Discovering a new breed of Bike Racer: the Penang Pavement Surfer

The Pesta Penang (Penang Festival) is an annual event for the Malaysian state of Penang and they have a road race and a criterium as part of the the festivities. I was coming off my last base training block in December and was eager for some kind of test. Since the Pesta Penang was on Dec 28th and Dec 29th, it was just right. Eager for some kind of test of my form, I went up with Sandman on Dec 26 to KL, where we met the Quick Release folks and then drove up to Penang.

It was my first real trip to Penang. Although the AFA ride in 2001 started in Penang, we hardly had time to explore the island. This time, however, we really got to eat a lot of local stuff. It seems like everywhere you turn in Penang, there will be someone trying to sell you some food! Gurney Drive with their hawker stalls was quite famous - rightly so, although I was a bit circumspect about it on the first day. I was worried about getting digestive problems as had happened at the PCC ride. Plus it was raining heavily on the first day, so I didn't feel like eating too much - Geoffrey (the QR honcho) was shaking his head at my timorous approach to the hawker food and shaking his head even more when we popped into a shopping mall and I went straight to buy an Aunt Annie pretzel. Yep, that's me, slave of modern capitalist products.

Every year a large group of Singaporean cyclists would go up to Penang for the race. This year was no exception. After we checked in at the Bayu Emas apartment complex along Batu Ferringi road, we drove off to look for the registration. The registration centre was in a school, and I checked the name list to see that a lot of familiar Singaporeans were on the list! Paying our entrance fee of RM10 and collecting our numbers and T-shirt. We also got maps of the course and distance (officially, 96km for the road, and 10km for the crit). We then met a friend of the QR folks for some seafood dinner. It was great stuff with roasted fish in lime sauce, lots of "kangkung" (its a SE Asian veggie whose English name escapes me). Rumor has it that kangkung makes one weak in the legs - but I beg to differ - my dad's been eating it for decades and he can out walk most folks his age!!! So tucking into the kangkung was no problem for me.

It was an early night for me (the others went sight seeing in the pubs if you get what I mean) as I went straight back to the apartment after dinner and went through Eve-of-Race rituals of prepping bottles, gels and pinning numbers. Studied the map some more - not that it helped - we did not have time to drive the course. What we did determine was that the race would bring us straight past our apartment complex. I hit the sack early. Having no pre-set goals helped me to relax and get a good night's sleep.

Race morning was relaxed. We woke up, stuffed ourselves with coffee and cake and rode the 20km to the start zone. People were beginning to arrive; Juniors, Seniors and Vets. We signed on and waited. Eric and Giddyap were there - we took a few photos and did a bit of small talk. When we were called to the start line, I found myself lined up with the Schroeder guys and I was talking with Ronnie about the abundance of good food on the island. After waiting at the start line for what seemed like an interminable time (later I was told that we were waiting for the Msian National Team to arrive - they had gone for a late night movie and woke up late!) off we went!

Our starting point for this road race was at Gurney Drive (yep, opposite the Hawker Stalls, although this early in the morning, it was deserted). The route headed straight for Batu Ferringi and at Km 5/6, the rolling hills started. The nearest thing in Singapore would be the rolling hills of Mandai, except at Ferringi, it is a winding route with the hills closer together. Then after 30km of this, one hits Balik Pulau (literally, meaning Back-of-the-Island) where there is a reservoir. Here, we get a steep climb of about 300m, (gradient > 10%?), and then we hit a long winding climb up about 7km up followed by 7km down. The grade is like South Buono Vista here, except the road was damp. Then we hit a small flat but windswept kampung area where we do 3 laps - each lap about 15km. After 3 laps of this, it was up a final climb of about 6km to the finish line.

From the word go, we hit the road in the big chain ring. Speed at the start was about 41kph. I watched the Schroeder guys string out the pack when we zipped out of Gurney Drive. The pack was on the verge of breaking up (I was sitting in 15th wheel and thinking I should bridge if the break goes) when we hit a wide open stretch of road and the entire peloton came up and swallowed us whole.

There was a general regrouping of the peloton and we hit Batu Ferringi at cruising speed up and down, up and down, left and right. Everyone wanted to save their small ring for the big assed climb. I was constantly in the first half of the pack, where I thought it would be safe. There were pavement surfers everywhere - and I'm talking here about the Junior Riders. Although I admire the tenacity of these Malaysian kids, they're just plain dangerous. They swerve around every single pebble they see on the road. Riders were constantly shouting at the kids - the kids were at their limits in even trying to follow the seniors and were beginning to wobble.

Up to this point, I had moved up with Geoffrey beside me to the first third of the pack. Geoff and Chee Khoon (another QR dude) already had their moment of glory in stringing out the lead elements of the peloton going up the hills at 50+kph. Geoffrey was a real sight - in his Hawaiian themed jersey with NO race number - "I can't win anyway so why bother pinning on the number?" In his brief moment of glory, a motor official actually came up to him and asked for a number!!

