Bali as a holiday destination is legendary but the same island doesn’t spring to mind when you think of biking. The Island of Gods is home to some of Southeast Asia’s best biking trails and there’s simply no better way to experience the heart and soul of the place than on two wheels.
Words & Photography: Steve Thomas
Being an avid and lifelong travelling cyclist, any first trip to a new destination can be a bit of mixed bag: A blend of intrigue, excitement, fear, elation, and sometimes frustration or disappointment. Or a mix of all of the aforementioned, as I experienced on my first mountain biking venture to Bali.
Despite a lifetime on the road, somehow I’d never quite made it to Bali. Not being a cycling destination of repute meant that it had somehow slipped through my net. When you hear Bali mentioned, so many conflicting images spring to mind. Often, images of endless touristic stretches overcrowded with sun seekers, bustling beach resorts and nightclubs flashing lurid neon lights are the first to come by. For first timers to this island, the promise of tranquil sandy escapes, serene spas, cultural exploration and holy retreats still offer some of the mystique of the old Bali.
Within a couple of days in Bali you’ll find it’s all of these things, and so much more too. The beauty of Bali is that it’s cunningly designed so that you can take whichever slice of it you desire and leave the rest aside.
Not being much of a beach bum, my reasons for heading to Bali were to get in some decent mountain biking and, to see the cultural and natural sides of the island, and of course, to sample the local culinary delights along the way.
The Holy Grail of Trails
It’s always tough trying to find fruitful, off-road trails and information when travelling to ‘un-mapped’ destinations. With this in mind, I’d done plenty of pre trip research to ensure there were no dead ends, and that my time would be fully blessed with great riding. I teamed up with local mountain bike tour company Bali Trailblazers, which knows just about every paddy field and volcano trail there is in this neck of the woods.
Having pored over various maps of the island I figured that the land was more or less like a great wedge, with towering volcanoes at the top end, which seemed to fade out towards the densely populated southern region. I wasn’t far wrong, which can mean some tough riding if you make wrong decisions. Most of the island’s top trails are located on the sparsely populated northern and eastern flanks, around the two major volcanoes of Batur and Agung – both impressive conical mountains that dominate the island on a clear day.
Having just a few days in Bali, cherry picking the prime rides was key, which meant hopping on a truck to get to the trails. It doesn’t take long on the road to get a feel for what Bali is all about. This place has more temples than you could shake your handlebar at. Every few seconds you’ll run into stone statues or amazing temples, and typical picture postcard images of graceful women carrying temple offerings on their heads. Lush green terraced hillsides and smiley faces abound. It is truly captivating if you can manage to keep your eyes on the road while enjoying the scenery.
Beginning at Batur
My first ride was a circular route based around the impressive crater of Batur. I began the journey around the caldera (rim), and the scenery was simply stunning. A great lake spanned the crater base, dotted with fishing villages and a patchwork of agricultural land. As I began to descend steeply into the crater, these initially distant sights rapidly became full size. The trail wound around the lake shore before climbing up to a near perfect, single-track ridgeline. These trails are used only by locals and mountain bikers are a rarity here. So, you get that pioneering sense, which is often lost in modern biking.
The lake is shadowed by the dormant and smouldering volcano, and my route took me right through a lunar-like lava field beneath it. It was an amazing ride but the best thing about it was getting into the heart of the island, seeing small villages and stopping to chew the fat with the locals as they prepared for Galungan, a religious festival. These are seriously friendly people who are fascinated by the concept of mountain biking.
Things were not too physically demanding, although it was quite a climb up to the ridge. It was largely a winding single track, which was fast but not technically difficult. However, some off-road experience and reasonable fitness are required to conquer Batur.
Batur was a great introduction to Bali’s trails, and I have to admit they were far better from a pure biking point of view than I’d ever imagined. Most of the riding is high up in the mountains, making for crisp and clear air, which is always welcomed when sweating it out on a bike.
But it was the riding that followed the next few days that really struck a chord with me.
After following the coastal road to the eastern slopes of the Agung volcano, I wove my way up an amazing hillside, which was a mass of drenched paddy fields, all neatly stitched together to make use of every patch of land. The trail wound its way up through the paddy fields and, as I climbed higher the stronger the visual impact became. On the lower slopes the paddy fields were all lush and verdant green, but as I gained altitude the vegetation thinned out and the terraces became volcanic grey and brown in colour. It became evident to me that I was biking up a large mound that was a slumbering giant and had the potential of massive destruction if awakened.
Still, every few minutes, I passed small groups of locals walking between the villages on the lower slopes and the paddy fields on the sides of the mountain, all brightly clad and carrying baskets on their heads. Despite the hardship and the real danger of living in the shadows of an active volcano, the Balinese always manage a cheerful smile, if not a bemused one to see a foreigner huffing and puffing up their sacred mountains.
The trails at Agung were definitely more physical than Batur, so you do need to be quite fit to tackle them. However, the riding took me through well-worn dirt trails that allowed greater appreciation of the scenery – both verdant and unforgiving. I was also less focussed on conquering the trail and was granted with the opportunity to drink in the beauty of nature. As for the descent from there, it was pure exhilaration!
Bali really is a great place for every kind of mountain biking. But the real reward is that you get to go completely ‘off-piste’ and see the Bali of yesteryear, as it was half a century ago – idyllic, pristine and untouched by the grubby hands of commercialism.
Blaze the Bali Trail
- The best riding in Bali is to be found around Batur and Agung, but in order to find the trails you will need a guide.
- If you’re looking for full-on downhill thrills, the ride from Abang to Tangkup (from Batur heading to the lowlands) is a good choice and has some great views along the way.
- There are lots of shorter and less demanding rides directly to the north of Ubud. You can spend hours winding through back roads and farm trails here.
- The hilly roads up to the Batur crater make for a challenging road ride, and are best tackled early in the morning. The descent from Batur to Ubud is a thrilling ride for any level of rider.
- A popular cycle touring route is the 400-km island perimeter road. However, you will need to carry your own gear for this and accommodation is fairly sparse.
- The heavy traffic around the south of the island makes riding there very uncomfortable, so best to avoid it. To the north, the rides are smoother although it’s best to steer away from main roads.
- On the mountain roads, there are numerous blind spots and traffic moves fast. Keep your ears open and pull off the road if in doubt over safety.
Choice of Ride
- A regular cross-country mountain bike with front suspension is the ideal choice for riding in Bali.
- Most organised mountain bike tours include bike hire and helmet, but you will need your own hot weather riding kit.
- Bike hire is readily available at travel agents in Ubud and other resort towns, although you may need to shop around to get something up to standard for serious mountain bike ventures.
- Taking your bike on a flight is easy. Just get hold of a bike bag or box from your local bike shop, take off the pedals, turn the bars, deflate tyres, remove wheels and pack (or better still ask your local bike shop to do it for you).
Best time for Biking in Bali
The drier months (between late April and September) are definitely the prime times for cycling in Bali, especially off-road. Outside this period is still fine for cycling, but humidity makes the going tougher and the afternoon rains are best avoided.
I rode with Bali Trailblazers, which can arrange just about anything you wish to do – be it a day trip with bike hire included, or a two-week long guided tour of the island’s finest. Fully inclusive day tours cost from USD75 upwards, depending on the group size. www.bali-trailblazers.com
SEE ALSO: Download Your FREE Bali Travel Guide
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies daily to Bali from various destinations. Go to www.airasia.com for details.