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Epic Cordillera Mountain Bike Traverse

Sagada

“Epic” and “hardcore” are words that are casually thrown around nowadays. While the proper use of these adjectives can be a hot topic of debate, I personally don’t think a 4 or 5 hour ride through flat pavement could count as epic. Neither should a morning romp down The Blue Zone be considered as hardcore.

But there are bike trips that leave little room for debating “epic” and “hardcore.” A four day bike traverse of the Cordillera is one of them. We’re talking here about distance, technical difficulty, remoteness from “civilization,” danger, and overall gonzo factor.

I would have loved to go on this cross country, all-mountain, four day bikepacking ass kicking trip through the Cordillera with these guys, who also rode with me in Bobok-Bisal. But work and the unstoppable forces of nature conspired against me. But it was not just that: I also didn’t know if I was strong enough for such an adventure. These guys apparently were, and this is their story as  recounted by Bong “Madjohn” Madriaga.

Sagada to Tirad Pass

by Bong Madriaga

While long rides, century rides, and races, are common and can happen on any given day or weekend, it’s not easy to go on adventure rides, because of work, family and priorities. I go maybe once or twice a year when “stars align” and I’m able to get the required “visa” from my commander in chief .
For this year’s grand adventure ride I went to the legendary Tirad Pass.

Sagada

Mt. Tirad

That there is Mt. Tirad (red circle). And I shuddered at the thought of how far we needed to go.

Mt. Tirad rises 1,154-meters (3,786 ft) high and is located in the town of Cervantes, Ilocos Sur bordering Ifugao and Mountain Province. It is higher than Mt. Makiling, and is part of the Cordillera mountain range.

But what this mountain is really known for is that it was the site of the Philippine version of Thermopylae. If you’ve seen Zack Snyder’s “300” the Battle of Tirad Pass is the Pinoy equivalent of that, sans the exposed abs and the metallic underwear. At Tirad Pass, a Pinoy General who was just 24 years old led 60 Filipinos in a bloody battle versus 300 Americans. When I was 24, my most epic battle was against a professor, who was just making it so difficult for me to get my college diploma, which kinda shows how times have changed since our badass ancestors.

Biking from Sagada to Tirad Pass

Manong Alan FB, without whom this adventure would not have been possible

There were five of us in this adventure ride, namely: Alan F Baldoria (Alan FB), Mike Jimenez (Warcries), Renan Reyes (Mangenriquez), & Wency Cayanan (no PMTB handle yet) and me Madjohn.

Our planned traverse meant 4 days of pedaling and hiking from Sagada – Besao – Quirino – Mt. Tirad – Gregorio Del Pilar Town – Salcedo – before finally landing in Candon, Ilocos Sur.  The hike up Tirad pass from Quirino town is called the East Traverse, and it is a challenging hike even for mountaineers.

Cross country hikers are puzzled when they see bikers along this route. They say it’s hard enough for them with their backpacks, so how could we possibly make it while carrying our bikes?

Only 13 have completed this route by bike, as far as I know. I’m lucky number 13 and I’m still in awe of what I saw, and what we went through from December 10-13.

Biking from Sagada to Tirad Pass

DAY 1
We met up at Victory Liner bus terminal at Baguio City. Fun fact: you can actually store your bike at the baggage compartment of provincial buses.

I told the conductor that we would pick up another rider at Rosario, La Union. That’s where I was joined by Alan – Ang Alamat ng Kennon Road. Many in the PMTB community and those who frequent the North probably already know him and have stayed in this guy’s home.

After arriving in Baguio, we pedaled to the Sagada bus terminal. We originally planned to take a bus with a top side carrier so we could load up our bikes. But while waiting, a “manong” who was apparently a driver of a commuter van bound for Bontoc, suggested that his van could carry our bikes topside. We decided to take his advice also since we would be able to leave earlier compared to the bus which leaves at 6AM.

Biking from Sagada to Tirad Pass

We started biking from Sagada to Besao after lunch. It was my first time at Sagada, and it had a really serene vibe to it. It was really a sight to behold!

