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The carabao is deeply unimpressed. It approaches us at frightening speed. This is relative speed though. The carabao in relation to the dusty ground is trotting along at its usual pace. But we are zipping on our mountain bikes around the bend and with an elegant swerve pass the indifferent big animal.
The cheering from the crowd on the cart behind the beast tells us: We are the first bicycle tourists here. Again.
We pass our admirers, the ground becomes firmer, goes downhill now, we click into higher gears, fingers on the break levers (ready for the next carabao around the corner) and with perfect speed we ride along the river bend.
Water so clean it invites us to jump in at once, but the ride got us hypnotized. No-one wants to stop or be anywhere else on the planted than right here. In our cycling paradise. And we are not on some remote island. We are just outside Metro Manila in Bulacan.
Manila’s compatibility with cycling is under doubt, to put it mildly. Manila itself, that is true, seems to do everything to make life for cyclists hard and sometimes short. But it has left us some niches and escape corridors. If you know them then nothing stands in the way between your bike and some of the greatest cycling trips of your life.
Throughout the past 3 years I have seen more and more expatriates taken up cycling again.
The lights of Subic Bay. At last.
But rejoice not too early my fellow riders for it is another twenty kilometres to our infinitely comfortable beds at cosy Baloy Beach. Twenty, they say, another twenty after the 90 we have done already, up steep mountains, along the route of the infamous Death March of Bataan and through frightening forests!
My esteemed cycling cohort, I hear your concern, but have we not enjoyed magnificent views from those mountain tops and ridges? Their heights must be scaled first and in pursuit of this quest have we not taken pleasure in the Zenic serenity of our long stretches in first gear?
The bicycle, the bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets.
That’s how Christopher Morley (a well known American poet) put it, but my cycling buddies could not care less for my poor attempts at combining the two arts.
They are not listening; in fact they are not even there any more. One had taken flight in a Jeepney some 15 kilometres ago; the other two disappeared in a private car shortly thereafter. I feel guilty. Maybe I should not have lead them to a detour up Mount Samat (very steep, one extra hour of intense pedalling).
This tour clearly had its ups and downs, literally and figuratively. But it also showed again that the Philippines is a country of many options. Even in remoter areas you always find a solution (like the ubiquitous Jeepney) should bike or rider not make it.
I meet my bike buddies again at our hotel at Baloy beach. I prepare myself for some critique but there is none of that. They are happy. And with reason so.
Who would have thought that you can ride from Manila all the way to Subic along super scenic roads, smoothly paved, yet almost free of cars?
There is a trick of course and it’s the ferry from Manila to Port of Lamao in Bataan. It simply bypasses all the things you don’t want to see.
The ferry returns in the evening, so day trips along the coast in Bataan are another option.
The Manila cyclist has choices so aplenty it would fill a book to describe them all. Here are only two of my favorites.
1. Corregidor Island.
Pros: Scenery, serenity, safety, seclusion and scary ghost towns. It’s five stars for all of the above. Virtually no car traffic. Nice boat ride (open upper deck). Very few places on the planet beat Corregidor as a cycling destination.
Cons: It’s not big. Even if you try all roads you can hardly ride more than 30 kilometres. The boat returns far too early. It will cost you P1300 (lunch included).
Vehicle: Good for road bikes, better for MTBs.
Ironically this prime cycling destination was de facto unreachable to Manila cyclists until recently. Sun Cruises, until recently the only tour operator there, stubbornly refuses to carry bicycles on the boat. Fortunately there is now also Prestige Cruises, who are bike-friendly. There are trips on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
How to get there:
• Choose a Friday, Saturday or Sunday (Sunday is best)
• Book your seats with Prestige Cruise. Contact Bong from Prestige on 0927 5555502 or 02 8328967, tell him you are bringing your bikes.
• Ride to the Cruise Terminal at the CCP Complex on Roxas Boulevard. If you come from around Makati or Ortigas Centre, take Buendia Avenue. It is a good run, especially on Sunday mornings.
• 7am check in at the terminal, pay P1299 per person (it includes lunch)
• At Corregidor, being a tourist off the guide’s leach, they make you sign a paper where you commit (smile) not to damage the place. After thousands of bombs dropped by foreigners they obviously have become cautious.
• You are back in Manila by 16:30.
2. Bataan to Subic Bay
Pros: Great scenery, long ride (80km to 110km), steep sections, no traffic.
Cons: You may arrive after nightfall. The ferry to the port of Lamao has no open deck (only a closed air-conditioned, TV-infested cabin.)
Vehicle: Good for MTBs, perfect for road bikes with low gears.
This one is for real riding. After a ferry trip of an hour and a half (use it to sleep and have breakfast) there is nothing to slow you down all the way to Subic but your own weakness.
It’s smooth pavement almost all the way, but strangely there is almost no traffic at all.
Also for this ride you need no car or bus if you live in Manila. Start pedalling from your doorstep.
How to get there:
• Book a trip to Lamao (Prestige Cruise, contact Bong on 0927 5555502).
• Book a room. At Baloy beach rooms start at P1000, check out Harley’s (047 2246922), Mangroves (047 2227909) or Shaevens (047 2239430).
• Buy the Central Luzon Map from Accu map (e.g. at Power Books) and check the route.
• Ride to the Cruise Terminal at the CCP, pay and board the ferry.
• Have breakfast (bring your own) on the ferry or sleep, you won’t see much inside the closed cabin.
• From the pier go right on the Roman Expressway. After Caput go left. At a small T-Junction after a few kilometres go right (not on the map) then left on the Linao Highway. If necessary ask for the way to Mount Samat and check your map.
• At the turn-off to Mt. Samat to the left (there is a sign) you have the choice of going up the mountain and back or to continue straight. The trip up and down will add some steep 10 km and one hour to your trip.
• Follow the Linao Highway, check your map and if you have, bring a compass. It’s not difficult, but not all the turns are no the map.
More rides to consider:
Marikina river banks. You can ride there from Makati or Ortigas. Marikina is in fact building a whole network of bike tracks.
The Maarat trail just behind the newly-built Timberland development near San Mateo in Rizal. This trail is a classic among local cyclists and features quiet mountain roads, steep inclines with only the occasional great view on Manila to remind you that you are not hundreds of miles away.