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by Paul van der Ploeg
February 29, 2016
Photography by Alee Denham
Most professional cyclists tend to spend their off-season relaxing, putting their feet up and otherwise taking the opportunity to live like a “normal” person for a few weeks. For State of Matter MAAP rider and reigning Australian cyclocross champion Paul van der Ploeg, though, the off-season is a chance to spend more time on his bike, albeit for slightly different reasons.
In this feature, Paul shares the story of his off-season trip to Bali with friend and collaborator Alee Denham. The pair produced four video diaries (or vlogs) from their adventure, in addition to a whole host of terrific photos, all of which can be seen below.
I was on a skiing holiday in Japan. It was my off-season, and as usual I was expected to take a break from training and racing – a necessary procedure for most pro cyclists to help them hit the reset button, and start the new year fresh.
Of course, I had an amazing time learning about a new culture, trying unknown foods, navigating big cities and carving the powdery slopes on my skis. Being in Japan was a solid three-week break from my day-to-day life of cycling, eating, travelling and racing. But something big was missing from my life and was making me feel uneasy.
I’ve come to realise that bikes are far more than a tool for racing; they’re perfectly integrated into my lifestyle. I use bikes to go shopping, to socialise and as a mode of transport in inner city Melbourne. I feel a great sense of freedom and balance when I’m on my bikes. It hit me in Japan that I simply don’t need to step away from bikes during my off-season. The time away from my bikes was not great for my mind, and in turn, my preparation for the year ahead.
For my off-season in 2014 I set off on a three-week bike trip around my home state of Victoria, along with four friends. We covered about 100km per day, sleeping in tents under the stars, on the lounge room floors of family friends I hadn’t seen in years, and even in the backyard of a pub. One of my friends, Alee, had just got back from a 2.5-year trip around the world on a bicycle, and was part of the inspiration to do a self-supported bicycle tour. I had also caught the first Thereabouts film where the Morton brothers rode from Port Macquarie to Uluru.
All I wanted to do for my off-season was to go on bike adventures with my friends!
Just a few months ago, Alee and I hatched a plan to discover Bali by bike. Dirt cheap flights helped our decision to go to our neighboring country, but we’d also heard lots was being invested into new cycling infrastructure on this Indonesian island. There’s currently a dedicated mountain bike park in the mountains, and bike tours are booming. We were both pretty keen to escape the typical resort-style tourism that Bali is famous for.
We put our feelers out to lots of Bali tour operators and resorts, as we really wanted to see the best that Bali had to offer. In return, Alee was going to create content about cycling in Bali on his website CyclingAbout.com and we were both going to document our time away via social media. We had a great bike/surf/yoga resort called The Chillhouse approach us and offer us accommodation, guides and transport whenever we needed in order to make sure we got the best impression of Bali possible.
We decided to bring cost-effective Giant Talon bikes along to ride off-road, cover long distances, carry a waterproof pannier and not have to worry too much about potential damage or theft. The bikes proved perfect for our adventure!
A mountain range runs through Bali from east to west. Click through for a full map of Bali with placenames and other geographical features. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
The map of Bali features a long mountain ridge through the middle, three distinct volcanos and lots of beaches around the edges. We systematically broke the island down into sections to explore, starting off right up in the mountains.
Our first day we enlisted a guide to take us via trails from the top of the Batur volcanic crater rim down to sea level – an elevation drop of 1,800m! As we descended further and further, we witnessed the environment change over and over. Life was very simple in the mountains; this was a great insight into how most Balinese live.
After such a long descent, we opted to ride back to our accommodation some 100km away. That was a great opportunity to do our own exploring on the small mountain roads of the island. We found some killer, traffic-free roads to bomb but got caught out in the daily mid-afternoon rain. Note to self: don’t ride mid-afternoon in Bali!
Bali Bike Park has been in construction for less than a year, but has already got some nice 3km flow-trails that are ready for riders of all levels. When you get to the bottom of the hill, a shuttle car is waiting for you and you’re quickly whisked back up to the top in 10 minutes. Luxury!
The rice fields of Bali were actually one of the highlights of our whole trip. Every ride is an adventure amongst the muddy paddies, as the singletrack connecting the fields can just disappear beneath you. There is almost always an alternative route which will take you through a hidden village, past a beautiful temple or under some rich forest canopies.
One morning over breakfast, Alee and I decided we wanted to summit a peak with our bikes, then ride down the other side to some roads we hadn’t yet explored. We managed to wrangle a lift into the mountains with some friends, and the next thing we knew we were skating our way up clay trails that had become completely unridable due to the sheer quantity of rainfall in the days prior.
Pushing our bikes became the theme of the day. For the first couple of hours we were pushing up, up, up – and if we weren’t pushing we were riding out-of-control down the steep and slippery hiking trails. The further we walked, the more we were committing to trails with dead ends. Taking a look at Alee’s phone, we were now also hiking in the wrong direction. But after a few hours of bikes-on-backs, we were starting to hear road noise.
Escaping the jungle was a relief. As fun as it had been, if it were any longer, I think we’d have gotten very frustrated with the bikes. But the hardship of the hike-a-bike was almost lost after only a few kilometres on the best road in Bali! The road was like a roller coaster, taking the steepest, fastest lines up and down the volcanic hills – wide enough to fit just one car, however with not a car in sight.
The surface was smooth as glass, the freshly-laid bitumen offering ample grip around the banked corners. The icing on the cake was a recently painted white line dividing us and the scooters heading the other way, forcing us to keep left and take the corners tight. This was our bike path in the mountains. This road was perfect!
On another day, we went on a mission to find the ‘black dirt’ we had heard so much about. One of the sides of Mt Batur – the most active volcano in Bali – was black all over. We were hoping to capture some awesome shots amongst the volcanic rock, but we didn’t really have any idea which roads would get us there – so we made it up. After hours of frustrating dead ends and hiking across fields of grass and rock with bikes-on-shoulders we made it! It was such a surreal experience riding on what felt like a movie set.
Capping it off, Alee and I cut a full lap of the island to make sure no stones were left unturned. After riding most roads in the central region, we couldn’t leave without knowing what existed in every corner. In fact, nobody we had met had even been to the western region.
As it turned out, the circumnavigation of Bali was a bit of a non-event. The main road is busy and there are very few opportunities for back roads. My advice for anyone heading to Bali with a bike is to focus on the mountainous central ridgeline and eastern coastline!
Throughout my “off-season”, I managed to discover that Bali is an ideal cycling destination. Leaving the main tourist hubs and resorts you’ll be amazed by how hospitable the people are … and there are smooth roads and great climbs all over the island. Covering large daily distances also helped me to put some big base kays in my legs for the season to come.
Thanks to Alee for being a great travelling partner and for putting together our four-part video blog series. Thanks to Giant Bicycles Australia for providing us with the Giant Talon mountain bikes, and thanks to The Chillhouse for accommodating our weary bodies and ensuring that our Bali experience was the best it could be!
I’m really looking forward to what the next off-season holds.