Thrills, spills at daredevil bike race

Organised on the sly, high-speed HolyCrit race proves a draw for cycling enthusiasts

This story first appeared in The Sunday Times on Dec 7, 2014.

An illegal street cycling race has sprung up in Singapore, attracting an ardent group of cyclists who pound the roads at high speeds to compete for prizes, cash and above all, street cred.

Named HolyCrit, the race first began last year and the eighth such event was held along a stretch of Tanglin Halt Road on Nov 29.

At about 11.15pm that day, 32 cyclists raced against one another in a frenetic 35-minute, multi-lap sprint around Tanglin Halt Close and a stretch of Tanglin Halt Road.

Race organisers used traffic cones to stop traffic at three entry points to the 1km race circuit. Each point had at least two people who, armed with walkie-talkies and torchlights, prevented vehicles from entering the circuit.

Vehicles were allowed to pass through only after the cyclists rode past that particular point.

The cyclists raced shoulder-to-shoulder, streaking through the course at speeds in excess of 45kmh.

Only single-speed bikes without brakes are allowed in HolyCrit races, which means cyclists are unable to rely on brakes during an emergency.

The narrow, dimly-lit circuit, high speeds and slick road surface from an earlier downpour resulted in several crashes that night - The Sunday Times witnessed two, though observers said there were more.

Out of 32 cyclists, only 15 finished the race, which ended close to midnight. Cyclists who fell behind by one lap of the circuit were automatically eliminated.

About 30 minutes later, two Traffic Police officers arrived at the scene.

A police spokesman said they were alerted to cyclists allegedly racing along Tanglin Halt Road, but added that officers did not detect any signs of a race upon arrival. The cyclists were still milling around and taking photos at the location, but dispersed after being told to do so by the police.

The HolyCrit races are held once a month on average, typically along smaller, less-frequented roads. Past race venues include Stadium Drive, Changi Business Park and a heavy vehicle carpark in Yishun Avenue 7.

When contacted, race organiser Eric Khoo said he decided to organise the criterium - a race held on short courses - for the biking community as "the roads in Singapore are too dangerous for us to cycle".

"We are doing it just for fun," said Mr Khoo, who runs a bicycle business. He did not think permission from the authorities was required as "the roads were not closed".

"We have our own marshals to slow down the vehicles," Mr Khoo added.

Criminal lawyer Josephus Tan reckons that permission from the relevant authorities would be required if the cyclists had demarcated a portion of the road - a public space - to stage their own private race.

"If the riders behaved recklessly and knocked down someone, they could be seen as a public nuisance," he said. "More importantly, is the space allowed by law to be used for racing purposes?"

Even so, the majority of participants that the The Sunday Times spoke to were unconcerned by the unlawful aspect of the race.

Said Haikal Johan, 17, who has taken part in five races: "I just come for the race to have fun."

Taiwanese cyclist Andy Ko, 26, who works in retail, said he was surprised to hear of such a race in Singapore and joined in even though one of the race sponsors told him it did not have a permit.

The race has seen its fan base grow in the past year, with almost 1,300 likes for its Facebook page which says it costs $10 to take part, and the fastest cyclist pockets the cash.

Luqman Othman, 16, who took part in the race, said he found out about HolyCrit through Facebook. "It was my first time and it was quite scary, but I wanted to experience the adrenaline," he said.

The youngest cyclist in the race was just 13 years old, while most appeared to be in their late teens and early twenties.

The race location is usually kept secret till just days before the race, before it is disseminated via social media.

With no brakes, slowing down was not an optionand the crashes came fast and furious. "I saw this guy, he got boxed in by two riders and crashed hard, face-first. He came up all bleeding," said Luqman.

Before the race, riders were assured by race co-organiser Zul Awab that marshals would stop traffic. But one rider said a car had turned into Tanglin Halt Road about midway through the race. Marshals stopped it, but the driver got impatient and filtered out into the middle of the road just as a pack of cyclists neared.

Secondary school student Rudy Hartono, 17, said one rider skidded and crashed in front of the car, while the other 10 swerved and passed the car on both sides.

There were other close shaves, such as when a public bus almost collided with the main pack of cyclists.

Riders brushed off questions about safety, saying that it was quite safe if one knew how to control the bike.

"We avoid the newbies, that's why it's important to speed up at the start and break away from them quickly," said eventual race winner Haikal.

There are ways to stop a bike without brakes in an emergency, said the ITE student, who won the top prize of $320 in cash and a branded handlebar. "You unclip your shoe and jam it between the frame and the rear wheel - if you don't have brakes that's how you learn to stop."

Spectrum Worldwide chief executive officer Chris Robb, who organised the mass bike race Cycle Singapore, feels that underground races reflect the huge demand from cyclists who want to race.

It is also a result of the high costs to get the necessary approvals, set up appropriate infrastructure and medical support to run legitimate races, said Mr Robb.

Taiwanese Andrew Pai, who works in the health-care industry here, was a first-time spectator at the race. It left him shocked.

"There were so many lorries and trucks on the route and there were so many times where cyclists almost crashed into them, it was so scary," he said. "There were too many close shaves."

A count by The Sunday Times showed at least five coaches, 11 lorries, 15 cars, four vans, one bulldozer and one steamroller parked along the race circuit.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.