From my vantage point in the back seat of the van, I could see Tom's fingers clawing at his shorts, his right foot pumping the imaginary brake pedal. "Your first time in south-east Asia?," I laughed. Looking a little fraught, he leaned in, "Man, I don't know anyone in Sydney who would have attempted to overtake then." Welcome to Surabaya, where life is just a little crazier.
I’d come to Indonesia to spend some time with the team behind Polygon Bikes, and today we were going to ride a volcano. First, we had to survive the journey out of town to the mountains beyond, a gauntlet of oncoming buses, bikes and family-laden scooters that I think you have to grow up with to even dream of navigating. In the distance, the silhouette of Mt Bromo, our destination, was like a comic book shark fin, jutting out of the plains and paddies.
When people think of mountain biking in Indonesia, it’s Bali that is front of mind. But volcanos pepper the east of Java too like barnacles, and Mt Bromo is one of the grandest, notable not just for its size but for the fact it’s still very, very active. So active in fact that approaching the crater was banned as recently as November, just two months prior. But despite the occasional tectonic ejections, the slopes of Bromo are clustered with villages and farms. And amongst them run hundreds of walking trails and access tracks that are the economic capillaries of these rural communities. Today these walking tracks would be our trails, on our epic 36km journey from the peak of Bromo, a ride as unique as any we’ve ever attempted.
The Polygon lads know these trails well now, but working out a continuous, rideable route from top to bottom of Bromo was like escaping the Labyrinth, a labour of love that took many months; dozens of weekends of wrong turns, dead ends, back-tracking up goat paths that had fruitlessly ended in a cabbage patch. The volcano now plays a big role in the local riding scene, as the site of club races and group rides, and it’s also become the default testing ground for new Polygon products too. Like mountain bike product designers the world over, the team behind Polygon bikes are in their jobs because they’re riders. On just about any weekend, they’ll be out there, either descending from the crater’s edge, or shuttling the lower slopes.
The morning shift at the Polygon factory was just arriving as we strapped the last of the bikes into the tray of our truck, casting us somewhat jealous looks as they head in for eight hours on the assembly line. Even at 7:30am the humidity is cloying, banks of clouds building in the distance, already fattening up and promising a downpour. The wet season isn’t the ideal time to ride, “Man, we are going to be so muddy,” laughs Zende. His Colossus N9 is still caked in red chunks of mud from his last Bromo descent and he straps it in tight to the back of the truck for the windy, bumpy shuttle ahead. Zende is Polygon’s product development manager, the man who has driven the huge change in the brand since 2012. Three others from his team are with us today too. Dwi, or Tommy as he’s known (frame engineering), Ridwan (spec manager) and Syamsu, (graphics). Their bikes are like a timeline of product development, a mix of production bikes and test mules, frames that will never make production and others modified with tweaks that might be incorporated in seasons to come.
Escaping Surabaya doesn’t happen suddenly. You must claw your way out of the city, scrapping through roadworks and clogged intersections. Occasionally you’ll crest a bridge and you’ve got a view beyond the immediate chaos, to the green, inviting slopes of the volcanos in the distance. Almost imperceptibly at first, the density of traffic, people and commerce starts to dwindle, and after about an hour and a half of driving we hit the first rolling foothills of Bromo. The pace of life around us has changed; there are still motor bikes to dodge, but they come in two and threes, not swarms. And the markets by the road are stocked with produce, rather than mobile phones.
On the drive out, I’d asked if the crew had ever pedalled up Bromo, and I just got a bit of a laugh in response. I know found out why, as the road headed skyward, one and a half lanes wide, snaking up the gullies and ridge lines. We’ve done some epic shuttle drives in our time, but this takes the cake! For over an hour we climbed unceasingly, through villages and farms, the road occasionally buried under a few inches of rich top soil that has slipped from the hill in the rains. On all sides the landscape is terraced and tilled, often on terrain so steep it looks impossible to walk let alone farm.
