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THE STORY BEHIND
 THE STORY

Bike Friendships and
exploring Singapore

It's my first week in Singapore, and I have to excuse myself from dinner with my new co-workers.  They heard I was a bike nut, but surprised I have friends to ride with already.  I explain that we have only met through e-mail.  I don't mention that the whole thing actually depends on an anonymous message sent to my cell phone.

So here I am in the dark 9,000 miles from home waiting someone who I know only as "Sting" who is supposed to lead me to the start of the ride through traffic that moves on the left side of the street.  I scan for someone who looks like a serious roadie. 

It must be the guy on the titanium Litespeed in the yellow ONCE jersey.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Sting has braces on his teeth, the result of a crash, so he looks young enough to be a college student even though he's not.  Like Japanese yakuza with severed fingers evincing past mistakes, I also have bike-related scars on my leg and chin, establishing my membership in the same club. Sting leads me out to wherever it is we're going.

"That was the biggest hill in Singapore," he says with a grin after a twisty 200 foot descent on a narrow road.  He doesn't tell me that climbing this little hill is where he was hurt last fall.

By the end of the night, Sting and his friends have taken me to the western edge of the island, pointing out what there is to point out as we pass factories, the local brewery, and one of the two crossings to Malaysia.  In a country where the fine for spitting is $1,000, I am following these guys through red lights and onto the freeway. 

After the ride, we find a neighborhood restaurant with bright fluorescent lights.  The plastic chairs and folding tables spill out onto the sidewalk, so it's no problem that we're sweaty and smelly from riding in the heat.  There's even room for our bikes against the extra tables.

Tomorrow is a holiday, so nobody has work.  We can stay out a bit late and drink tea and eat food I haven't learned to identify yet while talking about bike stuff.

NO EXCUSES  

Singaporeans work at least as many hours as Californians and have families and all the same excuses that ought to make these rides impossible, especially when there's work the next day.  But there are around a dozen of us, sometimes more, out on these rides, week after week, and most hang out for tea, too.

Back at work, my co-workers want to know if we got rained on.  They think it rains all the time in the winter in Singapore, so much so that you can't possibly ride a bike.  I guess they need their excuses.

They can't believe how far we rode--on a small island, even a couple of miles seems far.

Cyclists know that it only rains in the afternoon--every day, but only in the afternoon.  My outlook on monsoon season changed completely once I got the cyclists' perspective.

INTO MALAYSIA

Singapore is the size of San Francisco Bay south of San Francisco and home to 4,000,000 people.  If you want a long ride without traffic lights, you have to go to Malaysia.

You really don't want to be by yourself with an international border separating you from home if there's a problem, so there are organized rides, attracting anyone in Singapore whose training plans or idea of fun involves five-hour Saturday bike rides.  The rides are meant for the Singaporean National Team riders, but they are slow endurance rides that mortals can enjoy.

My first ride to Malaysia starts at a Shell station at 6:15 Saturday morning while it is still dark.  There are nine of us, including Samuel, a national team rider, and one guy who got his road bike four months ago.  Our ages range from twentysomething to at least double that.

Once we're finally across the causeway, and through immigration and city traffic, Samuel falls back and darts ahead, on patrol so nobody falls off the back of the group.  After I run something over and the spare innertube I had with me fails, he gives me a spare.  He snaps digital photos of us along the way and e-mails us later to share them.

REST STOP

After hours without a traffic light among rolling hills of rubber plantations, we stop at a store and a cafe at a rural intersection.  

Samuel eats a full lunch while the rest of us are content with water, Cokes, and snacks.  We joke that Samuel's key to success must be from converting food to energy quickly.

A man from the cafe is intrigued by our bikes and picks one up.

"Very light," he says, lifting it up and down.  "Can I take it for a test ride?" he asks.

"Cannot, cannot, lah!" the owner responds, rising to his feet.  ("Lah" is how Singaporeans pronounce exclamation points.)

"What does it weigh?"

I can only hear one side of the conversation, but the bike is safely on the ground.

"What does it cost?"  A vaguely threatening question.

"That's enough to buy a car!"  Locally-made Protons are quite affordable here.  Everybody laughs.

I think he admires us for spending a car's worth of money on bikes just so we can ride them to his little cafe on Saturdays, a 75 mile round trip.  We must be OK, less uptight than the rest of Singapore.

Malaysian politicians tease Singapore's leaders in the same way. 

CELEBRITY TREATMENT

It's great to ride a bike in Malaysia.  Little kids and truck drivers wave to us, and their faces light up when we wave back. Once, an observant truck driver chased down a member of our group who missed the rest stop.  Malaysia is the only place in the world where I assume someone honking at me is saying hi.

Waving and smiling seems like the way human beings should respond to fast, colorful bike riders riding through a small town and enjoying the morning.  I pity the kids in California who have been taught not to greet strangers, and the California drivers who find nothing to enjoy about group bike rides that cross their path.

TIME FLIES QUICKLY

When it's time to leave Singapore, I've spent so many weekends on my bike that I still haven't been to the famous zoo or many museums, or many of the fancy restaurants that other people visited on business trips.  The landmarks I know are places where neither tourists nor natives visit.  That's why I rode there: no traffic.

After four months, I've ridden with Sting more than any of my friends in California.  He and his friends who I met that first week have been my only friends outside of work and my hosts, and I know I'll miss our Thursday rides even more than fresh mango.

Next time I visit Singapore, I won't have to ride with strangers.  But riding with strangers wasn't so bad 

Webmaster’s note : This article was originally published in Cycle California Magazine, www.cyclecalifornia.com, August 2003, Volume 9, #6. All rights reserved.

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