Racing my bicycle was probably the last item I had on my post-pandemic bucket list. But there I was at the start line, with the sun barely peeking over the distant mountains, feeling strangely relaxed for such a monumental event.
The event in question was the first leg of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI)’s inaugural Gravel World Series; the honor of hosting it went to our very own Bongabon in Nueva Ecija. More popularly known as the country’s (and Southeast Asia’s) Onion Capital, this quiet municipality will now also be known as where the UCI Gravel Worlds first sprouted.
As with any race, there are stakes: in this case, the top 25 percent of finishers in each age category earn their spots at the Gravel World Championships in Tuscany this October. From Bongabon’s red onions to Sangiovese grapes in six months—now that was definitely on the bucket list for the over 350 local and foreign racers who signed up for a shot at qualifying.
Admittedly, I was on the fence about joining when the race was announced in January. Lockdown restrictions were easing, but I knew a surge of infections would jeopardize the race (which at that point would be the least of my worries). So, I didn’t do anything specific to really “prepare,” outside of going on longer mixed-surface rides and doing more indoor trainer sessions. My concerns were somewhat appeased when the Inter-Agency Task Force downgraded NCR to Alert Level 1 in March, and this gave me a month to get fit enough to grind 85 km of gravel.
YOLO, as the cool kids would say.
I signed up… and found myself in the 50-54 category despite actually being 49. In UCI events, your age category is determined by birth year and not your actual age at the time of the race. Now, being the youngest doesn’t give you an immediate advantage. If anything, I was now even more pressured not to finish at the back of the pack.
Moving onto logistics: Bongabon is about three and a half hours from Manila, and a day trip is out of the question (more on this later). I reached out to some friends I knew who had also signed up for the race: Cyril and Erin, the cycling couple behind the brand Off-Kilter, and Vic, another riding buddy. Vic said they were able to book a room at Kimkamhaze Resort—I had to act fast, though, because race weekend coincided with the Bongabon Onion Festival.
I messaged the resort and they (thankfully) had one vacant room left. I made a deposit without hesitation, and booked a three-day, two-night stay for a reasonable Php 6,000. The peace of mind over a no-rush, stress-free race weekend was priceless.
No smog, no sounds of traffic; just the steady pattern of our breathing and tires rolling on the dirt to keep us company.
With most logistics out of the way, my focus now turned to the race route—and my equipment. A wealth of information was available to me: the race organizers provided data on the route via Komoot. Friends had done recon rides and shared information, photos, and videos. Rather than being lulled into a false sense of security (or start regretting my YOLO mentality), I decided to focus on the most objective of data sources—the Komoot files, which showed distance, elevation, and even waypoints for the route. I cross-referenced these with Google Earth for good measure, and a virtual picture of the course was revealed.
All in all, I was looking at a total elevation gain of almost 500 m over roughly 85 km. Most of the elevation gain happens in the first 10 km. Three climbs in total, one of which with a gradient of over 25 percent, lay in wait to make a breakaway possible, or break the spirit of unprepared racers. With the research done, a recon ride was in order: I had to see for myself if what they called “The Wall” lived up to its name.
Recon rides are done to gauge a route’s elevation changes, surface traction, and the difficulty of any technical sections.
Just over two weeks before race weekend, a monkey wrench was thrown in the plans: I woke up one morning with some chest pain. It wasn’t a stabbing sensation; more like constant pressure. Something similar happened around 6 years ago—with a numb arm to boot—and while the tests back then were negative, the middle-aged age-grouper in me was taking no chances. A teleconsult with my cardiologist had him prescribe a battery of tests for me, as well as medicine for suspected acid reflux. He also cautioned against any strenuous physical activity, at least until he gives me the all-clear.
I won’t bore you with all the test jargon, but suffice to say I was anxious and irritable while waiting for the results. My head was filled with questions: Should I give up hope on reviving my racing ‘career’ (as if I ever had one)? Would I ever get to taste a Bongabon onion? Is it time to sell all my bikes? Will I need a stent?
“Pwede kitang pahirapan, but your numbers are good—as I suspected, just a case of heartburn,” my doctor said as he leafed through my results. In a nutshell, my cardiovascular health was accounted for, and he was happy with the results. “So do I have the all-clear to race, Doc?” I asked. “Yes, you can race.”
While getting the all-clear was a victory in itself, the period of inactivity forced me to scale back my race expectations. Looking at the bigger picture, I was fine with that. The course recon would be the final pre-race reckoning.
The drive to Bongabon was uneventful, to say the least—mainly because we left Manila at 2 a.m. to make it to the agreed 6:30 am takeoff. To keep ourselves entertained (and awake), I cued up some Nine Inch Nails. Vic was as much a musician as he was a rider, and our banter swung wildly between those two topics during the drive, between sips of coffee. We followed Cyril, Erin, and Ann—Ann was part of the race committee and agreed to guide us during the recon. We made a stop at Jollibee Bongabon and ate breakfast in the parking lot, surrounded by the chilly morning air.
I had to see for myself if what they called “The Wall” lived up to its name.
With bellies full of carbs, we made our way to the Vega Grande Bridge: the site for the start, finish, and post-race festivities. It traverses the semi-dry Calaanan River, and the designated parking was underneath the spans, on the riverbed. The locals assured us that it was safe, but that Fellowship Of The Ring scene where the Nazgul got drowned by a rampaging river kept playing in my head. An albino carabao crossed in front of the car, snapping me out of my Middle Earth fantasy. We secured the cars, geared up and prepped the bikes.
