From cyclists to highwaymen: 7-Eleven Tour 2019 @ SCTEX

Rediscovering cycling in 2013, I immediately found I had missed out on a magical cycling event in 2012 organized by 7-Eleven, in honor of their 700th store location. That event gave participants the chance to ride a closed-down section of the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX). For people in the US, this is a high-speed toll road which I consider the closest equivalent the Philippines has to California’s Highway 5, as it cuts through swathes of mostly agricultural land.

While there were duathlon events before which had their bike leg on SCTEX, people had to wait a full seven years before a repeat of 2012’s pure cycling event would happen. I decided to grab the opportunity, now called the 7-Eleven Tour 2019.

Photo credit: 7-Eleven Tour Series Facebook page.

For 2019, the race starts at the SCTEX Clark South exit. Participants then ride towards either Floridablanca (48 km route) or Tipo (106 km route) before making a U-turn and going back to Clark South for the finish.


Signing up for the event was very convenient: go to their website, select your desired distance, select your starting wave, fill up the relevant information, and receive payment instructions via email. I paid in cash at a nearby 7-Eleven store. They told me to return to claim my race kit in two weeks…which it did, like clockwork.

Jolly well done, 7-Eleven.

For PhP900, it’s a basic race kit, but it does the job. Two RFID-tagged bibs, a number tag, two zip ties, and a finisher shirt round out its contents. As it turns out, my friend Joseph Carunungan’s company Nitto Printing did printing duty here. Honestly, I would rather have this than a more expensive race kit packed with useless fluff. This is registration and race kit creation done right, for the most part.

Always a little jarring to see Hyro stripped of his fenders. I get reminded of how non-aerodynamic he really is hahaha!

My only real issue is with the design of the bibs. The seatpost one is just too big and interferes with many saddlebags, which are a necessity because 7-Eleven requires participants to carry their own spares and service their own bikes in the field should any issues arise. The actual RFID tags really aren’t that big.

I’m pretty sure I screwed up the RFID tags with how they got creased and folded up when I mounted them to Hyro, but meh…que sera sera.

Transporting Hyro to Clark rested squarely on my Minoura Vergo-TF2 in-vehicle bicycle transport base and optional front wheel holder. This was its maiden voyage and served as a test of its capabilities; a full review will be coming soon.


The start/finish line arch.

I rode the 7.5 km from our hotel to the staging area. Once there, I would end up waiting for about 90 minutes, as I was part of Wave L and we were not released until about 6:30 am. Of the 106 km waves, Waves L and M had the most generous cutoffs at 5 hours, 15 minutes. Realistically, I knew I was never going to factor in the top ten, so I left the sharp end of the race to stronger riders, and treated this ride as an audax of sorts.

I’m glad I ended up taking my cycling cap off.

Once we were let out, a quick flik-flak was all that separated us from the smooth tarmac of the SCTEX. It is testament to the impeccable maintenance of this highway that road cyclists can barrel downhill along its slopes, at speeds of 60 km/h and up, as we made our way to Floridablanca.

Once you get used to the novelty of cycling down a motorway, the SCTEX presents its own unique challenges. It’s a wide open stretch of road, so the winds are ever-present, and it’s tough to ascertain where exactly it’s coming from. It feels like you are enveloped in a headwind wherever you go.

If the SCTEX lulls you into a false sense of security or boredom while driving, it flips all that into potential despair and foreboding on a bike. Because the scenery is so flat and samey with each kilometer that passes by, it’s very easy to get discouraged. I made it a point to keep eating a bite of granola bar every 20 minutes to fend off the bonk, as this was going to be a long day on the saddle.

During the first quarter of the 106 km route, all the downhill stretches help you maintain enough momentum to make short(er) work of the climbs that follow. Every bit of preserved momentum helps, and speeds will drop from 50-60 km/h to a manageable 25-30 uphill.

The SCTEX flattens out past Floridablanca, entering into an even windier sector where maintaining a low, aerodynamic position is helpful for conserving energy. I found a little grupetto of four and sucked its wheels for a good 15 kilometers, even taking a pull up front, before the others dropped me a couple kilometers before the gentle climb to Tipo.

I managed to catch up to Manila Coffee Cycling Club regulars Lito Vicencio, James Rosca and Gavin Ng, who started two waves up from me. The summer heat was starting to make itself impossible to ignore. I was still feeling good…but as it turns out, this wasn’t going to be the case for long. Stopping to pick up some very warm water at the Tipo turn-around and hydration station, I entered the third quarter of the route after about 90 minutes.

Approaching Tipo, the doorstep of Subic Bay.

