For years I had put off going to Bali. It’s a mental thing, and yes – I should know better given how extensively I’ve travelled. But I couldn’t help but automatically draw conclusions about a country frequented so regularly by my fellow Australians. For whatever reason; close, popular destinations feel less adventurous and interesting than if I were to travel for 24 hours, swapping planes four times, and sleeping overnight in a hot and sweaty airport in order to arrive at my destination. I’m sure you’ve felt the same way before.
I also had strong impressions in my head that this Indonesian island was over-run by Australian larrikins, getting drunk and telling locals to “talk Australian” – you know, just generally being culturally insensitive. After all, it’s about as overseas as the average Australian gets.
But of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Bali is a rather small island located just north of Australia. A lot of people (many from the other side of the world) seem to know where Bali is and what it’s about. So the marketing for the place is either big budget or highly successful – probably both. Anyway, there was enough time when unboxing our bikes at the airport for Paul to get in some photos with the staff.
Bali is known for its relaxed vibe – sitting on the beach in the sun, surfing off-shore and hiding in the rice terraces. Tourists generally flock to Kuta, Seminyak, Ubud and Uluwatu, given their proximity to the airport as well as the endless hotel choice in these regions.
My mission for this three-week trip was to discover what Bali has on offer for mountain bikers. I had heard that trails were being constructed left, right and centre and that bicycle tourism was becoming evermore popular. As I was also looking to change my assumptions about Bali, I asked my friend Paul if he wanted to go on a little adventure…
Paul said YES… and #BaliByBike was born. The Chillhouse, located in Canggu, offered to look after us for part of our stay and show us some of the best mountain biking trails in Bali. That was an offer we couldn’t turn down! The region of Canggu is about 25km away from the Denpasar airport (one hour in a taxi) and is one of the more relaxed places on the island. You know how when you’re in a touristic location and people approach you all the time to buy something? Well, Canggu doesn’t have that. At all. And it isn’t missing the western comforts either…
The Chillhouse was set up by Austrian couple Sabine and Alex Springenschmidt, who saw the potential many moons ago for a destination surfing, biking and yoga retreat away from the regular tourist areas. What they’ve created is a little haven, with spacious rooms, places to lounge and swim, and delightful organic food – all surrounded in lush greenery. There’s a reason why you’ll find so many 5-star reviews on TripAdvisor for The Chillhouse. Susanna greeted Paul and my arrival and was pretty shocked when she found out that we rode our bikes directly from the airport amongst the busy traffic. That word got around quick, and people started approaching us, “you’re the guys who rode here from the airport?!” Little did they know that the ride from the airport was going to be the shortest, and least crazy day of our trip!
The very next morning our Giant Talon mountain bikes were loaded onto the back of a Bali Bike Park van, and we were quickly heading towards the “Crater Rim” trail. We had no idea what to expect, but figured that a commercial tour operator would be able to show us the best that Bali has to offer. We were hoping to also obtain vital advice on other areas that could be worth exploring in the coming weeks too.
The van climbed to 1500m along the windy Balinese roads, and the doors slid open. Our guide Putu was already scrambling to get the bikes off the back of the van; you could see him itching to ride. Bali has a couple of active volcanos, the tallest Mt Agung at 3142m. We were riding the crater rim of Mt Batur, a smaller but more active volcano. It has erupted 30 times over the last two centuries – the last time in 2000. The verdant woods in the upper portions of the trail quickly disappeared as the land became very craggy, dry and dusty.
The descent was steep in parts – Paul’s disc brakes started smoking after one of the really steep sections. The views across to the north shore of the island were pretty phenomenal – all this arduous terrain was certainly paying off. It was hard to believe that our trail would eventually drop all the way to the water below.
The further the trail went down, the more the Giant Talon cross country bikes were out of their depth. Not that they couldn’t handle the trail, but rather that we had to be super cautious on the rough sections because the bike simply couldn’t plow along like an enduro bike. It would’ve been nice to have been on a bike that effortlessly soaks up the trails. Bali Bike Park have them… just FYI…
We overtook some ladies on motorbikes on the way down who were moving goods between villages. It was so impressive that low-powered scooters like these could ride the same trails as us, albeit at a slower speed. After our long descent to the shore, we asked if we could be shuttled to the top of the crater again, in order to attempt to ride all the way back to The Chillhouse.
Putu, our guide, didn’t seem to have a lot of faith in our carrier pidgeon-like abilities to home in on The Chillhouse. Maybe it was because we had already been mountain biking for a few hours and it was another 100km back to the retreat? Either way, we assured him that with a smartphone using GPS, we’d be totally fine.