Recon rides are done to gauge a route’s elevation changes, surface traction, and the difficulty of any technical sections. Due to our lack of sleep, we agreed to do only 60 km at most—personally, I like to save some surprises for race day; it keeps me on my toes. With Ann leading the way, we climbed out of the rocky riverbed and started our slow roll onto a wide gravel road.
The sedate start gave me time to acclimatize to the rural surroundings: The morning sun warm on my face, a gentle breeze blowing past my ears, the hills of Bongabon Bike Park beckoning in the distance, the soft crunch of gravel under my tires as the bike drifted in search of traction. It was a good day to be on a bike—then again, any day on a bike is a good day.
The road looked level, but my GPS indicated a gentle uphill slope. After a few kilometers of riding false flats along the riverbank, we met with Edrie, the race director, and Bans, the UCI commissaire. They were on motocross bikes, doing final course prep before the weekend. Fistbumps and kumustas all around.
“Ahon na yan after that turn,” Edrie grinned. “Palit tayo ng bike?,” I joked. We took our leave and continued on, where the gravel transitioned to a narrow, double-track dirt road flanked by farmer’s fields. The hills loomed larger, and after a gentle right turn, there it was: The Wall.
I dumped my gears—dropping to a small chainring in front and what I felt like the 8th cog on my rear cassette, hoping to maintain momentum despite the increasing gradient. The ground was well compacted, making for steady but slow progress. I shifted to my lightest possible gear combination in a bid to make it to the top without dabbing, forcing myself to take deep, controlled breaths. I hear Cyril closing in behind me. “This hill’s a bitch,” I wheezed as we crested the climb two abreast.
All in all, I was looking at a total elevation gain of almost 500 m over roughly 85 km.
We stopped to compare notes while waiting for the rest of the group, and agreed that this was the most crucial point of the race: While it was rideable non-stop solo or as a small group, there was no telling what would happen when a large pack of cyclists of different levels hit this climb. If someone dabs and dismounts, a domino effect would soon cause everybody behind to hike up. Riders who were strong (or lucky) enough to not get caught in the procession will have an advantage at such an early stage of the race.
Riding along the ridgeline, we were treated with spectacular views of the verdant valley below. No smog, no sounds of traffic; just the steady pattern of our breathing and tires rolling on the dirt to keep us company. We hit the second climb after a kilometer of skirting the hillsides: it was a shorter version of the first, which was a consolation. I dumped the gears and spun my way up and over, coasting downhill before getting hit by the right-jab, left-hook combo of the third climb.
Again, I decided to sit and spin, but unlike the first two, this climb was freshly hewn from the mountain—rough and loose dirt. I was scrambling for traction, and stalled as I rounded the left turn. I dismounted and pushed my bike the rest of the way.
We regrouped at the top, hydrating and taking mental notes. Ann assured us the worst was over. “Masaya na ito…” she trailed off as she rounded the corner, heading down the trail.
As a first timer, I chose to ride within my limits. The fast, flowy doubletrack ran down the backside of the ridge, and I was soon going at a good clip. Rocks of various sizes and deep ruts had me wide-eyed, looking for the smoothest line to go past them. I relaxed my grip on the bars and stayed loose, letting the bike dance underneath me. Some corners were flat and sketchy, with my tires suddenly breaking free then regaining traction mid-turn. “Yasss!” I was giddy with excitement. The descent was twice the distance of the climb, but the fun factor had exponentially doubled.
The dirt road leveled off as we approached a water crossing. I slowed down, eyes straining to see how deep the clear water was. I committed to a line on the right edge, and with the help of leftover momentum, splashed right in—the water wasn’t more than a foot deep. I kept going and met with the rest of the group at a corner store; by now, we were an hour and a half into the route, and the clear sky made the risen sun ominous. With the brunt of the climbs behind us, we upped the pace as we hit the barangay road that linked us to the next section: a gravel straightaway on the opposite side of the earlier riverbank. The slight tailwind was like a friend offering a gentle push, sending us on our dusty way.
The thing with riding on gravel (or off-road in general) is that unlike tarmac, it’s unpredictable: What appears like a consistent surface can hide soft patches that can grab a wheel, sap momentum, or cause the bike to fishtail. My solution was to ride light, keep a consistent cadence, and keep the bike tracking straight when approaching suspect sections. Easier said and done when you’re not riding at race pace.
With 25 kilometers in the books, we were halfway through our recon target, and at the location of the first designated race feed zone (two others would be at kilometers 50 and 65). It’s also here that the terrain changed to farmland—the domain of 4x4s and four-legged livestock—where I felt every dip, rattle, and bump. Pebbles pinged against my bike. Cow-pies were narrowly avoided; a few may have been run over.
It was a good day to be on a bike—then again, any day on a bike is a good day.
There was also an irrigation network of canals across the landscape—arteries that provided water to various crops and linked the surrounding communities to each other. The water was just a few inches deep, and the paths stretched for several hundred meters, divergent to the dirt and dust we’d gotten used to. There were several sections of these mixed with barangay roads. My socks were wet by the time we were back on the road.
A warm headwind welcomed us as we returned to the highway. Now close to noon, a choice had to be made: continue the recon, or get lunch in the shade—a no brainer. We cut the ride short and rode back to town, visiting a Korean restaurant that sold sizzling plates at Php 99. With grumbling stomachs satiated, we headed back to the cars.
The headwind continued unabated, toppling over parked bikes and slamming car doors. After a brief struggle with mother nature, we were able to rack the bikes, change into fresh clothes, and bit Bongabon a temporary goodbye—we’ll be back in a few days.