The bike ride took us well into the night. I had been on night rides before, but this was my first time riding downhill on rough zigzag road at night. It was a bit scary.

Biking from Sagada to Tirad Pass

We got caught in the dark on the last few kilometers 

We finally arrived in Besao around 8PM. Almost everyone was asleep already. We knocked on the house of Kapitan Del Bario Charlie Mangayen to ask if we could stay the night. Good thing he obliged–otherwise it would’ve been the “waiting shed hotel” for us.

In my adventure rides, up north, I’ve witnessed time and again the hospitality of our common folk. Just remember to bring a lot of good manners and right conduct. It also helped that we had someone who knew not just the route, but the local dialect as well. That would be Master AlanFB.

Biking from Sagada to Tirad Pass

Alan having a conversation with Kap Charlie

We covered a total of 24.6 kms from Sagada to Besao. It may not seem far, but believe me–many sections were tough, with inclines so steep that your only option is to push. There were also many hair raising DH sections.

DAY 2
We rode from Besao Mt. Province down to Quirino, Ilocos Sur. From the frigid cold Mountain Province we biked to another place where it was just a little less freezing at that time of the year.

Biking from Sagada to Tirad Pass

At Besao, the people were very welcoming and hospitable. But we also kept getting puzzled stares. They didn’t know what to make of our strange group of men and on bikes.

The ride down to Quirino featured lots and lots of exciting downhill sections. But there were also a lot of very very steep uphills, or to be more exact: upHELLs! Timberland’s “The Wall”, Shotgun, Blue-Green-Karma-BlackDiamond, etc. are challenging, but they are nothing compared to the trails of the Cordillera.

Biking from Sagada to Tirad Pass

Biking from Sagada to Tirad Pass

It got very hot as we went down to the lower lands of Ilocos Sur. The route was steep and grueling. We covered a total of 27.4 kms. The DH was the most technical and most difficult I had ever done up to that point. But the upHELL was equally epic!

DAY 3
The third day brought us from Quirino, Ilocos Sur to our goal: Tirad Pass and the Del Pilar Shrine. On the way, the views were simply awesome!

But this was also the day we really got tested. We rented a small truck to the trail head to save a half a day’s worth of pushing and pedaling. However, there were still lots of hiking. While I’m quite familiar with mountain biking, hiking up a mountain was still relatively new to me.

Biking from Sagada to Tirad Pass

tirad-pass-biking-11

tirad-pass-biking-12

Along the way to Mt. Tirad almost everything went totally awry. Manong Alan was bitten by nasty fire ants, which caused a really serious allergic reaction. His eyes and lips swelled up. After a while he was vomiting and feverish. We hoped and prayed that it wouldn’t get any worse because our meds were limited.

We decided that Wency, Renan, and myself would ascend and bring our bikes and backpacks up to a section of the trail, then come back for Alan and Mike to help them.

Biking from Sagada to Tirad Pass

Biking from Sagada to Tirad Pass

Biking from Sagada to Tirad Pass

But we got caught in the dark half way through the mountain while descending a very challenging trail. We had to rely on our night lights while traversing cliffs. It seemed like we lost the trail. We couldn’t see past 3 meters. Sometimes I would slip.

I’m not sure how many Hail Marys and Our Fathers I said in silence. With the Lord’s guidance we made it to the Tirad Pass Shrine at 8PM.

Biking from Sagada to Tirad Pass

Mike and Manong Alan had to stay at a house somewhere on the trail for Manong Alan to recover. That day was only a “short” 8km hike but the danger level and the difficulty was Hors Categorie!

DAY 4
As kid in elementary school, General Gregorio Del Pilar was my favorite hero. This general, who was just 24 years old then, led 60 ill-equipped Filipinos against 300 of the best American soldiers of the era. He did this so that Emilio Aguinaldo could escape. And like Leonidas of the fabled Spartans at Thermopylae, Del Pilar did this knowing that there was very little chance he would live through the Battle of Tirad Pass. You can’t get more heroic than that.