I was unlucky enough to get caught with a smattering of participants who had no idea how to perform a proper overtake. I am fine with getting overtaken, but it is the duty of the passing cyclist to carry enough speed over the cyclist being overtaken. An incomplete, half-wheeled overtake will just result in the overtaken cyclist’s front wheel getting caught in the passing cyclist’s rear wheel, causing the overtaken cyclist to fall. Clearly this point was lost on these half-wheeling guys and girls, and I was wasting energy trying to get clear.

At this point, I was developing pain on the outside of the soles of my feet, which meant I wasn’t putting out the same power as earlier. Trundling along at just under 30 km/h, where I was previously pushing 33 with the grupetto, I was also aware that something about my rear tire was amiss.

And then we found the price we had to pay for the 60 km/h descents.

Elevation profile of the 106 km route.

The final quarter of the route was where the SCTEX bared its fangs. Complicated by the inescapable heat, which we learned had hit a searing peak of 42 degrees Celsius, we had the arduous task of climbing up the slopes of Floridablanca and Porac, and it was pretty slow going. There was some relief in the Floridablanca hydration station, where three volunteers “showered” me with bidons of cold water (very welcome at this point!), but the same wind that had helped cool us down at speed transformed into hot devil’s breath below 20 km/h, prickly to the skin.

A slight downhill opened up to the hardest test of the course: the 8.3-km climb up to Porac. Whatever speed I had carried prior was well and truly decimated, as I was down to 10-11 km/h attempting to spin the cranks as close to 80 rpm as I could. All the while, my feet were under increasingly unbearable pressure with each pedal stroke, and the sun’s heat bore down on us like an invisible hydraulic press. I was grateful the last hydration stop allowed me a refill of relatively cool water.

The cyclists alongside me had seen a couple of loaded tractor-trailers on the other side of the SCTEX, their big diesel mills laboring at slow speed up the same inclines we were trying to pedal up. They remarked, if these things were having trouble climbing these Porac slopes, what chance did we have? I kept at it, although ultimately capitulated at kilometer 96 and stop under some shade for four minutes. My feet were in just too much pain, and I had to let off the pressure even a little, as Lito and James passed me by.

Fortunately, kilometer 96 was also the last of the climbing. It was downhill from there and I was able to aero-tuck my way back home, humming along at 31 km/h and ultimately finishing a few minutes before the four-hour mark.

91st of 190 in my age group, and 524th of 1,224 overall.
Apparently my RFID bibs still worked.
No negative splits here; the second half of the route definitely took much longer to complete.


Yours truly with Lito Vicencio, James Rosca, and Gavin Ng of the Rapha Cycling Club.
Photo credit: Lito Vicencio.

Due to the unrelenting heat and general soreness all over, I didn’t stick around for too long after the finish. Besides, there was little shelter at the finish area and I still had to ride another 7.5 km back to the hotel.

Quite scarily, the finish line arch collapsed right behind me as a gust of wind got the better of it and defeated the lag bolts that had kept it upright, but it fell clear of any potential injured parties. That mishap aside, I was able to catch up with Lito and the gang, as well as Joseph himself, who had successfully completed the 48 km distance on his Tern folding bike, in what was his longest (and no doubt toughest) ride yet.

Some adobo rice toppings, a banana, and a welcome cold bottle of Pocari Sweat later, I was back on the road, too tired to sustain any speed past 18 km/h, and with too soft a rear tire due to the slow puncture finally winning out. It started the day with 85 psi; by the time I got to the hotel, I was tempting the pinch-flat gods at 20 psi.

Data straight from my Cat Eye Padrone Digital cycle computer.
My average speed could have definitely been a little better; I was in the 31 km/h range in the first half of the route. Still, 27.4 km/h is a huge improvement.

What could I have done differently, in hindsight?

Perhaps I should have played a strategic game and taken it a little easier at the start, especially since I would be climbing the same vicious hills that provided that gravity-powered rush to 60 km/h at the beginning. Or perhaps I should have looked for a wheel to draft behind earlier on. Finally, prepping for the race, perhaps I should have changed out that pesky inner tube at the back, or even gone with my ratty old Shimano RT33 shoes instead of the narrower, clammier XC5s, because their wider soles had better forefoot varus support.

All told, I think I did as well as I could have. I trained smart, made good use of my outdoor ride time, and I’m pretty sure some of my weight gain came from muscle. The sun made sure to brand the memory of the event onto my reddish forearms, but this event was a fantastic test of mental fortitude and I had no regrets joining it.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take another seven years for a repeat, shall we?


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