Beyond the Genting Sempah climb

Words and photos Emir H.Imrantski

For those living in and around Kuala Lumpur, the 16km climb from Hospital Orang Asli in Gombak to the Genting Sempah peak, is part of their staple cycling routes.

So much so that the National Heart Institute or Institut Jantung Negara, have “adopted” the stretch of road. Despite the traffic along that route, it is only natural that it is popular among cyclists due to its accessibility and the accompanying cool environment. 

Not satisfied with the usual climb and resulting downhill, we decided to tackle the more trying HOA - Bentong - HOA ride, adding an extra 70km or so to the existing Genting Sempah route. Despite having accomplished at least half a dozen 100km rides under our belts, the prospect of a gran fondo without many flat sections was a daunting one.

On the foothills, lamenting your choice of equipment is part and parcel of the pre-ride routine, from the width and pressure of your tyres, to the frame material of choice. Here the mind flips between the want for comfort and speed, looking to hit that sweet spot between the two.

As a one-bike cyclist, my choice was simple - my heavyweight bomb-proof steel touring bike, while one of our party opted for a limited edition stiff but speedy aluminium Specialized Allez. Another opted for a steel bike specially built for climbing, a rather svelte sub-9kg rig with wider and lower gear ratios. The fourth and last member of the group was looking to find out whether a loaded folding bike would be suitable for his future audax rides; the jury is still out for this one. 

Getting there

To reach the starting point at Hospital Orang Asli in Gombak from Kuala Lumpur is simple. Head northeast on the Lebuhraya Kuala Lumpur - Gua Musang (E33) and instead of taking the turning into Karak Highway, take the left most lane to Route 28 towards Gombak/UIAM before Plaza Tol Gombak.

From this point on, the urban rush quiets down significantly. Follow the road for about three kilometres and turn left to get on Jalan Sungai Pusu at the T-Junction. At the next junction make a right to get on Jalan Gombak Route 68. Here, there are scant indications of urban living, as the greenery and kampung architecture features prominently. Another 5.6 kilometres on this road and you’ll reach Hospital Orang Asli, which sits at the start of the slopes of Genting Sempah.

Excelsior! Onwards and upwards

At 8am, the ride started slightly later than intended due in part to the hospital security guard’s reminder it was not a public holiday. This meant we couldn’t park at the staff parking bays, making relocating our vehicles necessary.

 Despite a later start than ideal, the weather was on our side. Without breakfast and with the long Genting Sempah climb ahead of us, we took our time to pace ourselves on the ride.The winding road through the green hillside was a welcome change of climate from the usual urban fare, as the dense vegetation resisted the heat quite nicely.

Given that it was the first day after the Chinese New Year holiday, there wasn’t much traffic to contend with. We encountered only a handful of vehicular traffic and a dozen odd cyclists during the ride. This allowed us to pick the smoothest line of road available, but the lack of cyclists on that day meant a friendly one-eyed dog decided to embed himself in our peloton. 

As we were climbing at a relaxed pace, the mongrel would constantly stop and glance at our direction to make sure we weren’t left behind. Its motivation to join us became apparent a kilometer into the ride, as the dog was actually relying on us to shield him from another canine.

 It would stick close to us with his hackles up and teeth out as its nemesis attempted to chase it. This dog-on-dog and cyclist pantomime continued for approximately four kilometres, until both dogs were too tuckered out to continue. 

Tackling this climb during the day, the obvious amount of litter that adorn the side of the road was disheartening. Especially since this road has been adopted by corporate sponsors and NGOs. A few kilometres from the top, one of our members directed us to a little dirt part to an electric pylon, that sat on a bluff overlooking the valley below. 

After the brief stop to take in the view, we were propelled by the lack of breakfast and powered through the final few kilometers to the top. Going through the underpass towards Genting Sempah, marked the end of the most arduous climb on the first half of our journey.

Due to the limited options brought upon by the holidays, we had to resort to McDonald’s for breakfast. It wasn’t a surprise to find the whole place was mobbed by families returning from their Chinese New Year travels. After a 30-minute queue we finally had a meal in our bellies and at 10am we resumed our journey towards Bentong. 

With the climb pretty much in our rear, the road ahead was all downhill from there. The cool hillside breeze and empty roads made for a pleasant journey, evoking the feeling of a Sunday morning cruise in a convertible.

Going past Bukit Tinggi, the road started to take a turn for the worse as the population grew scarce with some sections feeling like cycling over a washboard. It is only natural that one would wish for fatter tyres there, especially when navigating through deep gouges in the asphalt that came at seemingly regular intervals.

Road conditions aside, this route is a pleasant one, green and desolate, a perfect opportunity for a solo rider’s quiet contemplation or a sociable group ride. Here, the road snakes along the hillside with scant signs of human presence, surrounded by lush green vegetation on both sides. Personally, the minimal amount of oil palms brought me joy.

At 11am, as the road levelled out, we found ourselves in Bentong. The sun’s rays and the hectic holiday traffic welcomed us to town. Our objective was to hit up the famous Lemang To’Ki at the northern edge of town.

Despite arriving well before noon, the queue for the famous lemang and it’s accompaniments had reached the edge of the premise. Pressed for time and in dire need of sustenance, we opted for their “Nasi Campur” instead. Their selection of mixed rice did not disappoint, as there was double the amount of dishes you might find at a typical warung. 

With lunch securely in our belly, we decided to move on to dessert, a strategic move brought on by the midday sun. In this hillside town, the place to go to for after meal sweets is Kedai Kopi Kow Po, a no-frills traditional ice-cream parlour. 

The four of us went for ice cream cendol, opting to dine al fresco on plastic stools to complete the experience. Feeling refreshed from the meal, our party pressed on under the glare of the afternoon sun. 

Getting out of town was a relatively simple affair for cyclists at Bentong; after squeezing past traffic we found ourselves back on the quiet trunk road. As we had freewheeled most of the way here, we now had to pay the piper.

 Luckily enough the gradients were merciful, the incline towards Genting Sempah started low and slow, allowing us plenty of time to gather steam for the remainder of the journey. On the return leg the poor road conditions were made more bearable by our relatively slow climb. We were are also pleasantly surprised by some flat stretches along the way. 

Approaching Bukit Tinggi the incline began to take a more sinister shape, aping the initial contours of the Genting Sempah climb. The elevation gain also helped to mellow out the sun’s harsh rays, though with such a relentless climb we took a couple of breathers along the way. 

Ultimately, the worst was yet to come. On this route the most challenging incline is the last climb to the top of Genting Sempah as your legs struggle with fatigue, one that required most of us to remain on our lowest gearing. 

No matter how much your mind plays tricks on you and looks at the climb saying that it is too steep, it can be conquered - even if you have maxed out on 39-30 gearing combo. Just keep your head down and go for it, because there is no other way home.

The top really does mark the end of the suffering as the next 16kms of twists and turns is the pure joy of downhill yet again, the perfect way to end a hard day in the saddle. It leaves you with a lasting impression that will remain with you far longer than the aches and pains of the gran fondo, making you yearn for this particular ride time and time again.