Biking from Sagada to Tirad PassSo until last week I’ve only read about and knew about Tirad Pass in books. I missed joining an earlier expedition to Tirad Pass last time because it was holy week and I had family commitments.

Now, thanks to the indulgence of my brother bikers, Renan Reyes, Wency Cayanan, Mike Jimenez and specially Kennon Grand Master Alan F Baldoria, I was finally able to see Mt. Tirad with my own eyes.

There are two main routes up Tirad Pass, the easiest and more common route is the West traverse. But park rangers would not have permitted us to ride or bring our bikes there. They would’ve told us that it was just too dangerous for bikes. So we had to sneak up the back door.

The East Traverse is taken by mountaineers who want a more challenging route up the Pass. It’s also the route taken by those crazy enough to carry their bikes up a steep trail with cliffs left and right.

Biking from Sagada to Tirad Pass

But the downhill ride from the shrine was even more difficult. We had to negotiate rough twisties with boulders and big rocks, and stairs galore! I just had to go down for safety reasons in some sections. My bike was just not cut out for that terrain.

From Gregorio Del Pilar, we pedaled our way to Candon Ilocos Sur. We rode 34.6 kilometers on Day 4. Our grand adventure ended after almost 100 kms. It doesn’t seem like a long ride, but it took us 4 days.

Biking from Sagada to Tirad Pass

To Alan, Renan, Mike and Wency, we have been tested by this and our bond as comrades and brothers will forever be strong! Alan, I know you said never again, but thanks doing it this time for me. Renan and Mike thanks also for doing it again. Wency, our first ride together is one for the books.

VIDEOS OF THE ADVENTURE

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11 Comments

  • i thought puray was hardcore, this is true hardcore

  • for me Mangga Antipolo is my favorite place (pampalakas), Timberland the Wall is epic and antenna hill angono for me is hardcore already. Cordillera might be insane for me.

    • Haha :-) tama ka rin bro. But insanity may be something we need to try once in a while. Kahit once lang

  • To my Tirad Pass Bros. Renan , Mike, Wency and Bong. It was unfortunate that Art, Jolly, and Ely were not able to join. Thanks for the delayed waiting time on our final ascent to the peak. The first traverse was an adventure the second time was re visit the 3rd was addiction and craziness. Perhaps many wondered why the title is Never again III for me the mind and soul permits but the body falters as we get younger only in our mind LOL!!! as the say life begins at 40 but added 20 yrs more yet no one can stop addiction in mountain biking. Art with lots of prayers maybe i’ll give a shot to break that promise for You. Hah ha ha Promises are meant to be broken.

    • Manong Alan, aasahan ko yan haha. Na-inspire ako sa kwento ng adventure nyo.

      • Can a small 4×4 (suzuki) traverse the roads of this route Besao to Quirino? Thanks in advance.

        • Yes I think it’s possible, there are some terribly steep sections but wide enough for a small 4×4.

          • Great. Thank you very much for the information Bong. I plan to ride my bike in the same route as yours but ending in my mom’s hometown just past San Emilio which is Lidlidda. I will ride with some of my office buddies. The 4×4 will be my support vehicle to carry tent, water, food, tools and what have you. Any advice you can give is very much welcome and appreciated.

  • I love reading your blogs,sir! May I ask if you need to disassemble your bike if you’re going to load it in a bus’ baggae compartment?

    • Hi Ron,

      Sorry for the late reply. From experience there are two types of bus that I’ve encountered. The big eurobus type, which has the really big baggage compartment that goes through from one side of the bus to the other. If you’re lucky you get to ride on these types of bus then no need to disassemble. The other type of bus which is the more frequent has smaller compartment. For these you just need to detach front wheel most of the time. But if there’s much cargo to be loaded both wheels have to come off. Tip, go to bus terminal early so you can ask which bus departing has a big compartment. That way you can also load your bike more carefully.