It was 4:42 in the afternoon. A middle-aged man wearing a teal blue cycling jersey was resting with his white road bike at the junction of Dewey Ave. and Olongapo-Bugallon National Road. You could tell from his built that he was a seasoned cyclist. The fact that he was resting, however, meant that this veteran was not a participant in the Audax Randonneurs Philippines Subic-Masinloc Route that was about to end in less than 48 minutes. Audax is an endurance sport that originated in Italy, where riders cover long distances within a pre-set time limit; randonneuring is a free-paced version of it.
As he rested, the man watched riders on their way back to SBMA. Some were riding in groups with matching jerseys, while some privateers (solo riders) formed their own small packs as a way to conserve energy. All of them were enjoying the breezy long cruise downhill after they conquered the gruesome last incline between El Molina Beach and the Public Cemetery of Olongapo.
The seasoned cyclist, however, noticed one participant in particular, a rider in his early 30s who looked a bit overweight for his slim road bike. He donned a black jersey with the familiar white prints of a running shoe brand over black cycling shorts and a triple-black sneakers that matched the color of his Cannondale CAAD8.
He looked like an amateur compared to the cyclists who swept past the grizzled cyclist with ease. And he was in tears.
That guy was me.
I can't recall now why I cried. Perhaps, it was because I was about less than a kilometer away from the end line, or the realization that I've set a new personal best by conquering 211 kilometers in 13 hours. Maybe it was because I felt accomplished hurdling that tough last incline. Maybe it was also because of the trials I've overcome this year as a cyclist. I guess, you could say I was crying because of all these reasons so we could be done with all the theatrics real quick.
But here's the thing, I really love cycling. To me, the sport has always been a test of one's willpower. I've always wanted to be a long-distance cyclist since 2014, the year I bought my first proper ride, a 2011 Schwinn Frontier Mountain Bike. To meet this goal, I tuned my bike and turned it into a mountain bike hybrid, replacing my bike fork from suspension to rigid and the tires from 26”x2" to 26"x1.38."
I've visited my provinces in Batangas (80 km) and Mindoro (170 km) riding my bike. I considered those as my way of "camping" during the holidays.
And when I learned about Audax Randonneurs I knew it'd be my "Holy Grail" in cycling.
Last January, I gave the Rizal Audax a try. Along with my friend, we participated despite our poor preparation. Little did we know that when people said it was the toughest Audax yet, they actually meant it. As a result, I failed to reach the first check point on time.
I was defeated and humbled by the hills of Sierra Madre. From then on, I've learned that in order to achieve a goal, you always have to give more.
Inspired to ride
So I continued cycling to work. I even improved my time when I went back to Mindoro last April. By then I was planning my return to Audax; but I planned to enter the Subic 200-km. ride, a slightly less mountainous route than Rizal. And I was steadily gaining my confidence back.
But it changed after my shocking accident last August. My rigid fork broke after hitting a deep pothole, flipping me face first to the ground. The result: multiple lacerations on the right side of my face. My doctor even lost track of how many sutures she has done to my face. Also, my mountain bike was destroyed.
The worst part of it was some of my caring loved ones and colleagues asked me to quit cycling.
But I still wanted to ride. I still passionately embraced its principle. My mother also knew that eventually I would go back. A few weeks later, I bought my second bike, a Cannondale CAAD8, from a friend. I biked to work again, this time more methodically. I cautiously slowed down whenever I'd encounter downhills and potholes.
I still have Audax to conquer, I thought to myself. So last November, I told my girlfriend of my plans to join Audax again. Considering we both share the same principle, she agreed. She just told me she didn't want it to be one of the nagging "what ifs" in my life.
The real deal
With only a month of preparation, I asked my best friend if he could provide a support car for my ride. Two days before the ride, I already prepared all the things I'd need for the greatest "camping" of my life. Before we left, I thanked my mother for allowing me to ride again.
We arrived in Subic at around 12:30 a.m. We parked our car at a Ministop near Mango Valley Hotel, where the the registration and starting area were posted. Nervous, I went out to the store to have a chat with my friend.
