Words: Adam Taylor-Campbell | Date:
The Cameron Highlands has always conjured up stories from my childhood, told to me by my grandfather…stories of explorers delving deep into the dark rain forests in search of glory, the mysterious disappearances of interesting characters often having many conspiracies but often being added to the tiger’s tally. Images of dark and damp mornings, conifer trees engulfed in a thick fog waiting for the sun’s heat to lift the shroud, revealing hills of lush green and terracotta – the tea plantations, strawberry fields and the rich soil that feeds them. The windless baking mid-day heat, so hot that you sweat with every breath and the “out of no where” thunderous showers in the afternoon – nature’s way of cooling down the soaring temperatures.
Well, this years RGR in the Cameron Highlands lived up to my imagination – the night before, it had rained constantly causing some minor landslides, spreading mud, stones and debris across some of the higher mountain side roads. The fog was thick and low but the energy levels and chatter on the start line was high. The 19 teams coming from across the Asia Pacific region were excited and keen to get under way, they’d only just received the route cards and were still trying to comprehend what a 50km descent was going to be like, never mind the idea of 50km climb after 150km.
Story by Simon Shoebridge
The team is only 6km into the 200km race as we climb steadily away from our Cameron Highlands hotel accommodation, the fog still thick in the humid morning air. When riding through sparse, still sleepy mountain towns, you wake up pretty quickly trying to avoid the potholes and loose gravel of the poorly constructed road surface. “One of your teammates is down back there,” yells out a passing team. Great. Clearly he was not the only one struggling to navigate the wet surface, but a crash this early on? Turning back or abandoning is not an option. We quickly brush down our teammate, get his bike sorted and his spirits up and back on the roads we go, ever more cautious than before. Two teams have passed us in this time.
The air is still cool and roads are damp, it’s a very steady next few kilometres before we start to hit busier but more open, better surfaced roads. About 30km in and now our team is starting to find some rhythm, just as we are joined by a couple of other teams on the approach to the day’s longest decent – one of 50km through stunning rainforest and clearing blue skies. But what goes down must eventually come back up.
As the gradual and winding descent starts to level out, so the temperature starts to rise into the thirties (Celsius) and it’s not even 8am. Gilets from earlier in the day are now surplus to requirements, and bottles need refilling as we approach the first checkpoint, 80km in. Our team gains the two places back from the initial few kilometres and crash.
Breaking the ride down into three checkpoints was not only Rapha’s way of keeping track of all 19 teams, but it was a great way of mentally compartmentalizing the long day in the saddle, pacing your energy throughout the day. Hydration and nutrition were key elements to this survival, eating and drinking at regular intervals to avoid bonking. Alas, this well-known and unwelcome phenomena was to rear its ugly head eventually.
The middle section of the ride was demonstrative of a vital pillar that the Rapha Gentlemen’s Races are built on – teamwork. Forming a train and sharing turns on the front every few kilometres, we pass teams and joined teams in sharing the workload along Malaysia’s busy central highways. We ride through towns and traffic lights, working together to sustain speeds of 45km/h through the largely flat areas and small roadside townships on the long approach back to the foot of the Cameron Highlands.
After a slight detour due to missing the turn for the second checkpoint (it wouldn’t be a Gentlemen’s Race without getting lost), our team and a few other teams who had similar mishaps, find the way back through beautiful undulating rubber and palm oil plantations to reach the stop and raid the local cafés for food and drink as the midday sun beat down. Two thirds down, one final brutal third to go. With the legs having clocked up 140km already, the final 60km would blow most teams apart and take all riders to the brink of defeat.
Despite having already ridden a considerable distance, our spirits are high and talk of the previous 50km’s teamwork and drafting efforts are at the forefront of discussion. But things quickly turned serious as we rolled back out through the plantations towards the foot of the Cameron Highlands where a killer climb waited for us. As we approach, we recognize the start of the climb to be the same road we drove in on the previous morning – the same road that seemed to never end with sharp corners, steep pitches and traffic weaving up the road, and took forever to drive up let alone cycle up. The same road we commented on the day before, “I hope we don’t have to ride up this!”
With that said, and despite the extreme fatigue setting in, the climb was stunning. The huge canopy of trees seemed to never end, and provided welcome shade relief. Gradually winding up through the Malaysian rainforest, it took you back to a land before time. Dinosaurs would not have looked out of place amongst the thick vegetation. Maybe that scorpion I nearly rode over whilst weaving across the road is a distant relative to one (or it could have been the heat-induced hallucinations by this point). The team was now strung out, each rider fighting his own demons and climbing in the knowledge there was still a long way to go. Heart pounding, legs turning the pedals.
The final checkpoint is about 40km from the finish line at a huge waterfall. Small stores line the street selling all sorts of tourist merchandise, fruits, petrol, and fresh coconuts. Every team that passes through heads straight for the coconuts – the juice inside providing a much needed sugar boost for the final assault on the climb. Riders get back in the saddle and now partially rejuvenated, continued towards the finish line, spurred on by the dark clouds now starting to form overhead.
It is the final few kilometres that provide breathtaking views over the Cameron Highlands. Well known for its tea and strawberry plantations, these come in to full view now, shimmering in the fast fading light. As the clouds darken and rain threatens, a renewed sense of energy lifts riders up the steeper pitches and into the first townships of the Cameron Highlands community. As the finish line of our hotel approaches, a sense of relief and achievement overwhelms everyone, all finishers applauding each team and weary rider that comes in. As we sit on the steps, bleary-eyed and sore-legged, swapping war stories and sharing local beers, it doesn’t take long for talk of the next Rapha Asia Gent’s race to fill the conversation, and I can’t wait.