Riding in Manila

There’s no doubt that one of the reasons we ride is for the adventure. Cycling takes you to new places and we remember them from what we’ve seen and what we endured to get there.

Arriving in Manila around a month ago, my days have turned on (re)learning to speak Tagalog, settling the kids to a new school, training our new puppy, and finding my way around. It’ll take time to get to know this country I was born in and left as an infant.

Yet I’m sure that my exposure to the Philippines would be stunted without having ventured out on two wheels. My urge to get out and ride has been stronger than the apparent obstacles: roads jammed with cars, smoke-belching jeepneys and motorbikes weaving between them. That, and the tropical wet season, which on some days has brought down enough rain to flood schools and shops in many districts.

I’ve been rolling out at 4:30am, tracing a mental image of routes on Google maps. Another cyclist warned me before I arrived that Manila was a 24-hour city. This meant that the sterile lines of online maps were in fact arteries full of people and vehicles on the move, around-the-clock.

Few cities I’ve ridden in can compare. I’ve heard that some rides on the busiest Sydney roads start at 4:30am. Even Jakarta was relatively peaceful at that time of day, just before morning prayers. Manila’s bustle beats both.

At that time, along the main roads, there’d be people hopping in and out of buses and jeepneys that often stop suddenly, anywhere they can. There are fast food chains on almost every corner and inside, at their neon-lit tables are handfuls of people tucking into their rice, burgers, or fried chicken as if it’s lunchtime. Massing outside of office towers bearing names like Convergys, Telus, and 24/7 Customer Philippines are young people starting or ending their call centre shifts.

Still, there’s enough space on the roads where I live to pick up speed on a bike. From a standing start, getting ahead of the jeepneys has worked like a sprinting drill. And I’ve rediscovered the thrill of drafting behind a motor scooter.

One early discovery was a cycling loop beside the Mall of Asia, or MOA, which was at one time among the world’s ten biggest malls. The loop is closed to cars from 5am to 8am and cyclists ride a 3km strip along Manila Bay. It’s as close as a cyclist gets to swimming laps and it’s far from scenic, but for exercise, it hits the spot.

The place is crammed with Strava segments, such as “Very sprint. So speed. Wow!” or more plainly, “MOA bike lap.” At times when I’ve pedalled a steady 36km/h I’ve found behind me a mix of riders on mountain bikes, triathletes and occassionally a rider joining along for a one-minute burst.

On busier days MOA is a place for some to parade their wealth. Just like Manila’s streets, where Ferraris and Porshes compete with Toyotas for space, some riders roll out on their $15,000 Italian Pinarello’s and top spec S-Works. The tagalog phrase is Nag papasikat, to show-off. At least they’re getting out.

By far the best ride I’ve done is up in the hills with a couple of expats and a Filipino rider. That time, we drove out of Manila at 4:30am and rode a 100km loop that went out and back and climbed 1,800 metres in the Sierra Madre ranges.

That road links the mountains northeast of Manila to the east coast of the main island. But thanks to a broken bridge that hasn’t been repaired for months the road was quiet except for the occassional swarm of weekend motor scooter enthusiasts.

To ride through mist and see hills thick with tropical forest gave respite from city traffic. There I could hear the sounds of provincial life – crowing roosters, kids playing by quiet roads and the putter of farm machinery. What I couldn’t escape was the relentless refrain of roadside stalls playing easy listening rock music and Air Supply, the soundtrack of the Philippines for as long as I can remember.

When I mention to others that I ride in Manila, most say I’m crazy. One Aussie who has tried road riding in the city said that he’d rather ride something scenic and so doesn’t ride at all. Another keen cyclist was hit by a taxi driver who just fell asleep at the wheel.

But Manila is like a city state apart from the rest of the country. A cyclist can find places to go. Indeed, my privileged part of Manila has more in common with Singapore than the rest of the city where most Manilenos live. Over there is the Manila in the headlines, where in places violence has erupted to terrible levels. For people there, it’s not about adventure, but survival.

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