Roadtripping Bali

In partnership with Polygon Bikes and Oakley Australia.

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Roadtripping Bali

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.

Amed ride gallery

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.

BEHIND THE SCENES OF ROADTRIPPING BALI

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 you place on the road.
– Buy bottled water — tap water in Bali isn’t safe for drinking.

With thanks to …

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.

Gear we used:

– 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

  • jules

    magnificent. sooo jealous.

    I can’t stress enough the truth of your comment on Balinese drivers. a lot of Aussies say “I’d never drive or cycle in Bali” but the truth is, they are patient with you and no one gets angry or tries to run you off the road. I cycled around Seminyak and while traffic was nuts, drivers were beautifully courteous.

    • Thanks Jules. As you say, there is definitely an order to the chaos of Balinese traffic. Once you can see how it all works, it actually feels pretty safe.

      • gregwalker

        yep more close calls riding from tullamarine airport home to mentone than a whole month in indonesia

        • Curious: which way did you ride out of the airport without going straight onto the Tulla Freeway?

          • marcus_moore

            Best way out of Tulla – but not direct! – is Melrose Dr, Airport Dr Ext, turn right into Link Rd, left into S Centre Rd, right onto Annandale Rd which turns into Arundel which takes you under the Calder onto Green Gully Rd – not direct to the city & NOT flat, but a nice ride.

        • Sam Morris

          Ummm, until you visit a local hospital and see the number of victims suffering from traffic accidents. Don’t let your rosy touring glasses give you a false sense of security: Bali has a road toll of around 15 deaths per 100,000. Australia’s is around 5.

    • Jaybo

      i rode a scooter around a couple of years back and found it to be one of the more delightful holiday experiences i’ve ever had. everyone is calm, patient, and realistically the traffic isn’t moving that fast anyway.
      i think the comment in the video is on point… it’s safer than doing beach road :(

  • Marcus

    Panas sekala mas – gila!!

    I’ve yet to venture out on the roads in Jakarta, which add a whole extra volume of traffic over Bali, but I have ridden around Singapore. The heat is initially unbearable, but I found myself acclimatising quicker than I thought I would. Still end up feeling incredibly drained after even a short ride, so I can’t imagine going up a climb like that, madness!

    • jules

      I’ve found the key to acclimatising in SE Asia is – surprise – drinking heaps of water. I never fail to neglect to do this at some point and end up lying in bed all day, exhausted.

  • Nick Squillari

    If you had to drop back down Agung I will admit, it would be one time the disk brakes (that you all had) would be pretty handy.

    • LeighSchill

      Nick, I still managed to cook the pads in the first 2kms of the descent. Had to unclip & drag my foot as the brakes were too hot

      • Nick Squillari

        Spinning rotors of death strike again! ;)

        #jks

        • LeighSchill

          Ha! No just because i am a crap descender, it was crazy steep & I am fat :)

      • @nicksquillari:disqus: Check out 10:57 in the behind-the-scenes vlog at the bottom of the piece. ;)

    • jules

      same with Baw Baw, especially on carbon rims. a couple of minutes stop at the resort turnoff half way down eases the nerves on what temps. your rims/pads/tubes and tyres are reaching

  • rebus faarm
  • Stu

    If you enjoy going to Bali and you like cycling, I have a friend who runs, you guessed it, cycling tours of Bali…check ’em out:
    http://upshift-tours.com.au/bali-tour/

  • TK

    Great article and videos, I especially liked the behind the scenes one, looks like a lot of fun. Will you be reviewing the Bend RV soon? It is currently on my shortlist.

    • Thanks TK, glad you enjoyed it! I believe there is a review in the works, yep, but in short: the bikes were impressive. Felt a little heavy on the Agung climb, but other than that the disc brakes + 40mm tyres meant we could ride just about anywhere on them! Also: for about $1,500: pretty impressive.

  • We had such an epic times hosting you guys! Thanks for the wonderful article on Bali Riding!

    Ride on

  • Podfunk

    Nice one Sir. I’ve lived here in Jakarta and Bali for many years and have toured all over the country (Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Sumba, Toba, Aceh, Sulawesi, Ambon). I’d recommend taking your bikes on a local flight. Very easy. Simply wrap bike in plastic at the airport courtesy of the suitcase wrap chaps and check your wheels in, no need for any boxing up or dismantling. Outside of Bali and Java the main roads are virtually deserted, My last tour was on the Trans-Sulawesi Highway from Palu to Lake Poso and back. Magnificent. It’s a well paved road, as most main roads are across the country, but highway it ain’t. About one car or motorcycle a minute seems to be the average between towns. Magnificent scenery. Love the photos by the way. If you’re in Bali I recommend a jaunt from Denpasar up to Padangabai, then ferry to Lombok, across Lombok, then ferry to Sumbawa, then all the way across Sumbawa and finish in Labuan Bajo. Terrific and about 800km – one week – ten days.

  • gmop

    Someday I’m going to figure out how to string all these Roadtripping videos together into a 2 hour show for upcoming winter (USA) trainer rides motivation…Excellent stuff!

  • Stuart Matheson

    I highly recommend balibikehire.com. A couple of years ago I hired a carbon road bike for a few days and booked one of their tours as my first ride to get acclimatised. I got a flat on the way from my hotel so the owner came and motorpaced me to the start of the ride where I met a very strong but merciful ride leader, and that was it! Just the two of us cruising around gorgeous rice paddies with moto support. The bike was very well looked after and nothing was any trouble. After that I was comfortable getting around by myself – I found that the biggest danger on the roads is getting lost!

  • Favorite bike-related thing I’ve seen in weeks. Well done lads.

  • stephen baines

    Hi, After reading this article I have decided to do some of the rides that you have put the Strava links to. However the Mount Agung one will have to wait for another time as im flying out to Bali on Sunday 1st October. Is there any way you could allow me access to the rides to export the GPX files? When I go into the Stava link if has “Flag” but not “create route” nect to the spanner icon. Great article and photos lads

  • Wayan Kertayasa

    Cycling in Bali

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