CALM AMIDST THE CHAOSStory and Photographs by Matt Wragg
Hong Kong is a nightmare, my idea of hell. It never stops. The constant rush and bustle has driven any last remnants of peace and greenery far from the city's centre. People cram themselves into sardine-can apartments, paying extortionate rents just to be near. Maybe there's some great wave, an energy people are riding which I don't feel, but I find myself looking out from the shore, confused by the great appeal of this city. As you drive from the airport into the centre, my heart breaks to see the tower blocks that flank the road. Peering up at tiny windows that will never see sunlight I struggle to understand why anyone would choose to live in this place.
It's fair to say that when the Life Cycle team told me that we'd be spending a few days there on our way to mainland China, I was less than excited. At a loss for what I would do in that great urban sprawl I began searching the internet for any hope of riding in the city. What I found surprised me - there seemed to be a strong scene in this most unlikely of all places. Getting in touch with the Vice-President of the Hong Kong Mountain Bike Association, Kenneth Lam, he was keen to show us how much Hong Kong had to offer mountain bikers.
First impressions are important, so god only knows what he made of the four, bleary-eyed Europeans he was faced with in our hotel lobby. For some reason our travel agent had booked us to arrive in Hong Kong at 7am, so we had a full 15 hours to try and keep going in the desperate hope of a normal sleeping pattern. Maybe Kenneth didn't notice, or was too nice to mention. Greeting us with a big grin, he lead us out of our air-conditioned sanctuary and into the muggy confusion of the city. Navigating the busy streets of Mongkok we followed him across a handful of the main roads and then dived left down a slightly smaller side street and there, nestling under the concrete overhang of tower block, was Gravity Reaction Cycles.
From outside it looks like nothing, a tiny shop front lost in the sprawl. But as you walk in, you realise it is something special. Today bike shops tend to be ordered places, clean and organised with the products arranged sensibly. The owners of Gravity Reaction have completely ignored all of those modern trends and piled everything high with seemingly no worries of ever finding it again. Weird, ancient quill stems sit next piles of $1,000 Enve carbon rims, boutique downhill frames hang next to late 90s frame building experiments that died out along with purple anodising. It was like a window back into your childhood and we flitted round, gleefully uncovering the latest, exotic craftsmanship or trying to guess the age of some long-forgotten, limited edition Rock Shox SID fork. Outside riders beat their tyres with heavy clubs, knocking off the mud before the bikes moved inside. People passed through to pick up some small spare or drop a bike off for service. Take away the high-rise buildings and endless traffic and it's a scene any mountain biker would recognise.
At dinner it dawned on me that we'd falled into a familiar rythmn. Kenneth was excitedly asking us about bikes and rides, crashes and races. We were sharing stories and tips, that same small talk riders always lapse into. Go halfway round the world and into the least likely place you can imagine, and mountain bikers are still mountain bikers. Over bony chicken and noodles we enthusiastically planned our escape from the city, jabbing at the soup-stained maps with our chopsticks and wondering how we would get to the trailhead and what we would find when we got there.
Sitting on the dock the next morning, looking up at the great pillars of the skyscrapers, we felt out of place. Four Europeans with complicated, expensive bikes and head-to-toe riding gear stood out among the commuters. Everyone stared as we wheeled our funny contraptions onto the ferry and took seats, nervously watching those prized possessions as the boat bobbled out into the harbour.
Lamma Island was a different world to the one we had just left. It seems the money that flows through the finanical centres can't cross that twenty-or-so minutes over the harbour. Disembarking the ferry you land on a rickety pier with thousands of old, rusty bicycles chained along the way. Kenneth led us through the tiny, winding streets and we began to climb up the access roads and away from the uneven buildings. Before long vegetation surrounded us. Then it hit me - we were in the jungle. Half an hour from the centre of the financial district and here we were leaving the world a bit further behind with every pedal stroke, and how many chances do you get to say you rode bicycles in the jungle?
In truth, we probably didn't climb very far, no more than a couple of kilometres, but when it's 28 degrees and the humidity is up in the 80s, it's enough to hurt and feel like a long way. Eventually we made it out onto into scrubland and a red sandstone hilltop where we could look out over the harbour. Even though you can see the skyscrapers and the endless procession of freighters that traverse the waters around Hong Kong, it all seemed remote. Nobody was rushing, nobody was shouting, there was no traffic zipping by. There was just us. Five people and five bikes.
Jetlag had been savage up until then, that thick-limbed feeling, watching the world pass-by, unable to quite join in. Dropping into the singletrack began to cleanse that from our limbs. Blood began to flow, senses sharpen and the only thing that mattered once more was getting the front wheel in just the right place to clear the rock formation ahead of you. Scrub gave way to jungle and the trail all but vanished, ploughing blind through dense grass and ducking under rope-like vines, smiles etched on our faces.
Somewhere in the middle of that jungle we met Andrew. I have no idea how Kenneth arranged for him to find us, but he did. Maybe 5'3" tall, grinning and sat astride a tiny, battered Cannondale he was charged with energy. Gesturing for us to follow him he sped off towards what Kenneth told us were his trails. How he rode that rattling, rusty bike as fast as he did I will never know. Everything about it was was wrong, the long, high stem, narrow bar and high saddle, the drivetrain that was crying out for oil. Manuel, one of Italy's top enduro racers, was having to work hard to hold his wheel. It was one of those humbling lessons when you remember that you don't need all the kit in the world to get out and ride, to have fun.
Away from the better-known trails on the island, Andrew has built a network around a single hill, a complex series of sharp climbs and flowing descents criss-crossing the sides. It's the kind of network you could lose endless hours on as you zip up and down. With a bit of imagination and a lot of hard work, Andrew and his friends have created one of the most amazing things I've ever experienced on a mountain bike: an oasis of single track barely a stone's throw from one of the busiest urban areas on our planet. A small, but perfect, sanctuary away from the chaos of the city.www.hkmba.org