We created a route using the Maps.me mapping app, linking up lots of small backroads. They turned out to be a dream as the road surface was good, the traffic was low and they were really peaceful to ride along. There was a little bit of misty rain about, which was really refreshing given the tropical heat… but then all hell broke loose.
The rain became so heavy that we could no longer see, droplets trying their best to submerge our eyeballs. Thunder also posed a very real threat of taking us out considering when you did the “one-cat-and-dogs” count, the thunder was less than a second after seeing sheets of white light reflect off the clouds above. We sought shelter at the first place we saw. It was just a raised platform with a tin roof located a few steps from a supplies store, but it was enough. We were pretty hungry by this stage.
A local signalled that if we picked a few things from the shelves, that she would go and cook them for us in her house. Yes, please! She grabbed her umbrella and ran up the street with a bag of goodies in hand. Ten minutes later, with the rain still falling in sheets, the lady steadily approached with a tray of goodies, including some hot tea. Amazing. We had to force her to take a few dollars off us to cover the cost of goods, as she was far too humble to accept. Once the rain cleared and the temperature had dropped we could again relax and enjoy ourselves on the quiet backroads of Bali.
As Paul is a professional cyclist, he was keen to keep his award-winning legs primed with some fast motor pacing at times. It’s always fun trying not to get dropped from the slipstream.
Watch the first video blog which wraps up the first few days HERE.
Bali Bike Park has been in construction for less than a year, but has already got some nice 3km flow trails which are ready for riders of all levels. When you get to the bottom of the hill, a shuttle car is waiting for you and you’re quickly whisked back up to the top in 10 minutes. There’s a huge jump line which is constantly getting tweaked by professional freerider Nick Pescetto, and just next to the bike park are some easy cross country trails. The climate is really cool up at the bike park, as the starting elevation is well over 1000m. That allows you to ride hard and not risk overheating yourself.
The Giant Talons weren’t the best bikes for the trails, but weren’t the worst either. We managed to get a little bit rad over some of the jumps and made a few people uneasy with the speeds we were able to hit the trails. We would definitely have had a more fun time on enduro bikes, but as we were going on to commute back to The Chillhouse, we needed the jack-of-all-trades style bike.
The rice fields of Bali were actually one of the highlights of our whole trip. Every ride is an adventure amongst the muddy paddies, as the singletrack connecting the fields can just disappear beneath you. There is almost always an alternative route which will take you through a hidden village, past a beautiful temple or under some rich forest canopies.
We didn’t plan our day around the afternoon rain… again. It’s really not that hard to avoid – just find some cover around 2-3pm… but we just had to learn our lesson, time and time again. This time we were stuck in a restaurant for about an hour, but as soon as it was clear, it was time to play.
The Jatiluwih rice terraces are world famous, in fact, since 2012 this land has been protected by UNESCO. It isn’t just the beauty of the landscape that makes the rice terraces culturally significant, but rather the water management system of canals and weirs, known as subak, which has been in operation for 1200 years.
The rice paddy fields and their management are intertwined into the religious life of the Balinese. Rice is regarded as a gift of god, and as a result, water from the mountain springs is diverted via the temples and out onto the rice paddy fields. This socially co-operative water management system is able to control whole watersheds.
After a really hot ride up the hill to Jatiluwih, the rain had now cooled the air and made it much more bearable for us cyclists. This is the magic of the wet season – you can sweat it out in the morning, but reap the rewards of a cooler afternoon after a heavy rain dump.
Riding between rice paddy fields gives you a great impression of how the rural Balinese people live. Given the layout of the roads in Bali, you won’t see this way of life if you stick to the main A-to-B roads. We found people moving goods between villages on their heads, working hard cultivating crops, maintaining temples and tending to farm animals.
It was only a few turns into our descent that we were completely soaked; we went from avoiding puddles to stringing them together and splashing the crops around us. The route that we had put together had turned out to be a killer ride. Needless to say, we were pretty wrecked by the end of the day.
Our second video blog about riding in the forest and rice terraces is HERE.
After a good rest, it was time to head back into the mountains for another adventure. We couldn’t help but head back to the Bali Bike Park for a quick lap en-route to some squiggly volcanic roads that we had mapped out to explore.
The Giant Talons were proving really versatile as a travel bike. On the same day that we were descending steep and technical singletrack, we were switching the suspension lock-out ‘on’ and riding 130km on roads of varying conditions. That gave us our adrenaline rush, but also allowed us to cover some serious ground.
It’s amazing to think that it doesn’t rain in Bali for months at a time. While we were enjoying grippy clay trails, it was only weeks earlier that you couldn’t see riders due to the amount of dust being kicked up, as rubber side knobs were slipping around fighting for traction.
