The day of my second 200 km audax ride started at 2 am with a scalded right hand.
I had availed of the “audax participant special” early breakfast from our host hotel, Mango Valley 5, which consisted of a little sandwich and some instant coffee. Attempting to make it back to my room with breakfast and coffee in hand, two participants and their bikes exited from the elevator when its doors opened. With no one to hold the door open for me, I foolishly stuck my hand into the closing elevator doorway…which reopened the doors, but upset the coffee enough for it to spill onto my hand.
Well NOW I’m awake! I said.
Meeting up with my little group an hour later, though, I could consider myself a little lucky. At five hours, I arguably had the best night’s sleep of the bunch. Manny Illana, the longtime friend I had challenged to join the audax back in February, said he had three hours of shuteye. Carlo Malantic had had even less, at a particularly restless two hours. There we were, rounded out by Girard Banaga and Brendell Fortunato, astride our bikes, waiting on the side of Dewey Avenue while the 300 km audax peloton was getting prepared for release, so that we could take our turn after they did.
Carmela Pearson, the Audax Randonneurs Philippines matriarch, stood at the start gate, microphone in hand, barking some last-minute reminders. Among the general ones were a couple of warnings – first, about the infamous steel bridge at Kilometer 69 that was slippery in the rain and had claimed many a rider; and second, about the road construction work at the very end of Dewey Avenue near Subic Bay’s Kalaklan Gate. Both areas were causes for concern.
AND WE’RE OFF
When 4 am came, we were released – the first wave of the 200 km audax peloton, which apparently was just a portion of the more than 1800 participants this time around, the most ever. I was basically a straggler in Manny’s group. They had many training rides in preparation for this event, ones I couldn’t join in due to scheduling conflicts, as they were all prospective first-time randonneurs. At the opening stages of the ride, I followed their lead aboard my bike Hyro, sticking to a comfortable 25-28 km/h pace.
Something was bothering me, though. Why was my Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT not flashing its LEDs against my power zones? And why wasn’t it tracking my heart rate as a percentage of my maximum (aka “HR%”)? Was something off with my linked sensors? I fretted about this while riding through the dark, the white glow from the peloton’s many LED front lights showing the way.
We passed through the towns of Subic and Castillejos without incident, and it was very smooth sailing because car traffic was a non-factor at this point. Unlike my previous outing, there was none of the last-minute nasty surprise road work that caught us out after a right turn within Castillejos. This time, much of the concrete roadway was serviceable enough, maybe even worthy of being called “smooth” to a casual observer. I was fiddling with the ELEMNT BOLT and confirmed my sensors were connected fine. Then I realized: I forgot to start the ride recording! We were already 19 kilometers and about 49 minutes into the ride when I finally pushed the button. Oops. At least now I could keep track of my HR% and power zones.
Riding through San Marcelino and San Narciso next, we were greeted by the winds. They were not a huge factor at this time, but they certainly brought some chuckles because they wafted the scent of choice cow and goat manure towards our noses. With the inclines largely gone and the elevation profile flattening out, we raised our pace to 28-30 km/h, letting the faster riders go past. It was at this point where cars, trucks, motorcycles, and tricycles started to make their presence felt, as they approached and passed us. We did our best to call them out to other riders and to ourselves, since we were still riding in fairly close proximity to each other and sunrise had yet to come.
The mighty sun finally greeted us at San Felipe, bathing the Zambales countryside in a welcoming glow. We kept at it until we got to the first checkpoint at Cabangan. What was once an abandoned Shell gasoline station with faded yellow signage was now operated by another, smaller brand with a light green logo.
This was the first time I had experienced the new QR code-based system that Audax Randonneurs Philippines had adopted in place of the classic brevet card stamping at each checkpoint. We all had our individually issued QR codes tested during the pre-ride check-in the day prior, and they worked just as well in the field, with the checkpoint marshals scanning our codes one by one.
