With its mix of British and Chinese culture, Hong Kong is best known for food, shopping and nightlife – but Cyclist was thrilled to discover it has a few wonders to offer those of the two-wheeled persuasion, too.
WORDS: DANIEL STRAUSS
PHOTOGRAPHY: MARCUS ENNO
For those of you that have been to Hong Kong, you’ve likely peered out of your aeroplane window on approach and been captivated by a dramatic skyline of towering volcanic mountains and skyscrapers. You’ve likely wondered what the riding might be like in them thar hills. For those of you lucky enough to have approached the ‘Fragrant Harbour’ and land at the infamous (now closed) Kai Tak airport, you’ll likely have memories of a frightening and fascinating low-altitude pass through a gap between buildings in the final seconds before touchdown.
I still have clear memories of the Kai Tak approach from a childhood trip. Memories of the jet turbulence blow-drying white underwear hanging out of windows metres from the wingtips. Memories of the glittering skyscrapers juxtaposed against the slimy patina of humidity-weathered low-rise apartments. Memories of wondering what the riding might be like in them thar hills.
On this, my third visit to the city, I was treated to an answer. The riding in Hong Kong and beyond its close city limits is spectacular, challenging and interesting. Bonus points: it’s also a great city with terrific food.
ON THE GROUND
Our journey from the new Lantau Airport to Kowloon hops from island to island, across impressive bridges spanning Victoria Harbour, one of the world’s busiest cargo ports. The views from road level are equally captivating as those from the air. High above the water but still close enough to the earth, we’re able to get a better idea of the topography and geography of Hong Kong.
Broadly, the city is divided into three main parts; Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories, both connected to Mainland China. There are more than 200 other islands, including Lantau. Our Big Ride would take in the best of Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories, including the highest mountain in Hong Kong, Tai Mo Shan.
I still have clear memories of the jet turbulence blow-drying white underwear hanging out of windows metres from the wingtips
In the city
The overwhelming impression as we weave through traffic on the way to downtown Kowloon is that this city is home to some very wealthy individuals. Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. It boasts one of the world’s highest GDPs per capita, around US$10,000 more than Australia. However, its income inequality is not much better than Zambia, a landlocked sub-Saharan African nation.
There are more Rolex and Louis Vuitton stores here than there are coffee shops in Melbourne, probably. Supercars outnumber cabs. At the lights we find ourselves boxed in between a young family in a Tesla Model S, a pinstripe-suit-wearing expat in a Lamborghini and a young girl in a Porsche 911 GT3. We arrive at the hotel to see a red Ferrari 488 GTB sitting proudly in front of the lobby, sporting a Pinarello Dogma precariously suction cupped to its roof. Welcome to Hong Kong, says our driver.
Hotel doors swing quickly open at the hands of smiley door-men, and we step into an air-conditioned, marbled lobby. We’re pleasantly greeted by courteous check-in staff, whose clear English and polite manner is a welcome relic of British colonial rule. Hong Kong was in British hands for almost 100 years between the Opium Wars and World War II, and again for more than 50 years between 1945 and 1997. Although the hand-over to China was almost 20 years ago, there remains clear evidence of its influence. It’s part of what makes Hong Kong so unique and interesting. It’s a heady mix of the exotic and chaotic orient and the ordered, albeit less exotic, occident.
The overwhelming impression is that the city is home to some very wealthy individuals
Marcus and I meet for a ‘light’ cross-continental breakfast of omelette, pork buns, croissants, prawn dumplings, French toast and cut watermelon – with a pinch of salt. This was a habit that began on my first childhood trip here, when over a family banquet my dear grandfather introduced me to the flavour-enhancing properties of just a pinch. It’s a done thing here, apparently. Bellies full, and not jet-lagged (there’s only a small two hour time difference with eastern Australian states) we head to our rooms and unpack our bikes.
I’m riding Specialized’s new Roubaix with Future Shock technology, which allows me to remove the stem for travel, while the steerer remains firmly in the head tube. This makes building the bike a rather fast affair – a handy note given the duration of our short trip – even though I’d neglected to mark my seatpost height. I pop down to the in-house tailor and borrow a tape measure, and we’re on our way to the New Territories.
