Riding a BRM1000 During a Pandemic

2020 is the year that just keeps on giving, if only the things it gave were something people actually wanted. This year’s BRM1000 was slated to happen early in March, but that was The Before Times. Malaysia implemented the Movement Control Order (MCO) just days before the ride was supposed to start, effectively cancelling it at the final moment.

During the MCO period, no one was supposed to be out except for critical or essential reasons such as essential work, emergencies or supply runs. On the bright side, due to the quick and strict measures the spread of COVID-19 in the country was quickly put under control, so much so that by May, the government began relaxing restrictions and we could cycle outdoors again, albeit within a limited duration and distance from home.

By late June the country went into a much lighter Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) where some sense of normality started to return. Interstate travel was no longer banned, so we could cycle even further. Audax Randonneurs Malaysia began organizing brevets again, and in July I completed my first BRM600 in 2020 (n.b. to be clear, a Super Randonnée isn’t categorized as a BRM). The original March event, which consisted of three separate rides BRM300, BRM600 and BRM1000, was moved to August 28.

Maintaining Fitness During the Lockdown Period

To go from nearly four months of lockdown to participating in an audax ride isn’t entirely unfathomable, depending on how well one maintained their fitness during that time. Those who have indoor bike trainers certainly have it a lot easier than those who didn’t, but even with all the right equipment, it still takes a good training plan and discipline to maintain a consistent training regime indoors.

231 virtual kilometres, my longest ride yet on Zwift (screenshot from Zwift)

For me, I’ve had regular interval sessions via The Sufferfest, an almost-weekly race (yes, an actual race) on Zwift, and on weekends, a typically longer Zwift ride session. So basically, I stuck to the same training regime that I would have followed if the MCO hadn’t been implemented. I also used the Training Peaks app to monitor my fitness and fatigue levels, and made plans that targeted a specific level of fitness that I wanted to achieve and maintain.

When outdoor activity was allowed again early in May, I started testing waters with short rides first, then progressing to longer ones, culminating in one big 225km ride to Port Dickson town and back. All my rides started from home; during these times it made little sense to pack the bike and drive off to some far-off location for what amounts to a solo training ride. By the end of June, I was prepared for a BRM600 and the month after, BRM1000.

Planning and Preparation

I formulated a very ambitious plan: a sub-60-hour completion time

My last BRM1000 was September 2018. It was also my first year of randonneuring, so at the time, I was pretty much inexperienced in terms of pacing and strategy for such a big ride. Despite that, I managed a very reasonable completion time of 71 hours and 49 minutes.

979.5km with 8,154m of elevation, as plotted by RideWithGPS (screenshot from RideWithGPS web interface)

Building off that first-time experience, plus everything else that I have picked up since then, I formulated a very ambitious plan for this years BRM1000: a sub-60-hour completion time consisting of two 400km blocks at 20+4 hours (i.e. 20 hours of riding and 4 hours of rest), and then up to 12 hours to finish off the ride on the third day.

Two sets of jerseys + bibshorts + gloves + socks, plus an extra set of gloves + socks, towel, scarf and sleeping bag liner

Studying the route on RideWithGPS, I would have to tweak that plan a little bit. The distance to Teluk Cempedak, Kuantan – my first stopping point – was only 380km so the extra 20km will have to be carried forward to the next day. The second day was planned to end somewhere between Batu Pahat and Muar, Johor, leaving somewhere between 200-250km of riding on the third and final day. If everything went according to plan there would not be a fourth day of riding.

Plenty of lights for night riding, and two 10,000mAh power banks to keep the Garmin cycling computer and mobile phone topped up

The plan for overnight stops was based on what I did during my first BRM1000; the first night would be spent sleeping in the rough, and then the second night in a hotel. This is the reason I picked Teluk Cempedak as the first rest stop; I recalled people setting up camp and sleeping at the beach the last time I was there. It’s pretty common, actually, for people to camp out at popular beaches in Malaysia. I’ve seen arrays of tents at the popular Port Dickson beaches, as well as Morib beach. Of course, I wasn’t going to carry a portable tent on my bike, but would instead bring a very compact and lightweight sleeping bag liner. It’s basically like bivy-ing, but with a sleeping bag liner instead of a bivouac (or bivy); the only reason I didn’t bring an actual bivy is because these things seem to be quite hard to find in Malaysia. Also, a proper bivy might be too warm for the Malaysian climate, except perhaps at the tallest peaks of Cameron Highlands or Genting Highlands.

