This article was first published in Issue 108, and has just been nominated for Best Written Article for the Singletrack Reader Awards 2017.
Jason Miles is no stranger to bike racing. But how will he cope with four days of racing through the tea plantations of Sri Lanka? And just how much curry can one man eat?
Photography Lucia Griggi & Jason Miles
Never in a month of Sundays did I think that I’d be standing, on my own, in the middle of the small coastal town of Negombo in the south of Sri Lanka, in the middle of the night, looking for somewhere that would serve me some kind of food that I wasn’t scared of.
But there I was. Thankfully, my bike had arrived in one piece and I’d been incredibly well looked-after by the Sri Lankan Airlines flight attendants while sprawled out on my business class seat-cum-bed-cum-personal-cinema thing. But I might as well have flown to another planet…
Sri Lanka is a large island in the Indian Ocean with India to the north and the Maldives to the south. Up until the early 70s it was known as Ceylon, from the days of British colonial rule, and its recent past has been troubled by a civil war that ended in 2009. Since then the island has been peaceful and visitor numbers have steadily increased. While cricket is by far the most popular sport, there is a Sri Lankan national cycling team (who famously rode along the M74 near Glasgow while they were taking part in the Commonwealth Games a few years ago) who had three members taking part in the race alongside me.
The M74 is pretty tame compared to the roads in Sri Lanka, as I was going to discover…
Tuk-tuks – those Piaggio-manufactured, supremely dangerous-looking little taxis buzzed around all over the place while café owners attempted to lure me into their establishments with the promise of as much… er… well, I don’t know really… as I could eat. I was sweating profusely as I walked ever-so-slowly in the 35 plus-degree heat and almost-total humidity. I hadn’t done anything yet and already I felt way out of my depth. All I was trying to do was to get something to eat.
Chicken in a teapot.
Eventually I decided to sit down in a place that looked as good as any of the others and ordered a beer and a chicken curry. The beer arrived and eventually so did the rice, which was on a plate. The chicken curry had rather a lot of bones in it and was served in a teapot. The waitress must have known I was English and would, therefore, appreciate the teapot. With chicken curry in it.
As well as moonlighting as a journo, I was also in Sri Lanka to have a stab at being a mountain bike stage racer – I was going to take part in the Rumble in the Jungle stage race. As well as being inexperienced in Asian travel, I’d never raced in a stage race before so really, quite honestly, I was bloody clueless. I finished off my chicken and rice, unconvincingly told the waitress ‘it was lovely, thanks’, and headed off to the relative safety of my hotel across the busy and chaotic road.
Rumble in the Jungle is organised by Phil Evans and Kate Hobson – the same Shropshire-based couple that organise the Yak Attack – the super-tough “highest mountain bike race on Earth” – seven days of hard, oxygen-starved racing in Nepal.
Thankfully we weren’t climbing any Himalaya, but we (as the race briefing notes were keen to point out) needed to keep our eyes and ears peeled for angry elephants. I kept telling myself I’d easily outrun an elephant charging towards me at full pelt. I mean, how fast can an elephant go? They look slow.
Anyone for the bus?
In the morning and after breakfast, a few hours of arse-clenching motoring in the Coach of Certain Doom followed until we reached our hotel where I was served the greatest cup of tea I think I’ve ever tasted. The power cuts started at the race briefing and continued throughout the night, taking out the air conditioning and ceiling fans which at 36°C made sleeping tricky. A reminder that nothing can be taken for granted in a developing country.
The race started just up the road and following my ‘long-drop’ pre-race ritual we were soon charging along a rutted dirt track which led into dense jungle – the kind of jungle where you need to actually move your head out of the way of low branches and where the vague trail is lined by arm-scratching thorns, then across a large open-cast quarry, through seven water crossings of the Kuda Oya, along some smooth tarmac and finally to the foot of the only climb of the day – a steep, sometimes-rocky, 1,600m ascent to the tea plantations and promised cooler temperatures of Haputale.