Just moments after exiting the Bali Bike Park, we were already skating our way up clay trails that had become completely unridable due to the sheer quantity of rainfall in the days prior. Our mission was to climb up and over a small volcanic caldera to access some roads we hadn’t had the opportunity to explore yet.
Pushing our bikes became the theme of the day. For the first couple of hours we were pushing up, up, up – and if we weren’t pushing we were riding out-of-control down the steep and slippery hiking trails. Rain was drizzling from above, but the thick canopy of the jungle was protecting us from getting wet and cold.
Every few hundred metres we would find a section which had been completely swallowed up by the jungle. This trail ride adventure with the aim of claiming a view over the region, was turning out to be a hike in SPD cycling shoes. Not ideal at all!
The further we walked, the more we were committing to trails with dead ends. Taking a look at my phone, we were now also hiking in the wrong direction. But after a few hours of bikes-on-backs, we were starting to hear road noise. Of course, the final push was the hardest…
Escaping the jungle was a relief. As fun as it had been, if it were any longer; I think we’d have gotten very frustrated with the bikes. But the hardship of the hike-a-bike was almost lost after only a few kilometres on THE BEST ROAD IN BALI!
The road was like a roller coaster, taking the steepest, fastest lines up and down the volcanic hills – wide enough to fit just one car, however with not a car in sight. The surface was smooth as glass, the freshly-laid bitumen offering ample grip around the banked corners. The icing on the cake was a recently painted white line dividing us with the scooters heading the other way, forcing us to keep left and take the corners tight. This was our bike path in the mountains. This road was perfect!
It wasn’t only the nature of the road that made the experience so pleasurable. The fertile mountain slopes packed full of greenery were the perfect backdrop, and the cool and dry mountain air was a relief in comparison to the hot and humid air at sea level.
Just one turn was all it took to get back onto the mountain roads we were all too familiar with. Tiled sections up the steep pinches made life on a scooter much easier for the villagers, as the slippery clay surface was difficult to ride – even with mountain bike tyres.
One section was so steep and rutted that Paul almost took a dive. This is a guy who I’ve seen ride some of the most ridiculous things on a mountain bike, but our tyres were getting way too clogged up with the slippery stuff.
Some of the better roads in the mountains were packed full of stones. The ride was nothing like the silky bitumen we had recently become accustomed to, but was a damn sight better than the roads we’d just come off.
After a day on the slick, tawny brown roads of the mid-west region we decided to find the “black dirt” of the mid-east. We had seen pictures of other riders drifting through this black gold, but we only had a very basic idea of where it was and how to access it. The Batur Caldera is almost 10km in diameter and is a really steep drop into the crater lake.
Around 30,000 years ago, Batur had a “mega-collosal” eruption which caused the steep-walled depression (aka crater rim) and large-sized caldera. Since then, eruptions have been limited to inside the caldera, building Mt Batur – a popular summit hike today.
We really had no idea how we were going to access the black dirt. We started heading up roads that looked well-travelled, in the hope that they would lead somewhere significant. We followed a road straight up Mount Batur from the east side. When I say straight up, I am talking very few switchbacks and 20%+ gradients. To make matters worse, flies had exploited our bodies as living elevators to summit the climb – without doing any work! They were almost unbearable as they constantly crawled across our faces…
After one hour, we were still going up, up, up. The flies were still annoying the hell out of us, but we were getting closer and closer to the summit.
But all of a sudden, our well-made road just ended a few hundred metres lower than anticipated. From this vantage point we were now staring right down at the black dirt. We looked for an alternative path down the side of Mt Batur in the direction of the black roads in the distance, but the rocky nature of the mountainside would’ve been near impossible to traverse with the bikes.
We sucked it up, and went straight down the very road we had spent so much time riding up. In a matter of minutes we were back at the base, and wondering what our next move should be.
Now that we had some idea of the direction we needed to go, we opted to utilise a small farming road to take a direct line towards the volcanic rock. It was risky, but it’s all about the journey, not the destination… right?
After another hour wading through fields of volcanic rock and wiry grass, climbing ravine after ravine… we made it!
Paul was so stocked that we had made it, he celebrated in the same way that many world champions do when the cross the line in first place after fighting it out for hours on the bike.
The terrain on the west side of Mt Batur is out of this world. Piles of black volcanic rubble formed a unique landscape that I’d simply never encountered before. There was very little green amongst the black, giving the impression that we were riding our bikes on another planet.
The rocks varied in size, but most were about that of a fist. On our mountain bikes, it wasn’t too difficult to ride along the compacted 4×4 tracks, but as soon as we went a little off-track it was really hard to keep balance. The rocks cracking together under our weight made very interesting sounds.