After we were done with the checkpoint, Manny’s Mercedes-Benz GLK was a short distance off by the side of the road, with driver Zaldy Ferrer waiting for us. The silver GLK was our SAG (“supplies and gear”) wagon, carrying a chest cooler full of ice, and the personal effects and drinks each of us four had loaded the night before. Manny had also provided some pandesal stuffed with Spam. After we had had our quick bites and refilled our bottles, off again we went.
SPLITTING AND CLIMBING
With the sun up and the group barely 500 meters away from the Cabangan checkpoint, I reached into my jersey pocket to get my sunglasses, which were badly misted over. While trying to wipe them clean with their pouch, I had snagged my finger on the nose bridge piece, which fell off to parts unknown and rendered my sunglasses completely useless. Drat. I would have to continue riding without eye protection.
Continuing along the road, we passed through Porac, which then eased us into the famously picturesque Bucao River bridge, where many a randonneur has stopped to take photos. It was a gorgeous sight in the early morning light, the rays glinting off the riverbanks and the hills. The bridge is often mistakenly named for the next town we passed through, which is Botolan. We crossed the infamous steel bridge here, the one which Carmela warned all of us about. The steel panels themselves had a coating of asphalt for grip, but they also had gaps between them which could catch the tires of a road bike if you rode through it in the dark.
The large municipality of Iba, serving as provincial capital of Zambales, lay next. At this point, participants could either ride straight on through Iba town proper, or take a right into the quieter Govic Highway, which was a diversion road for trucks. Our group had gotten splintered as more vehicular traffic made its presence felt, and I thought I was ahead of the pack. When I happened upon the Petron gasoline station that marked the fork to Govic Highway, I pulled over and waited for the group to catch up.
Five minutes had passed. DJ Cantor, a friend of Manny’s who was also riding the audax, met up with me and asked if I had seen them. He said they may have already passed through without my knowing and gone straight into Iba town proper. I thanked him as he went on. I decided to turn into Govic Highway, as my Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT had instructed.
There were far fewer riders on the road I chose, which made for a mental respite from the buzz of the audax and the increasingly busy surroundings. Eventually I saw a few kindred souls who had turned right into Govic Highway too. Given our numbers, I decided to ride a little more conservatively in support of my fellow “breakaway artists,” and offered to take a pull at the front.
I was a little concerned that my ELEMNT BOLT had stopped giving turn-by-turn cues somewhere along Govic Highway, as if there was a reference point in its data that I should have ridden through, but didn’t in real life. Mine was the first-generation model which didn’t have real-time route calculation, so that’s that. It didn’t help that the diversion road also had a little climb at the end, and it just so happened to pass through consecutive piles of smoky burning leaves – technically banned these days but still frequent in Philippine provinces. After a quick descent, Govic Highway eventually merged with the main road, where I saw more of the riders who had gone through town previously.
Spirits still high, I left Iba and rode into the empty expanse of Palauig – the last town before the hills leading into Masinloc. Over on the right was a pretty neat solar farm, its photovoltaic panels stretching across the rolling terrain. Right after the solar farm was when the climbing started, in the town of Pangolingan.
The first two rolling hills weren’t too bad, but they set us up for what is perhaps the steepest climb of the entire course, the San Lorenzo Bridge segment, which averaged 6%. Clicking into lower and lower gears, I did my best to spin straight up the slope, lungs burning, cranking away at a sustained 220-250 W as I overtook slower riders. Even while fighting gravity, I could still click into a harder gear and deliver an overtaking burst before backing off twenty seconds later.
Winching my way up the road, I crested it after just under ten minutes…which led to a beautiful series of downhill flik-flaks with such nice asphalt. The rises that followed still gave a challenge, but nowhere near the level of the San Lorenzo Bridge climb, and this was where I was reunited with Manny and Carlo. A few flat stretches later, we made it to the second checkpoint at Masinloc.
Zaldy had done his magic again and parked the GLK in a very fortuitous spot, far enough away from the bustle of the checkpoint, but still within easy reach. As before, I restocked my top tube bag with granola bars and refilled my bottles with water, ice, and Pocari Sweat, but this time I decided changing out of my sweaty base layer and jersey was in order. Manny pulled out a vacuum flask full of very warm Campbell’s tomato soup, which made for a surprisingly effective recovery drink. Between this and all the Pocari Sweat I had along the way, I didn’t feel very hungry and felt like I could continue on. After a few group photos, we turned around and made our way back.
