As she pedals her bicycle along the streets of Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur, Elena Shim is greeted by the food vendors and merchants along the way.
Shim has become a familiar face around these parts since she started her guided cycling tours a year or so ago. Her tours cover the city and greater Kuala Lumpur. She also often organises excursions off the beaten track.
Biking, Shim says, has allowed her to discover new things about KL. The slower pace of cycling has allowed her to admire and appreaciate the city’s sights, from its architecture to its natural beauty. She has also been able to savour more of KL’s good food, often in nondescript coffee shops and hole-in-the-wall stalls that have been operating for decades.
“You have to try the Hainanese coffee or Cham coffee and Kaya Toast at Ah Gou coffee shop,” she insists as we passed a tiny inconspicuous coffee shop along Lorong Panggong in KL.
Originally from Sabah, Shim says cycling around the city has opened her eyes to what the city has to offer – things and places that often went unnoticed when she used to commute by car.
“When I used to drive, I didn’t notice many things in the city because I’d just pass them by so quickly… buildings, shrines, unique trees and plants and of course the wonderful stalls and coffee shops selling delicious food that aren’t in plain sight. Since I’ve gotten on the bike, I have discovered so many hidden gems in and around the city. Not only do I spot them, I can get down to take a closer look at any point,” she says.
Shim is so convinced that biking is the best way to see the city that she left her job as a researcher at Universiti Malaya to set up Bike With Elena, her outfit offering guided cycling tours. She has a small fleet of bicycles and if she needs more, she rents them from Dataran Merdeka (inclusive of safety helmets).
“I only started cycling three years ago. I began by commuting from my home in Petaling Jaya to the university, and I’d do about 10km a day. Now, I do about 30km a day,” she says.
Shim’s guided bike tours are popular with tourists and locals who appreciate the chance to see and experience the city on two wheels.
“It’s a great way to see the city and it brings people together. When you combine a sporty activity like cycling with food, you break boundaries. We sweat, laugh and eat together and it’s a lot of fun,” she says.
Cycling has gained popularity as a preferred way of sightseeing. In Malaysia, there are cycling tours in Penang, Melaka as well as in Sabah and Sarawak. Tourists and locals can now rent bicycles in most cities in Malaysia. In George Town, tourists are cycling down the streets in its heritage area to better savour its postcolonial charms.
Although still relatively new in Malaysia, cycling tours have been hugely popular in many tourist destinations around the world, from big cities like New York and Paris to the countrysides of Hoi An, Vietnam.
One of the biggest selling points of seeing a place on bicycle is that it allows travellers to cover long distances while being completely aware of their surroundings and having the freedom to stop and stare at will. It is also a less stressful way of travelling as the schedule is more flexible as there are no buses or trains to catch.
For Shim, the bicycle is her main mode of transportation although cycling in the city has its challenges.
She lists potholes and errant motorists as her two top peeves.
There are much fewer women cyclists compared to men, and the most often cited reason is concerns about safety on the road and security.
But Shim take these challenges in her stride.
She has trained herself to be alert and aware of her surroundings at all times.
“The potholes are like booby traps for cyclists and we have to be on the lookout for new ones that always appear on the roads. Being alert is key … sometimes pedestrians step onto the streets out of nowhere and we have to brake suddenly. Another challenge are drivers who don’t respect cyclists and who don’t see the need to share the road with us,” she says.
The lack of parking facilities for cyclists is also an inconvenience.
“Trees, fences and poles have become my best friends. I have to look for lamp posts and trees to park my bicycle as there aren’t many bike racks for cyclists to use. In buildings and hotels, we’re expected to park with the motorcyclists in the underground car parks but its dangerous for a cyclist to go down the ramps with cars coming down as well.
“Also, these places are dark and it’s dangerous, especially for women.
“There really should be parking for cyclists … after all, it won’t cost much to set up a bike rack or two outside an office or hotel,” she says.
Going the full distance
Like Elena Shim, cycling is also very much a part of Hana Harun’s life. But she does not commute with the bicycle or earn a living on her two wheels.
For Hana, cycling is a weekend activity and a sport to challenge herself.
She never turns down an opportunity to ride.
Since she started cycling long distances seven years ago, the Sabahan has participated in numerous rides in Sabah as well as in Peninsular Malaysia, experiences which she says have been enriching.
“After about three rides on my brand new bicycle, I agreed to take on the challenge of riding from Tenom to Ranau in what is dubbed the “Tour de Interior” in Sabah. The distance was about 150km over three days and I rode up and down the hills in the interiors of Sabah.
“These are roads that I’d travel by car all my life and I never thought I would cover them on a bicycle. I got stares from the villagers who were curious to see a woman riding among the men,” shares Hana, who is Sabah Tourism Board’s communications manager.
The fit 40-year-old was introduced to cycling by a group of friends who were keen runners and cyclists.
“In Kota Kinabalu where I live, there weren’t many women runners or cyclists but I hung out with a group of crazy fast and furious cyclists who would cycle on Saturdays and run on Sundays. It was a ritual for them and soon it was a ritual for me too. For the past seven or eight years, this active lifestyle has become a part of my life,” says Hana.
Although she claims to be the slowest rider in her group, Hana isn’t fazed. She’s comfortable riding at her own pace and eager to test her limits.
“Even though I’m the slowest and stay behind the pack, I never turn down a good opportunity to ride far. I’ve joined a century ride in Ipoh in 2012 and competed in the Powerman Duathlon in Putrajaya in 2013. Hours of riding on my bike give me a nice sense of freedom and achievement. I feel like I really deserve the food reward after that,” she shares.
Having participated in a few races, Hana feels that women should be given the opportunity to ride the same distance as their male peers, which isn’t always the case in organised rides.
“Once I questioned the organisers of a race in Kota Kinabalu because they did not allow women to ride the full distance. There weren’t many women riders at the time. I had to settle for the 50km race while the men did 160km.
“I’m sure many women would agree with me that they should be given the same distance as men to compete,” says Hana who dreams of cycling from Kota Kinabalu to Kuching some day.
Updated: An earlier version of this story stated that Elena Shim conducts tours in Melaka, she does not do this anymore.
RIDE for Malaysia, which is jointly organised by Star Media Group with property developer Sunsuria Berhad, aims to promote unity through cycling.
It will flag off at 6.30am on July 30 at Sunsuria City.
Join the fun and grab the prizes. For the 30km fun ride, the cash prizes are: first prize: RM3,800; second prize: RM2,800; third prize: RM1,800; fourth prize: RM1,000; fifth prize: RM500; sixth to 10th prize: RM300; 11th to 15th prize: RM200; 16th-30th prize: RM100; and 31st to 50th prize: RM50. There are also 10 units of folding bicycles to be given away.
For the 5.5km family ride, the cash prizes are: first prize: RM2,000; second prize: RM1,000; and third prize: RM500.
Come in fancy dress, glamour get-ups, or outlandish costumes and you might also win prizes for best fancy dress (overall-individual/couple/family), most sporting family (family of four); and best looking couple.
For more information and registration, go to sites.thestar.com.my/rideformalaysia