Mt. Pinatubo probably has the strangest landscape in the Philippines.
While biking across its lahar-covered foothills last week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the deserts of Utah, Arizona and the Sahara. While I’ve only seen those places in magazines and on TV, their resemblance to Pinatubo’s blasted landscape is uncanny.
I’ve been to Pinatubo before. Back then, while riding in one of the 4X4 jeeps that ferry hordes of wide-eyed giggling tourists to the crater, all I could think of was how much fun it would be to get down and pedal across this desolate landscape that looked like something wrenched from a scifi alien planet poster. Last week, I finally got to pedal across Pinatubo’s beautiful desolation. All I could think of was that I was like an astronaut on Mars.
For a mountain biker, Mt. Pinatubo presents a different set of challenges. There’s the lahar left over from its massive eruption a quarter of a century ago. The lahar/sand is so soft that it sucks the energy right out of your wheel, and makes every pedal stroke an effort. Then there’s the utter lack of shade. The landscape doesn’t just look like a desert, it also feels more and more like one as the sun crawls higher and higher in the sky. You can really feel the water evaporating out of you and your strength slowly draining away. Finally, there’s the countless number streams and rock gardens you need to negotiate. All of these, come together to offer an unforgiving but also unforgettable experience for a mountain biker.
This ride has been several months in the making. Last year, I contacted one of my readers (Codename: Urge Blueskyniner) who had done the Pinatubo ride before. I was hoping to get his help in organizing a ride there with some friends. I was hoping to do it around October or November. Unfortunately, Urge informed me that the US military was using the lahar fields in Sta. Juliana, Capas Tarlac for some combat training at the time.
Since my idea of adventure wasn’t exactly about dodging bullets, killer drones, howitzer shells, smart bombs and missiles during the Balikatan Exercises, I had to give up on this idea.
Found Footage: Apparently, this is what happens to mountain bikers who insist on riding Pinatubo during Balikatan Exercises
Still, Pinatubo remained high on my list of must-bike destinations. And then earlier this year, Urge told me that they were organizing a Padyakan sa Pinatubo around May. I immediately said: Count me in!
Since Capas Tarlac was more than a hundred kilometers from Quezon City, I needed to leave early so I could be at the Sta. Juliana venue on time. I loaded my bike and other gear onto the car at around 3am and proceeded to drive towards NLEX 30 minutes later. Since I just had about an hour and a half of sleep, I was worried that I’d end up snoring at the wheel and becoming an NLEX fatality statistic. Thankfully, I didn’t fall asleep while overtaking ten-wheeler trucks.
Dawn found me assembling my bike in the grassy parking area along with hundreds of other eager bikers. Whatever sleepiness I had quickly faded away as I absorbed the energy of fellow bikers raring to put their bodies and machines to the test.
The weather forecast for that weekend was grim, with the temperatures expected to hit 40 degrees Celsius in some parts of Luzon. I wondered if the 3 liters of water I brought were enough, or if I was going to end up dehydrated and hallucinating in the sand dunes.
I looked at the bright side and told myself: “”Hey, maybe I’ll hallucinate about Solenn Heussaf! That’s not so bad, eh?”
We rolled off for Pinatubo around 7am. Since the crater was just 30 kilometers away, and the ground was relatively flat, I thought that I could finish the whole trip in three hours with plenty of picture-picture stops along the way. Heck, I even brought my DSLR so I could capture decent photos of the event.
Just like in my last ride in the Cordillera, I underestimated the effort needed to cover 30 kilometers of strength-sucking sand on Pinatubo. I didn’t realize how difficult it was to pedal in the shifting sands. The numerous stream and river crossings also slowed us down. Even the riders on fat bikes were having problems.
I had never used the granny gear so much on terrain that seemed so flat. The sand got in the drive train and caused irritating grinding sounds, which made some bikers wonder if their hubs were running out of grease. Meanwhile, some chains broke.
Ah, but then there was that stark, magnificent landscape. And someone must have been praying hard for some shade because the clouds came and covered the sun.
I reached the start of the hiking trail around 11am feeling desperately thirsty and tired. There was a stall there selling Gatorade and San Mig Light. Despite costing 100 pesos per bottle, I still ordered a Gatorade from the vendor there. I would’ve bought a beer, but this didn’t seem like a good idea for someone who was tired, sleep-deprived, and still needed to drive a hundred kilometers to get home.
I could’ve just left my bike at the entrance to the crater trail, but something at the back of my head nagged me to bring it up. So, against common sense and the protests of my aching legs, I hoisted and hauled the bike all the way up.
Not much has changed in Pinatubo since the last time I went there. It’s still one of the most incredible views you can gaze your eyes on, here in the Philippines and anywhere beyond our sad borders.
After resting for an hour at the crater and taking a few pictures, I hauled my bike back down the trail.
Sometimes I wonder why I do such crazy things. It’s not as if I could’ve ridden my bike down the hiking trail. Was it all for Instagram vanity? Were the pictures of the bike with Pinatubo’s crater worth all that pain and sweat? These are philosophical questions without any certain answers.
But one thing was certain: after the painful hike-a-bike up and down the crater, what came next was some happy joyous downhill riding.
It wasn’t quite obvious that we were riding uphill all morning. But on the way back to Sta. Juliana, the flowy force of gravity made it s presence felt and negated whatever cruelty the hot sun was radiating.
I passed a few bikers on the way back to Sta. Juliana. Sometimes you follow a trail, oftentimes you make your own trail in the sand. It was all cool.