What if I told you, there was an island city where locals have been spent their lives building the most perfect flowing singletrack? Complete with the berms, jumps, hips and gaps which your dreams are made of? I’m blessed to have ridden whistler multiple times. Coast gravity park, mammoth, Bellingham, and almost everywhere in between. At times, I’m jaded. I’ve been riding for twenty years, and it takes a lot to make me say “whoa”. But this past weekend, I rode a place that shattered my comprehension and expectations.
An island city rich in history and scenery. Dumaguete is a word I hear often when talking about riding with locals here in Cebu. They always talk about it. I was getting tired of hearing it, “how good can it be?” I used to ask them. “You’ll see” was always their response…
We left around 1am on Monday morning. We overpacked Dave’s brand new 4×4 and drove fast through the night of morning south for 2 hours. I would try my best to sleep between Jokie and Tasha, but Dave’s aggressive driving combined with an overly battered and curvy road would keep me awake and car sick nearly the entire time. The only sleep I could muster would be when we drove onto the car ferry and parked for an hour as we crossed islands.
Monday morning would greet us with a spectacular sunrise over neighboring islands. Locals would crowd the streets for their morning exercise and we would sip our coffee in anticipation of settling into our hammocks for some much needed rest.
We migrated over to our place of stay. A house situated roughly ten minutes from town, home to the fastest racers in the Philippines. The Barba brothers. Their names at the top of every Enduro, downhill, and motocross result in the Philippines. They’ve even been known to win xc races from time to time. They are supported by many local companies here in Asia, and we arrived to see them piecing together a brand new Taokas downhill bike. Old frames littered the entire compound. Intense frames, turner, ironhorse downhill bikes, all alongside wheels and components from multiple manufacturers all spread across the yard and sheds. All the pieces and parts had one thing in common, they were all completely and devastatingly abused. More so than any parts I’ve ever seen. It made me a little nervous. This was a place where mountain bikes came to die.
Bearings, hubs, headsets and brakes all scoured the tops of work benches and tables. All wore the battle scars of abuse by the hands of some serious speed. This evidence made it clear to me, I might not have brought enough body armor with me on this trip. But the Barba family invited us all in with typical warm, loving Filipino style. We were greeted with delicious lunch and coffee before setting up to get some much needed rest. I couldn’t find a suitable perch for my hammock, so I settled for an upstairs bamboo mattress padded with a beach towel. But I was ecstatic to see a generous sized pillow waiting nonetheless.
Still battling a deep chest cold, I woke from my midday slumber groggy, and still congested, but eager to ride nonetheless. I would gear up padless, with the intent on taking it easy. Soon we would load up the truck with bikes and bodies alike and drive fast straight up the mountainside, passing massive hillside mansions and plantations. Children and locals would wave and shout as we passed by like celebrities on a caravan to a red carpet event.
Riding in a brand new truck with every option available, packed with new downhill bikes and gear, I couldn’t help notice local families washing clothes and dishes in the river below, laughing and splashing about. I felt blessed at that moment, fulfilling my dreams of traveling and riding in a distant land. Soon we were dropped at our drop in point, which would be the start of the man made portion of trail. Donning a half shell helmet, shorts, short sleeve jersey, and no gloves, I was ordered to follow JR Barba. He was sitting confidently on the downhill bike he had just built minutes prior from a bare frame. His excess brake cables tied in loops above his handlebars. He sported a full face helmet, full moto pants and jersey, along with a chest protector, flat pedals, gloves and goggles. My nervousness was at an all time high at that moment and with the remainder of the group lining up behind me, I had no time to reconsider and we were instantly flying down a tight knit singletrack.
With my confidence and health at a lackluster low point, the trail turned from flat, semi flowy coffee brown ribbons into a jump laden jungle field. JR soon disappeared in front of me, only to reappear fifteen feet in the air, soaring off the face of a massive, perfectly sculpted double, landing perfectly, and exiting the following berm within milliseconds to continue his trail sorcery. The guy was absolutely unreal to watch. He destroyed every handmade berm and jump without hesitation. As I coughed my brains out, I happily pulled over to let the rest of the group catch up. I admired the handiwork of the builders. Words and pictures alone will never do justice to what I was seeing. Lips led straight into the most perfectly sculpted and angled berms I have ever ridden. In between the tight berms were massive double jumps with zero room for error.
My inhaler provided zero relief as I continued to cough and hack. But the trail was robbing my oxygen even more than my illness. We continued through the jungle before we stopped at the edge of a lush valley edge. Two hundred meters across and almost straight down, the entry was only one way down, and one way up the other side. A thirty foot step down would give you the 60 kilometers per hour speed needed to clear the fifty foot step up on the other side. A mind blowing feature. I’d only seen a feature this big at the Coast Gravity Park in Canada, which had been featured in multiple video segments. Again, I was happy to step off the bike and witness JR demolish the jump with seamless effort. We would all gather on the landing to watch the master launch halfway down the hill and blast a massive whip sideways perfectly onto the landing and into the following twenty five foot double. My jaw was on the floor once again. My only comparison to his riding was witnessed in 2014 at the Redbull Rampage in Utah. He is that good.
