Oh, what men dare do?
The downhill daredevil masked in his full-faced helmet goes aero for a brief second. With gravity as his strong ally, he lands smoothly. But not more than ten seconds later, we, still awe-stricken, were face to face with another pair of wheels launching from a fluid descent.
Call these two adrenaline chasers Tan Soon Soon, 36, and Ing Shern Cheah, 37. Two good friends who crossed paths on the raceway in 2005 and who have been shredding the same vertical lines together and sharing the merits of speed until today.
Cycling Malaysia picks their brains about downhilling and how they live up to the challenge of such extreme sport where mistakes are not welcome.
Crashes here and there make the sport look downright crazy. Soon Soon and Cheah readily admit to this, but defend with much professionalism and caution.
Tan Soon Soon, 36, wanting to break the wheel of monotony of his old game, found his new adventure and freedom in wicked, technical downhills on his two wheels that would frighten every mom, wife, girlfriend, or really, just anyone.
“I started downhilling since 2009. Cheah brought me to Bukit Kiara, a good place to learn downhilling. I found it to be more challenging. All your focus is on the trail.
“Perhaps, the adventure on two wheels came to me since young, as you would find me then on my small BMX bike.”
It didn’t take him long to fall into the fun of the sport that he immediately dove right into his first race, the Malaysian Downhill Super Series 2010, where he podiumed in at fourth in the Master category.
“I brought a full suspension bike worth RM800 only to the race. It was a surprising win, and since that first one, I would always podium for the old man’s category,” he said laughingly.
While his advice to the newcomer is: Don’t aim for podium before the race, he ends up almost always a winner anyway. Ironic, it is!
Nine out of ten races, he would make a podium finish. Currently he ranks second in his category.
Throughout his brief downhilling history, he has seen accidents down the trail that either maimed or killed riders, so he doesn’t forget to remind everyone, “Don’t think about winning. Downhilling is not about how fast you make the podium. Think safety first.”
Ing shern cheah, 37. Cheah’s two-wheel tale began in 2007. Like Soon Soon, he would cycle as a young boy, but it was only eight years ago that he turned to getting his head in the game.
“I started with MTB. A friend of mine influenced me to it, and I was cycling on a secondhand bike. The first brand new one I had was a 2012 Santa Cruz—frame only. I built it up, and since then there was no stopping me.”
Not only does he ride and race on it, it has also become his bread and butter.
“I’ve never had any formal mechanical training, but my sifu, my master is a mechanic. For the most part, I’ve learned things on my own. I joined KSH bike shop in Penang for two years and was concentrating on mountain bikes. Now, I’m with Specialized for almost two years already and I’ve picked up road biking—I learned bikefitting, too.”
The year after he returned to cycling, he already started downhilling. “It’s fun! You gotta learn the trails and techniques. I asked Soon Soon to try it, then off we were downhilling together. We race together. We almost die together!”
Cheah recalled the times he suffered terrible injuries, “I cracked my hand when I banged against a tree. There was another time when I suffered from internal bleeding in the chest.”
While injuries are inevitable, and that a bad drop awaits a little miscalculation, he believes that this could still be prevented by taking proper caution.
“I’m not chasing to be as pro as a world cup rider. I won’t go for extreme speed, as I’ve learned my mistakes already from the injuries I’ve suffered from the past. One has to take care of himself. As for me, it’s not about the speed or race. Safety is top priority.”
Two mad monkeys
Down the Chiangmai’s downhill trails were two fellas feeding their wild streak with the challenge of loose rocks and tree roots with the Mad Monkey Team.
“It’s the first trip in my life in which all I did was ride and go downhill.” Cheah shared their story of eat and ride routine for three days. “There was no jam, but it’s a dangerous trail. Our speed was about 30 minutes, but for normal riders, it might take them about one hour or 50 minutes. Until now, I still feel fear. The risk was there, but we enjoyed the ride.”
With the tour guides being downhillers themselves, the trip was like a mini-gathering of downhill brothers just sharing the same passion.
“Everyday we tried a different trail. We go down, drink, rest, then come up again. It was a fun adventure! We’re gonna come back again this coming November,” Soon Soon added.
In this sport where a mistake might result in a broken bone, paralysis or instant death, half-hearted calls are shuffled off.
Soon Soon and Cheah repeated a few times during the conversation that once one decides to do downhill, one must go at it full-bore.
“Downhill is not for everyone. If you do all mountain, and you want some more challenge, go, but you can’t be 50/50 at it. You can’t not be sure—you do or you don’t,” Soon Soon said.
Cheah added, “If you’re confident, go ahead. If not, go slow or just don’t. What’s important is: pain or gain, learn from the experience. We try to learn from ourselves; learn from our mistakes. You got friends, other riders, learn from them, too.”