By Lea Tan (14S06B) and Mathew Gan (14A01C)
Just over a month ago on the night of the first of June, a small corner of Bishan Park was abuzz with activity. Nearly a hundred blue bicycles were arranged on top of a small hill, with several canvas bags full of cycling helmets placed nearby. The sky was pitch-dark but we couldn’t have been more awake. Hype Up, Stay Up, Gear Up; that was exactly what we were about to do.
Participants had been split into groups of eight, each led by three student members of Raffles Outdoor Adventure and Activities Club (ODAC) who acted as the guides and facilitators of our night adventure. They had already traveled the route once as a CCA, and were well-prepared to help us along. Starting times were staggered to avoid clutter along the route we took, which led us through exactly 54.77km of park connectors and cycling tracks. We kicked off at Bishan Park and planned to travel through Serangoon and Punggol Waterway Park, then cycle along the north-eastern border of Singapore, a route that would take us right to Changi Airport and finally on to the familiar southern beaches of East Coast Park.
In short, it was going to be a long night.
ODAC had taken great pains to ensure our safety, as participants had to be screened for cycling proficiency and were thoroughly briefed before the event. Bicycle lights were also installed on every bicycle (white in front and red at the rear), while helmets were made mandatory when cycling.
In any case, we put on our helmets, and hopped on the bikes, which were all loaned from bicycle rental shop Cycle Max at East Coast. Very soon, we were off.
Those who were with us for the night cycling event would probably agree that the circuitous route we cycled was not to be scoffed at. Riding in the dead of night was not exactly a walk in the park. We had to traverse the East side of Singapore in its entirety, with the route winding through Singapore’s urban hills and patches of secondary forest. By the end of it all, most groups had totalled a full six hours of cycling. As we traveled in two different biking groups, we would like to share our individual experiences below:
“6 hours non-stop on a bike, butt sure concave la.” That was a sentiment voiced ad nauseam during our pre-event hype, and we were about to realise just how true it was. Bike seats are only pleasant to bounce along on, best appreciated in short rides of fifteen to thirty minutes – cross that half-hour mark and they turn to veritable rocks. Road islands and traffic lights provided much-needed rest for our poor unadjusted behinds during the first hour, when most of our journey was made through park connectors winding alongside main roads. Kudos to the guys – we have no idea how you did it.
(Mathew: Don’t ask me, I’ve got no idea too.)
The punishing route we had to endure was a test of physical endurance, brute strength, and sheer mental willpower. We cycled for periods of thirty minutes to an hour, with a few rest-stops along the way. We watched the kilometres fall away beneath our wheels, and even when our bodies longed for rest we focused on pedaling one foot after the next.
Encouragement from guides and teammates, our combined determination and plenty of endorphins kept us going even when the trail went from flat road to more challenging terrain. Our route took us through big puddles in Serangoon and mud in Punggol, and a monotonous 7-kilometre long straight road which ran alongside the Changi Airport runways. At about three a.m we rode through a stretch in Pasir Ris where we spent nearly fifteen minutes cycling steadily on an uphill incline, our thighs burning but having to pedal on for metre after metre because we couldn’t stop without backsliding. But with the uphill struggles also came the exhilarating downhill slides, the most memorable of which let us cruise for a good few kilometres, sometimes at hurtling speeds where we had to muster all our concentration and skill in order to maneuver around poles, grass patches and puddles on the path.
In all battles fought and won, as we have, there is always a price to pay. In our haste to conquer the route, and overcome the night, we witnessed injuries, crashes, and morose groups waiting by the roadsides for spoilt bikes to be fixed. Lea’s group sustained no casualties, but my group was not so fortunate. As clichéd as this may sound, one of my group’s riders fell just before we reached our resting point, the Punggol Jetty. The wheel of fate must have been spun for the injury, as the fall was simply the result of numerous unfortunate factors.
First was the light. For some reason, the street lamps were turned off on the day we rode, even though they had been on a couple of days ago when the recon team from ODAC checked the route. The waning moon offered little moonlight, while the trees and clouds filtered out the remaining light, forcing us to ride through the opaque darkness. Our leading ODAC guide held a torch in front, and our accompanying teacher held up another from behind us. Normally we could have trusted the red, flashing light on the bike in front of us to lead the way, but the problem was that the trailing half of my group got cut off from the leading half by a faster group zipping past us. We were forced to slow down to let them pass, and my friend lost the light trail in front.
While I still benefited from the light my group’s teacher was shining from behind, it did not reach my friend, who was a few paces ahead, lost in the dark. With his obscured, my friend, was unable to make the sharp turn, and his flashing red light dropped suddenly before disappearing into the ditch.
“Holymama!” was how one of my friends aptly described the situation.
The aftermath was a bicycle full into the drain and one shocked friend plus a few scrapes.
Of course, our teacher did not hesitate to apply first-aid. We made it to the checkpoint, and it was there that our teacher had to make the sad decision to send him to a clinic to get patched up. (Eventually, he required three stitches on his chin.) Even though we were saddened to leave our friend behind, we waved goodbye as we surged forward yet again.
Cycling 54.77km in a single stretch was a rare opportunity, and the night time setting made the experience even more memorable. The dark, the quiet, and the subconscious awareness that the rest of the island was sound asleep gave us all a thrill of adventure. Cycling in the dark was a new experience in our brightly-lit city. We hardly do see Singapore during the silent pre-dawn hours, and Gear Up let us appreciate it all. The usually crowded parks were empty save for us, a couple of lovers, some avid fishers and camping families. We saw sights seldom seen – a group of ‘trannies’, lingering prostitutes, the homeless curled on mattresses by the road. Gear Up was also held on same night as the Sundown Marathon. We turned into East Coast Park as the race had just concluded and passed by heaps of used 100plus cups, exhausted volunteers and the one or two stragglers in the race. Most beautiful of all, the scarcely-seen stars came out at two in the morning and were indeed breath-taking.
The last leg of our journey brought us to East Coast Park, where we parked by the still-closed rental shop. But it was not the end of our journeys just yet. Public transport was yet to open and we were all exhausted and more urgently, we were hungry. Thankfully there was a McDonald’s about 400 metres from our end-point. Boy, were we happy to see the light at the end of the tunnel – never have the shining brilliance of the golden arches been more inviting.
Happily (and extremely gratefully), we plonked ourselves onto the plastic chairs. All we had left to do was wait till sunrise. A few groups wandered off to the nearby beach, some cyclists had put their heads on the tables and were dead to the world. We were laughing, taking photos, and exchanging cycling stories, all of us immensely proud of ourselves and each other.
Our heartfelt thanks go out to the organisers of Gear Up 2013: Raffles ODAC and the teachers-in-charge, as well as the alumni and teachers who volunteered to accompany teams on our night time adventure. We will never forget those six hours biking alongside friends through a Singapore transformed by night, while the orange moon rose and disappeared into the dawn.