I continued riding as hesitant as a field mouse, but I was happy to slowly slip back into the end of the group, gladly following behind Tasha, one of Malaysia’s top women xc and downhill racers. With my confidence dwindling, we loaded up once again and shuttled up to another perfect single track. I rode down at a moderate clip, dodging fallen coconuts in the trail that Tasha would kick out in front of me. I started finding my meager groove, and as soon as I did, I would ride straight onto a tractionless strip of moss and splat myself onto my left forearm and side. I slid across the only piece of concrete on the entire trail, and I would get up in some serious pain. My forearm dripping in blood and curse words spewing from my mouth. It was the nail in the coffin for the day for me and I felt defeated on all levels. I sank further back into the pack, and was relieved to hear the trail would take us the entire way back home with zero pedaling, since deep red blood was now flowing onto my left grip and onto my brake lever.
We arrived back home where high fives commenced and stoke levels were at an all time high. Soon, an amazing spread of white rice, barbequed pork and fish was laid out over a massive banana tree leaf on the table in front of us. We would all share the meal as a community with only our hands being used as utensils. We would celebrate JR’s birthday and share beers over jokes before retiring to bed. I would power on my IPhone and learn of the tragedy taking place in Las Vegas, the worst mass shooting my country would suffer in history. I immediately called my parents and fought back emotions of homesickness. Amidst the greatest mountain bike riding I’d ever been privy to, I suddenly wanted to be home more than ever. I hung up and crawled onto my bamboo bed, and with the knots of the wood digging into my back all night, I slid into a deep sleep.
Tuesday morning would hit me like a truck. The morning sun mercilessly beaming onto my face, I slumped off of my cot and dragged myself to breakfast. After rice, chorizo and coffee, we geared up and headed out once again. Armed with an arsenal of cameras, tripods, radios, and go pros. The day would be spent sessioning berms and jumps, and watching JR destroy every feature effortlessly. I was even lucky enough to get some coaching from him, which I soaked up like a sponge. I’ve always struggled in tight corners, and he unlocked a couple problems he noticed in my posture and technique. Unfortunately, bad habits die hard, and more practice was necessary.
I regretfully passed on hitting the jump line. The jumps themselves weren’t the deciding factor, I’d hit jumps of the same size before. The issue was the technicality of the run ins. Each jump was located near either the exit, or entrance of a perfectly buffed out, 3 foot tall berm, making the speed of takeoff the determining factor in clearing every double. Changes in my setup, including a downhill bike, could prove inspiring enough to clean the entire line, as the difficulty sits directly at my personal limits. I vowed to come back to Dumaguete prepared with a big bike, more pads, and a clean bill of health.
The day would document JR and his unbelievable skill. He had been working on his spot for over 5 years and it showed in every turn he would unapologetically destroy. Enough footage would be earned to create an edit for Pinkbike, bringing light to a riding scene which would otherwise remain dark. I would spend the day sidelined, but happily witnessing the best real life video segment I’d ever seen. We would camp next to one of the most popular right hand turns of the trail, watching everyone try to emulate JR.
Once the afternoon hit, we would pack up and head to the downhill trail. A semi paved road would weave through a massive Cliffside canyon and split between a village on one side. I was assured the trail was fast and flowy, and yet, judging by the sheer rock faces and steepness of the surrounding hillsides, I knew better. My inclinations would prove correct as soon we were plummeting down a hillside I seriously considering walking. Sculpted berms would weave in and out, simply designed to mitigate speed while basically falling down the mountainside. After the last turn, the trail opened up into a semi flat yard. Any let off of the brakes would send you into warp speed, and once the trail came down off the mountain, you were greeted by an insanely massive lip, sending you flying over a pond, with zero opportunity for mistakes. I was surprised to see Tasha ride down not far behind me, grinning from ear to ear. The downhill trail to me was more serious than fun, with massive consequence, I wouldn’t normally ride a trail of that magnitude.
And as soon as it began, our ride was over, and we were on our way to the local hot spring. A naturally heated hillside pool carved out of the mountainside. We all stripped down and jumped in. I had delusions of my arm being infected and requiring amputation, but I happily dove in as well. The warm water soothed my sore body and jokes and laughter erupted from the group once again.
We would drive home to clean up and go out to dinner. Speaking with JR about his humble upbringing in BMX to being a factory athlete, he remains eager to pass his knowledge onto the next generation of riders in Dumaguete. He frequently leaves his bikes in trailside villages for the children to borrow and ride. He invests his time in coaching and is dedicated to growing his sport in his town. Dinner would end and I would be dropped off at my overnight ferry back to Cebu. I had to leave early due to an immigration appointment in town which I could not miss. Once again, my bike had brought me to a destination which would change my entire perspective. I left Dumaguete with a new found appreciation and respect for riding and local talent. The Barba’s are world class riders in multiple disciplines, and could be competitive on a world cup circuit, but local government corruption makes it nearly impossible for the opportunity to develop.
Amidst the hardships and setbacks they face, the Barba’s welcome all riders to stay at their home. They openly invited me back anytime, and encouraged me to stay longer next time. I personally vowed to return. Not only to enjoy the company, but to conquer their jump line as well. My team dropped me off at my overnight ferry, and I sailed solo back to Cebu.