It was midnight on December 5, 2015, the day of the brevet…and I was still wide awake.
I just could not sleep. I had already downed two bottles of Brew Kettle and turned off all the lights in a bid to turn in early. But after four hours of tossing and turning in bed, I was awake, nervous and jittery at the prospect of facing the dragon I chose to slay.
That dragon was the 200 km Subic-Masinloc-Subic brevet.
Somehow I managed to grab about four hours of sleep as my cellphone rang its 4 am alarm. I took a shower, dressed, ate my breakfast cereal, prepared my bottles, packed my jersey pockets, and pedaled Hyro to Mango Valley 1, the start point of the brevet.
I had brought along a couple ziplock bags packed with four extra granola bars, an extra base layer, and a small tub of petroleum jelly. This was my bag of extras, to be left with the Audax Randonneurs Philippines crew inside the Team David’s Salon van. The idea was that I could grab these from a checkpoint if I needed them. Apart from this little bag, my ride was self-supported.
We set out at 5 am from Subic Bay’s Kalaklan Gate. Almost immediately, we faced a climb up dark winding roads with barely any warmth in our legs. This wasn’t a huge deal because we were still very very fresh, and the darkness was nothing my Cat Eye Volt 1200 front light couldn’t pierce at half power. Unfortunately, the darkness also meant my cue cards weren’t all that useful.
We spun along Subic town until we got to one of the first real climbs at km 13. Dropping speed to 11 km/h, we all took this climb seated as we spun up our cranks. Soon enough we were back to our original pace at around 27 km/h along dark chip-sealed roads as we headed to the town of Castillejos at km 18. As the road turned right, we encountered a nasty surprise as the surface suddenly gave way to a few meters of dust and rocks – and we all approached it blind and at considerable speed. None of us fell, fortunately.
Anyway, we recovered and went on to San Marcelino at km 25. The sunrise started greeting us from the horizon, and we were in high spirits as we kept our pace. In this first thirty or so kilometers, we basically rode in a loose pack with the other riders with some gaps here and there, eventually turning into a full-on 35 km/h train of a peloton. Unfortunately, its sheer size quickly became unmanageable for the two-lane national highway we were riding on, and nobody seemed eager to create and maintain a double paceline. Everyone wanted to run a single paceline.
At this point, Sean and I decided to drop our pace from the peloton’s 35 km/h to a more manageable 25-27. He was riding a 20″ (406 mm) folding bike, after all; trying to maintain that high speed on such wheels along the flats would have burned out his aerobic fitness, he told me. We rode two-up as the kilometers rolled by, passing the wide-open and windy towns of San Narciso and San Felipe. I kept eating one bite of granola bar every 45 minutes and washing it down with water; Sean did the same as he sat on my back wheel.
Eventually, at 6:52 am, we arrived in Cabangan, site of the first checkpoint, which was a yellow gasoline station that had sold Shell fuels in earlier days. The Team David’s Salon van was there with water and an ice chest full of Gatorade, and off we went to refill our bottles. Mine were half-frozen from the night before and they still had their ice in them.
We waited for Rowell, Adam and Nelson to arrive, then set out on our way.
There we were: three folding bikes, a road bike, and my cross bike, going onward through bridges and national highway on our way to Iba, Zambales. Most of this stretch was quiet, apart from Adam’s Bluetooth speaker playing some music and Adam himself singing along. By this time, our five-man grupetto kept to itself, with the occasional rider or two joining our group along the way, as many of the other riders had gone ahead. This is when we met many fellow newbie randonneurs, such as Gogie and Edison, almost all of whom were also in it for the 200 km distance.
When we got to Iba at km 75, there was a bit of route confusion. I had written on my cue cards that we should take Govic Highway and ride around the busy town center. However, that would also mean having to skip the Jollibee fast-food restaurant we could use for refueling. We ended up riding into town, but stopped somewhere in the middle to ask for directions. After about ten minutes, in the end we found that it didn’t really matter…and that we weren’t hungry enough to warrant the Jollibee stop anyway. As long as we rode in the general north-north-west direction, all we needed to do was get out of Iba and on our way.
On we went on quiet roads until a right turn beckoned at km 82. After this, the rolling hills of Masinloc loomed, housing the three climbs Strava recognized on the route’s elevation profile. I had soldiered on apart from the group while keeping Gogie and his matte-gray Wilier road bike company. The first started in earnest at km 87, where the road kicked up to a short rise that nevertheless sapped our speed down to 15 km/h due to 11% gradient.
