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Words by Matt de Neef | Photos by Tim Bardsley-Smith
PROLOGUE: THE LIMIT
Trees and road signs shift in and out of focus as I blink. My vision is blurry, a symptom of the strain my body’s been under for the past hour. Or perhaps because of the cocktail of sweat and sunscreen that’s currently stinging my eyes. I can’t be sure.
I’m breathing hard, trying desperately to pull more air into my lungs. Around me, the thick jungle remains breathlessly silent. The cheering children and barking dogs are long gone, so too the hustle and bustle of the village market at the base of the climb.
It’s just me against the mountain, and I’m losing the battle.
It’s barely 8am but already the heat and humidity are taking their toll. My jersey, fully unzipped, flaps gently behind me in the breeze. I’m veering from side to side across the narrow road, straining to reduce the gradient as much as possible. I make a mental note: avoid the moss and leaf litter that’s busy trying to reclaim the roadway — maintaining rear-wheel traction is hard enough as it is.
Left to right. Right to left. Onward and upward — the road and my heartrate.
Moments earlier I’d passed my CyclingTips colleague Andy in possibly the slowest overtaking manoeuvre in cycling history. For kilometres I’d seen him bobbing and weaving ahead of me, tantalisingly out of reach, he too battling the extreme gradient.
It was only when he put his foot down, his head slumped over the bars, that I was able to grind past at walking pace, some competitive urge allowing me to tap into reserves I didn’t know I had. Passing a rider of his strength was motivation enough to force myself on, mere moments from an enforced rest of my own.
Somewhere further down the hill, our colleagues Jonathan and Leigh are engaged in their own private battle, each willing body, mind and machine up this brute of an ascent. It’s not what you’d call fun, but no one is forcing us to be here.
On the contrary — we’re climbing Bali’s Mount Agung voluntarily, and against the recommendation of locals who knew better.
CHAPTER 1: MOUNT AGUNG
With a summit more than 3,000 metres above sea level, Mount Agung — “Great Mountain” in Bahasa Indonesian — is an active volcano and the highest peak on the Indonesian island province of Bali. We’d come to the island in search of adventure and challenge, to go beyond the Bali of surf documentaries and alcohol-fueled beach parties.
In Mount Agung we found the perfect destination.
The road up Mount Agung might only reach halfway to the summit, but it does so in imposing fashion. From the bustling town of Selat to the striking Pasar Agung Temple at road’s end there’s more than 1,000m of elevation gain, all in the space of 8.5km.
The average gradient of 12% conceals the true nature of the ascent — a challenging opening followed by a sequence of steep ramps that sap both strength and morale, separated by all-too-short sections of respite.
For cyclists from the Australian state of Victoria, the infamously steep ascent of Mount Baw Baw is a suitable comparison. But Mount Agung is harder, and considerably so.
CHAPTER 2: THE UPPER REACHES
My Garmin tells me we’ve climbed 6km, leaving less than three to the top. But at this pace that’s still half an hour of riding, assuming a break isn’t required. I will myself towards the next corner where, surely, the gradient must dip below 20%. It does, but at 15% there’s little respite to be had.
A moss-covered “steep road” sign stands by the side of the road, mocking in its statement of the blindingly obvious. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. But with all energy focused on forward propulsion, a wheezed whimper is all that comes out.
Eventually, mercifully, I round one final corner and road turns to carpark. A feeling of near-unprecedented relief washes over me as I peel myself from the bike and lie on the flat, wet bitumen. I can hear my pulse; the sound of blood thumping in my temples.
A local cycling guide comes over with an outstretched hand, a beaming smile and words of congratulations. There are shouts of confusion and surprise from a group of local Balinese gathered at a nearby shop. Few cyclists have tackled Mount Agung by bike.
Indeed, as we would find out in the days that followed, few cyclists tackle Bali at all.
CHAPTER 3: A SPORT IN ITS INFANCY
Of Indonesia’s more than 13,000 islands it’s Bali that’s the archipelago nation’s most popular tourist destination. Its surf breaks are known the world over, not least at Kuta where the local nightlife has also proved a drawcard for many a visitor in recent decades.
As a cycling destination though, Bali remains largely untouched. Mountain biking is increasing in popularity, due in no small part to the two-year-old Bali Bike Park located in the island’s mountainous northern interior.
