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New Territory: Hong Kong Big Ride

In-depth
18 Apr 2019
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This article was originally published in issue 85 of Cyclist magazine

Words Peter Stuart Photography Rob Milton

It’s not easy to pump up an inner tube with an industrial air compressor. That is becoming increasingly obvious as I watch my local guide, Roy, attempting to fashion a presta valve adapter from scrap parts in a car garage bin.

A trio of unfortunate events has brought us here. Firstly, I managed to get a flat tyre in the first kilometre of our ride. Then my hand pump broke. Then we discovered that every bike shop in Kowloon is shut until 11am.

A team of car mechanics has taken on the challenge, and they bicker in Cantonese around my wheel as they try to craft a suitable makeshift fixture to affix to my valve. Eventually they hit the button on the compressor and I have a moment of panic as the machine roars violently and I see my tyre inflated to 100psi in under a second.

The tyre holds, there are cheers all round and Roy gives me a look of pride. It was he who recommended this particular garage.

The chaotic scene has set the tone for our day in Hong Kong. It’s a region that seems to somehow outpace itself, with every corner of the city alive with activity.

Like much of China it has seen a recent explosion in road cycling, and although it may not seem like an obvious riding venue, especially while standing beside the eight-lane highways of Kowloon, there are pockets of solitude among the mayhem. As I am about to discover.

Think of Hong Kong and you probably picture a dense cluster of high-rise buildings and neon lights, but there are plenty of escape routes for local road cyclists. Many head out to Lantau Island, where the western coast is still rich with wildlife and forests. Some club rides circle Hong Kong island and finish on Victoria Peak, which overlooks the city.

Then there’s the New Territories, once the rural backwater to the bustling city of Kowloon on the mainland, where some of the best undiscovered gems of Hong Kong are to be found.

The twists of Tai Mo Shan

Today we have our sights set on Hong Kong’s two most iconic climbs: Tai Mo Shan Country Park in the New Territories, and Victoria Peak.

It’s possible to ride both in a single 123km loop, albeit one involving a ferry trip and some rather dicey traffic around Kowloon City (one of the reasons many locals ride very early in the morning).

Given how the day has gone so far, we’ll consider our options once we’ve returned from the 950m heights of Tai Mo Shan. Following the flat tyre incident, we restart our ride in Lo Wai to the north of the city, at the base of the first climb.

I say ‘we’, but I’m riding alone today, as Roy is driving our photographer in between dispensing a wealth of local knowledge and the occasional nugget of tyre repair wisdom.

It only takes a couple of turns off the main road before I find myself on a wide, empty road with a leg-warming 10% incline. Immediately the buzz of the city dies away as I head upwards into the rural expanse of the New Territories.

The New Territories were given their name when the British were leased the lands from China in 1898 on a 99-year agreement. That came to an end with Hong Kong’s handover back to the Chinese in 1997, but the name still seems apt.

It feels somehow undiscovered, mainly because the Hong Kong government has been eager to preserve its parklands, even as the city’s population has expanded. As I gain elevation the temperature creeps up to the mid-30s despite cloud covering the sky above me.

Hong Kong often has this strange mixture of sunshine and cloud – it’s known as ‘the haze’, Roy tells me, and it’s one of the reasons the government is encouraging cycling. The summit of this climb is an observatory at 950m, 12.7km from here, which will take me above the smog of the city.

The upper slopes are restricted to cyclists and walkers, which is welcome, although the observatory itself is guarded by the military so we will need to be wary of taking pictures near it. The first 6km of the climb ticks by, with only the occasional steep ramp to negotiate.

While the average incline is not difficult, I’m drawn to a halt at one point by a wedding party. It appears I’ve interrupted their photoshoot, and as the groom looks on, the bride stumbles from the bushes to shoot me an angry stare. I apologise, wish them the best for the future and push on.

The higher I climb, the more I understand why Tai Mo Shan is such as popular site to visit. The views over the city are incredible, and I imagine it must be even more spectacular at night, with all the buildings lit up against the backdrop of the dark forest.

Eventually the straight road becomes a series of tightly packed hairpins, with the gradient pitched somewhere between 5% and 10%. Turning a corner I come across a group of riders taking in the views, and decide to stop for a chat.

They speak only a few words of English (although far more than I speak of Cantonese) but manage to convey that they’re from the north of Hong Kong, and point towards the region they’ve come from. From what I can gather, they’re warming up for tomorrow’s closed-road Hong Kong Cyclothon, an annual event that attracts almost 6,000 riders.