The second climb hit us at km 90, lasting all of one kilometer. Following it was a short downhill stretch that spat us into the 1.7-kilometer San Lorenzo Bridge climb, which Strava classified as a Category 4 with 5% average gradient, kicking up to a 14% maximum. While comparatively short, it certainly stung, and buried our pace down to 11 km/h. Not wanting to burn out my legs, I clicked into my 34×27 gear and tapped out a slow, steady climbing rhythm with my cranks as I put my hands on the bar tops. It took about nine minutes of spinning uphill, but we were rewarded with a winding downhill blast that saw us hit 54 km/h.
As per Strava and my cue cards, it was supposed to be over, but there were still some more climbs to go. The road rolled up and down the hill, with little but noticeable rises. As I crested the very last one at km 98, my chain fell. It had dropped straight through the chain catcher and was now difficult to fish out without moving the chain catcher out of the way. Normally I would have been able to whack it into the big chainring to recover, but the lack of momentum coupled with lack of cable tension meant that my shifter wasn’t pulling enough cable to save me from stopping.
I got off at the side of the road and pulled out my multitool. I would have to move the seat tube water bottle cage out of the way first before having a clean shot at the front derailleur mounting bolt. Suddenly another rider pulled up and offered to help hold my bike up as I was wrenching. Jeremy had already been to the Masinloc checkpoint and was on his way back, but claimed he was cramping anyway so stopped to help me. He eventually figured out a method of pulling the chain through to get it back onto the chainrings, which ended my crisis after seven minutes. I thanked him for the assist as he went on his way.
The road basically leveled out from that point on until I got to the Total gasoline station that marked the km 105 Masinloc checkpoint at 9:23 am. Even with my mechanical, I still finished around ten minutes ahead of the grupetto, which reconvened. As before, I went to top up my bottles, and this time their ice had long gone. I availed of a bottle of Gatorade from the Team David’s Salon van and got some of their ice. The little gasoline station had become a hive of activity, with dozens of riders and at least six SAG (“support and gear”) wagons parked in the area – the domain of the company-sponsored cycling clubs such as Smart and Shell.
I took the opportunity to break out the multitool again and work on my front derailleur. I was getting ghost shifting, the chain moving between chainrings as I clicked up and down the rear cogs. I moved the chain catcher much closer to the small chainring, tightened the limits, and gave the barrel adjuster a few more turns’ worth of cable tension.
We stayed in the area for a bit longer to grab a small meal from a nearby carinderia (roadside cafeteria). Edison joined us inside, and eventually became the sixth man of the grupetto. Remembering Ralph’s advice, I had soup and a cup of rice with some chicken curry served on a little saucer.
Nelson said that we were making very good time as we arrived at the second checkpoint before 10 am. Unfortunately, we also had to repeat all the rolling hills we’d just ridden through – in reverse.
In many ways the return trip through Masinloc’s hills should have been harder. However, Sean had found a second wind, climbing better than he’d ever done all day, even going out of the saddle on his Trinx folding bike. I stuck to the same strategy of tapping out a smooth rhythm as I rode the climbs of km 112 and 117 in the saddle. I was faring much better than many of the riders that had SAG wagons tailing them as I passed them at a steady 9-11 km/h. The six of us reconvened after each of the three climbs.
After the final climb at km 120 came a welcome downhill stretch where we all hit at least 58 km/h. As we turned left at the junction back to the direction of Iba, Sean and I kept on having our best riding ever at a steady 28 km/h, separated by around half a minute. With less anxiety about the cut-off time, my thoughts shifted to the beautiful sights we had passed, and I stopped at one of the bridges at km 135 to take a short break due to little aches and pains all over.
“We may have dropped them,” Sean said after he arrived behind me. We broke out our cellphones and shot photos of us and our bikes. While we were composing our shots, the others arrived in short order and we shot another round of photos.
Upon resuming we agreed to keep a pace of 25 km/h. Luckily for us the weather was on our side. The noontime heat was nowhere, replaced with a cool wind and a slightly overcast sky. At one point, raindrops even started to fall singly as we spun out the kilometers.
