Words: Alan Grant | Photography: Christopher Chen | Date:
Hills and mountains were put on this earth to be climbed. So when an adventure beckons that involves the classic climbs of an iconic bike race, it’s pretty hard to resist the call. Throw in some intriguing colonial history, a dash of mystery and you have the perfect ingredients for a ride with the Rapha Continental.
The venue for our three-day ride was the highlands of Malaysia, an expanse of lush green peaks and valleys that, around this time of year, plays host to Le Tour de Langkawi (LTDL), a UCI 2.HC event ranked just below a WorldTour race. This year’s race of LTDL, the 18th edition, ran from 21st February to 2nd March. LTDL is most famous for Genting Highlands, a brute of a mountain and one of three long climbs that have featured prominently in the race since its inception in 1996. The other two climbs, Fraser’s Hill and the Cameron Highlands, are where the history and mystery enter our story.
Modern Malaysia was once a British colony. The poor old Brits didn’t take to the tropical climate too well, so in order to escape the oppressive heat and humidity of life in the lowlands, they built hill stations where cooler temperatures provided the perfect retreat. Fraser’s Hill was one such stations and takes its name from Louis James Fraser, a pioneering British prospector. Having discovered valuable seams of tin ore in the surrounding hills in the 1890s, it was around 1910 that Fraser mysteriously disappeared from the mining operation he helped establish. The colonial authorities sent an expedition to look for Fraser but though it proved a fruitless search there was an upside; the ridge above Fraser’s camp proved the ideal location for a temperate home away from home. Little did they know that the roads they would build to reach it would be revered among cyclists in years to come.
The Cameron Highlands has its own curious tale of an unexplained disappearance. It was one evening in 1967 that Jim Thompson, a former CIA spy who also played a key role in revitalizing the Thai silk industry, left his cottage in the Cameron Highlands to go for a walk. He was never seen again. Speculation as to the fate of both men continues to this day but no bodies were ever found.
The Tour de Langkawi is, if not quite a mystery, then at least something of an enigma. Named after an island off Malaysia’s west coast, the race hasn’t visited its namesake much in recent years. How it attracts a half-dozen or so WorldTour teams each year is some trick: the tropical conditions are hardly the best preparation for the races that follow; the wet, cold and windy Classics of northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands. But come they do, along with a bunch of lower-tier teams from the Pro-Continental and Continental ranks. The race, essentially the Tour of Malaysia, usually consists of 10-plus stages and is predominantly a sprinters affair. Except, of course, for its one or two days of climbing.
It’s these mountain roads that have drawn the Rapha Continental and this year’s LTDL visited both the Cameron and Genting Highlands. The plan was to tackle them both, with a transition day to Fraser’s Hill in between. If completed it would mean, over the three days, riding a little under 600km, with 8,500m of elevation.
Day One: Cameron Highlands (twice), 262km, 3,993m ascent
The Cameron Highlands are home to eight tree-covered mountains, topping out at an average altitude of 1,600m. It’s understandable why the British made the area the jewel in their crown of hill stations. Today, it’s home to a thriving agricultural industry, as well as the thousands of tourists who flock here to chill out in the clouds. Our own base would be the Cameron Highlands Resort, a gloriously renovated old-colonial hotel in the town of Brinchang. Of the four main roads into the Cameron Highlands, our plan was to tackle three of them. As we drove in, the rain came down in a torrent; in places, the road seemed to become a river and if similar conditions prevailed on our ride the next day, things would prove interesting.
Day One’s itinerary was ambitious. First, a downhill swoop of some 75km toward the city of Ipoh, before turning around and coming straight back up. The afternoon involved a mere 55km descent along the road that, a few hours previously, had been a river, before repeating the route in the opposite direction. A total distance of 260km and 4,000m of climbing, the local cycling community informed us it had never been done before; the perfect challenge, then, for the Rapha Continental.
That the ride started in the rain was perhaps to be expected but it was unwelcome nonetheless. Mercifully, it wasn’t as heavy as the day before, but extra concentration would be required. Ipoh is a major city, the capital of Perak state, and so the road toward it is fairly wide, with two lanes in many parts. Going from 1,600m to sea level in 75km would obviously mean gradients that were not too steep and we had to pedal constantly to maintain speed and enjoy the road to its fullest. While the tarmac was mostly smooth, this ‘descent’ happened to feature 600m of climbing, just to keep us on our toes. However, the views were stunning, the straights long and the corners wide. There was also plenty of time to take in the endless range of wooded peaks and deep gorges.
Fortunately, the morning rain turned out not to be as big a problem as feared. The thought of riding on wet roads is always worse than actually riding on wet roads and, with the temperatures rising as the day deepened and the road flattened, the clouds kept the sun away.
The climb back up to Brinchang brought pleasure and pain. The guys at the front looked to be enjoying themselves as they tapped out a decent tempo but there’s no way a group of ten can ride up a mountain at the same speed, so pairs and soloists were soon spread out, all content to find a rhythm that would get them through the 75km climb.
