In the western foothills of the Sierra Madre mountain range, there is a hut, clad in bamboo. It overlooks a field so green, I forget it used to be an open landfill. Among mountain bikers, this area is called Sinai, a nickname no doubt derived from the two giant concrete slabs with The Ten Commandments inscribed on them erected less than a hundred feet from the bamboo hut. I’m not sure if the hut itself has a name.
We’ve called it “yung kubo,” or “Manang’s,” after the kind, chatty, grandmotherly lady who runs the place, including the Bible camp down the hill. This incongruous crosspoint of nature, faith, and tourism spot-gone-awry is a popular mountain biker rest stop because the kubo serves pies, fruit shakes, and—in my opinion—the best French pressed coffee and crispy tapsilog combo I’ve ever had.
Sure, maybe it’s just the empty stomach of a guy who just biked about nine kilometers uphill making that call, but to me, this place is special.
Photos by Miguel Nacianceno
When I first started biking almost a decade ago, Sinai was one of my first rides. Back then, I’d spend most of my days as a photographer working indoors, blinking away the flash from my own studio strobes. There was a craving to be outdoors, feeling the wind on my back and the sun’s heat on my face. So I bought a bike.
At first, the trail and off-road sections of Sinai intimidated me; I remember slipping and sliding over loose rocks. For a hot minute, I thought about trading my mountain bike for a road bike and gentler, paved rides, but I appreciated the fact that mountain biking brought me closer to nature, with views I wouldn’t be able to see from my car.
Our ride to Sinai always went through Timberland, a private subdivision that once allowed bikers to pass through and even build trails in undeveloped areas of their land. We would go through those bike trails, find our way back to the main fire road, exit the Timberland property via the back door, and grind our way up a quiet paved road lined with red earth and pine trees until we get to the gate at the foot of Sinai hill. From there, I would dismount and push my bike up the last short but steep section to the kubo.
There was a craving to be outdoors, feeling the wind on my back and the sun’s heat on my face. So I bought a bike.
Sinai became one of my regular rides. The different trail options made it ideal for any time of the year, even during the rainy season. I loved doing this ride during the cool, dry months of December to early March, when the view is clear and parts of Rizal are visible, stretching all the way down to the shores of Laguna Lake. At my fittest, this was a relatively easy ride. Our group would make good time and end up spending more time leisurely having breakfast than riding our bikes.
But it's been over a year since I last visited that hut, and I have plenty of reasons.
Even before the pandemic, Timberland had closed their gates to bikers riding through. They’re developing some of the areas on their property and turned over the trail building and maintenance to the membership-only country club to manage. That took out the easiest access I would have to this ride. No hard feelings (ok, maybe a little), but when you’re a Manila-based rider, and the bike trails nearest to you are mostly on private land, you know you’re riding on borrowed time. A perfect, well-ridden bike trail today can be closed off for development tomorrow. I often feel envious of other countries where wild public spaces are set aside for preservation, and people are allowed to access it in a sustainable way.
Adding to this route closure, the pandemic happened, and in those first few months of quarantine, no inessential outdoor activities were permitted. I was reduced to watching cycling and outdoor adventure videos on YouTube, making a mental list of the rides I wanted to do.
However when Metro Manila eased quarantine restrictions, cycling, for sport or transport, staged a comeback.
Friends who had previously retired their bikes wiped down their frames, oiled their chains, pumped the tires, and started riding again. For some of these guys, the bike rides stopped when life took over. They had kids, or took on more responsibility at work. Bike adventures would have to wait, if they happened at all.
But now, the guys are back. Adding to our number is a whole new cadre of cyclists made up of friends who got bitten by the cycling bug during the pandemic. I realized this when, after months of hiatus, I logged back on to Strava, the ride and run tracking app, and saw old friends and new users pop up on my follow-back list.
When Metro Manila opened up again, Sinai was one of the first rides I wanted to do. Now that Timberland was closed, I checked around Strava for alternate routes. I could bike up Marcos Highway, past Cogeo, and make a left just before Cabading Elementary School; the road then connects to that road lined with red earth and pine trees that lead up to Sinai. From Timberland, one would turn left to Sinai; via this Marcos Highway/Cabading route, one would make a right.
Group rides are essentially bring-a-friend activities. And because Manila is so small, we all knew each other, one way or another. Nobody was a complete stranger.
Not only did I find an alternate route, I realized that I’d already rode this way a long time ago. I vaguely remembered an ominous cemetery along the way, and true enough, there it was on Google Maps: Heaven’s Gate. This route was paved, but it was also very steep; it had me sitting by the side of the road more than once, helmet off, trying to suck in as much oxygen as I could. Getting up to Cabading already meant a lot of climbing, but the last few kilometers up to Sinai was like biking up a wall. As it all came back to me, I knew I forgot about this ride for a reason.
But I missed the kubo, the view, the coffee and the crispy tapsilog too much. I wanted to know if the place survived the Timberland closure and the lockdown. This year has been crazy, to put it mildly, and I wanted something familiar.
I was also looking for a relatively difficult ride. At 50 kilometers round trip and some climbs, this ride would be good enough for me. It’s been over half a decade since I rode this route, maybe I’m stronger now. Yes, I also wanted something to measure myself against. I wanted to know that the pandemic hadn’t made me soft nor scared.
I messaged my now numerous bike group chats, pitching the idea of this ride that had some climbing, but could be done at a relaxed pace. I set the scene of having breakfast in a hut that had the best view and coffee east of Metro Manila. I explained that the route we were going to take was uphill but very doable. I omitted the part about the cemetery or “the wall.”