Although the hand–over to China was almost 20 years ago, there remains clear evidence of its influence; it’s part of what makes Hong Kong so unique
On the bike
We roll out with Luke (an Aussie living in Hong Kong) and Eddie (Hong Kong born and raised), a couple of friendly lads from the Hong Kong chapter of Rapha Cycle Club. We can’t wait to get to the hills. Luke and Eddie’s local knowledge is immediately appreciated as we weave our way through the hustle and bustle of downtown Kowloon. The traffic is mostly well-behaved, a far-cry from other experiences I’ve had in major global cities. Plus, they drive on the left.
We start from our hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui (downtown Kowloon) before heading north past Mong Kok following Tai Po Road toward Kam Shan Country Park. We turn left onto a narrow road that runs through the park and it becomes clear why locals call this place Monkey Mountain. Sure, it’s a mountain, but more notably, the narrow road is lined with families of monkeys – predominantly long-tailed macaques. There are around 2,000 living in the park, which we’re told are descendants of released pets almost a century ago.
We climb to the top of Kam Shan and take in the beautiful views, before doubling back to embark on the technical descent, dodging young monkeys grooming and wise old monkeys staring disapprovingly.
After visiting the Monkey Mountain, we ride on excitedly towards Tai Mo Shan, the tallest mountain in Hong Kong. We sight its summit from the distance, spurring a very important discussion; do we eat now or after the climb? Why not both? We park-up at a bustling local haunt. The shopfront is decorated with roasted goose hanging in the windows. Its entrance is lined with bubbling bamboo steamers of dumplings filled with this and that. We tuck into an unearned lunch of crispy goose and sticky pork with rice and garlicky steamed greens, washed down with a glass of warm tea.
Rolling out slowly with full bellies we discuss which way we’re going to tackle the mountain. There are several routes up, but today we decide on the Route Twisk, which climbs the southern face.
We double back to embark on the technical descent, dodging young monkeys grooming and wise old monkeys staring disapprovingly
The moderate climb meets up with other possible routes up at a Y-junction where we turn right and continue eastward and upward. As we ascend, the road narrows and vistas across the city expand. The road worms its way up to 957 metres, each switchback affording a fresh perspective of the glittering water and city below. Tai Mo Shan feels higher than other climbs of equal stature – mostly because the climb begins from near sea level.
It’s a relatively young mountain, born out of volcanic activity in the Jurassic period (around 150 million years ago – yesterday in big-history terms). The mountain breathes warm air through cracks in the rock. Locals refer to this phenomenon as “dragon’s breath”, which could equally apply to our own breath as we struggle to digest our rich breakfast and lunch.
A view to China
As we reach the top our phones chime triumphantly to welcome text messages from Chinese mobile carriers. China proper is on the other side. Although the top section is closed to traffic, the descent is a hairy affair. Cracks in the road test our nerves. Hikers occasionally cross the road in front of us, testing our brakes. Disc brakes and 26mm tyres were a wise choice, as we had to pull to a stop a few times on our way back down to the Y-junction.
We decide to descend the bottom half of Tai Mo Shan via the Tai Lam Nature Trail. It’s advertised as a dedicated “Mountain Bike Trail” but is in fact a sealed road closed to traffic. It’s a delight. The narrow ribbon of tarmac and concrete snakes its way through a nature reserve. We notice that parks and reserves in Hong Kong are peppered with Australian trees; Norfolk pine, wattle, she oak, paperbark and several species of gum tree. The trail spits us out at Tai Lam Reservoir, beside a high-rise prison. Yes, even prisons here are high-rise.
We down a Pocari Sweat (a sports drink with Japanese origins and a cult following) and continue toward the Gold Coast and Sam Shing Village where we enjoy some local seafood. You’re getting the picture – a big ride on Hong Kong could easily pass off as a foodie tour.
A final flat stretch takes us back to the city via Castle Peak Road along the coast. This is a common cycling route, Orica-Bike Exchange were seen going for a pre-criterium roll lead by local team-member and current Asian Road and TT champ Cheung King-Lok days later. Before we head back to our hotel, Eddie suggests we do one final climb before the sun sets. Weaving through the evening traffic in fading light we ride towards Beacon Hill (Lung Yan Road).
