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Day Three: Fraser’s Hill to Kuala Lumpur
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.