But road cycling is still in its infancy. Indeed, when we asked our local guide Mahesa whether there was much good road cycling nearby, his response told the story: “Of course, no.”
Small bunches do head out from the provincial capital of Denpasar and nearby Sanur, but for the most part road cyclists are few and far between. We counted on one hand the number of fellow road cyclists we saw in four days of riding.
But it’s no great surprise road cycling hasn’t yet established a foothold in Bali. In the island’s most populous areas, the roads simply aren’t welcoming to cyclists.
As Bali’s population has grown and its population centres have expanded, so the road network has struggled to keep up. Most roads on the island are narrow and in poor condition and there’s been seemingly little in the way of regular maintenance or improvement. Throw in an obscene volume of traffic chaos, and riding on the road is often far from appealing.
But venture beyond Denpasar and the other traffic-clogged areas of Bali and there’s a world of opportunities for the adventurous cyclist: quiet roads, stunning scenery, and the realisation that there’s much more to this tropical island than just the tourist destinations it’s famed for.
CHAPTER 4: AMONG THE RICEFIELDS
The town of Ubud is one of Bali’s most popular attractions, a bustling arts and crafts hub famous for its cultural attractions and surrounded by rice paddies. But venture north west from Ubud, towards the centre of the island, and you’ll discover a considerably quieter experience and one tailor-made for the adventure-hungry cyclist.
The rolling hills of central Bali aren’t just perfect for growing rice, they make for ideal cycling terrain. On our first full day on the island we roamed among the rice paddies, marvelling at the concrete and paving-stone double-track beneath our wheels and the impossibly green terraces around us. In those terraces, rural Balinese tended to everyday life, pausing only to offer the briefest of bemused looks at the four lycra-clad tourists whizzing past.
It was almost all downhill from the ricefields of Bali’s central highlands to our accommodation on the southern coast. We enjoyed the 20km descent with relish, exhilarated by the building traffic and the storm chasing us down the mountain.
CHAPTER 5: INTO THE CALDERA
Mount Batur is Bali’s most active volcano, with more than 20 documented eruptions in the past two centuries, the most recent being an ash emission in the year 2000. Local Balinese have taken advantage of an extended period of dormancy and more than a dozen villages now lie within the greater Batur caldera. Tourists wind their way into this caldera on a daily basis, visiting the lake and hot springs complex.
Our own explorations of Mount Batur saw us descend in from the southern rim, before following a mostly sealed road that circumnavigated the volcano’s imposing cone.
Through small villages we rode, passing mounds of black volcanic rock that shared the roadside with overgrown, half-built houses. Could these dwellings have been under construction during the 2000 eruption, prompting second thoughts from the would-be residents?
A rear-wheel puncture on a section of unsealed road — with no bike shop or spares in sight — would normally be cause for frustration on despair. But on this particular day, a flat tyre came as something of a boon.
As Leigh and Jonathan dashed up the road in search of support, I walked and Andy rode alongside as we passed through a tiny town of modest roadside dwellings. Local children darted about on BMX bikes, challenging Andy to impromptu races and marvelling at his “Superman” impression. Older villagers stopped and stared, others laughed at our misfortune.
With tyre repaired and the four of us reunited, we ventured off the beaten path, in the direction of Batur’s central cone. Fist-sized volcanic rocks had been tamped down by occasional truck traffic in this sort-of quarry, making it possible, thanks to 40mm tyres, to explore the Mordor-like lower slopes of the volcano.
It was quite unlike anything we’d ever ridden before, and certainly unlike anything we’d seen in Bali to that point.
CHAPTER 6: FIGHTING THE TRAFFIC
As in many parts of South-East Asia, the road traffic in Bali can be something of an eye-opener for the foreign visitor. And for the visiting cyclist, that traffic — largely comprised of scooters and trucks — can be a real deterrent to getting out and exploring Bali.
We knew the best riding could be found well outside of Denpasar and yet we found ourselves keen to experience the organised chaos of Balinese traffic first-hand.
Lane markings and red lights might be more voluntary than mandatory in Bali, and overtaking manoeuvres might be on the scary side of safe, but there is a certain beauty in the way the traffic moves.