As the riders arrived in dribs and drabs, the clouds darkened again and the rain returned. Those at the rear were unlucky enough to get the worst of it but a suitable reward awaited at the top – a hot lunch at a roadside joint to replenish the reserves. Plates of simple but delicious mee goreng and nasi goreng (fried noodles and rice respectively) were demolished, washed down with piping hot cups of local coffee and tea. Fresh strawberry milkshakes, using the fruits of the surrounding market gardens, served as the perfect protein recovery drinks.
We were refreshed but the rain hadn’t relented. If anything, it was heavier and it was chilly up there. And while 14C might not seem cold to those living in temperate climates, for those more accustomed to the tropical lowlands, such temperatures can chill to the bone, especially after a long, sweaty climb. For some this meant donning rain jackets and gilets, for others it meant gritting their teeth for the 55km down towards sea level.
Small towns thick with tourist traffic made the first few clicks tricky, along slopes both steep and slippery. With this stretch passed, Mother Nature then produced another winning hand. Gone were the wide, open vistas of the morning’s fun, replaced instead by the challenge of a road that twisted and turned through dense forests, dark in some places, such was the thickness of the vegetation. Intermittently, waterfalls emerged from rock faces. Some dumped their torrents harmlessly back into the jungle but others pushed a reddish-brown residue on to the road that was hard to negotiate. The evidence of very recent mudslides also provided food for thought.
When the road eventually flattened out, it was time to head back up. By now, just three of the original ten riders were still on the road. Some had turned round part-way through the descent, doubtful they could complete the ride in daylight. It gets dark around 7pm in the Cameron Highlands, even on a clear day, and this day was anything but – the average mountain road through the Malaysian jungle tends not to feature street lighting. Even for the three of us who’d gone all the way down, it was touch and go whether we’d make it back before dark.
The LTDL pros had tackled this climb on 23rd February. While we didn’t go anywhere near as fast, we didn’t hang about either. That meant the enjoyment of the morning climb was now replaced by recurrent bouts of suffering, although the slower speeds meant the potholes weren’t so perilous on the way up. Our trio rolled into the hotel just after 7pm, welcomed by the rest of the crew whom, to a man (and woman) looked tired and disheveled. And yet there was also a sense of quiet satisfaction after such an epic day in the saddle.
Day Two: Cameron Highlands to Fraser’s Hill, 193km, 2,328m
Day Two was scheduled as an ‘easy’ day – just 190km of riding to Fraser’s Hill. The rain of the previous day was gone. With close to half the journey downhill, a fun morning in the sun lay ahead.
The road out of the Cameron Highlands travelled east before heading directly south on the ‘farmer’s highway’. Built to allow easy transportation of the area’s agricultural wares, the road was wide and well paved and the gradients weren’t steep; it was fast, with hardly any need for brakes. Curiously, there were few other vehicles, as if the road had been closed for us. The reality was that the Saturday chosen for this leg of the adventure was a public holiday, so instead of sharing the road with a fleet of trucks, the group journeyed through the valleys untroubled.
Down, down the road went, for some 80km before it levelled out. Gone were the lush green forests, replaced by mile after mile of plantations. It was preferable to be riding on roads flanked by palm-oil trees rather than industrial or residential thoroughfares. And yet the plantations that are ubiquitous across large swathes of Malaysia have also stripped away some of its natural beauty. Tigers used to prowl these parts and it would have added an edge to think of such magnificent beasts hiding in the vegetation. Along with countless other species in Malaysia, they were eradicated when their natural habitat was cleared in the name of progress.
Fortunately, some local sights were more robust, not least the climb of Fraser’s Hill. Two options for the first stage of the ascent are available and we chose the quieter road, from the town of Raub to the Gap, a small settlement on a flattish road that provides a stepping stone to the top. When the pros tackled Fraser’s Hill in the 2008 LTDL, they followed the southern route, an hors categorie climb whose status owes more to its 25km length than its difficulty (the average gradient is 2.6%). Day Three’s descent would follow that road but the ascent up the other side, would offer a slightly tougher average of 3.2%. Steep and long enough for it to present a challenge, it was easy enough for a tempo climb at a good clip. The occasional passing car kept us on our toes but didn’t spoil the joy of this long climb, which thankfully was mostly shaded by the jungle canopy. When the sun did come through, it did so with a vengeance, hitting the lower slopes at temperatures approaching 40C.
Unfortunately for the LTDL pros, their last visit to Fraser’s ended at the Gap, whereas our destination was the hill station itself, a further 8km up another long and winding road. This section is much steeper, 4.9% according to the data, but the road flattens for 500m near the top, thus eating into the average. The first 6km are a true test of climbing and the first of our riders attacked it with gusto; as the road is one-way, the hairpins could be tackled with no concerns as to what might be coming around the corner. The reward for finishing the climb was a slightly surreal one. Arriving at the quaint Clock Tower, the focal point of the town of Fraser’s Hill, we found some local Rapha fans awaiting our group.