It’s claimed that the town of Haputale is one of the most overlooked tourist destinations in Asia. Nestled high in the hills overlooking the Southern Plains, you have to assume the relative difficulty in getting here is the only reason tourism doesn’t play a bigger part. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of acres of tea plantation stretch out from the hotel balcony into the distance and as the sun was setting I decided it was one of the better sunsets I’d witnessed.
Almost at the front of the curry queue I filled my plate. Twice. I had to keep my strength up and the curry in Haputale was a definite improvement over the Chicken in a Teapot effort in Negombo.
I had an eventful night’s ‘sleep’, which was more of a constant trek to and from the en suite toilet. There was an interesting aroma developing in the room and I couldn’t open the window because there was an army of carnivorous insects waiting outside.
In the morning, feeling less-hydrated but strangely lighter, I made my way with everyone else to the start of the day’s stage that included a 16km downhill, all of it off road. The racers who rode this stage in 2015 had seemingly been dreading this rocky, switchbacked downhill. First though there was a 10 kilometre-long concrete road that climbed 500 metres to Lipton’s Seat – a popular tourist spot where Sir Thomas Lipton, the tea baron, used to stand and survey his empire. Once there, we basically turned around without so much as a ‘bye’ or a ‘leave’ and rode back down again until we reached the start of the dreaded rocky downhill. Stage racing can be a rubbish way to see the sights of a far-off land.
At first the dreaded rocky downhill wasn’t too bad. Billions of small, jagged and broken rock slabs made up the surface of the trail, which was quite wide (wide enough for a horse and cart, once upon a time), and switched back dozens of times as it wound down the hillside. Eventually I started to understand why people who have ridden this before weren’t big fans of it as my forearms went ‘all Popeye’ and I started to lose the feeling in my hands. I had to stop a couple of times to regain my sense of touch as I was genuinely worried that I was going to let go of the bars.
As the trail levelled off, things became smoother and the route got stuck into the tea plantations. Tea-picking workers went about their business as a few dozen mountain bikers hurtled past – some of the workers stopped and stared, some of them were completely disinterested. Somewhat inevitably there were one or two accidents involving tuk-tuks and mountain bikes, with the mountain bikers coming off worse than the tuk-tuks.
Eventually, concrete roads gave way to very narrow singletrack – this had really long vegetation at either side that made it even harder to tell exactly where the track actually was. And it was downhill… and there were the obligatory switchbacks. There was also a less-than-appetising steep drop of about 30 feet to one side.
A hidden rut grabbed my front wheel causing a total skills failure and I started to fly through the air a bit. I landed first of all on the end of my now-vertical handlebar, sternum first. That really hurt. Then I disappeared over the edge of the 30ft drop. I didn’t fall 30 feet; I was tangled up in the vegetation instead. Checking that my sternum wasn’t cracked by taking a few deep breaths, I carried on.
Back at the finish in Haputale, I took a quick photo of my impressively-bruised chest and grabbed some sleep before watching another mind-blowing sunset while working my way through another epic mountain of curry.
I hadn’t until that point really thought about anything all week apart from when I’d be eating curry next and how far I’d be riding my bike the next day – and yet somehow I was lying on what was probably one of the comfiest beds in town, I’d be eating great food and the next day I’d been taken somewhere else in an air-conditioned coach while my bike and all my belongings were transferred securely, as if by magic, to the same place. I hadn’t considered how slick and smooth all the organisation had been – it was just happening in the background.
Phil, Kate and their team of enthusiastic and super-professional partners – including Lanka Sportreizen (LSR) – who take care of getting bikes and people to the right place at the right time – and main sponsors Sri Lankan Holidays and TORQ, have created a perfect environment for those taking part in the event, where all you need to do is get out of bed, eat your breakfast, ride your bike, eat, sleep and repeat.
Steep enough to hurt.
Stage three started with a 10km ride to the start in the small village of Kalupahana. The ride to the start was all downhill, but once the race got going properly it was another uphill battle to 2,100m. This time there was none of the smooth concrete and tarmac of the previous stage around the kingdom of Old Mister Lipton, this one was all about the bone-shaking climb and, as a nice added touch, the 70mph gusting crosswind.
