Racers and Layers


Agu Paiso heads back to Nueva Ecija to conquer the first race of the Gravel World Series—and learns that there are more layers to this event than meets the eye.

Story by
Agu Paiso
Photography by
Jilson Tiu
Read Time
Location Tag
No items found.

Fast forward 72 hours and I was headed back to Bongabon—this time riding with Cyril and Erin; three bikes and all our gear fit comfortably in their SUV… give or take a bit of Tetris. After a drive-thru lunch (pro tip: Double Quarter Pounder), we made a beeline for the event headquarters to pick up our race kits and have timing chips fitted to our bikes. 

The HQ was a hive of activity, and with an air of nervous anticipation. We noticed a Japanese racer having his bike serviced by the on-site wrench: his drivetrain was bone-dry and needed lubrication because of the numerous water crossings. “...The whole course was fun,” I caught a few of his words as he chatted with the mechanic, and made a mental note to pack a bottle of lube for the race. With registration requirements done and chips secured, we went to the resort to check in.

To our surprise, there were race directional signs heading to Kimkamhaze—the resort was along the latter stage of the course; the parts we didn’t get to scout on Wednesday. Good to know just in case of an impromptu bio break mid-race. Plenty of riders were staying here: Vic and Rob two doors over, and the Japanese racer (who I learned was endurance athlete Akihiro Takaoka) was downstairs. Anxious to settle in, we secured our bikes and bags in the room and headed out for a quick, carbo-loaded dinner. 

On the way back from the recon, I had developed a race survival strategy: the plan was to race at my own pace; ride as much of the climbs as I can, but be ready to dismount and walk due to traffic, traction problems, or tiredness; keep a safe distance from other racers (for both race safety and health protocols); and stay on top of my race nutrition. Based on experience, it takes a me a while to recover—much less get back to race speed—after a bout of cramps.

With that in mind, we made our final pre-race preps: bikes, jerseys, and hydration packs (which also contained my pump, tools, and spare tube) labeled with participant numbers. Race nutrition portioned—along with powdered drink mixes in sachets, ready to mix at the feed zones (thanks for the tip, Cyril!)—and stowed in an easy-access frame bag. Helmet, clothes, and shoes laid out. Tires set to 29psi. And one last thing: a small bottle of chain lube double-sealed in a Ziploc bag. Call it OCD or paranoia—this is just typical behavior for off-road cyclists.

This was the most fun I’ve had on a bike in a long time.

Another typical thing (for me, at least) is a less-than-ideal sleep the night before—from excitement rather than anxiety. A 6 a.m. gun start meant a 3 a.m. alarm: I needed little rousing from my slumber, though I appreciated Cyril and Erin, trying not to make too much noise in the dark. Breakfast was al fresco in our room’s balcony-slash-corridor, which overlooked the resort and the farmlands. It was a cold morning, atypical for April, and the now-familiar wind foreshadowed the day’s conditions. I sought shelter behind a pillar as we had PB&J pancakes. A hot mug of coffee would have been nice, but I somehow managed to leave that in Manila. Too late for that now, anyway—today was race day.

We arrived at the race area just as it was quickly filling up with cars. Marshals were directing traffic, and police and emergency services were in position. By the looks and sounds of it, the whole of Bongabon had woken up early—locals lined the bridge, eager to witness the race unfold. Music and dancers added to the festive atmosphere. We geared up and moved to the staging area, where we’d be released in waves according to category. 

Here, I began to recognize familiar faces and voices underneath the helmets and behind the glasses and masks: College buddies, bike industry contacts, former teammates, old racing rivals. Too many names to mention—most of whom I hadn’t seen since the pandemic began, and some even before then. With all the catching up, it felt more like a reunion than a race; being surrounded by these like-minded (and similar-aged) friends put me at ease. Sure, my race prep wasn’t ideal, but I was determined to do my best, stick to the game plan, finish strong, and most importantly, have fun.

The sun edged higher as the clock counted down, and we were off—everyone scrambling for traction on the loose gravel, and riders narrowly avoiding each other. We hit the first water crossing 500 meters in. Some racers rode through with varying success, while others like me played safe and portaged their bikes; I wasn’t in the mood for an impromptu early morning dip. 

Now safely on flattish ground, I found a comfortable cadence. A persistent headwind had blown the race apart just a few kilometers in—there were no big groups; most were riding solo or in small groups. I rode together with my friends Arnel and James for a while, but lost touch when we hit the climbs. 

By the looks and sounds of it, the whole of Bongabon had woken up early—locals lined the bridge, eager to witness the race unfold.

The Wall was a different beast that day. Unlike earlier that week, there was no clear path to the top. Racers were riding, stalling, or walking (sometimes all three) all over the trail. I tried to pick my way through, making it halfway up before a rider dabbed in front of me, and I had to hop off my bike and push it up the hill. Once the incline eased, I remounted and settled back into a rhythm as I approached the next climb. With a clear trail in front of me, I carried my momentum up and over, with gears to spare.

I pedaled on, maintaining a head of steam in preparation for the last climb. A familiar situation was unfolding ahead: riders stalling, then walking. I committed to the right edge of the trail (reducing the gradient for the left-hand turn), shifted to my granny, and started grinding. A third of the way up, my rear wheel got caught in a rut, sapping all potential forward progress—it was my turn to dab. I shrugged it off and pushed my bike uphill, keeping on the right to give way to those who were still on two wheels.

