Ciclo Cycling Trip: Quezon City to Baler, Aurora
The plan was to ride with Team Loyola from Loyola Heights, Quezon City to the Pacific surf town of Baler, Aurora. The total distance of 245 km was divided into two segments: 170 km to Pantabangan, Nueva Ecija, and 75 km from Pantabangan to Baler. We did all maintenance checks for our bikes, packed our clothes and gear in a SAG car and left on a cool Friday morning, just before the rest of Metro Manila started rushing into work.
Team Loyola wearing kits made by Ciclo Custom
Cycling events and races now occur more frequently across the Philippines. And in recent years, duathlon and triathlon have become sports on the rise, gathering a lot of attention. And in June 2018, Subic Bay hosted the Philippines’ first full distance Ironman race, widely seen as a milestone for the sport.
The racing culture has driven cycling’s popularity among Filipinos. The attitude of pushing yourself or racing against yourself is common among competitors. But for Team Loyola Co-Founder Brian Giron, this represents a departure from cycling’s core, “Everything revolves around that principle: racing, touring, getting faster…It’s too person-centric.” For him, cycling is about being on the bike and that we bike for the love of cycling, nothing else.
Our goal for the day was to get to our resort in Pantabangan before dusk, since it would have been too dangerous for us to be out at night. We carefully traversed Commonwealth Avenue towards Fairview, then into Bulacan. Rolling hills across four Bulakeño towns provided the initial challenge before we entering the plains of Nueva Ecija. Somewhere along this stretch I remember saying to Brian that it was my first time in that part of the Philippines. His response, “Me too!”
There’s a line from the great novelist Ernest Hemingway that I hold close, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best.” Cycling is in a sweet spot between walking and being in a vehicle. The former can be intrusive since you're more noticeable with your slower pace, plus the journey takes more time. And for the latter, encapsulation can prohibit you from missing outside details: a bottle dropped by a passer-by, that whiff of animal feed mixed with manure as you approach a pig farm and of course, the cool breeze.
But the breeze turned humid, then scorching as we left Bulacan and entered Nueva Ecija. Traffic jams snaked through provincial roads; and we had to weave through exhaust pipes along with equally impatient motorcycle riders. Noon came knocking and its heat forced us to seek refuge in air-conditioning and halo-halo.
By this time my calves have been twitching for a while and I had to stretch them several times while on the bike to prevent full on cramping. In the month leading up to this ride, I only went on one short night ride. I admit I wasn’t prepared for it, but I was confident with the pace we had planned out (and a SAG car to catch me if I fall). After my large halo-halo, I felt maybe I had enough gas in the tank to push towards Pantabangan.
And boy, was I wrong. By the time we neared Cabanatuan at around 1 PM, the heat had gotten to my head and I was starting to feel dizzy. We used a bypass road to skip the city traffic, but by then I was already lagging behind my teammates. My legs felt okay but the rest of my body had been drained. Once I arrived at our rest stop, I called it quits, loaded my bike and hopped in the car.
I didn’t feel defeated when I was sitting in our car as we followed the rest of the team. I haven't been riding long distances and I just wanted to see how far I could go. Riding my bike all the way to Baler would have been great, but I had to listen to my body and accept my limits.
From Cabanatuan, it was about 55 Km to the day’s stop at a resort in Pantabangan. We trailed the team as they formed their chain gang along the straight road from Talavera to Rizal, Nueva Ecija. And by around 4 PM, we were already at our bed and breakfast. It took a while for the entire team to recover and settle into our accommodations after a tough day of riding. We spent the night with food and beer before turning in.
We woke up later than we hoped for the next morning. Our bodies were probably asking for a few more minutes of rest before we traversed the Sierra Madre range into Baler. I thought of riding with the team that day. We reviewed the route and saw that it was 60 Km between us and our next stop in Maria Aurora. On any other day, 60 Km was a normal ride for Team Loyola - but these mountains were different. While looking at the route profile, team member Jan Belmonte remarked, “This looks a little steep.” I looked at it too, and decided it wasn’t for me and I should just help document the team’s ride.
My decision turned out to be a good one when I saw the team's suffering. The road was scenic but brutal: steep rolling slopes, mixed in with long climbs and descents took their toll. A few kilometers out of Pantabangan, we caught Hidde Van Der Wall on a climb and he said to us, “This is tough.”
It was a challenge for Team Loyola. For Jan, there were countless climbs and it felt like there was no end in sight. This mental burden was compounded by the fact that it was our first time riding through this road. The unfamiliarity made pacing tricky for member King Filart, “I ended up giving my all [at every] climb.” And what kept him going was his focus on one question, how bad do you want it?
It took the team four hours to travel 61 km while gaining 1,050 m in elevation. And as some sort of icing on the cake, Team Loyola was greeted by strong headwinds as we entered Baler. By the time we got to our accommodations, everyone who rode just wanted to savor the feeling of not moving (and post their bike rides on Strava).
Us cyclists have individual reasons for pushing ourselves by traveling arduous routes. Some want so see how fast they can ride, while others (like me) want to discover how far they can go. But we all had a shared reason for joining this mission: to be out on the road and experience everything that comes our way. The ups and downs themselves were rewarding in themselves, all culminating once we reach our destination. For Jan, our ride did its job in both challenging and surprising him, “It was worth it.”
We all finished the ride learning something new about ourselves, but also more about the places we’ve traveled through. For Jan,
The route to Pantabangan changed the way I saw Bulacan and Nueva Ecija. The views ranged from old Filipino architecture along small town roads, to lush farm landscapes. I was also so surprised to find rolling hills in Bulacan. I grew up driving through those provinces via NLEX and they had always felt like some boring parts of Luzon.
Which highlights the difference between two types of travelling: selfish and genuine. A selfish traveler would be more interested in showing off that he/she has been there, without any conscious thought of how there’s so much more to learn about one’s self and the world by being in a foreign land. This is someone who’s self-absorbed and eager to just take photos and buy souvenirs, without even trying to learn. It grossly limits the experience because this person ends up being a spectator.
While a genuine traveler immerses in new places and experiences - placing greater importance on being there. This traveler takes moments to process the trip and comes home knowing more about one’s self and the world; or better yet, coming home asking more questions.
Our immersion was provided by our bikes. They took us far enough and provided us a platform to be in all the places we’ve been. We all went home learning a little bit more about the Philippines and a lot more about ourselves. For Brian, he liked the Baler Mission because, “the people who went really just love being on the bike. It wasn’t about what they could say they achieved, or other selfish reasons. It was about being on the bike.” And on the trip back home we started asking, where else can we go?
In case you were wondering, here's the route we took:
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