Mt. Balagbag and its infamous peak called the Helipad is the logical next step for mountain bikers in Metro Manila who have already pushed themselves past the challenges of Timberland’s trails. If you think you’re ready for the big leagues, Mt. Balagbag is just there waiting for you like Cain Velasquez eager to give you a lesson or two about ground and pound.
As you grow as a mountain biker, you search for harder and harder routes to test yourself. You want to see how fast you can climb, and how fast you can descend on trails that get more and more technical. For Manila’s mountain bikers, Balagbag has got to be one of the hardest routes accessible via a weekend trip.
I’d heard and read a lot about Balagbag. I’d been wanting to ride it since October last year afer my first ride to Puray Falls, where a buddy mentioned that it was even harder than the Puray’s mountain route. During my second trip to Puray, I and another ride buddy almost stumbled into Balagbag when we took a wrong turn and wound up all the way to Macaingalan. That route was jackhammer painful, and apparently an accurate sampling of what one could expect en route to Helipad.
I wondered if I could ride it solo. But from the stories I had been hearing about its Level 9 gnar, I thought twice about the wisdom of such an adventure.
Last January 18, I finally got to ride to Balagbag, thanks to an invitation from a group of riders from Bike Bros. Jeffrey Isabelo was a veteran of several Balagbag rides, and was just the kind of trail master needed to safely guide a clueless noob like me through the mountain’s numerous challenges.
Our party of seven riders took off from Rodriguez Rizal at around 7:30 in the morning. The weather seemed perfect. It was probably as cold as a typical day in the Cordillera. The Sierra Madre foothills seemed to be shrouded in mist. We hoped that it would stay that way. The last thing you want on a difficult mountainbike climb is to have the sun microwaving your carcass as you huff and puff while hauling yourself up the trail.
We took the shortcut route through the Nabutas trail which passed through a garbage dump. This is one of the sad realities of mountain biking in Metro Manila. Apparently, almost every good trail has been used as a route by garbage trucks before. It made us wonder if the mountains were really covered in mist, or if that was just thick smoke from burning trash.
Nabutas trail meanwhile lived up to its monicker. Butas talaga sya. Some of the ruts could swallow your bike if you’re not too careful. After the rutty section though, you emerge onto a fireroad which winds through a countryside scene that coud only be described as idyllic. It’s almost as if someone transported you to one of those paintings by Angono artist Botong Francisco.
Jeffrey said the Nabutas trail was just a prelude to the real trail going to Balagbag. We had breakfast at the Licao-Licao terminal at around 9am as we needed to keep our fuel reserves up for the climb to Helipad.
The climb was everything it was hyped out to be. I had never ridden over so much rock on such a steep slope before. Just when I thought I had settled into a great rhythmn, a bowling ball would crop up a few meters ahead of me and throw my cadence off whack.
It was a struggle to keep my front wheel from doing a wheelie, while trying to keep enough weight on the rear to maintain traction. And let’s not even mention how Shotgun-steep it was.
I knew climbing Balagbag was going to be difficult. But I didn’t know it was going to be a calculus exam. In the end, I had to bail and push my bike up the steepest sections. Thankfully, the weather was cooperating. It felt like someone had turned on the aircon to fullblast, which kept us from overheating in the most lung-busting sections. Someone up there heard our gasping prayers.
Mountains are probably the last place you’d expect to find traffic. But weirdly enough, that was exactly what happened as our team had to make way for a caravan of 4X4 enthusiasts who were also on their way to Helipad. There were also a lot of motocross riders on their way down.
In the end, we had to share Helipad with the SUV crowd. It was kind of a letdown because we were looking forward to having Balagbag’s peak all to ourselves. But life is like that.
If the uphill was painful, the downhill was even more so on my hardtail bike. To use a cliché: the tables were turned as my companions who labored uphill on their full suspension AM rigs were now the ones having a blast as they sped down Balagbag’s rock gardens. I wanted to go as fast as they were, but my arms and legs could only take so much pounding, and I was afraid that my XC bike would come apart from the vibrations.
But I was really thankful for having a dropper seatpost on such a ride. It really made it easier to maneuver through the nasty stuff. My 2.4 Continental Trail King tires also gave lots of much-needed grip.
Before we knew it, Balagbag’s peak was just a far away silhoutte behind us. Endorphin was still coursing through our veins as we made our way back to Rodriguez for a much needed soaking in tubs of Red Horse. What a ride!
This was not the route we took, but if you’re coming from the Quezon Circle this is the most direct route.