Armed with knowledge from the recon, I made up ground on the downhill. Riders rode tentatively, and I gave them warnings as I approached: “On your left,” or “Rider behind,” or “I’ll pass when clear” if the section was narrow—the last thing I wanted to do was cause panic. I rode mostly alone downhill, and through the water crossings that seemed deeper this time around. Once on barangay roads, it was a different story: The locals were out in force, kids and adults alike cheering and offering words of encouragement to these oddly dressed out-of-towners. It turned my grimace into a smile. 

On the open stretches of tarmac and gravel, it was the headwind’s turn to keep me company. Mike, Backy, and the rest of the Unilab rode past me like a freight train—working together to cheat the wind. I resisted the temptation to latch on to the group, instead taking time to drink from my bidon and snack on some raisins. I had to stay on top of my hourly fueling strategy if I was to finish. Part of my plan was to skip the first feed zone to make up some race places. I took a sip from my hydration pack… to no effect. Was the cap loose? Did the contents spill? I decided to stop at the feed zone to check. 

A loose gaggle of riders was there, helping themselves to bananas, suman, and refills of water. I doffed my pack and checked the water bladder. The cover was secure and it was still three-quarters full—but the switch for the bite valve was in the “off.” I facepalmed. Impromptu break over, I clipped back in and exited the feed zone just as Arnel and James were coming in. “See you guys at the next stop,” I said as I left. 

The next stretch was a medley of barangay roads, farmer’s paths, and irrigation canals; mostly flat and slightly downhill, so I was making steady progress. Two local riders drew up alongside me on one of the stretches of road, and we exchanged greetings. “Kumusta karera niyo, sir?”

“So far so good,” I replied, stealing a glance at my GPS. “Halos kalahati pa lang… kasali din kayo?” “Ronda-ronda lang kami,” was the answer—there certainly was a fair bit of good riding to be done in the area. “Good luck sir, pagliko niyo diyan, panay water crossing na,” one of them said. “Rideable naman.”

With all the catching up, it felt more like a reunion than a race.

Nothing like a little local knowledge to give you a heads-up. When the turn came up after a few hundred meters, we wished each other a safe ride, and we went our separate ways. Brief as the company was, it was well-appreciated. 

As I turned the corner, I saw another rider in a ditch on the side of the path, waist-deep in water. “Are you OK?” “I’m good,” came the reply. I rode past him and caught up with another racer shortly after. “Did you see the guy in the ditch?” “Ya, paano nangyari yon?” I really don’t know how it happened; my guess was that he overcooked the corner. It was a reminder of the tricky conditions and their consequences. I hope that guy had a better race thereafter. 

Nearly halfway through, the long stretches of rough roads started to take their toll; while the multiple positions afforded by my handlebar eased hand pain, it was my back that started to protest. At the next feed zone, I topped up my bottles with water, and emptied a sachet of drink mix in each of them. Arnel came around as I was sat chewing on a Snickers bar and stretching my aching back. We chatted about how we were doing, and agreed (in principle) to ride together with James for the next few kilometers.

I only managed to hold my end of the bargain for the first kilometer; they gradually pulled away, leaving me in their dust. Maybe I drank too much or overate—possibly both—but my legs just didn’t have as much power. I eased up a bit, trusting that my body would normalize eventually. I felt better physically and mentally as I approached the last feed zone—the home stretch.

The Wall was a different beast that day. Unlike earlier that week, there was no clear path to the top.

As I laid my bike down to help myself to a banana, a marshal took my dusty bottles, rinsed, and refilled them with cold water. I thanked him profusely at the unexpected gesture. “Malapit na ser,” he told me. “Wala bang beer?” I joked. “Sa finish line ata, ser.” We shared a good chuckle.

It was mid-day by this point, and while a cold one would be welcome, I settled on emptying a water bottle down the back of my neck as I pedaled through town. The locals offered small bags of water to passing racers; kids cheered us on and offered hands for high fives. Tarmac turned into the dirt road that led to the resort, and while no unscheduled pit stops were in order, the thought of jumping into the pool did cross my mind. This was the section we failed to recon, and I found out it contained a few surprises.

Cue Murphy’s Law: I somehow misread the directional signs and found myself in knee-deep water. The marshals called out and gestured that I had to get on the shore; the next sign was dead ahead. I thanked them and chose the most direct route, sloshing my way to the exit. The cool water gave some relief from the mid-day heat—I guess I didn’t need the swimming pool.

Not long after, I was back on familiar terrain; the starting gravel straightaway was also the return route. The finish line was close, and I heard the faint thumping of music in time with my pedal strokes. The headwind that hounded me the whole day was now a tailwind. I stood up on the bike, and clicked through the gears to unwind my legs. A riverbank descent and a water feature later, I crossed the finish line, with the immediate realization that this was one of the best local races I’ve done. While my time of 5 hours and 36 minutes wasn’t fast enough for a top 10—or even to qualify for the finals—I enjoyed every second of it.

It took more than a few post-race beers to unpack everything that just happened: Between the challenging race distance and conditions, dodging mechanical and physical issues, and riding with friends old and new—this was the most fun I’ve had on a bike in a long time. But enough about me and the race itself. Just like a Bongabon onion, there are more layers to this story.

My race prep wasn’t ideal, but I was determined to do my best, stick to the game plan, finish strong, and have fun.

Thanks to the pandemic, cycling in the Philippines has enjoyed a sort of resurgence. Beyond daily bike commutes and weekend coffee rides, events like this add impetus to the movement. Cycling is a participatory activity, humans are social by nature, and bikes are a great way to explore new places. Combining all three of these just makes sense. Organized races foster not just healthy competition, but also a sense of community—giving people more reasons to ride, more places to experience, and more stories to share. 

Others Also Read these

You've Reached the Border of Discovery

In the mean time, we recommend:

Watch & Listen:

No items found.

Related Products:

No items found.