The view from our accommodation, the famously rustic Smokehouse, was stunning as the group enjoyed a traditional high tea of scones, cream and jam, a tasty relic of the colonial era. At an altitude of 1,235m, it was high enough for the occasional peak to be hidden from view by banks of fluffy clouds. And yet the views prompted a macabre thought; somewhere in these forests lay the remains of Louis James Fraser. What might he think of a bunch of cyclists climbing all the way up to his mining camp. Not in pursuit of precious minerals but simply for the adventure itself.
Day 3: Fraser’s Hill to Kuala Lumpur (via Genting Highlands), 144km, 2,204m
There was a moody feel around the breakfast table on Day Three. Ahead lay the fearsome climb of Genting Highlands. While some of the group had tackled the beast before, most were virgins, scared by veterans’ tales of doom and praying the inadequate gearing they’d brought wouldn’t result in them having to walk. The gearing range was wide. One rider had a compact crankset up front and a 28-11 cassette on the back; at the other end of the spectrum, one tough nut’s combo was a standard crank with 23-11.
As with the first two mornings, Day Three began with a long descent. There’s something to be said for living at the top of a big mountain as there can be no better wake-up call than pointing a front wheel downward and letting fly for an hour or more. The first 8km to the Gap was on a road that had seen better days, so the stretch was negotiated as a group (no point in taking too many risks with the main event still ahead of us).
The next section, to the town of Kuala Kubu Bahru (KKB), was something different altogether. Another dry, sunny morning, a super-smooth road surface and shallow gradients made for a high-speed adrenalin rush. Once again, brakes were barely necessary as the curves were just right to allow gravity to do most of the work. In contrast to our deserted descent of the Camerons this road was busy, although not with cars. Hundreds of cyclists rode towards us, mostly on mountain bikes, and each one seemed to have a smile and a wave.
Some 20km down the hill the trees gave way to a huge lake sitting proudly centre stage, the mountains around it. The road followed the edge of the lake, dipping down again for another 6km before reaching KKB. A feature of these Malaysian highland climbs is that, unlike the Alps or Pyrenees, the starting elevation tends to be close to sea level. So, while none of the ascents tackled on this trip were over 2,000m, we invariably climbed their full elevation.
Then, on the road out of KKB, Genting appeared. It looked magnificent but not very inviting, a dark roll of cloud shrouding the summit. Following a stop a few kilometres from the bottom to refuel, it was onto the beast. There are several approaches to Genting, none of them easy. We had, of course, chosen the toughest. As we hit the lower slopes on the northern approach from the town of Raub the road went from flat to 8%-plus and more or less stayed there for the next 13km. It was certainly tough physically and mentally tough, too. Unlike a twisting road that presents a series of small targets to chip away at, Genting’s long, long straight gives the impression of an endless ascent.
Genting’s principal claim to fame is a full-fledged casino and resort. Close to Kuala Lumpur and the only legal casino in Malaysia, its popularity is responsible for the three-lane highways that run up the mountain, delivering the gamblers in comfort. If the heavy traffic is disconcerting, at least the surfaces are well maintained.
The climb of Genting has two stages, the different routes converging 8.8km from the top at a big roundabout. Here the road flattens out a bit but the sense of security is false. It’s the calm before the storm, before the final tortuous section.
There was no respite, just a relentless grind upward into the clouds. Then things got harder still. The last 3km were a winding wall of pain, never dropping below 12%, with some ramps above 20. The roadside distance markers, sadistically counting down in agonizing 100m increments, disappear and yet the road still rises. When it begins to narrow, the cars, trucks and motorbikes that have been ever-present companions create a traffic jam. Not what a cyclist wants at the end of an epic climb.
A group can’t climb a brutal mountain such as Genting together. As the crew duly staggered up the final slope one by one, the cheers got louder as the coffee-shop crowd got larger. As with the summit of the Camerons, it was cold up there amid the clouds at 1,635m, bodies drenched in sweat from the 22km of constant climbing.
The pros had gone significantly faster up Genting when the LTDL recently tackled it on 25th February but they too had suffered. Just finishing this climb makes you a hero. The whole Rapha group got to the top, overgeared and all, and no doubt felt a huge sense of satisfaction. Which is just as well as there is no visual reward for conquering Genting. While it should be a must on any serious climber’s list, the resort at the summit is ugly, grotesque even, an eyesore on what must have once have been a place of stunning beauty.
The pinnacle of our adventure had been reached but the ride wasn’t over yet. The final destination was the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and the only way there was down again. The first 10km of the descent was extremely steep and with roads damp from the clouds and three lanes of vehicles alongside us, it was a hair-raising experience.
After 10km down, the road went up again, quite sharply in fact, a welcome break to get the blood in the legs as there wasn’t much need for pedalling on that first section. An option to depart from the busy, main road to Kuala Lumpur soon presented itself, in the shape of the Genting Sempah route. And what a beauty it is. Reminiscent of the route down Fraser’s, the road twisted gently down the mountain for some 20km, providing for a fast descent with the riders carving safely into the wide corners. Knowing there was plenty of time to react if something came the other way, such was the solitude of this ‘secret’ path down from the gaudy attractions at Genting’s summit, it was the perfect way to finish a magical trip. As we approached Kuala Lumpur we saw giants of another kind rising into the sky, the iconic peaks of the Petronas Towers.