There was also yet another sheer drop to the side of the trail. Rather than seeking out the smoother line, the only viable tactic was ‘stay away from the edge’. The dirt track we followed all the way to the summit matched the contours of the terrain, always heading upwards but rarely becoming too steep. Just steep enough to hurt.
As we climbed higher and higher towards Horton Plains – a vast plateau and the highest point in the race – the temperature dropped markedly and for the first time since leaving Heathrow, I felt cold. Not cold enough for a Northern Englander to put a jacket on, but I saw many riders from warmer climes who did. The headwind at the summit was like something from the surface of Jupiter.
The Horton Plain plateau (which we were given very special permission to ride, so we had to behave and stick to the defined track that crosses it) is home to a large number of Sambar Deer and the Slender Loris – a highly endangered, big-eyed sort of lemur. I didn’t see any of those, but the deer looked quite butch and not much like Bambi at all.
I battled into the headwind until reaching a thoroughly brilliant section of swooping, fast singletrack. Definitely the high point of the day which made the toil of the previous couple of hours well worth it.
The finish was situated 40km away to the north in Nuwara Eliya. The city was founded in the late 1800s by British colonists – it looks more like a town in the Scottish Highlands than somewhere in the rural centre of Sri Lanka and is considered by many to be the centre of tea production in Sri Lanka.
More amazing tea, an epic curry and some Kabaddi on the telly followed at the hotel. That time the curry was even better than the curry in Haputale. Or maybe my increasing fatigue increased my enjoyment of spicy food…
Keeping neutral, apart from on curry.
Everyone was lined up outside the hotel for the 20km neutral start. We were going to have to ride through rush hour traffic to get to the start of the race at Ramboda and the first off-road section, so we were provided with protection by motorcycle outriders. One of them actually crashed, but we eventually made it through the procession of massive lorries, fume-belching, overcrowded buses and suicidal tuk-tuks to the off-road trail, the stage start and also the start of another hairy-chested climb. After that though, it was 40km of riding downhill through tiny rural villages and muddy puddles. Hurrah!
The end of the final stage was in Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city, and where you will find a university, supermarkets, tidy parks, a proper (but anarchic) road system and posh hotels. Quite a contrast to the life that people are living in the countryside we’d spent four days riding through.
The curry in Kandy was also the best yet. In fact, the cashew nut curry I ate in the hotel is the greatest curry I’ve ever eaten. And I’ve eaten a lot of curry.
After leaving our hotel in the city, we travelled by train back to Negombo. Sitting in my hotel room, back where this adventure began a week or so ago, I thought about how the hours and hours of mountain biking I’ve done here compared with the mountain biking back home. In spite of the climbs being longer (they do go on a bit) and the fact that there are jungles you can genuinely get lost in (properly lost, possibly eaten too), the riding is very similar to the UK. The development and methods of construction of trails in the UK based on the basic need to get things from one place to another isn’t much different to the way things appear to have developed around the tea industry in Sri Lanka.
Wide dirt roads, neglected cart tracks made from now-broken stone slabs and gravel tracks link the various tea plantation villages to the main tarmac roads.
The singletrack I rode was easily as good as the best singletrack in the UK and there’s obviously more of it yet to be discovered by mountain bikes – it just needs to be explored.
The Sri Lanka experience – the universally friendly and welcoming people who will genuinely go out of their way to help, the amazing climate (which admittedly takes some getting used to…), and the beautiful beaches mean that there’s something for everyone. I didn’t see any elephants but I did see some monkeys. And then there’s the curry. Mmmm… curry.
Rumble in the Jungle takes place every year in June. If you fancy four days of quality mountain bike racing in a ‘more social than competitive’ environment while someone else takes care of everything else, then this should be on your list. Go to theyakattack.com/rumbleinthejungle to get your name down.
Jason went with Sri Lankan Airlines who fly regularly from Heathrow direct to Colombo. In-flight curry is available. Sri Lankan Holidays will be happy to look after you should you want to do more than race your bike.
Visit srilankanholidays.com for further information.
All costs for travel and the event were covered by the race organisers and sponsors.