As the streets of Singapore get busier with both motorised vehicles and bicycles, it's no surprise that cyclists are increasingly looking for other options to riding on the road.
After all, accidents, fatal or otherwise, are on the rise, and near-misses seem to be a daily occurrence.
With closed-road races a rarity (come on, Singapore Cycling Federation, do something for your community, not just the elite riders), cycling enthusiasts don't have many completely safe options to keep their fitness up.
One is the indoor cycling studio Athlete Lab on Amoy Street, where you hook your own bike up to a hardware / software combo that allows you to ride a variety of virtual courses – Tour de France anybody?
Or there's the less exciting but still effective stationary gym bikes and spin classes.
But most cyclists like to be outdoors, so many are turning to mountain biking, where there are no trucks or buses to worry about in the jungle or forest – although you might meet the occasional snake or wild hog. Basic safety protocols apply though, not to say that it is accident-free.
While Singapore doesn't have any mountains, the small number of trails available are excellent.
Colin Tan, one of the pioneers of the mountain biking scene here and the owner of the Bike Haus cycling shop on Bukit Timah Road, gives his expert opinion on the trails. He has been mountain biking for 20 years.
Bukit Timah Nature Reserve
The top choice to go mountain biking in Singapore is definitely Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Tan says, but he cautions that it is “not for everybody”.
Even the entrance to the Bukit Timah trail is challenging
“If you’re looking for something difficult, technical, challenging, then head to Bukit Timah. Because of its many technical ascents and descents, I’d rate it to be for riders with above-intermediate skills since it requires correct riding techniques. It is not suitable at all for beginners,” Tan warns.
“You need to fully commit yourself to the trail and there are some down slopes where it's best to not touch the brakes; if you touch them, you could be in trouble.”
The main entrance to the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is on Hindhede Road just off Upper Bukit Timah Road. There are trails for both mountain bikers and hikers and these are well demarcated, with prominent signs instructing walkers and cyclists to keep to their own tracks.
Track 15 offers a fun and fairly easy ride through the forest
There is a mountain biking option for less experienced riders just off the main Bukit Timah trail. It runs from Chestnut Avenue all the way to near the Singapore Zoo, and it’s called Track 15.
“That is quite easy for beginners, it's much less technical than the tough trail and it's well marked out. It does feature a couple of slightly steeper hills, but they’re not that bad. This section is about 7km and takes you to the corner of Mandai Road and Zoo Road (Mandai Lake Road),” Tan says.
“Back then, we used to just create our own trails, but now the scene has grown so much and there are a lot more ‘official’ trails,” he adds.
Tampines Bike Park
Tampines Bike Park is a dedicated facility that was used for both the mountain bike and BMX races at the Youth Olympics in 2010.
“This is a very good place to start mountain biking. It's not too difficult and not too technical,” Tan says, but he adds a caveat. “Beginners might have some trouble in places because the hills there can still be challenging.”
Tampines Bike Park is a green oasis in the heartland of Singapore
Entry point is at the junction of Tampines Avenues 7 and 9.
The park provides something for cyclists of all skill levels.
Total beginners can stick to the flatter, straighter sections around the park’s inside perimeter, and then venture into the network of twisting and undulating trails once they have built up their skill and confidence levels.
There is not as much foliage here compared to other trails in Singapore, so remember to take along water and apply sunblock.
Singapore’s best mountain bikers go to Tampines Bike Park to practise their fast-paced cross-country skills and to race.
Tampines Bike Park has something for all skill levels
The Chase the Sun MTB Series, an endurance race, was recently held there on 2 June. It was to be the park’s last major event since it was announced earlier this year that it would be closed to make way for yet another housing development. Now, it has been given a year’s reprieve and hopefully, a campaign can be organised to keep this little piece of mountain biking haven open indefinitely.
Another place for cyclists of all skill levels is the Ketam Mountain Bike Park on Pulau Ubin. Obviously, riding there takes a bit more time and preparation, but once you’ve reached the island via bum boat from Changi Point Ferry Terminal, the quiet trails through the forest encircling the old Ketam Quarry make the journey worth it.
“The full trail, while fairly technical in places and hilly, has a good flow and everyone can enjoy it. It’s easier and definitely less dangerous than the Bukit Timah trail,” Tan says, adding that on some of the more challenging parts of the trail, a “bail-out route” is available.
“A bailout route allows you to skip some of the difficult climbing sections.”
While there are outlets renting mountain bikes on Pulau Ubin, Tan recommends taking along your own.
“I call these (bikes on lease) tarmac mountain bikes, and they should be kept mostly to the roads, or the light off-road ones, because the suspension they have works only to a small extent. They’ve been used by a lot of people and might not be very well maintained. I wouldn’t recommend them for the real Ubin trail.”
Kent Ridge Park
The trail at Kent Ridge Park rivals the one at Bukit Timah in terms of difficulty, and is likely tougher at many parts, Tan says.
“Kent Ridge Park is for a rider who is of at least intermediate to advanced skill level. It is very narrow and undulating and requires a lot of skill to ride through it. It can be very dangerous because if you fall off, there’s a good chance you’ll go down a steep slope and hurt yourself,” he warns.
He explains that some of the danger is caused by stone markers and wooden poles which were put in place to prevent soil erosion. The erosion happened anyway, leaving the hard wood, concrete and rock exposed and ready to hurt any rider, skilled or not.
Despite the dangers, Tan says elite riders will still love it… eventually.
“Even an expert mountain biker will need one or two rounds to get used to the terrain, but after that, they’ll have a really good time. It’s very hilly and has many twists and turns so you really need to commit yourself into the corners so that you can get up the other side of the hills. Otherwise you'll be doing a lot of walking,” he says.
Alan Grant is a freelance editor/writer based in Singapore and his biggest passions in life are eating and cycling. His longest ride to date was this June's Trans Malaysia Express where he and 14 friends covered 800km from the Thai-Malaysia border to Singapore in just 43 hours. He has placed his journalistic hat down at such legendary Singaporean spots such as The Straits Times and I-S Magazine as well as TimeOut Singapore, Discovery Channel Magazine and Spin Magazine.