Feature

The Roads Must Roll

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Who knew Guimaras was ripe to become the country’s next mountain-biking mecca?

Story by
Agu Paiso
Photography by
Isa Halamani
Read Time
Location Tag

“We'll pass for you at 6:30 a.m. tomorrow, take the boat from Ortiz Wharf, have breakfast in Guimaras, and then ride,” Richie Gabayeron’s message flashed on my phone’s screen just as an airport baggage handler rolled my bike case to the claiming area. It appears unscathed and in one piece.

Riding in Guimaras? The island, even the word, has become synonymous with mangoes—and for good reason. The golden harvests of the sweet, sun-ripened fruits have graced tables and tickled palates here and abroad. The White House, Buckingham Palace, even the Kremlin (Russia has ordered two metric tons of Guimaras mangoes weekly, since April) reportedly indulge in a cheek or two. With a fruit of such succulent reputation, one can only imagine the possibilities if geopolitics was discussed over dessert.

But I digress. There is actually more to Guimaras than potentially foreign policy-influencing fruit—though the mango itself does deserve some credit.

A palpable excitement takes over the island as the month of May approaches, for preparations are well under way for the Manggahan Festival. The month-long celebration highlights the importance of the eponymous fruit, with a daily “Mango Eat All You Can” challenge from May 10 to 22. It is also a form of thanksgiving for the recent harvests, which showcases the culture and heritage of the Guimarasnons, as the locals are called. There are sporting events that cover everything from chess, to basketball, and even martial arts such as arnis and pencak silat. For the outdoorsy types, there are trail runs, mountain bike rides, and the Tour de Guimaras: a 110-kilometer road race that circumnavigates the island. This year, the island is hosting one leg of the Asian Enduro Series, where mountain bikers hurtle down challenging terrain in a multi-stage race against the clock.

Now, I make no claims of being a chess prodigy, six-foot tall baller, or arnis grandmaster. I am, however, eager to ride new trails and experience anything else that comes with the territory—pun intended.


Tourists can easily rent bikes at the Mountain Bikers Hub.


While I could have arranged for a loaner bike from my friends in Iloilo, the persnickety portion of my brain insisted otherwise. I’d liken it to going for a round of golf with someone else’s clubs, playing on the pitch wearing a teammate’s football boots, or borrowing your better half’s toothbrush—doable, but absolutely awkward. Kidding aside, it’s actually all about using familiar equipment on unfamiliar terrain: Guimaras reportedly has a little bit of everything, from rolling cement roads, farmer’s footpaths, to rooty, rutted downhill single-tracks. I’ve taken this bike on foreign adventures before, and it has never let me down. This trip would be another feather in its cap, or rather another scratch on its frame.

Aside from fitting inside the travel case with room to spare, this particular bike—a Jones—is as low-maintenance as they come. Instead of front and rear suspension (shock absorbers that require frequent checking and topping-up with air), it relies on the frame’s flex, and bigger tires (runs at lower pressure: around 10–12 psi for the front, and 16–18 psi for the rear) for comfort and traction. It also has a wide range of gears to make short work of the longest climbs and straightaways. While it may not be the lightest, the latest, nor the greatest, it is a jack-of-all-trades, confident in various riding conditions; a Swiss Army knife of a bike. MacGyver probably pedals one.

Guimaras reportedly has a little bit of everything, from rolling cement roads, farmer's footpaths, to rooty, rutted downhill single-tracks.

The 45-minute drive from the airport is a blur, with Iloilo City flashing past the taxi’s windows. We’re traveling well within the speed limit, but my mind is racing. I’m wondering what tomorrow’s route will bring, whether I packed everything I need, and where to have dinner.

I check into my hotel room a little past 7 p.m. and hang the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door. Dinner be damned, I have to build up the bike because, hello! Priorities! Half an hour later, the Jones is ready to roll, and I’m sinking my teeth into a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Yes, I’m both guilty and guiltless at the same time, but hopefully, all those calories will be burned in the morning. A quick shower to start winding down for the night, and it’s lights out at 10 p.m. I fall asleep reviewing my pre-ride checklist in my head—no need to count sheep.

Mountain bikers flock to Guimaras to join the Asian Enduro Series, a multi-stage race held against the island's challenging terrain.

I count beating the alarm clock as one of life’s small victories. So, when I wake at 5 a.m.—a good 20 minutes before Kennedy from The Wedding Present starts blaring from my phone—that’s a good omen. At the very least, it gives me more time to take my time, as it typically takes me an hour to update my status from “catatonic” to “ready to ride.” After morning rituals, a light snack (two pieces of Spanish bread from the corner bakery, yum), packing the necessary gear, and giving the Jones a once-over, I still have minutes to spare before the agreed call time of 6:30 a.m. I decide to head outside the hotel and wheel around the vicinity, if only to make sure that turning the pedals results in forward motion.

After rolling up and down the street a few times, Richie and Francis show up right on time, and soon after we are wheeling towards Ortiz Wharf to rendezvous with the rest of the group. “This is usually how most Guimaras rides start. We all meet at the wharf and book a boat; even riders who aren’t part of the group can come aboard if there’s space,” Richie explains. True enough, most of the group is already there, and Bikoy has already made arrangements to cross the strait.

The jetty is busy as we walk our bikes past day-trippers lining up to board the boat to Guimaras. We locate our own outrigger, load our bikes bow-side, and settle in. Introductions are made as the group completes boarding—there’s Andrew, Bikoy, Cadoy, Francis, Jed, Jing, Joemar, Ken, Kenneth, Paul, Richie, Ted, and me. Our names are as unique as our bikes: cross-country hardtails, full- suspension trail bikes, even a pedal-assist e-bike. Collectively we’re a merry, motley crew of mountain bikers. As long as we stick together, I should have no problems remembering everyone’s names. I know Richie and Francis. Bikoy is on the e-bike. Cadoy is on the vintage specialized, while Jing is on the latest one. Joemar is the dreadlocked dude.

To help my short-term memory, I associate bike and helmet color with the rider. That way I avoid mistaking Ted for Jed, and Kenneth for Ken. I think I got it mostly figured out.

It’s a short 20-minute trip, and the on-board banter consists of recaps from the recently-concluded Manggahan Festival, and a brief discussion on Guimaras’ potential into becoming a future mountain-biking mecca.

While there are man-made trails in Guimaras, the bulk of the mileage is still on its natural tracks.



In 2014, the Guimaras: Bike Paradise of the Philippines project was launched to promote the island as a viable destination for sports tourism, specifically cycling. Its stakeholders include the John B. Lacson Foundation Maritime University, the provincial government of Guimaras, the five municipalities on the island, as well as private citizens and the riding community. The project’s long-term plan is “to connect the various tourism destinations in the island via a network of marked bicycle trails, paths, or bike lanes on the national roads,” explains Marimar Esmaña, Community Extension Manager of the John B. Lacson University. An ambitious goal, but it appears that everyone involved is pulling, if not pedaling, in the same direction. On paper, the island has all the pieces needed for a cycling ecosystem: trails, destinations, races, and community.

The goal is to build a network of trails, which requires proper trail markers, directional signs, trail maintenance and management.

The current trend for mountain bike trails is to be purpose-built: locations are surveyed, and design decisions are made based on additional factors such as soil erosion, technical features, risk management, and even rider skill level. Much like how amusement parks, or golf courses are built. While Guimaras has its own share of man-made trails, the bulk of the mileage is still on natural, untamed, and minimally-managed tracks. This harkens back to the early days of mountain biking, where riders hopped on their bikes, headed off in this (or that) direction, explored, and got lost. (Maybe not the getting-lost bit, but sometimes that goes with the territory.)

“In 1995, it was mostly barangay roads, steep climbs, footpaths (aka “daang-tao”), and natural single-track,” reminisces Richie, who is based in Iloilo, when asked about the first time he rode in Guimaras. “It was like having a playground in our own backyard with killer views,” he continues. Most of the riders who frequent Guimaras are from Iloilo, as the rolling hills of the island are but a 20-minute boat ride away from the relatively flat locale. “You’ll have to ride, or drive, half an hour out of the city to get to comparable riding,” says Richie. Aside from that, there’s less traffic in Guimaras; the roads are wider, and the locals are more “cyclist-aware.”

There’s something to be said about riding “natural” trails; the unpredictability of the terrain keeps the rider on his or her toes, and the smoothest line through some sections may be different from one day to the next. Such conditions pose another challenge, though: rider safety and ease of access. The Bike Paradise Project goal is to build a network of trails, which requires proper trail markers, directional signs, trail maintenance and management—a noble cause considering the sheer number of trails that can be ridden on the island.

Most of the trails in Guimaras are on private property, too, and access is at the mercy (or whims) of the land owners. On the bright side, the residents are very welcoming of riders, and there have been minimal issues with regards to riding, so that’s a positive start. Some trails are also marked, albeit with just color-coded cement posts that are assigned by municipality and which denote the trail entrance. Until that project comes to fruition, visitors will have to find friendly groups of locals to ride with (given the legendary Ilonggo hospitality, almost all of them are), hire a trail guide, or book a tour.

To start with, the Bike Paradise Project has partnered up with a local cycling club called the Guimaras Extreme Bikers, and to date, they almost have 50 guides leading rides. Another option is to book a package with the Mountain Bikers Hub, an adventure tour company run by Tommy Martir. If riders from immediate provinces like Cebu, or even Manila, experience all that Guimaras has to offer, these tourism efforts will help build impetus for the project.

“We’ll take you on a scenic route, para sa mga first-timers to Guimaras,” says Joemar Regondon, a local mountain bike racer and trail guide.“It’s a mix of road and trail, papunta sa mga windmills.” Apparently, Guimaras has a wind farm on the opposite side of the island, facing Bacolod. Not wanting to spoil any surprises, I resisted the urge to Google it, and pocketed my mobile phone.

As we approach Jordan Wharf, Richie points out the abandoned sugar refinery. Its prime location has already been snapped up by developers, anticipating a property boom. Our boat lurches as our captain shifts gears into reverse.“Iceberg!” Bikoy jests as he stands up to collect everyone’s share for the boat ride. Jing then asks Richie, “Are we having pork chop?” That sounds quite good for a post-ride meal, I thought to myself. The group reaches an easy consensus, and to my surprise, it’s going to be our first stop, for breakfast. Now, I’m all for hearty meals, but if it’s before a ride I tend to eat light, to avoid unexpected pit stops later. The boat scrapes to a halt against the wharf, and the guys hop on their bikes as soon as they hit dry land. They must be hungry. I chase after them.

I find their bikes parked a few hundred meters from the docks, beside Parts Eatery. This must be the place. Leaning the Jones on a fencepost, I duck inside the eatery and am immediately greeted by the irresistible smell of pork chops on the grill. The place is jam-packed, and every diner has a plateful of steaming rice and pork chops. The guys had thoughtfully saved me a spot at their table, and I take my place after queuing up for rice. “Half a cup lang?” Cadoy jokingly asks. “The more to pork chop with,” came my reply, while wolfing down a perfectly- seasoned portion. Life is good, and it’s about to get better.

Most of the riders who frequent Guimaras are from Iloilo, as the rolling hills of the island are but a 20-minute boat ride away from the relatively flat locale.

We start off from the restaurant slowly, as if to give our stomachs more time to metabolize, as the road gently slopes upwards. We regroup at the Smallest Plaza, perhaps named because it’s barely the size of a basketball court. Joemar, who now has the roles of trail master and tour guide, says the municipality plans to expand the plaza. In that case, I hope they rename it, too.

After a quick head count, we continue along Circumferential Road. Traffic is light, with only the occasional tricycle buzzing past us. The sky is overcast, thankfully sparing us from the summer sun, as we wind our way upwards past Guimaras Mountain Resort. I click through the gears to keep my cadence steady and maintain speed as the road gets steeper. “This is the last climb before a rest stop,” Richie says as he pulls alongside me. Such words of encouragement are commonplace in group rides, but properly decoded, it means, “This is the last climb, before the next.”

Shortly after we crest the climb, we arrive at Piña Crossing and take five at a convenience store. It is here that empty water bottles are refilled, and breaths are caught. A brief glance at my GPS shows we’ve gone just six kilometers from the wharf, mostly uphill. Joemar says we will turn left into some trails further up the road. Keen to get some dirt on our tires, we press on.

The tree-lined road takes us past the Oro Verde mango plantation, one of the biggest mango orchards on the island, owned by the Marsman Drysdale group. Come harvest season, visitors can buy some of the harvested fruit at prices that rival the market. Joemar slows down, and we turn left at a waiting shed, onto a double-track dirt road. The buzz of our tires on pavement is replaced by the crunch of gravel. This is more like it.



At around the 10-kilometer mark, we emerge onto a grassy hilltop, with the road branching off to smaller tracks, like roots from a mango tree. The trail is well-worn, offering good grip with no loose rocks and nasty surprises. We stop briefly to regroup, and to take in the views of the northern municipality of Buenavista.

“Next stop, buko,” says Joemar. We follow his lead, until the trail turns into a dirt road, then into cement as it loops towards the highway. Despite the lack of cars, we still check both ways before crossing the road, and head towards the buko shack.

While routes and rides are the highlights of the cycling scene in Guimaras, the local residents also benefit from the influx of riders. Sari-sari stores have popped up at strategic locations—near trail entrances, exits, and the tops of road climbs. Since cyclists almost always ride in groups, manongs and manangs stand to make a pretty penny. “Natutuwa din ang mga tindahan pag hinintuan ng mga bikers,” says Joemar.

The company and camaraderie, however, are key parts of the experience; after all, mountain biking is as much a social activity as it is a physical one.

Thirst satiated, we find ourselves gaining elevation once more. I start off slow and steady, unsure of how long the climb is (in hindsight, it turned out to be quite manageable, around a kilometer, with gradients as high as 11% in some portions), and there’s a cellular tower at the peak. Joemar keeps me company and says that this now-cement climb used to be a dirt road. It was part of a race route he designed a few years ago, he continues, and the downhill section to the wind farm is well worth it. This must be a cycling Jedi mind trick, meant to distract me. But I still take his word for it. May the Force be with me.