Drivers patiently give way to those in front, even when those in front have cut in line, changed “lanes” without warning or otherwise acted in a way that would provoke a fiery response elsewhere.
Recognise how the system works, though, and riding in traffic, while still requiring great concentration, is closer to thrilling than terrifying.
On our final day in Bali we headed out early from our base in Canggu, trying to beat the heat as we headed to the western coast of the Bukit Peninsula, south of Denpasar. Our reward: tremendous cliff-top views of the Indian Ocean and the world-renowned surf breaks of Uluwatu.
Standing there, I was reminded of the last time I was looking out to sea — just a couple days earlier, on Bali’s eastern tip …
CHAPTER 7: THE INDONESIAN MEDITERRANEAN
I tilt my head to the left, surveying the scene before me in search of a distraction. My legs are burning as I climb out of the saddle, trying to tame another unreasonably steep ramp on this rollercoaster of a road. My arms are burning, too, scorched by the hot midday sun that beats down mercilessly from above.
Several hundred metres below me the azure waters of the Lombok Strait lap gently at a white sandy beach, small boats bobbing peacefully in the tide. It’s a scene so different to what we’ve experienced so far in our time in Bali and certainly a world away from the murky swell and dark sand of Bali’s more familiar southern shores.
We could be on a coastal road somewhere in the Mediterranean, were it not for the occasional villages of friendly native Balinese, and for the almost total absence of other road traffic.
On a short climb outside the scuba diving town of Amed, Jonathan surges ahead and I find myself trying to respond. But my legs are empty, drained by our rendezvous with Mount Agung earlier in the day; drained by the stifling heat and the relentless humidity.
Before landing in Bali we’d all agreed that riding in the midday sun would be folly. And yet here we are.
For the second time today we’ve all reached our limit, the temperature and the fatigue combining in a most unfriendly way. There is walking. There is huddling under what little shade we can find. And there’s a consensus: that’s enough for one day.
EPILOGUE: MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
It’s places like Uluwatu, Kuta and Ubud that help attract the millions of visitors that Bali welcomes every year. It’s undoubtedly an island ruled by tourism; an island known for its party destinations, its favourable exchange rate and, for Australians in particular, for its proximity. But there’s so much more to this particular Indonesian province.
In four days of riding we experienced a side of Bali that was often at odds with our expectations of the place. We avoided the major tourism areas almost entirely and went days without seeing fellow westerners. We all agreed that our experience was more meaningful as a result.
For riders searching for silky-smooth tarmac, well-maintained roads and a thriving cycling culture, Bali mightn’t be the place for you. But if you’ve got adventure on your mind and a gravel-grinder or cyclocross bike at your disposal, then you won’t be disappointed. The incredible diversity of terrain, the challenging climbs, the stunning scenery, the people, the culture, the food — it all makes Bali a memorable, if slightly surprising road cycling destination.
See how our five days in Bali unfolded with this behind-the-scenes ‘vlog’.
BALI RIDING TIPS
– If you’re heading to Bali for a cycling holiday, your best bet is to visit during the dry season — May to October. Bring a rain jacket though — you’ll almost certainly still get wet at some point.
– Do your riding early in the morning! Even in the cooler months the heat and humidity make riding particularly unpleasant from late morning onwards.
– Engage a driver to help get you out of the busier areas. It’s cheaper than you might think and can be organised online, or through the staff at your accommodation provider. Alternatively, if you’re touring or bikepacking, try to avoid the more built-up areas where possible.
– Take a map with you wherever you go. Roads turn from arterials to minor back roads and back again several times regardless of where you go on the island.
– If riding in traffic, give way to those in front, ride confidently, command your place on the road.
– Buy bottled water — tap water in Bali isn’t safe for drinking.
Roadtripping Bali would not have been possible without the generous support of a number of great cycling partners. Thanks to: Polygon and Entity, Shimano Australia and Pro, Oakley Australia, The Chillhouse, Bali Bike Park and GoPro.
Thanks too to our guide Iwan, driver Gede and handler Mahesa for their support and hospitality.
– Polygon: Bend RV Gravel Bike
– Shimano: XC7 MTB Shoes
– Pro: GoPro mounts, bottle cages, saddlebags & pumps
– Oakley: Prizm Road sunglasses
– Entity: Helmets
– GoPro: Session and Hero 4 cameras