Like most cyclists in Kuala Lumpur, the urban sprawl of the city is a familiar and welcoming playground. My own connection to mountain biking is flimsy at best, it is strictly limited to an occasional wave from the road, to those making their way to the greener pastures of the Bukit Kiara trails.
When the opportunity arose for us four road cyclists with scarcely any experience off road to hit the trails, an enthusiastic but clueless “sure” issued forth.
Having sorted the half-day off for our respective jobs, making our way to the Forest Research Institute Malaysia on a Wednesday morning was a real breeze.
To get there, make your way towards the MRR2 (28) and take the exit - Lebuhraya Kepong/Bandar Baru Selayang, just after Taman Metropolitan if you’re coming in from the northeast. Going past the rush hour traffic, we were pleased as punch to be on the opposite side of the road.
At the exit, take the Lebuhraya Selayang-Kepong for half a kilometre or so and then take the left at the lights to get to Jalan Ehsan Utama. From there, you can look out for the FRIM signage on your right not far from the previous junction. Once on Jalan FRIM, the only bit left is paying the guard a levy of RM5 per car and RM2 per bike at the arch that serves as the border gate of the institute. If you’ve not enough cash on you there’s an ATM situated conveniently and conspicuously right at the gate.
Sadly, we got there 30 mins too early, as the place is shut to visitors from 7:30 to 8:30 am on weekdays. We were informed apologetically by the guards that the one hour close was to facilitate rush hour traffic. Locked out from the trails, we went to a nearby stall for much needed coffee.
Into the FRIM
Having found parking at the visitor centre and sorting out the equipment by the research institute’s information centre, we contemplated the routes available to us. With no one available to play Virgil to our Dante, the only resource available to us was the visitors’ maps scattered throughout the compound.
The illustrated map showed us a number of trails available to FRIM’s visitors, though what is lacking is any indication of the trails’ elevation or difficulty. Opting for a trail close to the Sg. Kroh waterfall, the four of us made our way over to the popular trekking area. The beautiful weather and serene surroundings made us thank our lucky stars that we were not behind our desks at the time. Our luck did not last however, as we failed to find the trailhead.
After completing a loop, we opted for another trail that would be easier for us to find and one that would connect to the trail we failed to locate. Making our way to the trail at Jalan Symington was much easier than the previous attempt. Taking a right at the mosque into Jalan Jelutong, the road we were looking for was just past the bend, marked by a bride and groom in the middle of their photoshoot, along with signs for a Syabas water plant and the Malaysian Nature Society house.
Making the climb to the trailhead just off the Malaysian Nature Society house, the difference between our own road bikes and the loaned mountain rigs began to rear its head. While the bikes had low 1x gearing that made sure we had enough gear inches for the incline, the spinning did leave some of us quite winded.
The first taste of off road was up a small laterite bank into the forest, followed by 60 or so metres of dirt and roots before the path merged with tarmac.
Hitting that section most of us felt like fish out of water, as we were not familiar with the proper handling of a mountain bike. We were constantly losing traction at the inclines and every bit off road we encountered. Fed up with the situation, I made like Rapunzel and let down my (h)air and as I was doing so, an old Chinese uncle passed by on his old mountain bike, cool as a cucumber with feet firmly planted on the pedals.
Having cleared the first proper off road section, I found out that metres upon metres of bad tarmac awaited us at the next bend. Thanks to the wide gear ratio provided, the climb was not too difficult but a couple of us forgot to lock their front suspension and had to walk part of the way up.
Reaching the top we rejoiced at the sight of a signage for the start of the Syabas Trail and the opportunity to take a breather. Right by us was the uncle who overtook us earlier on the trail chatting away with two of his buddies. Looking to score some local intel on the area, we asked Uncle Chan about the trail ahead, in which he discouraged us from attempting as the trail was too technical and steep. We thought it wise to heed his advice, especially since it had just rained the previous night.
The 63-year old FRIM regular told me that he started mountain biking here after retiring three years ago. Now, he and his buddies hit the trails there three times a week. After explaining our lack of experience, he suggested that we try Frim’s bunny slopes equivalent, the Bidara trail.
With destination in mind, we made our way downhill from the entrance of Syabas Trail and back to Jalan Symington, a bit further than where we first started.
Despite the weekday morning, the route down wasn’t entirely devoid of people as plenty retirees and school leavers take the opportunity to hike about FRIM regularly.