Did Luke ever doubt Yoda? I can’t recall, but I do know that once past the cell site, the cement road turns into double track pointed downhill. Joemar takes the lead, with Bikoy in pursuit. The smooth, flowy track is lined with trees; I relax my grip on the handlebars and let the bike float over the humps and dips. Compact and well-worn by all the riders who’ve done this route, the path turns into singletrack, snaking its way downwards. The faster I go, the farther up ahead I have to look. These are farmlands, after all; I wouldn’t want to be caught unawares by someone’s pet dog, goat, or carabao.

The route to the wind farm is a mirror image of our approach from the cell site: the singletrack becomes a barangay road, and eventually, a crushed limestone path that leads up to the viewing deck. The windmills are huge, and almost silent in operation. All in all, we count more than 26 of them turning at various speeds. There are actually 27–I think we forgot to count the one currently dwarfing us. As impressive as these wind turbines are, the guys tell me none of the power they generate goes back to Guimaras; it’s fed back into the national grid. To top it off, Guimaras also has the highest electric fees in the country. What a shocker.



One reality check deserves another. We check the time (a little past 10 a.m.) and discuss our options for more trail riding. Some of the group are members of the Cinderallas, an “exclusive” cycling club whose members are both (1) married, and (2) need to be home by noon. I don’t want to get on the bad side of my new-found biker friends’ better halves, so I’m open to whatever suggestions they have. We decide to take the road back, and ride “Antenna," which is in the vicinity of the Piña Crossing, and whose exit is near the wharf.

Aside from being on dirt roads, much of the trails in Guimaras are also on private property, and you’ll need permission from the land owners to access them. Antenna, so-called because it is near a TV station, is one such trail. Located just off the national road, it’s easy to miss the entrance unless you know where to look (or are riding buddies with the owner). Joemar pushes the gate open, and we ride through. “Last man closes the gate,” Richie says.

The property is–you guessed it–a mango orchard, with a winding single-track through the trees. We squeeze under a barbed wire fence and flow down the trail, aided by gravity. It has everything: tacky, hard-packed dirt, and wide-open spaces with small humps you can catch some air on. Soon after we find ourselves riding down steep, narrow rain ruts, which are thankfully dry. I keep my weight back and my pedals level so I don’t catch my foot on a rut and get thrown off-line (or worse, off the bike). Past the ruts, I’m back weaving through trees, letting the bike do its thing. The trail eventually levels off, and the guys are waiting for me at the exit, by the side of the road.

“Laking ngiti, o!” Bikoy teases. I was having too much fun, and it showed. “That was awesome! The ruts were tricky!” I beamed. The stoke would have to be savored later. It’s 11 a.m., which gives us enough time to ride back to the wharf, and cross the channel. The sky is overcast once again, and we get a much- deserved break from the heat. We board the boat, and almost immediately start recounting various highlights of the ride.

No helmet, no ride. Riders here play hard and safe.

There are more trails to be ridden in Guimaras, and this route was but a tasty sample. The company and camaraderie, however, are key parts of the experience; after all, mountain biking is as much a social activity as it is a physical one. And by social, I mean more than just making friends.

The Padyak Series of events are part of the foundation’s continuing effort to give back to the residents and build community. Held thrice a year, each Padyak ride has specific themes and beneficiaries: Padyak Kalusugan helps distribute medical supplies and first aid kits in the different barangays; Padyak Kalikasan engages in tree-planting and other environmental activities; and Padyak Kaligtasan teaches disaster preparedness to coastal communities. Joemar says the residents recognize that visiting riders appreciate the locale and the land.

“Laking ngiti, o!” Bikoy teases. I was having too much fun, and it showed.

“Nakikita ng mga local na na-promote pa ang tourism sa kanilang lugar, kaya mabait sila sa mga cyclists,” he explains. Building rapport with the residents helps not only for trail access, but also for safety and emergencies, in the odd chance of a rider getting lost or injured.

This culture of paying it forward also extends to various cycling groups like Joemar’s. “Namimigay kami ng mga candy, toys at mga gifts sa mga bata, para kahit papaano, matutuwa naman mga bata,” he says with a smile. It’s all like the wheels of a bicycle; what goes around, comes around.

As we unload our bikes and roll them through the jetty, we bid each other farewell. I promise to return the favor should any of the guys visit Manila. I pedal back to the hotel, still reflecting on an eventful morning. It couldn’t have been planned any better—even the Cinderellas will be home for lunch.

As I step out for a late lunch, my phone buzzes with a message from Waui Cordoba, the race director for the Manggahan Festival.

“Are we riding Guimaras tomorrow?”

--

This story was originally published in GRID Volume 08.

GRID Volume 08 is made possible by Toyota Philippines. Visit toyota.com.ph to learn more.

This story was originally published in

Volume 8 | Paths and Terrains

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