THE LONGEST MILE
Girard and I took point for the group as we rode the flat roads out of Masinloc toward the same rolling hills we had careened downhill at 45 km/h earlier. This time, I decided to take it a little easier and pace myself. The infamous Zambales heat was beginning to pick up; by the time we left, it had climbed from 28 degrees Celsius to 38. Girard and I had slowly pulled away from the others as the asphalt started going vertical. I was watching the 3-second average power on my ELEMNT BOLT and using it as a pacing tool, backing off whenever I hit 210 W. I had told the others beforehand that maintaining 9 km/h along these winding, curving climbs was a good pace to follow in the absence of a power meter; Girard and I were doing roughly that same speed. A long string of riders spinning their pedals up the Bamban twisties formed.
Completing the rolling hills in reverse treated us to the descent of the San Lorenzo Bridge segment, where I had hit a gravity-assisted top whack of 57 km/h. Eventually the road flattened out as we got back to Palauig. Girard had put some distance on me; even though we seemed evenly matched for power output, he was a much lighter rider. There was nothing to do but hunker down and keep cranking away, which was just as well, as the 40-degree heat was starting to really beat down on me and the concrete roads were doing a very good job of reflecting that heat right back in case I wasn’t cooking already.
I managed to catch sight of Girard as he pulled into the gasoline station that marked the merge point between Govic Highway and the main provincial highway. I decided to stop in as well to take a quick pee break and rehydrate. Girard’s friend and fellow audax participant Gio Aguila pulled up alongside us, and we all wondered about where the others had gone. After eight minutes, the three of us clipped into our pedals and rode away. It was in this group of three that I would find myself most often a part of as we made our way back to Subic.
Having started my ELEMNT BOLT’s ride recording late, I put myself at a disadvantage as I didn’t have a good idea of where the checkpoints were in relation to the distance I’d already ridden. All I knew was that I was around 19 kilometers off, which made for a crappy indicator of progress. With the infamous Zambales headwinds starting to pick up and gather strength, and my water bottle going dry earlier than expected, my mental toughness was slowly beginning to wane as I rode in front of Gio. By the time we crossed the Bucao River bridge again and gotten into a slightly woodier area of the road, I was getting pretty beat up from the heat and wind, complicated by my lower back aching from the 13-mm-too-high saddle height and road vibration. I could continue drinking Pocari Sweat, but with no water left onboard, its mild sweetness on my lips was further exacerbating my thirst. My eyes scanned the roadside for a sari-sari store I could buy water from. I badly needed a break. I told Gio to carry on.
The store I stopped at unfortunately didn’t have any water. Instead, it sold ice-cold Coke in these tiny plastic bottles. I bought one, chugged it down, and bought two more to transfer into one of my bidons. Didn’t make sense to me to waste the cold of the slushy Coke to the heat, so I figured the Bivo Trio bidon could make its cold last longer. While Coke isn’t quite the same as water for hydration, it was what I had to work with.
With slightly less demoralization, I swung my leg over Hyro and continued on my way. I distinctly remember wondering how far I had left to go before I could see the light green of the Cabangan checkpoint gas station again. Would my ELEMNT BOLT read 135 km when it showed up? It’s already at 135, why wasn’t it there yet?
Mercifully, almost anticlimactically, I made it to the third checkpoint at Cabangan. After having my QR code scanned, I hobbled over to the waiting SAG wagon on the other side of the road, where Girard, Gio, and Zaldy sat waiting. The rest of the guys rolled in soon after. My lower back was really starting to get to me, and I had a little difficulty moving my limbs from holding my riding position through the built-up fatigue.
As we were freshening up and relaxing, we decided to take it easy on the final leg. Collectively, we had made good time, well within the 13.5-hour cutoff for the distance, so we could afford to rest as long as we needed. We spent 35 minutes on the roadside before setting off on the final stretch.
