‘We usually start at 1,300 metres, then we go down.’ Ramang, my fellow mountain biker and guide, looked across a volcanic lake as vast as a large town, as we stood on the southern rim of the crater.
From our lookout, he pointed across to Mount Batur and its slopes rising up from the lake waters.
‘That’s an easier ride. Today we’re doing intermediate but it depends how fast we go.’
We were set to ride 41km from Mount Abang to the Telaga River, through villages, farms and forests in Bali’s north east. My Garmin altimeter read 1450m and without yet pedalling a stroke, my heart rate was racing with pre-ride adrenalin.
After tinkering with my saddle height and pedal tension I pumped more air in my tyres. ‘Thirty two PSI should do it,’ I mumbled, and didn’t think to try the squeeze test. Soon, we rolled away, climbing gravel roads. After months of road riding through Java’s traffic, the crunching sound of fat tyres rolling over dirt and gravel was an aural balm.
Ramang, riding ahead on a new Giant Anthem X dually, darted right into a 2m-wide dirt trail. Its volcanic-rich soil was the colour of dark chocolate and the surface buffed by local motor scooters Despite riding on a borrowed Cube hardtail it didn’t take long to feel the flow of the trail as it plunged through farmland on both sides.
Occasionally, a break through tall grass or trees would reveal a view down to the plains towards the sea, but I was focussed on scrubbing off speed and keeping upright. Some dogs barked and chased as we rode past a village and the trail changed to hardpack beneath a gravelly surface.
I’d already had a few slides during what seemed like a ten minute descent and the 160mm disc brake rotor on the front returned whiplash-like stopping power with a squeeze of a finger. But even with 100mm of front suspension that absorbed my pre-ride fiddling with a pleasing buttery bounce, the bike somehow didn’t feel forgiving.
Inevitably, when the forces of gravity, technical terrain, a bike setup not quite right, and rusty handling skills combine, a rider’s velocity is prone to unpredictable turns. Newton’s laws of motion were far from my mind as I turned a corner at speed and soon felt the sensation of flying. Nature’s physical laws can’t be mocked, however, and inertia brought be back to earth. The bike and I parted ways and I momentarily body surfed the trail before rolling then stopping, facing uphill.
I reached for the bike, which is always a positive sign after a crash, and stood. My left knee was already bloody and my left forearm bore a scrubbing that hinted at stinging pain to come. Searching for other wounds, I lifted the edge of my shorts at my hip, tipping out a handful of dirt, to reveal another patch of raw skin.
I flipped the handlebars around and rolled down the hill. Ramang was already riding back and we stopped under shade to assess.
As any triage manual advises, the order of treatment is vital. We spun the front and rear wheels: still true. We tested the forks and handlebars: no cracks. Frame? Check. We let out air from the front tyre.
A farmer with a bundle of fresh cut grass larger than his scooter stopped to talk. ‘I fell,’ I said to him in Bahasa Indonesia. He grinned and rode away. Ramang retrieved a first aid kit from his Camelback Mule and cleaned and patched my injuries.
‘The tyre was too hard,’ he said.
It’s satisfying to know that gear plays a big part in mountain biking, but I knew the real problem was that I was riding like a roadie. Which was fine for the climbs, because the last time I rode with Ramang, I was all but destroyed after joining an intermediate ride unfit.
Luckily for my confidence we’d finished most of the fast descents and I pushed hard into the hills to recover momentum.
After lunch of grilled chicken and rice at a roadside “warung” we meandered through village trails, including a snaking loop inside a bamboo forest and a blast along metre-wide concrete footpaths that curled through irrigated rice paddies.
We stopped by one village to watch a cock fight that ended badly for one of the roosters.
The ride finished, fittingly, on the road including a descent along sweeping switchbacks that I thought would be nice to ride up one day. I flicked on my new Strava app and it showed a ride profile like a right-handed isosceles triangle, if you can remember your high school maths.
On Ramang’s www.bali-rides.com website, the estimated ride time for the route is four hours. We finished it just under three.
‘Not too bad,’ I said. ‘Next time I”ll try to keep the rubber on the road.’