We sit down to a banquet of exquisite local dishes; jellyfish with vinegar, rock lobster with salted egg yolk and bean curd soup with air–dried duck
After a long day of riding in humid conditions, generously fuelled by local delights, we suspect this last climb is going to be hard. Although only around 3km long, Marcus – carrying a heavy camera bag – curses Eddie as we begin one of several steep 15% sections. We limp up the final kilometres, reminded of our culinary decadence by our single-digit speeds. Reaching the top, we’re rewarded with a sweeping sunset view of Kowloon and the New Territories.
After a super-fast descent, again grateful for having big-bag tyres and discs, we pull into a convenience store for some cheeky amber sport-drink. This one’s called Tsingtao, and it has never tasted better.
The trail spits us out at Tai Lam Reservoir, behind a high–rise prison. Yes, even prisons here are high–rise
Clear eyes, full bellies
We return to our hotel for a quick shower, and although we shouldn’t be very hungry, we are. We sit down to a banquet of exquisite local dishes; jellyfish with vinegar, mutton terrine, rock lobster with salted egg yolk and bean curd soup with air-dried duck. Watermelon provides the big finish – enhanced by a pinch of salt, of course. Our day has ended as it began, eating within the comfort of our hotel.
Hong Kong is a diverse and fascinating global city. It’s a hub for trade and commerce. Some visitors will be here on business, while others will be here to shop or to explore the narrow streets and markets. Others still will checklist the sights, and learn of the city’s colonial and pre-colonial history. A small number will seek adventure. They’ll hike, rock climb or ride the hills. We were left impressed by the quality of the riding that Hong Kong offers, and were handsomely rewarded for the effort. If planning a trip to Hong Kong, get out in them thar hills. If you’re not planning one, maybe you should.
By the numbers – Every stat tells a story
hour time difference with Australia
dumplings eaten over two days
Follow Cyclist’s route along Hong Kong’s Kowloon Peninsula and up Tai Mo Shan, the territory’s highest peak.
We kick off from Royal Garden Hotel at Tsim Sha Tsui East. Now, before we get stuck right in, we’ll make it clear that a GPS-guided map is quite handy for following the route. Or, link up with a local and get them to help out. Find your way onto Canton Road and head north before making a right-left on Reclamation. Jump onto Nathan Road and head toward Tai Po Road.
This is an out-and-back up to Golden Hill. The next section is a little complex, but head towards the sea and Container Port Road. Again, head in a north-westerly direction towards Tsuen Kam Interchange and take the fourth exit to Route Twisk. This is the start of the main climb up to Tai Mo Shan. Expect to be ascending for around 10km.
Take a breather at the top before turning around and flying back down. Don’t miss the left turn onto Malehose Trail Section 8. This will take you all the way down to Tai Lam Nature Trail. Take a left along Castle Peak Road (Castle Peak Bay) for a short out-and-back along the foreshore. Follow this back all the way into Tsuen Wan before making your way across to Beacon Hill for the day’s final ascent. It’s all downhill here back to the hotel in Kowloon.
The writer’s ride
Specialized Roubaix Expert UDi2, $6,600, specialized.com.au
The latest Specialized Roubaix Expert UDi2 arrived at my door not long after the global launch. The Ultegra Di2-equipped model sits second in the line-up. The only modification I made was to increase the stem length to 130mm. The most notable feature is the Future Shock.
On a basic level, it’s a piston that sits inside the head tube. There’s 20mm of travel and three firmness options – I chose the medium spring. All three springs are included. Surprisingly, the presence of the shock isn’t that noticeable when just riding along, but I found bumpy corners far smoother than on my Tarmac. It allowed me to point-and-shoot, looking up and around the corner, instead of down and into the corner. It was particularly useful in Hong Kong.
It’ll be interesting to see how if fares in its natural environment of northern France for Paris-Roubaix – if the disc ban is lifted. The build rolls on DT R460 wheels wrapped in 26mm Turbo tyres. Another cool feature is the SWAT box, a neat integrated but removable storage unit situated down near the bottom bracket. It houses a tube, levers, CO2 canister, multi-tool and even a cute little money clip, complete with a fake dollar bill.
Our Big Ride takes in Day One of our Hong Kong odyssey, but Cyclist couldn’t resist hanging around for Day Two…
On day two, we crossed Victoria Harbour to Hong Kong Island. We rode from our hotel to the Tsim Sha Tsui Pier on Kowloon, choosing to start our ride with one of the world’s best harbour crossings.
