cycling in the Philippines

When daylight fades

Iya Gozum

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

When daylight fades

LONG RIDE. The road leads to Cervantes, the last town in Ilocos Sur province before crossing over to Mountain Province.

Iya Gozum/Rappler

'Despite my exhaustion, I was acutely aware that I was in the middle of making memories'

Like a god’s handiwork, the ridges of mountains appeared like spines. A range was dappled by light and shadows, blanketed by a diaphanous silence.

It was the third day of May and I was on my bike climbing an unforgiving mountain pass in Ilocos Sur. Two friends were riding faster, a few kilometers ahead of me. Another drove a car, stopping at certain points to eat with us.

The ride started in Tagudin, Ilocos Sur in northern Philippines. It would take more than a hundred kilometers to reach Sagada in Mountain Province. With almost 4,000 meters of elevation gain, the bike ride would most likely last until nighttime.

Along the way in Tagudin, we stopped at a sari-sari (general merchandise) store where a little boy played with bubble wrap and a book with a picture of a whale. At the monument in Bessang Pass, I drank two bottles of blue Gatorade and took a quick nap.

What followed was a 13-kilometer downhill. I stood on my pedals to stretch my legs, let the road pass under my wheels, and pledged full faith on the brakes. The road descended to the village of Rosario, Cervantes, where my watch indicated an accumulated mileage of 50 kilometers. In Rosario, the heat was blistering so we ordered halo-halo (shaved ice dessert) after eating lunch.

I was starting to get anxious because there were still 60 kilometers to cover and 2,000 meters of climbing left. With wounded pride, I began to consider the teeny possibility that I might not reach Sagada on two wheels.

There was a lump in my throat. Among the three of us, I was the only girl. I should finish.

Most people I’d talked with recalled fondly the year they turned 25. I wasn’t particularly excited by what they said was a promising year.

Instead, I was relieved to have gone past my early twenties. Because stuck in my head was Joan Didion’s description of her 23-year-old apparition as “shy to the point of aggravation, always the injured party, full of recriminations and little hurts and stories I do not want to hear again…”

The first night of my 25th year, I walked my dog, ate a caramel chiffon cake I hadn’t tasted in almost four years, and watched a fire near the North Luzon Expressway while eating a snack. We drove from Quezon City to Tagudin in five hours and got two hours of sleep before we rode our bikes to Sagada by 7 am.

Fun, Vacation, Machine
ASCENT. Mountain bikes supposedly have better gear ratios for climbing. Photo taken along Bessang Pass, the first of four big climbs on the route.

Crossing a bridge over the Lagben River after lunch, we left Ilocos Sur and entered Mountain Province. It was hot climbing to Tadian, but the temperature slowly dropped while we were ascending. More and more patches of pine trees appeared. The semblance of familiarity comforted me.

In a shop near the public market in Tadian, we ordered burgers and fries then continued the ride past 5 pm. I had to borrow a dry shirt because my cycling jersey was soaked with sweat and drinking water. The sun was setting and the air was getting cold. After Tadian, our friend will drive the car with our luggage straight to our lodge. Meanwhile, we still had to bike through the town of Besao.

I made a mental note: Might be pedalling until 9 pm. I added an assurance to myself: 14 hours of riding is an acceptable time.

Around 90 kilometers in and the paved road soon gave way to off-road paths. I had to dismount on a muddy area because I was afraid of slipping. Some locals working on the mud smiled. Rocks jutted out of cliffside paths, loose soil obstructed some sections. An occasional vehicle would drive by, their passengers looking at us through the window.

Before it got completely dark, the gravel paths gave way to a relatively new concrete road that snaked through the mountains. I can’t help but let out a sigh of relief. Because it didn’t happen, I still think I would have cried if I was made to ride off-road in the dark.

On a curve along Nacawang road, the muted light of the setting sun softly touched the craggy, exposed earth of the mountain side. Cows were grazing the overgrown grass.

There was so much beauty. Despite my exhaustion, I was acutely aware that I was in the middle of making memories. I sipped water and watched the remaining daylight grow faint. Ahead of me, I saw my friends turn on their bike lights.

It’s the last stretch. I put on my lights too and stuffed my camera inside my hydration pack.

Road, Person, Bicycle
SUNSET. Lights turned on as light grows faint, for the last stretch to Sagada.

There were no street lamps in these remote areas. When the sun went down, I had to strain my eyes in the dark, especially on long descents, and anchor my sight on the moving lights of the riders ahead of me. I kept telling myself that being alone in the quiet dark is more frightening than the rear wheel skidding when I brake too hard on tight corners. We stopped in front of a shack and ate strawberry candy. I doubled down with a chocolate bar. Flying termites swarmed our front lights.

Soon we reached Besao. The houses’ outlines appeared faintly because of the daylight bulbs that emitted an alarming brightness. From afar, the lights looked like stars that fell from the unpolluted pitch-black sky.

At night, Besao seemed like a fictional town that would fold and disappear once we left. The gaps among the three of us were now shorter. I knew I was slowing them down. They were navigating the route with their watches and would wait for me before critical turns. Dogs barked, raising a ruckus throughout the sleepy neighborhood. They didn’t chase us.

We found ourselves on the wider Sagada-Besao road past 8 pm. There were very few choices and very few distractions when riding in the dark. I could only distinguish the vague silhouettes of trees and the pools of light ahead of me. Nothing more.

I was tired and moving on autopilot with more than 100 kilometers of mileage on my legs. But sit with discomfort long enough and all the little worries and hurts, past aggravations and recriminations fade out. They did not matter. What mattered were yogurt, bed, and fleece blanket waiting in Sagada.

On the saddle, I ate a Snickers bar, climbing the last few meters before the sweet, final descent on West Road. I lost them on the way down and started to panic until I saw a familiar spot where my family spent one rainy afternoon during the pandemic. The recognition brought me to life.

I know this place, I thought.

I started to relax and anticipated the places which I could pinpoint even in the dark: the inn where I stayed in February for a field work, the restaurant where I jotted down notes on the margins of a brochure, the laundry shop where a nice lady took my dirty clothes half an hour before closing time.

Somewhere along this road is a gravel path to a cellar door where I enjoyed a glass of craft beer and a few pieces of tapa (cured beef) with a friend. We talked about how this place and its limestones were once submerged a long time ago.

City, Road, Street
PITCH-BLACK. Only the bike lights were visible on a mountain road going to Besao, Mountain Province.

I braked and slowed down at the foot of the descent near the municipal hall to take it all in. Over 100 kilometers cycling finally ended. All that work and effort condensed into memory.

Sagada submerged in darkness held a desolate air, like the other mountain towns that came before it. Why did I worry, when the only logical conclusion to the whole day was arrival? For a moment, I was in a trance. I was giddy and light-headed. Then words came back and I could speak and smile again.

It was past 9 pm when we arrived at our lodge. Dinner had turned cold. No yogurt. I approached the woman at the front desk, able to smile and talk again. It took very little coaxing to get four servings of sweet, strawberry yogurt after the kitchen closed.

I spent the second night of my 25th year in Sagada, where I took a shower in a bathroom overrun by dead, flying termites. I hung my cycling kit on the clothesline outside. I slept. In the pitch-black of my unconscious, there were no dreams. –

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Face, Happy, Head


Iya Gozum

Iya Gozum covers the environment, agriculture, and science beats for Rappler.