All items, tools, accessories and toiletries are organized in ziplock bags before being stored in a Topeak Backloader 15L saddle bag

I brought two extra sets of clothes, plus an additional set of gloves and socks on top of that, even though I was only planning on changing during the second night at the hotel stay. The extra pair is always useful in case of rain, which makes things unpleasant and uncomfortable (and potentially painful, when it comes to wet bibs, gloves and socks).

For lights, I always err on the side of over-preparedness and bring more than necessary, including a spare light mount in case the main one fails. The Cateye Volt 1700 remains my trusty main front light with its massive 15-hour runtime at a very reasonably bright 200-lumen in low power mode. The Volt 800 and 400 are the backup front lights. For rear lights, the Cateye Reflex Auto remains as my most trusted long-duration constant light whereas the Cateye Rapid Mini is used as the primary blinker. I also attached an extra Rapid X2 to the drive-side seat stay as an extra pulsing light in situations where I felt it would have been safer with the extra level of visibility.

All packed and ready to ride

With so much to carry – clothing and the sleeping bag liner especially – I opted for the 15L version of the Topeak Backloader saddle bag. This is Topeak’s largest model, and the most suitable for carrying everything I need for a multi-day ride such as this.

One new thing that I added to my repertoire was Salt Sticks, replacing the annoyingly slow-dissolving Endurolytes that I used to add to my water. Besides taking a long time to dissolve, the taste of the Endurolytes became less palatable on longer, multi-day brevets. With Salt Stick (and Salt Stick Plus) tablets, I freed up the role of my water bottles to carry only water while the Salt Sticks get tucked inside my aero bars and are easily dispensed with a twist of the dispenser tube. I did not bring any Perpetuem this time; they’re great for one-day nutritional needs, but on multi-day brevets real food is preferable.

Day 1

One of the unique things about this particular BRM1000 is that parts of the route are shared with BRM300 and BRM600. The starting point is Morib Beach for all three rides, although the actual start times have been staggered by one-day intervals. BRM1000 starts on Friday, 28th August, then BRM600 starts the following day and finally BRM300 starts on Sunday. Depending on speed and timing, there would be some overlap where participants from all three BRMs intersect in the last 100-150km or so.

I’ve always emphasized the need to ride a steady Zone 2 Endurance pace for ultra-endurance cycling

Nora and her group ride past at a blazing pace, just before we latch onto the group’s tail (video screenshot)

For us BRM1000 participants, we started the ride at 7:00am. The first 40km of the route heads south along the coastline from Morib thru Tanjong Sepat, Bagan Lallang, Sungai Pelek to Sepang town – a very flat and easy course to begin what would become a challenging ride in due time. I was joined by Chan and Maggie from my previous Super Randonnée ride, and Chris, another experienced randonneur whom I have met multiple times over the years during brevets, but never actually rode in-person with until now. Shortly after leaving the starting point, we latched on to Nora’s fast group which pulled us through most of this flat course at a blazing pace.

I’ve always emphasized the need to ride a steady Zone 2 Endurance pace for ultra-endurance cycling, but Nora and her group – and probably plenty of other local groups – are different, and for good reason. Muslims in Malaysia typically have to attend to prayers several times a day, even during events such as this, so it makes sense for them to plan their cycling strategy and pace around their prayer times. So I guess it makes sense for these groups to go faster than what the usual ultra-cycling advice says; they ride faster, but in shorter bursts and stop more often. Proper group-riding technique, including taking pulls and doing rotating pacelines, help take the sting out of the faster pace.

The infamous Bukit Miku climb – short but steep (video screenshot)

After Sepang, the route became hilly for most of the way till the east coast. This began with some light rolling hills from Sepang to Lukut and Rembau, and then after that, came the first major kick in the proverbial nutsack. Infamously known as the Bukit Miku climb, or simply the N14 climb segment on Strava, it is a short but steep section with an average grade of 10.5%. As always, do not let the “low” average value fool you; actual gradients go up and down throughout the entire segment, with the steepest grades kicking in somewhere in the middle.

Fortunately, the first checkpoint of the day was a restaurant just a few kilometres before the climb, making it a very good opportunity to rest and load up on carbs to prepare for the obstacle ahead.

In hindsight I should have time-trialed my way up the hill

My strategy for taking on Bukit Miku was to try and stay within Zone 2 intensity, or as some would call it, “flattening the hill”. However, in order to maintain that moderately low amount of power output on such a steep climb, I had to resort to a very low cadence that came to approximately 35-40rpm, and this was in spite of my relatively low 32T-32T gearing. This was pretty stressful on the muscles as the legs had to produce a lot of torque to turn the pedals at this low cadence. In hindsight I should have time-trialed my way up the hill (or at least taken it at sub-threshold effort) and saved the legs from the stress, but as the saying goes, hindsight is 20-20.

