June is one of the hottest months in Singapore, humidity and heat are at their top with air at times almost unbreathable, a good excuse to look for some alternative ‘dirt fun’ somewhere else in a milder climate.
I found this option in the 4th Bali MTB Marathon up in Mt.Batur area on Sun 7th of June.
The race is organised by a small group of cycling enthusiasts whom, among the cycling fun, are also trying to raise awareness on the conditions of Mt.Batur, the largest volcano of Bali, where continued excavations to collect sand are putting at risk the balance of the local community.
Mt.Batur is a volcano in a volcano. Once arrived at Kintamani, about 2 hours drive north of Denpasar International Airport, you are faced with a nice but not impressive conical shape mountain that rises from a valley about 500mt below, with a lake at its feet. Having seen other big volcanoes and read that Batur is one of the largest volcanos in all Asia you might be puzzled but what you may have missed at first is that at Kintamani you are actually standing on the lip of a 13x10km crater of which slopes start 30 km down below right after the town of Ubud. That IS the Batur volcano itself… realised that, then you’ll be impressed!.
Batur is an active volcano that has built in its huge crater an inner escape vent that has developed into another volcano shaped mountain. From here the most recent eruptions have taken their course. Impressive the black lava field which is still visible on the southern side of the inner mountain, where, I discovered later, the last stretch of the race goes through giving a real feel of nature immense force… People live and trade inside this monster of a caldera which one day would probably erupt again wiping away everything and everyone… but that’s normal life in neighbour Indonesia.
In this exotic and pretty much exiting environment, at about 1000mt of altitude and the perfect cycling temperature, the 70km Bali MTB Marathon www.balibiking.com is held since 2011.
The drive to Kintamani takes you through Celuk, the silver artefacts district of Bali and Ubud, where Balinese culture mix with handicrafts and nightlife, to the famous terraced paddy fields and the plant nurseries in the perfect weather closer to summit, always having temples and divinity statues left and right of the road reminding you of the soulful Balinese culture… if you plan to drive, remember though to get your International Driving License renewed as a stop by the local police is most likely going to be part of the excitement.
I arrived in Bali on Friday 5th from Singapore, rented a car at the airport and spent the rest of the day among the waves of Kuta Reef, thanks to a surfer friend who lives in there… there is always something to do in this exotic island.
Saturday morning I took the journey up to Batur for the race kit (the number) collection and the technical briefing, The traffic was a bit heavy and I took my time stopping here and there for some pics or to browse some local shops on the road, so I reached the race head quarter at Hotel Segara Batur at 1pm… after a donation to the local Police Dpt. due to the lack of a valid International Driving License. Number collected and bike set up from the traveling box, I took some time to explore around, in particular to look for the race starting point which was located in a not well defined point on a not well defined map. It took a while but I finally found it hidden among big black boulders on top of a short but steep climb… the terrain was sand and loose volcanic (oh, really?) gravel and I had to push my bike to reach it… not a good sign as a start, mhhh…
The race briefing was set for 4pm, I was back by then eager to hear about all the secrets of the course, the rules and as much information as possible, only to hear ‘there will be 4 water points and some marshals to point where you’ll need to turn, follow the paper trail and you’ll be fine, see you tomorrow at 8am!’… well, yeah, what else do we need to know indeed? The route and altimetry was displayed on a map, and I thought the altimetry graph has to be wrong, those climbs can’t be that steep in real life!…but I was about to get a ‘nice’ surprise the following day as volcano’s walls are indeed pretty much damn straight up!
After a night in a nice resort Balinese style villa on the slopes of main Batur, for half the price of a half the stars with half the view of hotels in Singapore. At 7am I got to the starting line where the race atmosphere was building up, some known faces from other teams from Singapore, and a couple of riders I met here and there around the region, was part of the 150 strong total participants. It was a nice feeling, lot of laughter and smiling faces all around led up to the start, and at 8am sharp (amazingly, being in Indonesia huh?) the race was flagged off.
Sensibly the organiser had neutralised the first stretch that was the tricky and slippery rocky downhill that I did uphill to reach the start/finish line, and the race itself started only once the group has reached the main road.