A FINISH WE ALL FOUGHT FOR
The ride from Cabangan, San Felipe, San Narciso, and Castillejos was pretty much a slow slog. I had told them about a ten-o’clock headwind from my previous attempt; now it was even stronger and kept punching us right in the face, dead-on. Girard, Gio and I had a bit of respite whenever we chanced upon built-up areas and townships, but whenever we found ourselves in the open, we were at the mercy of these blustery, invisible walls. Seven years ago, I was doing 22 km/h in a paceline. This time around, I was targeting just 20.
It got to the point where Girard and I bogged down at 18-19 km/h and could go no faster, even when I was pushing a steady 135 W. Mercifully, the heat had let up somewhat. The two of us decided to take a short break at a roadside eatery and wait the winds out a little, which worked in our favor.
Upon arriving at Castillejos, Girard asked if we wanted to take a final break before we tackled the last few climbs back to Subic. We ended up waiting for the guys for twenty minutes at a 7-Eleven a short distance from the edge of town, where he munched on a pork dumpling as a pre-climb meal. Shortly after they arrived, we went on our way, but not without drama. Manny had run over one of those large brass staples, puncturing his rear wheel and clacking against his bike’s seat stay junction in the process. He quickly yanked the staple off and gave the rear wheel a spin for its sealant to do its job. Sure enough, the white foam oozed out of the tire and seemed to plug up the hole the staple left in the tire tread. Off we went.
Again, I found myself behind Gio and Girard as we bombed down the road from the Subic public cemetery. The road flattened out again and this time we were in Subic town proper, battling the early afternoon traffic congestion. With the goal so tantalizingly close, we carefully picked our way lane-splitting through the stopped cars and trucks. The final approach to Subic Bay’s Kalaklan Gate had these little hills that we had to climb up at 13 km/h…only to be greeted by even more traffic congestion as the road wound its way into Kalaklan Gate. With some patience and a firm hand on the brakes, we eventually squeezed our way through the right turn into Dewey Avenue through Kalaklan Gate…and finished the audax!
While Gio, Girard, and I finished at roughly the same time, the others rolled into Mango Valley Hotel 1 within six minutes of us. Carlo, who had humorously complained earlier about his butt not being friendly with him any more, now said he could finally give it some rest. Apparently, Manny’s puncture from the staple wire was still ominously leaking air slowly, so he had to sprint to the finish to make sure his rear tire didn’t run out of air. We claimed our medals, posed for photos, and took up Manny on his invite to dinner at Anvaya Cove half an hour’s drive away.
Except for me, at least. I was simply in no shape to drive. My lower back needed its rest after all the road vibration and riding at improper saddle height, and my wife Mav swore she saw me shaking from fatigue. If I had gone with the guys for dinner, I might have spoiled the evening for them.
Things have definitely changed within the seven years of my last 200-kilometer audax. Not to belabor the point, but the blustery headwinds and high temperatures of the return leg were definitely the talk of the ride, even among many other participants. While the riding was still generally safe, and most motorists were willing to share the road with us crazy folks on bikes, there were a few hairy situations and close calls.
Maybe it’s my previous experience riding here, but it’s amazing how straightforward the route is and how much less daunting the distance is between towns and landmarks, compared to my first time. Then again, the heat and headwinds did a real number on my mental toughness on the way back, so maybe this is me talking out my ass.
A former colleague of mine, KR Malonzo, finished the same distance shortly after we did. I had invited him over Facebook Messenger, but wasn’t sure if he committed. Turns out he did, with style!
Our little group finished pretty strongly too. Some of us may have been stronger riders than others, but to finish within six minutes of each other shows just how dedicated these guys were to finishing their first proper audax. None of us succumbed to the kind of cramps that debilitated enough to be ride-ending, although we certainly felt their onset! I could tell they trained for the event, all those Saturday mornings I couldn’t join them in their rides, and it definitely paid off.
I am glad I could help introduce a handful of people to the magic that is the Philippine audax ride, and it was an honor to have ridden with these gentlemen.