In hindsight, trying to go up Bukit Miku at Z2 intensity was probably a bad idea (video screenshot)

The result was leg muscle cramping, though fortunately not both at the same time. Whenever one leg would threaten to cramp, I’d pedal with the other leg, and when that other leg threatened to cramp, I’d switch back. Although I made it to the top in one piece, but my performance for the rest of the day was significantly impacted as I had to put a hard limit on my power output to prevent my legs from acting up afterwards. It didn’t help that the rest of the route was rather hilly, but c’est la vie.

I reached the second checkpoint in Bandar Seri Jempol at around 2:37pm – still good and well within my planned schedule. The next checkpoint will be in Gambang, Pahang, a ridiculous 179km away so we made plans to have dinner at some midpoint along the way.

The Pahang river, riding through Bera Town on the way to Temerloh (video screenshot)

We reached the town of Temerloh in the evening and stopped by a small Malay restaurant for dinner (incidentally, Temerloh is dubbed “The Centre of Peninsular Malaysia”). Afterwards night had fallen and from this point onward, it was relatively flat save for two small hills to climb. Road conditions weren’t the best, including one sketchy gravel under-construction section, and there was still plenty of traffic along the way, so I didn’t want to take many risks and rode at a relatively slow and steady pace towards Gambang.

I arrived at the Gambang checkpoint at around 2:19am. This was slightly off-schedule; my original plan was to arrive at Teluk Cempedak at 3:00am, rest for 4 hours and then leave by 7:00am, but there’s no way we could cover the requisite 31km distance in under 41 minutes for this plan to happen. We had two options – continue riding towards the checkpoint, or get some rest at Gambang and leave at 5:00am, aiming to reach Teluk Cempedak at 6:00am. In terms of time management, they were both equivalent, but with the latter option we’d wake up fresh and have a better chance of holding a good pace towards the checkpoint.

We opted for the latter.

Day 2

between 11pm and 7am, most establishments save for certain essential ones such as 24-hour petrol stations are closed

McDonalds, Teluk Cempedak checkpoint – too early to open

The road to Teluk Cempedak was relatively smooth and vehicle-free. It didn’t take long to reach our destination under the cool, pre-dawn conditions. I was looking forward to a nice McDonalds breakfast, perhaps some porridge to go with hot coffee. Unfortunately, when we arrived, it was just a couple of minutes after 6:00am and the whole area was still closed. That’s one of the complications introduced by the current RMCO – between 11pm and 7am, most establishments save for certain essential ones such as 24-hour petrol stations are closed.

After some wandering around, we did find a place for breakfast before the journey to the next checkpoint began. The roads from Teluk Cempedak to Pekan, Nenasi, Kuala Rompin and Endau can be considered pancake-flat, but not easy. They hug the coastline of the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia, and it was hot and humid throughout the entire day. To add insult to injury, there was a moderate amount of headwind all the way, reducing the distance that we could cover by a significant margin. More specifically, it took us around 12 hours to cover approximately 200km from Teluk Cempedak to Mersing under these conditions.

Shortly after passing through Pekan, I decided that the heat was too great, so I let the rest of the group go while I rode at my own pace, often not even touching 18km/h on good stretches of road. The key was to ride slow and comfortably, manage energy expenditure and avoid overheating, which is always a bad thing; on this particular course, it could have been even worse as there are practically no supply stops all the way to the next checkpoint at Nenasi.

Goats of Nenasi which, fortunately, they weren’t Sufferlandrian Laser Goats 😉 (video screenshot)

I arrived at the checkpoint at around 11:46am to find the rest of the group taking a break and considering lunch. I didn’t find many places to eat via Google Maps; our best bet was a small Malay restaurant just a short distance ahead, after the checkpoint. Being in a coastal town, the place had a variety of fish on the menu but my appetite was already pretty much shot from the heat and I needed to get a bit creative. I went with some basic rice, taugeh (bean sprout) and a fried chicken wing. But I mostly wanted the taugeh (and copious amounts of sauce from the dish), to keep the meal palatable.

After lunch, as we were about to leave, we came across Nora and her group again, but fewer in numbers this time. They had a longer overnight rest than us, and that was the only reason they were slower than us. We rode at a slower and steadier pace but stopped less, after all. We were also joined by Rudy who rode with us for the rest of the day.

Ais kacang is always welcome on a hot day… or any day, actually!

The next checkpoint from here onwards was Mersing, Johor. The roads were still very flat up until Endau, and then it was back to rolling hills on the way into Mersing town as we skirted around the Gunung Arong Recreational Forest. Along the way, Maggie and I developed a craving for ais kacang and searched high and low for a stall. We eventually did find a place that served the local shaved ice delicacy and used the opportunity to cool down from the heat. Our morale restored, we left and rode on in high spirits.

