Based on the 2014 edition of the race, Challenge Philippines has been touted as one of the toughest races over the half distance. For the Challenge Philippines 2015 race, the organizers have decided to make a few changes to the route to make it safer for participants. Last Saturday was the first time a big group of participants were able to ride out on the course.
There are two major changes from the 2014 route. The first one is that instead of taking the right fork at a junction and riding up to Anvaya from the Morong Gate, we now take the left fork climbing up to the Bataan Technopark. Many participants suffered flats during the race due to the road surface at Anvaya, and it has not been improved since then. Meanwhile, the roads through the Technopark have been re-paved, and the stretch that was rather dusty and “trail-y” when I saw it last is now a beautiful wide stretch of asphalt with freshly painted lines. (More on this later.)
The other major change is that instead of the route extending all the way to the town of Bagac where the Friendship Tower was the sole U-turn, there is a small loop within the route. Participants take a U-turn at the SAF camp checkpoint (just prior to the climb leading to the Morong-Bagac boundary arch), then ride up past the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant heading back toward the town of Morong, take another U-turn just before the town limits, ride back down past the power plant, U-turn again at the checkpoint, then ride all the way back.
The reason that section from the Morong-Bagac boundary arch was removed is that it was where most of the accidents occurred during previous recons and race (and even during some recons for the Bataan International Triathlon). Those twisty descents have proven too risky time and again, and so I’m relieved they’re no longer part of the new route.
Challenge Philippines 2015 bike route recon
For this recon ride, we didn’t do the small loop, but at least saw the major highlights of the new route. What can I say about it? Ummm… it was easier but harder. Huhuhu. Let me explain so you can strategize how to ride this new course.
Climbing out of the Camayan Resort complex toward the Morong Gate is just a taster of what’s to come, so try to use this mild but long climb as a warm-up for your legs.
There is a long and twisty downhill after the Morong gate, full of hairpin curves. The road surface on the right is cracked and bumpy, so stay in the middle where it’s smoother. Glare from sunlight shining through the tree branches can also mask major potholes, so I would recommend using eyewear for poor visibility conditions. During the 2014 race I used the Salice 012 with its red lenses.
Downhill from Morong Gate
This was the first time I’d ever attempted the climb up to the Technopark, since the only times I’ve been on that road I was coming from the other way (going downhill). I knew from the speeds we reached during the descent that climbing up would be tough; I just didn’t know how tough. It starts off innocuously enough, with an incline reminiscent of Challenge Roth’s Solar Hill except only half the length. After a bit of recovery there are two more short and steady climbs, and then you think it’s over until you come face-to-face with what looks like a wall! That section’s grade ranges from 6 to 14.9%, but it goes on for about 1.5 kilometers. (Ouch.) A few of our companions took to coasting back downhill for a bit of recovery before attempting the harder sections of the climb, but I gritted my teeth and ground uphill on my lightest gear because seriously? Who wants to climb the same section of road again and again?
This is the hardest climb you’ll do at Challenge Philippines, but you’ll be doing it on fresh legs. Don’t let that deceive you into attacking these uphills, because at this point you’re only 11 kilometers in!
There’s a nice long flat/gradual downhill section after this, which isn’t technical at all and passes through what I consider to be the best paved roads on the course — fresh asphalt! At the base of that descent is a sharp left turn into Morong town proper.
The next few kilometers are relatively flat through the town and surrounding rice fields. The challenge here is that since it’s so exposed, if the winds blow the wrong way on race day you could be fighting strong winds from the east. During the recon I had to lean into the wind to avoid getting blown into the opposite lane.
You’ll know you’re coming up on the next climb when you get to a checkpoint near a school. This will take you toward the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. This climb is long, so I like to shift into my small chain ring right at the outset.
Climb to BNPP
On the downhill from that climb you’ll ride past the power plant all the way to the SAF camp checkpoint, which will hold the first and third U-turn of the route. You then go back, climb past the power plant, go downhill again toward the town, then take the second U-turn just before the town limits. You climb again, go downhill again, U-turn at the SAF camp, then retrace your route all the way back into Subic.
We didn’t do the small loop, which I was thankful for because I was still recovering from a nasty respiratory tract infection over Christmas. And besides, we still had to climb back through BTPI and up toward Morong Gate over Karaoke Hill and Manang’s Special.
What felt like flat roads on the outbound journey will come back to bite you, as these roads through the technopark are revealed to be false flats. You’ll come across two recovery sections on those false flats before you ride past a gate and encounter “Karaoke Hill”, so named because when the inaugural Challenge Philippines course was being mapped out, the residents of one house in that area were always singing on their karaoke machine! This section will also make your legs sing/scream in agony. It’s not particularly steep, but it is long.
Since you’re already smashed from previous climbs, “Manang’s Special” adds insult to injury with seemingly endless blind corners (there are actually four). During the race earlier this year, I had to stop before entering this section because I was cramping up and didn’t want to keel over during the climb! This isn’t as tough as the opening salvo up to BTPI, but since you’ll be tired at this point it’s going to feel like the longest and steepest two kilometers ever.
“Manang’s Special” — the last climb
After this it’ll be a mostly straight downhill all the way back to transition. You should spin your legs out and recover, even though it’s quite tempting to hammer it back home. Why? Because the real race starts on the run — and that’s a different story for another time.
The reason I say it’s easier than the former route is that there are so many more flattish sections on the new route where having a time trial bike and position can still come in handy. Additionally, the number of technical downhills have been minimized. The number of major climbs is still equal for both old and new routes (seven), but the new route’s climbs particularly in the small loop have a lot of flat roads in between. What makes the new route harder is that freaking BTPI climb!
A large part of being fresh for the run after riding a bike course such as this is determining where to attack on the flat sections or use them as recovery, and choosing when to be aggressive on the climbs. When I’ve ridden the full course in a few weeks during the January 10-11 recon weekend, that’s when I’ll know how I can best approach my race. Register for the recon weekend and future recon rides here.
* – photos from Gibo Canlas
^ – photo from Mac Mandap