Most people think of roads in Bali as congested places, full of motorbikes and cars, with a seemingly lawless policy. Bintang, Nasi Goreng and beaches are generally the order of the day. Getting out on a road bike is rarely considered.
But if it had never crossed your mind, you are missing out. Yes, in the south, where most of the resorts are, cycling doesn't look like the most tops option. But get out just north of Ubud, and the countryside transforms. You have rice fields, mountains, great roads, and little traffic. Some of the climbs are of a grand scale and are well worth a visit.
Words - Dave Edwards
I had ridden there before, so went this time with something epic in mind. The guys at baliroadbike.com are the only ones who offer a proper road service (not a little family jaunt on mountain bikes), so I arranged with Stefano, the owner, to ride with Agus. Agus, like most Balinese, is very polite, and always smiling. But he could deadlift a car, he has quads to put Greipel to shame, so no matter your ability, he can easily ride with you.
I was picked up from my hotel in Sanur at 5am, to get an early start, before the heat hit. An hour's drive to Ubud, where I met Agus and we were on the road.
Straight away, you are riding amongst lush vegetation. Thick jungle gives way to rice fields, then more jungle. The road meandered along, gently sloping upwards, with a slowly rising sun on our right shoulders. There are no other tourists out here, just slightly bemused farmers and open land.
A quick stop for water, that we picked up from Rai, who was following us in the van, and we were onto the first climb of the day. That's where it changed. Agus continued riding with dry skin, and easy conversation. I on the other hand was leaking like it was raining, and was gasping. The humidity was INTENSE, and really served to stifle my ability to push hard on the pedals. Which was a mild inconvenience, as we were going uphill for close to 40 kilometres.
It was steep in some parts, especially around some gorgeous switchbacks, but otherwise it was a gradual effort until we reached the top. The scenery the whole way was incredible, with views right out across the land, off to mountains in the distance. At the to there were monkeys. Now monkeys weird me out, like small evil villains, plotting to cause endless harm to all humans, so I didn't stop to take photos. Straight onto the descent, and this one was a corker! 15km of very winding and flowing road, laced like a perfect ribbon through the jungle, all the way down the mountain.
Even on a hire bike that didn't fit all that well, and with a slightly loose headset and average brakes, we were able to hit those corners hard. The road was mostly really good here, and with jungle and steep sides to the road, there were no walkers or village animals to worry about. There was an increase in traffic though, which definitely slowed us down, but picking gaps to overtake was a huge part of the fun as we raced down that hill. I had one battle with a bloke on a motorbike that lasted for 10 kays! He was quicker on the straights, but I pushed harder in the corners.
On the descent too I finally found Agus' achilles heel - he doesn't like descending. After watching him effortlessly put the hurt into me all morning, it was nice to return the favour.
All good things come to an end, and we stopped for water on the north side of Bali. It is so damn hot and dry over there. Most of the rain gets dumped in the mountains, so on the north coast it can be quite dry. It was at this stop that Agus politely told me that we now had just a lazy 30 kilometre climb in front of us. Oh tops... I was 85 kays deep, I had sweat as much as I normally would in a year, and we were about to take on the most elevation gain I'd ever done in a single climb - 1666 metres of up (that number seems fairly ominous now).
The climb to Kintamani is never steep, there would be only a few very short stretches where it even makes it to 10% gradient, but it is so consistent. They decided they wanted it to be 4.5% when they made it, and they kept as close to that as they could the whole way. On paper, it sounds really manageable, even with the distance, but the humidity is such a killer. It was everything I had to make that climb, I struggled real bad. There is no view, just the all-encompassing jungle, and the unrelenting road. At every bend I looked for relief, and only found more road, goading me to keep pushing forward. Not so steep as to demoralise, just enough to keep me interested, sitting down, and spinning forward. Soon even the spin became a grind, it got really tough.
Then, about half way up, just for shits and giggles, it BUCKETED DOWN with rain. Forest Gump style big-old-fat rain. The people we saw on scooters climbed off and put rain coats on, or they found shelter in a store at the roadside. We had nothing to do, but keep riding. Pushing on through the downpour, like a rider chasing a stage win in the Tour. If we weren't getting all of the stares for riding road bikes before, we did now. The quizzical looks from locals was at least a brief distraction from our efforts.
Push, grind, despair, push. It felt like an Everesting. So damn hard. The rain relieved the oppressive heat, but brought a special suffering of it's own. We earned the climb that day, that was definitely a tough ride. The glory at the top was, non-existent. We were into a small town, before turning down a small street for a water break. I sat for a little while, I was buggered. I could hardly talk, I was wet through, and my everything was sore. I sat there and thought about the wet descent we were about to go down, and wasn't all that excited.
Eventually we got going again, and we were all now quite cold. The top of the mountain was quite cool, and it was only our movement grinding up that had kept us warm. As we rode along, a car or bus coming the opposite way up the hill brought great relief as a gust of warm air would sweep over us. Even better was the discovery that the rain had all been on the north side of the mountain, and the southern descent was bone dry!
Wooshka, we pushed hard back down to Ubud, warming up pretty quickly. The gradient wasn't steep, and the roads were fairly straight, so we were in top gear, jamming on the pedals all the way. Weaving in and out of traffic, having sprint battles with scooters and each other, the three of us went full tilt down the hill. It was so much goddam fun! What a way to finish the day.
All told it was 160 kilometres, with 3,700 metres of climbing. Add on another 40 for the 2 guides who commuted to the start and back in the heavy traffic of the south. It was a great day, with a truly epic ride, one that really challenged me (you can view the Strava file here).
If you are keen to ride in Bali, definitely speak to the guys at baliroadbike.com as navigating around is more of an art than a science. There are VERY limited road signs, and sometimes 'the way' is no more than a small side street. They can tailor a route to suit what you would need, have drivers to pick you up and drop you off, and have cars to support with food and water along the way. My one tip is if possible, bring your own bike. The hire bikes are okay, but my back longed for the position of my beloved Tarmac!
So maybe next time you visit Bali, consider something more than a Bintang and a massage. The riding will not disappoint.
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