The first 20km was a paved road stint out and back around lake Batur, a nice legs warmer, with a couple of sharp rises which put the heart rate in gear and thinned the whole group. The paved road changed to dirt, rolling, skirting the huge lava field of the inner cone, the group thinned down further, with the stronger riders moving away as expected. I settled in my rhythm half expecting what was laying ahead. Dirt changed into tarmac again for another 5 km and thank to the good work with a couple of other riders we managed to get back to the main group of 15 other riders ahead. Then the ‘fun’ began.
We quickly approached the wall of the caldera and then there was only one way, up!
A broken tarmac road with a gradient up to 30%, unridable for most (me included) took us in about 1.5km of road from 1100mt to 1400mt of altitude, to the first plateau, just a breather as the second part of the climb, with slightly softer inclines, ‘only’ up to 25% in some points but longer then the first and more ridable due to better paved surface, took us all the way to the outer volcano’s walls at 1650mt above sea level. Lungs were bursting, legs were screaming, the 32-42 XX1 that I was using was not really the best option, not at least for me. At the top I was offered a banana and some water which I gulped like it was my last meal. It was wet, the early morning clouds have left a trail of moisture and crisp air, it was almost cold…but it was nice and the crisp air revived me in a flesh!
I was with a younger rider from Singapore, nice talkative chap, from here we rode the crest of the crater on a rolling single trek which at times showed stunning view of the whole island, the ocean was visible, almost touchable, breathtaking views in a superb 10 km rollercoaster of a trail, we ride fast and we catch 3 other riders. At km 50 we were back down at 1100mt of altitude again, but it was only 2 of us left, the others have disappeared behind somewhere.
I was warmer, humid and not as nice, and then we hit the 3rd major climb of the day, another wall-up, 1km, 300mt of ascent, my legs (and brain) refused to even try and I walked all of it, my companion of the moment dared a bit more and obviously had better legs and slowly went away in front. At that point the group was all diluted, everyone was moving at their own pace in their own zone.
At sharp 3 hours of riding (and walking), like a swiss watch and as I was expecting and as always happens, the first tingles of cramps on my legs started to bother me, luckily the hard climbing was over and the precious as gold salt tablets+energy gels gave me just enough replenishment to keep the tingles as just a minor nuisance for the rest of the ride.
The next 6km were mostly in dirt, gravelled, rocky rolling roads, mostly slightly uphill to close a loop ending at the top of the first climb at 1400mt of altitude.
Then back from were we came, downhill the same broken tarmac road, it was steep, oh yes it was, tough even downhill…then the rolling paved stretch and the dirt road skirting the lava field.
The lava field was looming black and silent on my left, and at km 65 a marshal pointed us ‘go left’, straight inside the black mass. Lava is a porous and relatively light sort of sharp edged rock, the trail was cut through huge black boulders and made of small lava rocks which were providing basically zero grip as they were sliding away under the bike’s tires, a ‘floating’ exercise slow motion moving forward, legs were completely empty, eye sight was blur but focus was still a must as a slight distraction could have costed dearly with a possible a tire tear or a nasty fall…no, you don’t want that once you reach there just few km from the end.
Tough as it was, the lava field ride was a stunning and rare experience, the icing on the cake of a brutal but a fantastic ride.
A motorbike rider from the organiser announced ‘3km to the finish’, I did not have anyone behind that could challenge my position, nor anyone in front to try to catch, so I just enjoyed the moment, entered the woods at the edge of the lava field, those first line trees had to have witnessed quite a spectacular show when in 1968 the red lava was pouring right beside their trunks, and arrived to the last, now familiar, dirt and rocky climb to the start, now finishing, line, under the cheers of a number of local people who have assembled to see the faces of those crazy people who dared challenge the vulcano’s fields.
The time keeper told me that I was 6th of the Veteran (over 40) category, 70km, 1424mt of elevation gain in 3h52min. Strava confirmed it all adding as well 1424mt of elevation gain and an Epic Suffer Score of 315! not bad, not bad at all!
Till next tale from the dark side… see you in numbers on Singapore trails!