a little more, and the surroundings developed a distinctly greener appearance, we stopped again for a quick refuel. From here it would get harder. From here we would probably not stay together, as the relative parity in power output would be compromised by differences in body composition. From here we'd be starting the long ascent up to the entrance into Cameron Highlands at around 1400m. No more Bernie Eisel. Now it was Mikel Landa :) (I flatter myself in both cases of course!).

The climb is fairly gradual, with lots of sections of respite during the first half, but a bit more consistent climbing between kms 100 and 120 taking us to the top of the first main stretch of climbing. The road flattens out before another rise, and then a drop down to the beginning of the main farmland area at Kampung Raja and Blue Valley.

Nearing the top of the main climb, we had enjoyed a pleasant cool wind helping keep our temperatures down. As we hit the top of the climb though, we started to get that fine drizzle that tells your you're into the clouds. Then the pleasant wind came back with a vengeance in a rather less pleasant form. Coupled with the increasing wetness of the road, it made for a rather cold, and brake-orientated 5km of descent before the final 8km climb up to the 1600m Cameron peak at Brinchang.

Owing to a couple of lengthy stops to regroup I found it quite hard to keep my body temperature up on the descent (should have grabbed that jacket!) so, even though I basically just hammered up the subsequent climb, it took almost the full 8km ascent to get the feeling back to my fingers. Not something you experience often in Malaysia, thankfully! I'm no lover of the cold.

After this it's a steady, rolling run in to the finish at Tanah Rata, with quite a picturesque route along a ridge. We were out of the cloud and the wind had dropped, so we had a less hostile environment to deal with, but with hammer-mode still locked into operation it wasn't long before we were checked in and into warm showers.

So it's New Year's Eve, and you have some tired, depleted bodies craving nutrition around dinner time. Dinner in Tanah Rata presents a fairly eclectic set of options, but regardless of the various normal preferences in the groups we arrive here with, after the efforts of climbing to this point, curiously the consensus usually gravitates towards red meat, and then inevitably western fare, so we have our choices more-or-less dialed in. After a sumptuous meal chased down with a few glasses of red wine it's a quick glance at the watches that tells us that no one's going to make it to 2016 awake.

Day 3.

Happy New Year!

Rest day. The low cloud has persisted, so ideas for a recovery ride (or run) have been dropped. There were some moments of dryness in the afternoon, but the holiday weekend traffic was an instant turnoff, and we ended up just supporting the coffee and food establishments of Tanah Rata mostly. Could be worse! A much needed lazy day.

Day 4.

Descent to Raub. 145km. Elevation gain: 986m

A dry morning greeted us as we stepped out at 6.30am for breakfast at the local roti chanai shop. With a technical and steep descent to start with, that was very welcome news. This first descent evolves, after 8km, into some rolling flat through a slightly lower plateau into the town of Ringlet, in which we turn into our main descent back down to the heat of the lowlands.

This long descent covers the best part of 80km, and the best description I can assign it would be "severely rolling". For many sections the upward bits seem equal to the downward bits, but we are actually descending - gradually. It does have several sections of good old plummeting, which invariably gives the heavier members of the group a chance to get their own back. Once again, the groups rarely stay together in this mode either.

This 80km section of road, has to be one of the quietest roads I've ever ridden. This fact makes it all the more remarkable that the road is very well engineered, and the surface is actually mostly in great condition. The surrounding landscape is often breathtaking, with some very ancient and dense jungle in many parts, and vistas into the valley below clad in wisps of low cloud. The moment is not lost on my riding companions who are obviously taking it all in with awe.

We stop for lunch at 92km at the Malay stalls in Sungai Koyan. At this point we've done the descending, and have 50km of gently rolling oil-palm estates ahead of us under the heat of the midday sun. Luckily we get quite a bit of respite, courtesy of an overcast sky, for most of the remaining distance and, though it often looks like it might rain, it never quite does.

So we roll into Raub ahead of schedule at around 1pm with the mosques singing their lunchtime prayers. Once room keys are procured, bodies are washed and some head off for a massage while others nap through the heat of the day in their air-conditioning.

Dinner once again is a group affair, this time at one of the excellent local Chinese seafood restaurants.

Day 5.

Raub to Kuala Lumpur via Fraser's Gap. 115km. Elevation gain: 1399m.

And so on into our last stage. We hit the local Indian breakfast place before sunrise so we can make sure we get back into Kuala Lumpur ahead of the end-of-public-holiday traffic, and so we're already starting the climb up to the Gap at Fraser's Hill by 7.30am. This is a super-quiet and serene road that climbs through the thick overhang of dense jungle growth pretty much all the way up for 20km at a steady average of around 3%.

From here it's a descent of about 30km before we pass the town of Kuala Kubu Bharu and into the rolling flats that take us through to a lunch stop at around the 90km mark in Hulu Yam - my local favourite is a killer Char Siew Rice with a particularly delicious, pungent sauce.

The remaining 30km gives us plenty of ups and downs including a last couple of testing ramps, the first of which hits around 18% at it's worst, and the second short one that definitely hits 25% at one point, though the GPS never quite gets it right due to heavy overhead foliage. These add a nice little footnote to the journey, before we descend back into the city traffic for the last 5km home.

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable ride with 2 great riding companions, both strong cyclists.

I like to analyze my fellow riders using comparisons with pro cyclists, and Paul for me was definitely an Andre Greipel: great raw, explosiveness; a good descender and lots of rocking-and-rolling power on the flat. Hari: Alberto Contador - lean and slight of frame but with great power-to-weight, making him a natural climber, but still with the excellent technique of a time-trialist.

An honour to ride with you guys!