Back in the pack, I was keeping track of the utter folly of the Juniors. They were swerving left and right and some almost fell into the open ditches along Batu Ferringi. A M'sian National Rider said aloud to all the kids within earshot "All you kids are so DANGEROUS!". I was keeping my hands on the brakes as I began to fear the worse. Coming up on a hill, the traffic was at a standstill on the opposite side having been stopped. I was on the right side of the lane - there was a Pavement Surfer just in front of me and further out to the right - but we were still firmly in the left lane. Then this guy decides to show his surfing skills and pull laterally to my front, blocking my path. Brakes full on; I was shouting; my front wheel hit his chainstay, BOOM he goes down in a heap (not much surfing there), someone hits my rear wheel, I feel my bike slide out from under me...Miraculously, I was left standing with my bike on top of the Pavement Surfer.

"Now is not a time to panic", I told myself in panic. In an instant, position was lost from 20 something to 70 something. I watched the menagerie of colors stream past me. Calmly I picked up the bike; oops the chain had fallen off. Calmly, I rotated the cranks till the chain was back on. Quick check of the steering and front and brakes and I was off. I was full of adrenaline, I did not check my rear wheel nor did I feel it going soft. As I was to discover later, my rear had broken a spoke and it was rubbing the brake pads.

An immense effort up the last hill saw me bridge up to the pack of veteran stragglers, using their slipstream, I bridged up to the back of the main pack. Slowly, somehow, I began to work my way into the middle of the pack again. There I told myself "Wow, good job! Lets get some rest first." Then the big assed hill came up.

But before we reached it, the roads of Penang had one last trick for us - a deep hole cut straight across the length of the road. There was no way to avoid this one. I saw the riders in the lead hop; it became a wave, as each rider hopped the trench when he came upon it. The crest reached me, I hopped... When I landed I heard this ferocious crash to my right rear and the sound of metal on asphalt. More Pavement Surfers doing their stuff.

Hurggghh!! We hit the hill at full speed. But for some reason I was going backwards. I couldn't understand what the heck was wrong when I got shelled from the pack into the struggling pack, and then I got shelled from the struggling pack of vets! And then I was shelled by the convoy! And before you can say "You have a broken wheel you idiot!", I was alone and it was suddenly very peaceful and quiet. I could've sworn I heard birds chirping. Tlink! Tlink! Tlink! No, that's not a bird song you idiot, its your rear wheel saying you need a wheel change!

Eric 10K had passed me in the convoy, mouthing encouragement. Eric, where are you?!!! I need a wheel change! Unfortunately, I was not going to see Eric again till I came back to Singapore. I didn't see any neutral support and I didn't see the broom wagon - to be honest I would've packed it in if the broom wagon had come up to me then. But lacking support of any sort, I just did my best. Releasing the calipers and putting my head down and going. Two stragglers caught up to me, wanted to draft me down the hill, saw my rickety rear and they backed off wisely. On the way down, I saw Surfers sitting in the ditches or lying on the road - the downhill must have taken a number of casualties.

Somehow I completed the remaining 50km. I fell in with the last bus of the day and everyone told me I had a broken wheel. Yeah, thanks folks. I know, mind giving me your wheel? But that was not the end of the Pavement Surfers. There were a number of kids in the last bus and they just couldn't hold a straight line. They kept bumping wheels - they knocked me in the rear again for about half a dozen times before - one of them knocked me so hard, my whole bike rocked forward and he left a DNA sample on the road for about 6 feet. That caught all the kids' attention and they wised up after that. No more bangs from the Surfers.

Still I crawled into the finish line. Just before the hill I caught Ronnie - he tried to help me by pushing me but I had to stop him. I had used so much energy I was going to cramp if I had gone any faster! When I got off the bike I tried to push it into a shack but the bike wouldn't budge - the rear wheel was jammed fast against the brake pad. What can I say? My first and last race in 2002 had been marred by Juniors smashing me up. All I can say is Juniors and I don't get along together. This year I'm going to stay a mile away from those Pavement Surfers.

Having been shaken up by the first day's experience, I went into the Criterium really nervous. Furthermore, the QR people kept telling me all sorts of stories about M'sian Crits - sounded like a harvest of broken bones and other nasty things - I hung around the back of the 2nd pack in both the 10km and 30km crits. Still, it was a nice workout - never sprinted 18 times in 20 minutes before. Phew... Penang is a nice place. The food is good and the people speak Hokkien (great for a non-Mandarin guy like me). The Pesta Penang can be quite a nice racing holiday if thats your kind of thing. Just watch out for the Penang Pavement Specialists.

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