This year’s is special in that it culminates in the final of the Hammer Series, so local cyclists will also get to watch some of the world’s top pros in action. After waving them goodbye I head for the observatory, which is a further kilometre up the road.

On my arrival I’m greeted by an imposing high-security fence and warnings not to take photos. In all it has been an excellent 13km of climbing, but there isn’t much reason to linger, so I turn around and dive into the descent.

Quick-Step coasters

I have the road back to the start of the national park all to myself. It’s narrow but open enough that I can see what’s up ahead, so I’m able to carve through its corners like it’s some sort of purpose-built crit circuit.

I wave briefly to the wedding party again as I dash past, and before I know it I’m turning back onto the main road to head north, deeper into the New Territories.

Just 10km from here is the border with mainland China and the industrial city of Shenzhen, where a huge number of the world’s carbon road bikes are made. Perhaps that’s one reason why the riders of Hong Kong all seem to be astride expensive-looking carbon frames.

I head along a narrow road for 10km towards the coast, which is a little busier than it looks like it should be, but Roy explains that it’s serving as a route to the Chinese border while various works are being done on other roads.

Fortunately it’s not long before I can turn off onto a picturesque and perfectly built coastal bike path. It’s heaving with cyclists, transporting goods, gas canisters and even in one case a moped by bicycle.

Among the users, to my great surprise, is the entire Deceuninck Quick-Step squad. They’ll be racing in the Hammer Hong Kong event tomorrow and are clearly getting some final miles into their legs.

I recognise Philippe Gilbert at the front of the pack, and give him a friendly wave as though he were an old mate. He looks at me curiously and passes by without a gesture.

From here it’s time to head back towards the main island of Hong Kong so I can take a crack at the iconic Victoria Peak. Had we set off at 6am as most locals do, riding to the ferry port might be fine, but with rush hour now in full swing I don’t fancy my chances with the chaotic and often hostile traffic.

Instead, I hop in a cab, bike in hand, and set off for the base of the Peak.

Victoria Peak

On Tuesday mornings, an ascent of the Peak is standard for most local club riders in Hong Kong. It’s no wonder. Rising to an elevation of 552m, it’s a surprisingly serious climb to be in the middle of a metropolis.

It has also seen quite a few pro riders among its fastest climbers – only yesterday Tom Dumoulin and Team Sunweb rolled up it. It’s 6.7km to the summit, and its longest constant stretch of ascent runs for 5.4km at 5%.

On paper, it’s a breeze compared to the Tai Mo Shan climb of this morning, but it offers a very different experience of Hong Kong, including a fair amount of traffic to contend with. By contrast, the backside of the Peak offers a traffic-free ascent, but mixes a very broken road surface with a footpath and a series of stone steps. I’ll happily stick to the main road.

Sitting in the middle of the island, Victoria Peak was for many years near uninhabited and almost inaccessible. Its height spared it from the rush of development during the early period of colonialism, and it became a sanctuary in the centre of the metropolis.

It was here that British governors built their summer homes, and until 1927 the Peak was reserved for wealthy European settlers. To this day houses on Peak Road are some of the most expensive in the world.

The ride up the Peak starts from the cheerily named Happy Valley, heading up Stubbs Road away from the city and through a forest that offers glimpses of the urban sprawl through gaps in the trees.

It strikes me how quickly the road gains elevation. It’s almost surreal to glance out at the feet of skyscrapers one moment, and be staring at the 25th floor the next. Stubbs Road turns into Peak Road at an enormous hairpin, and thankfully the traffic calms a little.

So far the gradient has been fairly lenient so I’m still grinding upwards in the big ring, but the strain is starting to show and I contemplate switching into my granny gear.

The original inhabitants of the Peak evidently felt the same way about the effort required to get up here, and many were brought up in sedan chairs carried by two or four bearers.

During the late 19th century sedan chairs became so popular that the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Henry Arthur Blake, had to appoint a commission to investigate a huge number of public complaints that it was too difficult to secure good bearers.

For a moment I consider how pleasant it would be to be carried up these slopes, but then my thoughts are interrupted by the breathtaking views to my left. High-rise buildings cluster on the mountainside, and in the distance the view of the South China Sea is pierced by peaks covered in dense forest.

Just as I stop at the roadside to take a quick photo, I hear a rustling in the bushes ahead and look up to see two enormous wild boars on the other side of the barrier. They stare back at me and then, to my relief, canter off into the undergrowth.