Finally we pull up, all slightly car sick and stiff legged. It’s not until we clamber up a bank on the roadside that I get some perspective, and I’m blown away. We’re standing right on the edge of a huge crater, a mammoth scoop out of the mountain top, in the centre of which lies another separate peak – the mouth of Bromo. It’s alive, spitting out periodic roils of ash, the mountain smoking furiously, like just about every man over the age of 12 in Indonesia. I’ve never seen anything that made me feel so terrifyingly temporary. Amazingly, right at the foot of the inner caldera, there’s a temple. While it’s only used once a year or so, for rituals that involve throwing offerings into the mouth of the volcano, it’s right in the firing line, and if Bromo were to blow, it’s game over for the worshippers. The temples occupants have nothing but their faith to protect them, and it’s time for me to do the same, as I put my trust in the line choices of Syamsu and try to follow his wheel as we begin our descent.
We’re flying along the ridge lines, picking up crazy speed with that kind of tremendous inertia you only get on really long descents, when you’re out of gears and off the brakes. Up ahead, I’m trying to read Syamsu’s body language as he skips over ruts that have been gouged by the spinning wheels of motorbikes hauling cabbage and broccoli from the farms lining the trail. The further we descend, the more the trail surface changes; at first sandy and full of grippy volcanic pumice, it gradually turns to red clay. The ruts begin to develop a wheel sucking magnetism that you’ve got to fight – so much as glance at a rut then that’s where you’re heading!
We peel off the double track and into a village, where the obstacles are no longer ruts but free ranging children and chickens, waving and squawking at us. I want to point my camera at everything, but the Polygon guys know rain is on the way, so we don’t stop for too long. The trail gets narrower again, traversing across fields on singletrack that we occasionally share with an overloaded motorbike. Up until now, the riding has been fast and fun, though nothing too tricky, but that changes in a big way. Almost simultaneously the trail points down into a long section of steep chutes and switchbacks and the rain crashes in like a shore break. It’s an immersion, not a shower, of the kind you only get in a swimming pool or the tropics. The rain comes down so hard it gets in your lungs, it pools your ears.
We’re in hysterics as we become complete passengers. Stopping is out of the question, so there’s nothing for it but to let it all slide! Over my shoulder I catch a glimpse of Tommy in the air, sailing into the bushes after either not seeing or not making a corner. Syamsu doesn’t seem to slow down though, and through sun glasses that are running like a waterfall I watch him duck into trail that runs down the narrow row of an apple orchard. The fruit laden boughs are bent low, and I wallop into fat apples which sail off down the trail ahead of me. It’s a ridiculous, fantastic scene; flying apples, head to toe mud, scrapping blindly down trails on the slopes of a volcano. I lock it away in the mental vault as one of the most surreal riding experiences I’ve ever had.
The rain stops as abruptly as it began, leaving nothing but swirling ghosts of steam, twisting over the warm trail surface. After passing through another village market, carts hanging with durian, we reach the lower slopes of Bromo and head into the towering rows of a rubber plantation. These trails are the most popular in the district, easily shuttled, with a number of different routes to the bottom, but right now they’re deadly slippery. Braking would only lead to less traction, so it’s five fingers on the bar! Unlike the farming trails up top, these singletracks have been built by mountain bikers, and there are berms and jumps everywhere as they slither through the rubber trees. We’re reaching the foothills now, where Bromo starts to peter out into the plains, and the gradient is ideal. A constant 5% descent that absorbs you totally, no pedalling, no braking, which is a blessing because 30kms of descending has left my hands and legs wrecked.
I feel like I’ve done a full day of downhill runs, and my poor bike – a Polygon Collosus N9 which had been brand new at the start of the day – has been given the ultimate baptism of fire, it’s original colour barely distinguishable. I’m sure I look equally haggard too. Bromo has taught me a lesson or two (as has Syamsu, who always seemed to be pulling away from me, no matter how hard I went) about descending Indo style, and given me one of the most memorable days on the bike I’ve ever experienced. It’s a ride I’ll always talk about, but for the Polygon crew, it’s just another Bromo session, another day at the office, riding volcanos.