The Star Ferry allows bikes on the lower deck for a small fee. The ferry trip gave us another perspective of the city, and it’s a good example of the clichéd traveller’s mantra that a journey can be as important as the destination. If you’re not into boats, you can always take the wonderfully efficient MTR (Metro), though we’re told you may have to remove your front wheel to travel.
We disembarked at Wan Chai and headed to Shek O on the east end of the island. The island is home to a higher proportion of expats, and feels a little more Western as a result. Eddie again suggested a park-up, this time for peanut-butter toast and coffee at the famous LuLu Cafe. The next part of our Hong Kong Island loop took in coastal roads passing through Stanley and Repulse Bay, where there are flea markets, beautiful beaches, colonial buildings and opportunities to stop for beer, which we passed up. Why? Victoria Peak is next. And it’s the morning.
Many visitors to Hong Kong will have scaled Victoria Peak (“The Peak”) aboard the famous Peak Tram, a small cable-railway funicular which has carried visitors up its steep (up to 27%) 1.4km track since the late 1800s. There are several roads that lead to the top, but Eddie suggested we climb up via Wong Nai Chung Gap Road and Stubbs Road.
On the way up we took our time, touring prime real estate and catching our breath. It’s a steep climb up to 554 metres, and there’s a cosmopolitan buzz at the summit. Tourists lick ice-cream. Kids drop ice-cream. Runners emerge from forest trails stopping their watches. Cyclists grind up and freewheel down. We made our way through the crowds, doing our best not to be injured by swinging selfie sticks. Open views are only visible at certain lookouts or between apartment buildings. It’s a stark contrast to the top-of-the-world feeling and expansive views of Tai Mo Shan, but definitely a must-do.
We then descended back to the Centre via the Magazine Gap Road. We were tempted to stop and take a photo for your dear magazine, but we were just going too damn fast to bother. The descent is technical (a theme of the trip) and super fun.
Our final stop was the newly opened cycling boutique and cafe Velo6 (velo6.cc), where we enjoyed a post ride espresso from a stunning Elektra machine while thumbing through a beautiful collection of cycling publications and perving on some of the world’s finest cycling gear. It’s small, but this place is definitely worth a visit.
How we got there
Cathay Pacific has four flights daily to Hong Kong from Sydney and three from Melbourne. Flight time is around nine hours, and the time difference is a manageable two hours from eastern states. Getting to and from the airport is simple. We took a taxi, but there’s a very efficient Airport Express service on the MTR – visit mtr.com.hk and select Service and Facilities > Our Network > Airport Express.
We stayed at the The Royal Garden in Tsim Sha Tsui on Kowloon Peninsula. This was a very central location and enabled us to travel to Hong Kong Island easily.
FOOD AND DRINK
There’s no shortage of places to eat and drink in Hong Kong. Simply roam around and follow the locals. We downloaded Open Rice, a food and drink app that’s very useful to find hidden gems.
A highlight meal, albeit not traditionally Cantonese, was at Alto. Its thoroughly Western menu focuses on high-quality produce including selected aged beef from around the world, accompanied by a wine list boasting old and new-world gems. The stunning interior was designed by the UK’s Tom Dixon, but its the view of the harbour 31 floors above Causeway Bay that really impresses.
We had a great pre-ride brew at Winston’s on Queens Road West, Hong Kong Island. Elephant Ground has a number of locations to get your caffeine hit. Velo6 is also a great place to stop for a coffee and some bike-part porn. Failing that, try the milk-tea from a street vendor. Or, grab a craft beer from 65 Peel, which is at 65 Peel Street in Central.
A big thanks to the Hong Kong Tourist Board for helping to curate an itinerary for our short stay. Also, thanks to our driver Ricky for following us around slowly in his van, and for showing us his favourite goose restaurants.
Thanks also to Kenneth, our ride-guide, who rode up Tai Mo Shan on a 20kg downhill MTB rig in baggies and flat-soled shoes. We would’ve gotten lost if it wasn’t for the local knowledge of Eddie and Luke from Rapha.
Also, a big thanks to Specialized for letting us test out their shiny new Roubaix. Finally, thanks also to Pearl Izumi for coming to the party and kitting out your writer in some fresh, hot-weather-friendly kit.