Crossing the bridge at km 143 came a new opponent: a nasty headwind. The wind blew from our 10 o’clock, retarding our progress while pushing us sideways to the right at the same time. Edison’s road bike had deep-section Mavic Cosmic carbon wheels, and he really felt the wind fooling around with his bike’s handling. I headed the grupetto, riding in the best aero tuck I could in order to mitigate the effects of the wind, as I tried to maintain the pace…but ended up riding at 21-22 km/h. I was determined to keep the speed up, because at this point I really felt like going to the bathroom…to take a dump that had been long postponed by all the climbing. No gut distress at all, just a timing thing.
After Sean and I returned to the yellow gas station in Cabangan, km 157, I have my brevet card stamped at 1 pm and immediately head to the toilet. Edison arrived around ten minutes after, and the three of us were having lemon sodas at another carinderia across the street when Nelson, Adam and Rowell arrive at 1:30.
Even running my lights the whole time, I decided I no longer had any need for my spare front light and my powerbank, so I left them with the rest of my stuff in the Team David’s Salon van. Even with the 45-minute diet of granola bar, I found I still had enough fuel to go on without having to dig into my bag of spares. Sean spots a tap at the gas station and we cool ourselves off with its water. We wait until everybody recovers, then roll out at 2 pm for the final leg.
Even though the wind had died down, we proceed at a leisurely 22 km/h. The afternoon heat started coming our way. Edison developed a case of painful hamstring cramps, so we stop at the side of the road to rest a bit. We resume the pace after he recovered and pass through the towns backwards: San Felipe at km 167, San Narciso at km 173, and San Marcelino at km 183. I scoot to the back of my saddle, hands on bar tops, as I recruit my glutes and hamstrings and rotate the effort around my muscles.
At km 185, I felt like I needed to take a leak. I click into harder gears and soldier on ahead, alone. Approaching the town of Castillejos, I turn left into a Petron gas station and used the toilet for a quick pee break. After that I didn’t look back. Feeling good, I raised the pace to 25-28 km/h on the flats, throwing out the nutrition plan (I had a single bite in the final 30 kilometers) and deciding this was my opportunity to finish strong.
Entering Subic town proper, traffic congestion was beginning to build up. I filtered my way through the stopped vehicles, keeping pace when they got moving. Looming closer were the final three climbs going to Subic Bay, which made themselves felt at km 199. I didn’t let up because I knew I was close to the end.
Clicking into easier gears, I spun up the climbs at 13-15 km/h. At this point, my feet felt painful from wanting to contort around my cleats and SPD mechanisms for so long, and my glutes were getting sore from all the work of climbing hills, but I kept at it.
Eventually I go downhill and make the right turn into Subic Bay’s Kalaklan Gate, whooping and pumping my arm in celebration. I head down Dewey Avenue and turn into Mango Valley Hotel, submitting my brevet card at 4:48 pm – almost two hours ahead of the cutoff.
I was hurting afterwards from the fatigue, the duration of the ride and the many challenges it featured. The pain was mainly concentrated in my tired glutes, sore sit bones, numbing palms, and painful feet – all of which I felt when I attempted to squat to pick up my bottles. Amazingly, I was nowhere near any danger of cramps, especially in my calves, which are a common failure point on my legs. I had a bit of genital numbness, but I didn’t have any back pain – nor did I have any gastrointestinal distress. I was never in any real hunger, either.
Around twenty minutes later, the rest of the grupetto arrived. We congratulated each other on our efforts, especially Norman, Sean and Rowell who completed it aboard folding bikes, and let the epic level of our achievement sink in. We just rode 210 glorious kilometers! I even managed to see Gogie again and congratulated him as he rolled into the finish.
After the fix at Masinloc, I never suffered chain drop again. I still had the occasional ghost shift, but it wasn’t too bad.
My cue cards, for the most part, worked beautifully. They were off by a maximum of 600 meters, which is pretty reasonable as far as I’m concerned, and many times they coincided with the numbers on my cyclocomputer.
While the thought of riding a bicycle along a provincial national highway with cars, motorcycles, trucks and buses passing you may feel daunting, most of the vehicle drivers we encountered were generous enough to give us the room we needed to cycle in safety. Very few of them gave us less than the whole lane’s width. I was amazed that even the provincial-route bus drivers I encountered in busy Subic town proper were willing to work with me and my hand signals, only passing me when I waved them through. For this sort of courtesy on the road, we are all very grateful to the Zambales locals.
Overall, this was an awesome experience. The sense of camaraderie among us randonneurs is something that truly has to be experienced to be believed. It really was a competition against the self, not so much against others, and so many people were willing to ride along in search of a common goal.