Not quite sure of the direction given, we followed Uncle Chan’s instructions as best we could. Going past the library towards the exit, we took a shortcut of our own making by cutting through the grassy slope instead of the next paved left turning.
Rejoining the small tarred road we continued up until we came to a crossroad. Ahead was a sign for Bukit Bujang Trail, to the left was the Dream trail and to the right was a beaten clay/dirt track. Needless to say, we opted for the the Dream trail, what seemed like the least ominous of the three.
Our instinct seemed to be on point as we were treated to some gentle inclines and wide paths, easy enough for a wide tyre gravel bike. Before we started, the idea for the trip was not just to get a feel of mountain biking in Malaysia but also a taste of the forest gravel track that features so predominantly in the cycling literature of temperate countries.
Going through the Dream trail with the leaves strewn uneven red earth path and generous canopy cover, it seemed like a good tropical approximation. Pedalling through this bit of the forest was certainly a beautiful experience and the aesthetics do distract from the inclines that slowly creeps up along the trail.
An hour into the second leg of our ride, we had to cut it short as we had reached our self-imposed cut-off time. This was a shame because I felt this might have been one of the best trails in FRIM. It was perfect for beginners who would like to try mountain biking, but without all of that extreme off-road terrain.
Coming from road bikes this is what we wanted, an off road course which allowed us to pedal in a steady rhythm, not that explosive pedalling that you would have to do at the trails such as Kiara, Kota Damansara and Putrajaya Challenge Park.
The trail is also forgiving, and would be a perfect place for aspiring mountain bikers to sharpen their skills. If you fall, you will graze, but not cut and or break bones like those extreme trails. It is also the perfect place to bring a hardtail cross country bike, as the trail did not have too many drops or terrain that required a long suspension travel.
This kind of trail is what we need more of if we were to seriously revive the hardtail market. In short, something that allows the hardtails to be in its elements of fast off-road riding. Saying that however, we also now have a new breed of mountain bikes which have front and rear suspension but were designed for less extreme riding and more fast paced cross country cycling.
It is such a shame we do not have more of these trails in Malaysia. Although from time to time an event organiser would hold an event which has these kind of routes, it’s not every day you get to ride on them. The bikes are readily available but the trails are not.
Luckily we have FRIM, a place that can give you a taster of what that kind of cycling is all about.
Xtrada 8 27.5 (Hardtail)
Frame: ALX XC Aluminum
Fork: ROCKSHOX RECON RL 120mm
Drivetrain: Shimano XT (RD), Shimano SLX (Shifter), 11-46T Sunrace Casette
Tyre: Performance tyre 27.5 X 2.25
The lightest out of the pack, really did make climbing pleasant. It looked a bit jittery on the downhill side, but some wider tyres could possibly fix this problem.
Entiat TR8 27.5 (Hardtail)
Frame: ALX Trail Aluminum
Fork: ROCKSHOX YARI RC 120mm
Drivetrain: Shimano XT (RD), Shimano SLX (Shifter), 11-46T Shimano XT Casette
Tyre: SCHWALBE Nobby Nic, 27.5 X 3.00
A monster downhill with its 3-inch wide tyres. Climbing was less than thrilling, especially with the heavy weight and tyre combination. However, its performance is hard to beat.
Siskiu T7 27.5 (Full Suspn)
Frame: ALX Trail Aluminum 150mm travel
Fork: ROCKSHOX RECON RL SOLO 150MM
Drivetrain: Shimano XT (RD), Shimano SL (Shifter), 11-42T Shimano Casette
Tyre: SCHWALBE Nobby Nic 27.5 X 2.60
Remarks: A Malaysian favourite, can really open up the world of mountain biking. With 150mm travel, it was able to climb and go downhill fast.
Hawk Hill 27.5 (Full Suspn)
Frame: Series 3 6061 Aluminum 120mm travel
Fork: ROCKSHOX RECON SILVER RL 27.5 120mm travel
Drivetrain: Deore Shadow Plus Direct Mount (RD), Shimano Deore (Shifter), 11-42T Sunrace Casette
Tyre: SCHWALBE HANS DAMPF 27.5 X 2.35
Considered a value for money yet capable full sus bike. With 120m travel it is more of a fast cross country bike that can live out of its comfort zone if needed.