Mersing is probably the last major town before we go back to isolated, countryside roads for a relatively long distance so we took the opportunity to have a good dinner before moving onward. The plan now was to reach Batu Pahat and find a hotel to freshen up and get some sleep for the final day of the event.

Unfortunately for us, the roads from Mersing to Jemaluang to Kahang and Kluang were quite challenging, due to a combination of hilly terrain, thick mists, poor road conditions, and riding fatigue. Many of us were getting sleepy, and short power naps began to eat into our limited time bank. By the time we reached the checkpoint in Kluang, it was already past 3:30am and so I decided to alter the plan and find a hotel here instead.

Arriving late at the Kluang checkpoint

Rudy, who rode with us since Nenasi, did not join us for the hotel hunt. He already had other plans and had to get to Batu Pahat, so he continued riding through the night, solo. We didn’t see him again after this; he would eventually finish the ride earlier than us.

We found Sin Lien Hotel, a one-star hotel according to Google, less than a kilometre away from the checkpoint, and it became our rest stop for the night. Despite Google’s rating, I felt it was pretty decent with all the essential facilities including hot water, air-conditioning and a soft, comfortable bed. A shower and a good night’s sleep does wonders to both strength and morale, even though there wasn’t really much time to sleep after we checked in to our rooms and got our things organized.

Everyone booked individual rooms to save time, otherwise this valuable resource would be wasted on waiting for people to shower. As we were checking into the hotel, we noticed a few bikes present inside the hotel’s store area – several riders had already arrived before us. Based on the concierge’s description, it was most likely Nora’s group who had arrived a little over an hour before us.

The plan was to wake up at 6:00am, have breakfast, and then leave by 7:00am – basically the same plan as the day before.

Day 3

we targeted a 10-11pm finish, which would bring the total elapsed time to 63-64 hours

From the town of Kluang, Johor, we had about 300km to cover to finish the ride without dragging things into a fourth day. Most of us were ready and waiting at the lobby of the hotel by 6:00am, except for Chan. It seemed that he had overslept, and while we waited for him, we had our breakfast at a nearby Chinese stall selling fried noodles.

Eventually Chan came down and told us to continue without him, and that he’d catch up with us later. We left shortly after breakfast at around 7:30am. At the time I believe Nora’s group was still enjoying their nap at the hotel.

Crossing the Muar river (video screenshot)

We rode into Ayer Hitam town before I noticed a message on my phone from Chan, informing us that he had bike issues and won’t be catching up anytime soon. So from here onwards, it was just me, Maggie and Chris until the finish. Based on our estimations, we targeted a 10-11pm finish, which would bring the total elapsed time to 63-64 hours – quite a bit over my 60-hour target, but still a very good time nevertheless.

The roads from Ayer Hitam to Muar, and then Batu Pahat and Melaka, were a lot better and more pleasant than what we had to go through the previous day, so that helped a lot with progress. The pace did slow down somewhat once we reached Melaka’s town centre itself; a combination of perpetually heavy traffic and some poor road conditions made our journey though the busy town somewhat unpleasant.

Crossing paths with BRM300 participants (video screenshot)

There was some rolling hills after leaving the town centre, heading towards Sungai Udang and the coastline, but nothing too extreme compared to the first day. Along the route we also started encountering the BRM300 participants. There may or may not have been BRM600 riders among them, but I wasn’t so sure – the BRM600 riders needed to finish by 10:00pm tonight, so if there were any amongst the groups we encountered, they were already late and needed to rush to finish.

Riding along the coastline towards Pasir Panjang, I suddenly developed a craving for satay after passing the beaches rife with the smell of barbequed meat and other roadside stalls. Unfortunately, I did not find any (or at least any that were open and ready for business); we settled for a small Malay restaurant that served, among other things, fried bananas for dinner.

FIVE petrol station, a relatively unheard of franchise (video screenshot)

We finished dinner as quickly as possible and then made it to the ninth and final checkpoint in good speed. This was a FIVE petrol station in the town of Pasir Panjang, Negeri Sembilan. I have not heard of FIVE before – they sounded like a new franchise – but the sanitary conditions of the toilet at this particular station was extremely terrible. I pity the poor soul that absolutely needed to use it; as for me, all I needed from this place was quick refueling and energy via a bottle of Coke and Livita Honey, as well as a change of lights for the eventual night ride to the finish.

