Writer, author and journalist Rehman Rashid shares his top picks for cycling routes, bike shops and rentals around the island
Once away from the sclerotic streets of George Town (really, best explored on foot), cyclists can stretch their legs, lungs and spirits on several routes around the island.
First and foremost, the Round-lsland: The popular clockwise route takes off from George Town’s Pengkalan Weld and strikes south on the Jelutong Expressway to Bayan Lepas, curling around the island’s southeastern foothills to reach the rural western plains of Balik Pulau. Riders then climb over the hills to Teluk Bahang and Batu Ferringhi, heading back to George Town through Tanjung Bungah and Tanjung Tokong. The ride is 82km long and could take a moderately fit cyclist five or six hours to complete - more if hills are a challenge.
The Round-Island Route comprises several sections that make for satisfying rides in themselves. The Jelutong Expressway offers roadies a superb surface for safe time-trialling and triathlon training rides on 50km-60km loops.
In the opposite direction from George Town, the 25km ride to Teluk Bahang is popular for its liveliness and invigorating seaside aspect, but somewhat 'technical' in the twisting sections skirting the Batu Ferringhi promontory. Riders uncomfortable in traffic may prefer the recreational environment of Straits Quay, in Tanjung Pinang, or the bucolic bliss of a gentle pootle through the Penang Botanic Gardens and the verdant residential enclaves in the vicinity.
Pearl Hill, in Hillside, is a special place for local cyclists, runners and power walkers: a 2km road winding up past largely vacant residential lots to delightful views of Tanjung Bungah. The climb is as hard as any rider would want it to be. A good time would be under ten minutes, but the real challenge is to do 'laps', with the unofficial ten-lap record at present under two hours. And when the Coastal Cycling Route is complete, well, there you go.
Offroad: Eighty percent of the bicycles sold and used in Penang are mountain bikes. Riders fond of using these versatile and robust machines in the manner for which they were designed will find a plethora of trails from the coastal foothills of Gertak Sanggul to the escarpments of the central hills, accessed from Bukit Jambul or the Waterfall Gardens. Local knowledge is a must for the novitiate; contact the island’s many cycling clubs, or check out websites such as www.everytrail.com for constantly updated information on rides and guides
Further Afield: 'Penang is not so good for roadies,' notes Raymond Lim, 13, the youngest son of Lim Lai Huat of Lim’s Cycles. 'It’s too small and hilly.' That’s the truth. Road bike riders intending to experience all Penang has to offer, from the labyrinth of George Town to the stiff climbs of the island’s central spine, need to know two things: platform pedals are better than cleats in town, and a 27- or 29-tooth rear cog would be better than the standard 23 or 25 on the hills. Or, they can hop across to the mainland by ferry and disappear through Kedah’s ricefields to the ancient stupas of the Bujang Valley and the slopes of Gunung Jerai and onward to the Thai border, or head south into the gracious state of Perak and such historic towns as Taiping, Kuala Kangsar and Ipoh. Fully supported cycling tours of 100km-200km or more, sometimes involving overnight stops, are frequently organised by Penang’s cycling clubs, including the first movers of Penang’s cycle lanes, G Club Penang Cyclists.
Support: Bike shops abound in Penang, purveying conveyances from kids’ tricycles to carbon-fibre dream machines too precious to ride. They all offer repairs, clothing, accessories, advice, rides and contacts as well as bikes to suit every predilection. Those visited for Penang, The Bicycle State include: