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Day One: Cameron Highlands
Day One: Cameron Highlands (twice), 262km, 3,993m ascent
Words by Alan Grant
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.