MTB newbies' first crack at Maarat Trail a learning curve - and exhilirating experience

Sep 25, 2013
The group of newbies on a high at the end of its first taste of the Maarat Trail. Photo courtesy of Minette Bassig

“DO mountain bikers grow old?”

This was the alarming thought that suddenly popped into my head as my bike sped down a rocky slope along the Maarat Trail on what has turned out to be a rainy and muddy Sunday morning.

Just a few hours before, I found myself waking up early to prepare and then drive to the designated meet-up place at McDonald’s El Pueblo where after a hurried breakfast we proceeded to the town of San Mateo in Rizal province, “The Mountain Bike Capital of the Philippines”.

The invitation to experience Bike PH first-hand was graciously made by Travel Factor managing partner Cedric Valera, who I interviewed earlier in the week about his travel adventure company’s latest brainchild - a mountain biking tour of famous trails. Towards the end of our talk, Cedric asked if I was available to join Bike Maarat this coming Sunday. After spending half the day mulling the offer, I texted Cedric that I would like to try it out.

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So here I was inside an air-conditioned van with the other participants who I made a point to get to know: my seatmate was Minette, a charming and spunk young lady who worked in a leading BPO; there was bespectacled Cha who arranged the bike trip for her boyfriend Bryan as a birthday gift, and Christine, an inquisitive individual whose small frame belied a level of toughness since she was joining a climb to Mt. Pulag next month. I also learned all of us were Travel Factor veterans, having taken at least one trip before this one.

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Looking out the window of the van as we continued to gain elevation, it was obvious that San Mateo attracted a large segment of Metro Manila’s weekend warriors from the MTB and trail-running communities.

Less than an hour after we left Ortigas, we were at the Giant Store along the Sapinit Road - the designated starting point of every Bike PH trip along the Maarat Trail. The truck carrying our equipment arrived a few minutes later. The arrangement was for a participant to pay a fee (in this case P1,950), show up, and Bike PH will do the rest, including providing the bikes.

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Our Bike PH guides Ayie Aquino and EJ Quiroz were soon supervising the unloading of the bikes that we were going to use. A closer inspection of our rides revealed that these were Giant hardtails that had dual front-fork suspension and disc brakes similar to what cars use. EJ explained that these were necessities since the trail was really hard on MTBs and that regular bicycle brakes will fail in the mud-clogged conditions.

Before being assigned our bikes, our guides took our measurements (based on height and the length of our limbs) so we were paired with the right-sized MTB (I got a medium). We were each issued bottled trail water that fit securely on the bike frame and adjustable Spyder helmets.

Since we were all beginners, the guides conducted a short briefing that covered a) riding do’s and don’ts, b) etiquette on the trail and c) useful mountain biking tips and techniques.

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Prior to hitting the trail, we were encouraged to take our bikes for a spin on the paved road to familiarize ourselves with changing gears, braking and reminding ourselves how to maintain balance. We were instructed not to overtake the lead guide and advised there was a sweeper whose job it is to make sure we stay with the group at all times.

Since this was an immersion trip, Bike PH chose the “easier” portions of the Maarat Trail. Now let me explain that “easier” is relative. For a newbie, it meant at times you were pushing your bike uphill (everyone except the guides); losing control and falling in mud pools (as Minette did); and getting mired in muddy ground (as everyone did, particularly Bryan).

It began to rain as we tackled the initial part of the tripn and we had to go uphill on what seemed to be intimidating terrain that was strewn with rock and mud and surrounded by vegetation. To my chagrin, I found myself walking alongside my bike rather than riding on it as we started.

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EJ patiently instructed everyone how to use the gears and brakes and pretty soon everyone was taking advantage of the bike’s embedded technologies and added with the proper use of pedal power, our little band stayed mounted and soon moving at a decent pace.

The trail soon opened to a paved road lined with baby pine trees - a welcome site after the rough trail we just emerged from and we were whooping it up as we sped downhill.

Soon the road ended at a gate and a sign that told us we were at the Rizal-Marikina City boundary. Ayie, one of our guides, made sure everyone was hydrated. He told us the next part of the trail, past the gate, was mostly downhill but was rough that even 4x4s had to be occasionally towed.

This was the best part of the trip.

During what I felt was a fast descent verging on the suicidal, I was trying to convince myself to follow the guides’ advice not to engage the brakes and to take it slow and safe (doing so will make you lose control, I was told). A part of me was elated that I did since the devil-may-care plunge made me feel so very much alive. I guess the prospect of ending up as a tangled heap does that to a person. Mud-soaked, rain-wet and bone-tired, I made it without doing a semplang and stopped at a curve to contemplate my good fortune.

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My luck seemed to have come to an end when Christine, who was behind me, came in a little bit too fast and was screaming when she did. I braced for impact but fortunately her brakes slowed her down and she managed to stop just as her front wheel came into contact with my left leg (Whew!).

As a reward for my near brush with abrasions and possible bruising, I bought fresh buko for P20 at a makeshift stall along the trail.

Near the end of the ride, we encountered fast-rolling fog at the head of the trail that soon limited visibility to around 20 feet. We were trying to convince ourselves we were just several minutes away from the city! It was a good thing we were already at the Timberland road when it started to pour really hard.

No one seemed to pay the rain any attention as our group whooped it up while taking the customary photos. A short ride took us to a small, open air cafeteria for brunch (covered by the fee) where we had really good suman latik and tapsilog downed with cold bottles of the appropriately named Mountain Dew. By this time we were shivering in our wet clothes but our good spirits held up as we get to ride another day.

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For more information on Bike PH, visit their website at www.travelfactor.org. Bike PH would like to acknowledge Cedric Valera of Travel Factor HQ for the opportunity.

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The group of newbies on a high at the end of its first taste of the Maarat Trail. Photo courtesy of Minette Bassig
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