It was really easy to get lost amongst this landscape. Like our hike the day prior, dead ends were inevitable given the difficulty of the terrain. Luckily, with the combination of spray-can arrows and a route already marked in my smartphone – we got out without too many issues.
In one section, the volcanic rocks were bigger than the couch in your living room. That made for some dramatic imagery!
Once we had escaped, we were back to the base of the crater rim. Like the road we had descended in on, the road was unbelievably steep to go back up. That resulted in trucks ascending just faster than walking pace. We discovered that if we grabbed onto the side of a truck and pedal along, it made for a much easier climb without too much strain on our arms.
Watch our third video blog about hiking with our bikes and riding in volcanos HERE.
Nearing the end of our time in Bali, we had cycled multiple times through the mountainous centre, as well as in many rice fields nearer to the shore. Despite having ridden hundreds of roads by now, we had no idea what was on the east, north and west shores of the island – so we set aside four days to complete a circumnavigation. We had heard that the western region of the island was pretty dull, but after asking around a fair bit we had discovered that no-one we’d met had actually been!
The city traffic is pretty hectic around Denpasar, but it’s all over almost as quick as it starts. The traffic rules are really simple in Bali: give way to anyone in front. This works because the traffic speeds are so slow that people normally have enough time to slow down as people chop-in in front of them.
The coastal road doesn’t follow the coastline that closely at all. Instead it meanders up and down the hills in an attempt to link up the coastal towns and villages. In a lot of sections, the coast is simply too steep to build a road.
The best section of coastal road, by far, is between Karangasem and Amed – but you have to work for it. It’s a narrow road which is carved into the side of the hill with uninterrupted sea views for over 30km straight. To sweeten the deal, there is very little traffic moving along it.
As I was climbing up one of the hills, my crank arm simply fell off. I can only assume that my pinch-bolts were not done up enough, allowing the crank arm to wiggle its way off the axle. With the help of some tools from a motorbike mechanic, Paul managed to get my crank arm back on and torqued up appropriately.
We ended up finding a small “buddha” retreat to stay the night. One of their key selling points on their sign was that they were free from the internet – a rare feature for accommodation of the 21st century. We would’ve preferred internet to be honest, but it sounded like their kitchen was going to be able to cook up a storm – and we were hungry!
The next morning we discovered that Mt Agung is a complete giant when you’re riding along the base. Agung is the highest point on Bali and has a really huge influence on the weather surrounding it. One side of the mountain is largely jungle, the other stripped bare of a lot of vegetation due to receiving far less rain.
We came across interesting vehicles and lots of kind Balinese people during our circumnavigation. But to be honest, the coastal road was a bit of a let down. It is full of traffic, is littered with industry, it has very few small backroad options and doesn’t offer any new or different environments to what we’d already seen.
We did love the attention to detail whenever arriving or departing from a town or village, however. It’s incredible that almost every populated area featured statues as intricate as these to signify that you are now in their territory.
Whenever given the opportunity, we were off the main highway. The best roads in Bali are, without doubt, the small back roads. Sometimes they will disappear to almost nothing, other times they are perfect tarmac. Our favourite style was the “double track” which left a perfect strip for our tyres to run along through the rice fields.
With no cars, no noise and no pollution – we were so glad to explore these beautiful roads.
Sometimes the conditions aren’t great for vehicles, but they’re perfect for mountain bikes.
The small backroads string together all of the towns that tourists don’t normally get to see. You’ll find beautiful temples with stacks on stacks on stacks, and little market stalls on the side of the main streets. One would assume that rice production is the primary source of income for most people here.
We had finally completed our uninspiring, but good-to-know lap of the island, but chose to make our way to one region we hadn’t yet explored – Uluwatu and surrounds. We were again battling the heavy traffic of Denpasar and Kuta. The best way to deal with it is to think of it as a computer game.
Uluwatu is surprisingly laid-back given its proximity to the main airport. Many people are there for surfing, others are there to do yoga and some people just want to drink every night. Either way, you get to enjoy the phenomenal cliff top views over the ocean. It was a pleasure sitting down, having a beer and looking out over the deep serene!
HERE is the fourth video in our #BaliByBike series, on our circumnavigation of the island.
With the waves lapping up on the rocks below, that brings this photo essay to a close. Bali is a very deserving place for a biking holiday and a destination which comes highly recommended. I was blown away with how easy it is to escape other tourists and get our explore on. The landscapes are wonderfully diverse, the nature of the Balinese people is inspiring and the cycling is fun and interesting.
In the coming weeks I will put together a complete resource for Bali, including where to go, what to explore and how go about conducting your own holiday there.