On any other day, the rest of the journey should have been fast and smooth-sailing. Unfortunately, it was the eve of Malaysia’s National Independence Day and guess what the locals love to do? They congregate at the popular beaches in Port Dickson – namely Teluk Kemang and Pantai Cahaya Negeri. Traffic was practically a standstill along the coastal roads and we had to deftly manoeuvre through endless lines of cars, motorcycles weaving in and out of traffic like us, and groups of pedestrians haphazardly crossing the road.

Standstill traffic along Port Dickson coastal roads (video screenshot)

This annoying ordeal lasted all the way until Lukut, then it was just a little bit of rolling hills towards Sepang town, and afterwards the final 40km flat-as-a-pancake leg to the finish through Sungai Pelek, Bagan Lalang and Tanjong Sepat.

I took an energy gel – the first for this entire ride – and then from Tanjong Sepat onwards, dropped the proverbial hammer and went into intervals mode for the last 15km to the finish. I ended up dropping Chris but Maggie managed to stay with me; later I learnt that Chris had run low on water and stopped at Tanjong Sepat’s petrol station for a refill.

BRM1000 – done and dusted!

The finishing point had moved, though. Although we started at Morib Beach itself, but National Day celebrations had made that place too crowded to host the finishing point so it got moved to the Impian Morib, a hotel about 200m before Morib Beach. Fortunately, there were people at the finish to call out to me as I passed the hotel, otherwise many would have overshot and missed the finish. My unofficial finishing time, based on the actual time that I stopped right in front of Sam Tow and the Audax Randonneurs Malaysia crew, was 11:07pm for a total elapsed time of 64 hours, 7 minutes. That’s a new personal best; even if it was a little over four hours off my target, but I’ll take it as a win. It wasn’t an easy ride by any measure, after all.

I messaged Chan the next morning. He finished around 9:00am, just an hour before the official cut-off time, so all’s well that ends well.

Post-ride Thoughts and Conclusion

under more favourable conditions, a 60-hour completion time was a very realistic target

Total ride distance was slightly shorter than 1,000km, but that’s within the margin of (acceptance? error?) for a BRM1000; recorded elevation was significantly less than value reported by RideWithGPS though.

Thinking back at what went right and what went wrong, I think that under more favourable conditions, a 60-hour completion time was a very realistic target. There were two factors that were detrimental to the plan on this particular ride; I am confident that I could have achieved my goal if not for these two factors.

The first obstacle was Bukit Miku. I’m not sure if trying to pace myself at Zone 2 was the best way to climb that steep segment. Walking up, like some others did, was certainly an option, but if I were to tackle this hill again in the future, I would probably attack the hill at a higher intensity, possibly a sub-threshold (i.e. Zone 4) effort. This would keep the cadence higher and allow me to reach the top faster, but at the same time isn’t really too hard of an effort, all things considered; the higher cadence should be easier on the legs and engage different muscle groups – stronger ones – reducing the likelihood of cramping.

If I had not experienced muscle cramps on this climb, I would have been able to handle the rest of the route towards Teluk Cempedak at a much better pace.

The second factor was the stretch of coastal road from Pekan, all the way down to Kuala Rompin. The heat and humidity, combined with the headwinds, made what should have been an easy and flat route tough and challenging. I’m not sure how this could have gone any better; the last time I rode on these roads, it was in the middle of the night until morning during BRM1000 in September 2018. There was no heat and headwind to deal with at the time, so it all seemed very easy (aside from the speeding busses and lorries at night). Even a bit of rain would probably have been helped.

The reward for all that trouble and effort – a shiny piece of metal to add to the collection X-D

On the topic of weather, this year’s BRM1000 was pretty brutal. It had been cold and raining up to a few days before the start of the event, and then the weather suddenly became hot. Ironically, the day after the finish, the weather changed and became cooler and wet again.

So what’s next? At the end of October this year with be Audax Randonneurs Malaysia’s biggest event yet – the LRM1200+ which, despite the name, is a 1300km ride with plenty of elevation crossing both Fraser’s Hill and Cameron Highlands. It’s designated as LRM (instead of BRM) because it is validated by Les Randonneurs Mondiax, which is a division of the Audax Club Parisien (ACP) for events that are 1200km and longer. This is basically Malaysia’s local version of Paris-Brest-Paris.

I’ve studied the route, made some preliminary plans, and now am simply keeping a close watch at how the Malaysian government is dealing with the recent spike in COVID-19 cases and hope things will improve in the next month or so, in order to make this event smooth and as complication-free as possible.

Until then, #RideOn.

Update: LRM1300 has been postponed to an unspecified date next year. Given this news, there probably won’t be any new major events happening here in Malaysia for the rest of the year.

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