One group of cyclists has an annual long-distance fellowship on wheels over hills, rivers and beaches, under scorching sun and stinging storms. And they come back for more every year.
CYCLE for 495km? Isn't that half the length of Peninsular Malaysia? People unfamiliar with Pedalholics Cycling Club's (PCC) annual "Interstate ride" would definitely think I was crazy to even have attempted that feat recently!
PCC's Interstate is one of the most anticipated event of the year for road cyclists, and it's usually (almost) fully taken up even before registration begins, because past participants want another taste of the gruelling distance. Each year, 350 cyclists and 50 support car drivers reunite and form new fellowships on wheels along Malaysian roads and this year's ride was held over three days spanning 495km from Temerloh, Pahang to Desaru, Johor.
Since I started cycling in 2010, this year marked my third Interstate. For PCC, it was the 17th edition of their iconic ride and the longest ever. As they say, "It doesn't get easier, it only gets faster!"
Saved my life
The day before, I met up with my group, which included faithful support driver Chong Siak Mei and my loyal "domestique", Richard Lee. The latter's 4WD was decked with four bicycle racks, water, bananas, a first aid kit and maintenence tools as we set out to Temerloh from Kuala Lumpur.
On Day One, we started from Temerloh, and the terrain was undulating towards Kuantan. The mission was to cycle 142km to a lunch sponsored by Volkswagen (VW) Kuantan at their showroom. Easy? Hardly!
The PCC regulars rode in a peloton (a long, tight group of cyclists) in a double "paceline" (two rows), at an average speed of 33km/h, which is as fast as a cruising motorcycle! Peloton riding helps conserve energy, as the slipstream reduces drag by as much as 40% - the riders at the back face less wind resistance as the front riders take the brunt of it.
Full of enthusiasm, everyone was chatting despite cycling at high speeds. Once warmed up, the peloton felt like a well-oiled machine, rotating pacelines (front riders) with good discipline towards Maran town for breakfast. Somehow cyclists always manage to find wantan mee which seems to be the riders' breakfast of choice!
(Note: A good paceline is built on trust. The riders have to be confident that the others in the group will communicate well and ride safely, especially when they take turns being in front. - www.lostrivercycling.org/paceline.html)
When the peloton grows too big, it poses a danger as it's difficult for cars to overtake. One ride leader decided to split the peloton, inadvertently causing a mistake. In a blink, I touched wheels with the bike in front and went sprawling onto the middle of the road! Fortunately, a fellow cyclist and a support driver following behind stopped in time.
My helmet saved my life. It all happened in a split second, and I escaped unscathed except for minor road rashes. My helmet absorbed the impact and didn't break as I felt my head hit the ground. How fortunate! I retrieved my precious Pinarello bike which was lightly damaged.
I was upset that this had happened even though I kept a safe distance. However, I put it behind me and focused on lunch. The wind got stronger, while the traffic was getting heavier towards high noon but we managed to roll into lunch at Kuantan on time. Marvellous! 142km, checked!
On Day Two, the mission was to brave strong coastal winds for 156km through undulating terrain towards Rompin, in southern Pahang.
Easier said than done. After icing my swollen knee after yesterday's fall, it seemed good for today. Certain strong "horses" led the peloton at a galloping speed and soon we crossed bridges over Sungai Pahang with beautiful riverine scenery. 65km had passed quickly as we rolled into Pekan town.
Along the coastal road, the winds blew stronger with each turn. Fortunately, I was still cycling with the peloton, otherwise I'd have been blown away like Mary Poppins! I kept both hands on the handlebar for stability. As we rotated through the pacelines, it was difficult to maintain speed as I neared the front due to the strong winds.
Sadly, after Pekan, there were no towns nor any sponsored lunch awaiting us. We only had quick refills of water, electrolytes and bananas for the next punishing 100km under the hot sun. The pace was relentless, the winds were unforgiving, and I finally dropped from the peloton.
"I'm not solar powered!" I thought to myself. If only I could harness the energy from our strong tropical sun to power on! A few of us stopped for respite from the heat. I might not have had my choice of brunch today, but my support driver had bought me KFC to sooth my extreme hunger. Such love! 156km added, checked!
It was Day Three. "So what's the game plan for today's 197km towards Desaru?" I asked my loyal domestique. He replied that we should try and hang on to the peloton to save energy and be shielded from wind.
Everyone was buzzing with excitement at 6.30am that cloudy morning as lightning was spotted in the distance. Soon, the familiar peloton had picked up the pace yet again, but the hills came sooner and steeper than expected.
I could not keep up with the peloton as the hills rolled endlessly until Mersing Kanan town, when I regrouped with others who had dropped behind as well. I'd never been happier for wantan mee time to power up! We then joined another peloton formed by the "Independent Racers" team, riding at a comfortable pace.
"Holy cow! Look at that rolling carpet!" my heart sank a bit. The terrain before us rolled up and down and beyond. Humbled, I dropped my head, and changed to a lighter gear to spin up each incline, again and again for the next 140km.
Soon, Zeus showed his might and showered us with rain three times over. Completely soaking wet, socks became squishy and I could barely see through my glasses while the road surface was rough and beset with potholes and narrow switchbacks.
A quick rendezvous with our support cars was mandatory for bananas and electrolytes to keep our muscles going and prevent cramps. There was still some 50km of relentless hills to pursue.
After an eternity, it was just 11km to Desaru. Finally, almost there! I mustered all my strength to spin up the steepest slope and was rewarded with a fast and furious downhill run towards Pulai Desaru Resort. Total 495km, checked!
What an epic 197km ride that was. In the toughest of situations, when the tough get going, the rain keeps pouring and the cyclists keep cycling. This is why I love the annual PCC Interstate and will do it all over again!
Preparing for long-distance rides
> Know the distance you intend to ride, and prepare accordingly. You will only improve if you ride more. Every Sunday, PCC Ride Director Don Chan and other ride leaders prepared a rigorous training schedule. This included minimum 100km rides through the hilly terrain of Hulu Langat, Port Dickson and Sepang, plus a 200km ride through the paddy fields of Kuala Selangor while facing strong coastal winds. There was also a tough 160km ride up to Fraser's Hill and back on the last Sunday leading up to the Interstate.
> Riding long distance on consecutive days, usually on Saturday and Sunday, also gives your body a chance to condition itself to the rigours of the Interstate ride. Electrolytes or rehydration salts are a must to prevent muscle cramps. Pick your poison with power gels and bars, or go natural with bananas and granola bars.
> Seventy percent of your power comes from your lower back, so train up and strengthen your core muscles with simple floor exercises weekly. It also helps to keep a healthy diet to provide your body with sufficient fuel for the ride. After all, your body is the engine of your bicycle!
> No helmet, no ride! PCC has always been advocating this safety rule in cycling. Even for kids cycling in the neighborhood, it's better to have a "brain bucket" to protect your head!