“It’s going to be a chill ride!” I said.
Only two guys were game for it. To be fair, they were the two best guys: Chris and Oscar. I went to college with Chris two decades ago, and after school, we became part of a close group of friends that often still see each other to this day (well, before the pandemic). Chris is one of the new bikers. His wife got him a bike as soon as the lockdown eased and he’s been riding ever since.
Oscar, on the other hand, was someone I made friends with on a bike ride over half a decade ago; a common friend had introduced us, and we got along so well, we kept riding together even as our common friend stopped. While Oscar himself eventually stopped riding, we still kept in touch, talking about photography, our dream bikes, and the Tour de France. When outdoor activities were finally allowed, he was one of those guys who dusted off their old bikes, tuned them up, and started riding again.
On the first Saturday of September, almost six months into the lockdown, Chris, Oscar, and I met up early in Tiendesitas to do our ride to Sinai. Our original crew of three grew into six. Oscar got his neighbor Jake to tag along, and Jake’s friend Charlie. AG, another common friend, showed up as well. Group rides are essentially bring-a-friend activities. And because Manila is so small, we all knew each other, one way or another. Nobody was a complete stranger.
We were all determined enough to finish the ride, and fortunately, the weather was on our side: not too hot, not too cold. Just right. As we rolled out, I was already thinking of the best French-pressed coffee and crispy tapsilog from that kubo on top of a hill. I could, in fact, already taste them.
(Spoiler alert: I did not get to taste any of it at all.)
We made it down Marcos Highway and up to Sumulong just fine. Past Sumulong, the road began to turn upward, and as the saying goes, the cream rises to the top. People like me, unfortunately, sink to the bottom.
I said the two best people showed up because Oscar and Chris were right there with me, huffing and puffing uphill. AG, long and lithe, was a bit ahead of us. Jake and Charlie, though, stealthily strong, just kept flying to the top.
At one point, I caught up with them at a buko stand on top of one climb among many climbs. Jake and Charlie were nice enough to wait, but I said they shouldn’t feel inclined to—and that was the last I saw of them for the day.
AG, Oscar, Chris and I kept pretty much the same pace around each other. I kept misremembering the distance and the difficulty of the route and kept saying out loud that I think we were close to Cabading (the last stop on Marcos Highway before turning into the road going to Sinai), only for Oscar to grunt back that we were still a long way from it.
“Hindi ba 10 kilometers lang yung total distance to Cabading?” I asked, in the middle of a tough stretch.
"At least 20, pare,” somebody answered back.
I wanted to know if the place survived the Timberland closure and the lockdown. This year has been crazy, to put it mildly, and I wanted something familiar.
At one point, I fell behind and decided to rest at a roadside eatery. I called Oscar on his cellphone to come back down. He was about a hundred meters ahead of me, and I could tell by the body language that he was reluctant to bike back down. After a long rest, we restarted, and after finally rounding the curve, we saw Chris and AG sitting on the curb. This began our pattern of biking for about a kilometer, then resting by the roadside to check Google Maps to see if we were anywhere close to where we were supposed to be, then biking another kilometer or two, only to collapse again by the roadside.
During these pauses we made jokes about how this coffee and tapsilog better be really good (again, we would never know); about how if we quit now, we would make it back in time for a good Korean BBQ lunch back in Tiendesitas. We began listing a bunch of restaurants we could be eating at instead of being on this absolutely not-chill ride. But often we were also quiet, just soaking in our collective misery and questioning our life choices. At one more curbside stop, someone said, “Okay na, baba na tayo.” Only for somebody to say, “Cabading na ata talaga pagkatapos ng liko na to.” And so we got back on our bikes, slowly went up and rounded the turn, and found ourselves in Cabading.
So we stopped. Except for AG, who, before I could yell that this was the place for us to stop, suddenly took off and biked on. I messaged him to say he had overshot the stop. I got a profanity ridden reply; he biked down to Boso-Boso and now had to bike back uphill to get to us.
By the time AG returned, I already had two saging sabas and two bottles of Mountain Dew. I also chose this moment to disclose that the last few kilometers up to Sinai was called, “the wall.”
Our straggling group of four made the correct choice and decided to call it a day.
Over the next couple of days, Chris would randomly text me photos of his bad sunburn, saying,
“You said it was going to be a chill ride!” (It’s fine, as of this writing, we’re meeting up this weekend for another ride, and I’m still godfather to his son, Connor.)
AG, the quietest guy in our group, had a lot of thoughts and feelings about our ride. I only know this because he blogged about it on Strava, to accompany his uploaded data from the ride. He quoted me as saying, “Any day on the bike is better than a day on the couch.” – something I also read on the Internet.
When Metro Manila eased quarantine restrictions, cycling staged a comeback. Friends who had previously retired their bikes wiped down their frames, oiled their chains, pumped the tires, and started riding again.
On that Saturday in early September, Oscar and I finished our ride back at his place, where my car was parked. We ordered in some Reyes BBQ and ate it in his garage. We talked about our past rides, the upcoming Tour de France (delayed by the pandemic) and what kind of bikes we wanted to build. The latter was an important topic because on the floor of Oscar’s garage was a new bike frame and random bike bits. Oscar was building his dream bike.
As for me, I still haven’t made it back to that kubo on top of a hill and I still think about the tapsilog and coffee a lot. Maybe one day, I’ll make it back.