Roy later tells me that wild boars are abundant in the area, and increasingly considered a hazard by locals. It’s striking how much the wild mingles with the metropolitan world in Hong Kong.

Gardens in the sky

As I reach the 5km mark the road levels out, but according to my bike computer there’s still another 100m of ascent to come. A turn off the Peak Road takes me on to the narrower track up Mount Austin Road, which will lead me to the Peak Gardens at the summit.

The surroundings are so leafy it feels as if I’m in the grounds of an English stately home, and as I reach the gardens I’m greeted by pavilions and manicured lawns.

It’s a different world to the urban jungle below. This is where the famous Mountain Lodge once stood – the summer residence of various governors of Hong Kong for 80 years. The house was as grand as they come, a showcase of colonial excess.

The appeal of the location was no surprise, though. It offers stunning panoramic views of the island of Hong Kong, with the lights of the city glimmering below, lorded over by ornate stone lions placed around the gardens.

This is far from my usual idea of a perfect climb – there are no snow-capped peaks or Alpine pastures – but there’s so much to drink in among the chaos of the city that I could stay here all day.

Time is getting on, however, and I’m keen to enjoy the descent before it gets dark. And what a descent it is. Most of the cars have gone and the daytrippers have finished taking their selfies at the summit, so I’m free to sweep down through the wilds of the forest.

In the distance, the lights in the skyscrapers are coming on, and it feels like I’m descending into the set of Blade Runner. As the night falls, the city seems to just be waking up.

I’ve been privileged to ride in some of the most beautiful places on the planet, but nowhere else is quite like Hong Kong. It’s a different world, dynamic and yet remote, where the outlook changes every metre and every minute.

For the first time today, the sun moves below the cloudy haze and now a warm light floods the side of the Peak, bouncing off the glass and metal of the buildings that cover its flanks.

As I drift down the slopes of Victoria Peak, I know that there is nowhere else on Earth where you can get a view like this from a bike.

Hong Kong city limits

Follow Cyclist’s route or pick out the best bits

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/85hongkong. This ride can be done in a single loop, but we’d only recommend cycling on the busier roads in the early morning.

From the southern tip of Kowloon, head along the coast and into Tsuen Wan before heading into the country park and up to the Tai Mo Shan summit.

Return down the same road and turn right for Sheung Tsuen. Head towards the Plover Cove Country Park, then follow the forest road back down towards Kowloon, taking the cycle path from Yuen Chau Tsai Park.

Take the ferry to Central Hong Kong, then go to Happy Valley to begin the ascent of Victoria Peak.

Turn back down the climb and return to the ferry port.

The rider’s ride

Wilier Cento10 Pro Ultegra, £4,399.99, hotlines-uk.com

Wilier is one of the true Italian heritage brands, yet this design is as modern as it gets.

The Cento10 Pro is a fully-fledged disc brake aero bike, with completely concealed cabling, electronic shifting and slick aerodynamic tubing. And it was perfectly suited to this ride.

While at a shade under 8kg it’s not the lightest bike on the market, that weight isn’t really noticeable in terms of the ride quality.

With a stiff rear end and bar/stem combo, the Cento10 Pro responded very well to hard climbing efforts, but it was when it came to descents that the bike really shone.

Wilier has always made bikes with snappy handling characteristics and the Cento10 is no exception.

On the descent from Tai Mo Shan I was able to carve into each corner, and the disc brakes added to the fun by giving me the confidence to approach each hairpin at full pelt, knowing I could strip off speed quickly and safely.

How we did it

Travel Direct flights from London Heathrow to Hong Kong with British Airways cost us around £400. Numerous other airlines service the route, and connecting flights can be less expensive.

We learned very quickly that driving in Hong Kong would take a strong disposition, so we got around by taxi and train, which are both plentiful and good value.

Accommodation We stayed at the Hotel Madera in Kowloon (maderagroup.com).

As well as being a thoroughly comfortable and modern hotel, it’s highly accommodating to cyclists.

Bikes can be kept in a lock-up or up in a bedroom without issue, and it’s a good starting point for riding out north into the New Territories. There’s even a roof bar with a striking city view.

Prices start from around £120pn for a large double room.

Thanks Many thanks to Ramandeep Davies and Jasmine Rushton from Hong Kong Tourism Board for helping to arrange our trip, and for providing our extremely helpful local guide, Roy.

Hong Kong Tourism also arranges an annual cycling event called the Cyclothon. Find details at discoverhongkong.com.