No self-respecting cyclist wants to ride in the sag wagon, the sometimes-derogatory term used for a support vehicle that accompanies cyclists on long rides. The origin behind the term is uncertain. Some say it’s derived from an acronym for a vehicle providing “support and gear”. Others say it originated from distressed and weary cyclists trailing, or sagging, behind the peloton.
Less than 13km into an anticipated 35km ride, I’m ready to call in the sag wagon. Actually what I really want to do is lay down my bike in despair and cry like a tantrum-throwing child. But my pride is no match for a pounding heart, which my Garmin watch claims has thumped its way to a new record high. I’m both embarrassed and guiltily relieved to admit defeat. We’ve been riding the scenic coastal road between Amed and Candi Dasa on Bali’s east coast. The views are spectacular as the road snakes around rocky headlands lined with open-sided restaurants promising seafood cuisine for guests ensconced in cliffside villas. On a sparkling Bali Sea far below, white-hulled outriggers bob at anchor, their colourful sails lashed to spars while snorkellers drift above coral reefs. Despite the distracting view, I’m exhausted. As I reach the crescent of yet another hill, I tell Edy our guide that I’m cooked. I’m toast. I can’t go on.
It’s my own fault. I’ve not put in enough training and my poor fitness shows. We’re three days into a seven-day mountain biking tour with Spice Roads Cycling. Encouraged by their rating system, and focus on active adventures combined with cultural immersion, I’d optimistically signed up despite having let my fitness training slip. Spice Roads rate their cycle tours from easy novice level (flat roads and non-technical jeep roads) through to sport, advanced and expert (technical terrain and high altitude). Our sport-rated ride falls somewhere in between the two extremes.
Our mountain biking adventures began in Sanur (days one and seven are non-riding days) where guide Edy and driver Made picked up our group of four in the aforementioned support vehicle (aka sag wagon), bikes and refreshments already loaded, including a spare bike as backup. Robyn and Andy are a middle-aged couple from California on a three-week soulful Balinese adventure celebrating a significant birthday. Paul is a seasoned cyclist from Melbourne just back from riding the Italian Alps.
I’m the numpty rider in the group, though I’m heartened when Paul confesses that he felt like “crying like a baby” as day three’s relentless hills took their toll. Later still he relents, admitting that this was actually his favourite day. “I really wanted to ride a lot, and though it was a hard ride and the hills were nasty, it was very satisfying,” he says, downing a Bintang beer beside the hotel pool.
Our small group quickly bonds as we leave Bali’s notorious traffic behind, ascending ever higher up the flanks of the island’s volcanic core. The summits of Mt Agung, Mt Abang and Mt Basur rim the horizon and become our constant companions over the next week. After unloading our bikes at Kintamini we leave the asphalt behind in favour of a tight single track and descend into the volcanic crater, skirting the rim of Lake Batur before negotiating the treeless landscape of a lava field. By lunchtime - a steaming bowl of nasi goreng washed down with a chilled Bintang at a warung (local restaurant) floating on the clear waters of Lake Batur – I’ve already tumbled on to the dirt with some superficial gravel rash to show for it. I am determined to keep the rubber side down for the remainder of the week.
One day we stop to admire the offerings adorning a temple in preparation for upcoming ceremonies. On another, we pass a procession with men and women immaculately attired in traditional Balinese dress. Ceremonies are such an integral part of Balinese life that, despite the procession taking up half the road, no one gets angry as the traffic sorts itself out.
Some days we ride dusty tracks little wider than our wheels, giving way to farmers going to and from their crops on motorbikes. We roll through plantations laden with tomatoes, corn, chillies and bananas. Other times we’re skimming along dirt roads or skirting the ridges beneath a leafy canopy while thick vegetation conceals steep slopes that drop away to unseen valleys far below. As we descend towards the coast, hillsides are splendidly terraced with rice fields in varying stages of maturation. Scarecrows flutter in the breeze to deter pests while farmers caked in knee-deep mud wrangle petrol-driven ploughs through fields fed by a complex network of irrigation channels.
But all that was after I’d called for the sag wagon.
The trouble is, our support vehicle is supporting one of our group who has succumbed to a bout of dreaded “Bali belly” and has wisely chosen not to ride. It will take many hours before driver Made has seen him safely to our next hotel and can return to collect me.
But Edy, who has been guiding mountain bike tours around Bali for more than 10 years, has another plan. Within a few minutes of my throwing in the towel, he’s negotiated with a shopkeeper for her husband to transport me and my bike to a meeting point further along the road. Edy tells me cheerily to “wait just a few minutes. Her husband will drive you,” as he lifts my bike into the back of a pickup truck before rolling down the hill with the others. Sure enough, the husband soon arrives, gestures for me to get in the truck – a substitute sag wagon - proffers a pack of cigarettes which I politely decline and drives me over some of the more brutal hills before we all regroup a few kilometres later. I feel rested enough to saddle up again and continue towards Virgin Beach at Karagasem where a swim and lunch awaits us at a beachside warung.
Edy proves himself to be a master at finding solutions. Like when we need to find a bathroom. We call into a pharmacy, where after a brief discussion with Edy gesticulating towards the oddly-attired foreigners in lycra and bike helmets, he ushers us towards a toilet in the rear of the clinic. Another time he knocks on the door of a small home and explains our need, before we’re graciously escorted to the rear of the house, past barking dogs and crowing roosters to a squat toilet scented with the incense that permeates the air everywhere in Bali. I can’t help wondering how this scenario would play out if I knocked on a stranger’s door in my own country and asked to use their toilet. I suspect I’d be met with suspicion, if not downright disdain. But not so in Bali.
Balinese culture is deeply rooted in Hindu Dharma religion which honours the shadow and light in daily life with belief entrenched in all-important balance. The Balinese people’s peaceable nature is underpinned by this acceptance of opposing forces such as joy and sorrow, benevolence and maliciousness. Daily offerings (known as canang sari) are presented at extravagant temples or modest shrines to appease both good and bad spirits. Offerings may be proffered in delicate woven baskets adorned with flowers, incense and parcels of rice, or be as simple as a chunk of banana or a green coconut. Temples pop up in the most unexpected places, sometimes rising from amidst the tufts of a rice field or chilli plantation, other times atop a remote summit on a volcanic crater rim. Every home has a temple of sorts.
The fragrant waft of incense accompanies us as we ride through villages, dodging offerings along with dozing dogs, clucking chickens and neatly dressed schoolchildren. Everywhere, kids seem amused by our pedal-powered appearance, calling out “hello hello” and waving confidently before falling together in fits of joyous laughter. We ride past cross-legged wood carvers hunched over teak logs, basket weavers interlacing dried bamboo reeds and buy artworks from a watercolour painter who sidles up politely while we take a break in the shade.
It’s this omnipresent capacity to befriend strangers with kindness and generosity of spirit that endears me to Bali. The next time I need a sag wagon, I hope there’s a Balinese driver behind the wheel.
For more information see spiceroads.com. For more things to see in Bali, visit balitourismboard.org