Two drunk Indian expats named Indra and Angkit joined our conversation. They asked us why we were in Subic. My friend replied that I'd be participating in Audax. Indra, the more buff of the two, looked at me and remarked, "I don’t think you will make it." I replied that I came there to just enjoy the ride, but deep down, I thought what he said might probably be true.
The ride began at exactly 4 a.m. My pacing strategy: Ride for 25 kms then rest. At first it was easy. I was riding along with the winds of the rest of 500 other participants of the 200-km and 300-km Brevet.
I reached Cabangan at around 6:33 a.m. The check point was a small unnamed gasoline station near the outskirts of the town that was surrounded by tall pine trees. I only rested for a few minutes because there was a long line of cyclists in the stamping area. I left immediately in order to gain more lead time.
To keep me pumped, I associated the roads that I was encountering with the ones that I had already vanquished in my past long rides. The long steady road of Cabangan to Botolan felt the same as Baco. The long incline after Iba was like Lipa. And the hills of Masinloc was like the road to Puerto Galera.
I felt my first cramp in both my lower legs after I passed Botolan. My pacing strategy was disrupted. It took me three hours to get to the Masinloc checkpoint at around 9:30 a.m. At this point, many bikers already gave up; a few fatigued cyclists even collapsed in the grassy areas. What was more daunting, the return from Masinloc was even harder. Intense cramps forced me to rest after just seven kilometer away from Masinloc. It felt like I was going to fail this Audax soon. But I pressed on. After a few more inclines, I managed to reach the flats of Zambales, even doing a few sprints just to recover some of my lost time.
Still, my legs wouldn't stop cramping, becoming more severe as I neared Cabangan, the third check point. I rested until the pain in my legs dissipated. It was 1:15 p.m. When I resumed biking, the heat was getting more unbearable. I sprinted the flats back from Cabangan to San Marcelino so I could keep up with my pacing strategy again. Emotions were surging while I was sprinting at 30 km/h. I met a fellow privateer along the way. We were of the same built and his jersey combo looked like mine. He told me that he was already a Subic Audax finisher and asked to join me with my pace. I gladly agreed. He needed a companion, and I needed a guide.
He warned me of the remaining inclines that we would encounter as we returned to Subic. "Simula nung ahon sa may sementeryo," he recalled. We were unsure if we could finish the ride on time. It was already past 3 p.m. We still have less than 20 kilometers left to surmount and the roads were getting busier by the minute. We sped along at 18 km/h. Then we encountered a long downhill at the end of San Narciso. My teammate used the opportunity to speed up. I, however, stopped as memories of my traumatic accident hit me out of nowhere. I lost my guide.
I tried to increase my speed once more in order to rejoin my team. It was nearing 4 p.m. and traffic on the national road was already starting to get congested. "This is like Manila," I said to myself as I wormed my way in between stalled vehicles.
It worked as I saw my teammate who was now joined by other privateers. The lights from the establishments in Santo Tomas town were already lit. We got past a local appliance store when my friend told me, "Simula na dito yung ahon."
I felt overwhelmed after a series of inclines. I was so focused on the idea that the incline to beat was before the cemetery that I moved away from the pack in order to gather more energy. Alone, I began pedaling again. No cemetery. I passed a gate that said Preda Foundation on it. Still no cemetery, but I could see the end of the incline. So I pushed myself in order to reach the top.
That was when I realized that my friend had a mistake in his recollection—the incline started at the cemetery because we were going to Cabangan. From our direction, the cemetery of Olongapo was all downhill back to Dewey Ave. This was it. The sun was beginning to set, its muted orange light was all over Subic Bay.
I was so overwhelmed by the view that I sobbed as I descended towards Dewey Ave. At the final checkpoint, a lot of cyclists were already resting from the long ride. I proceeded immediately to the registration to record my time—211 kilometers in 13 hours. Near the bridge in Dewey Avenue on my way here, I remembered seeing a man who wore a teal blue cycling jersey. I wondered if he'd seen me crying. At this point, I couldn't care less.
I was finally back.