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The Grassroots Games: Mountain Bike Racing at Wat Phnom Cheal Pagoda

August 16, 2012

As the 2012 London Olympics came to a close in England on Sunday, August 12th, the games were just beginning with a mountain bike race on the grounds of the Wat Phnom Cheal Pagoda in Kampong Speu Province, Cambodia.
As I left my house at 4am to help get the sixty riders and their bikes into the bus, trailer, and two mini vans, I thought of the Olympic mountain bike racing final which would be taking place in 12 hours at the Salvation Army’s Hadleigh Farm in Essex. I couldn’t help but compare the image of Hadleigh’s grassy hills and castle to my expectation of Wat Phnom Cheal’s rice fields and mountaintop pagoda. I smiled at the thought that despite vast differences in landscape, organization, prestige, and weather conditions, the races were similar in their fundamental values of fair sport and competitive achievement.

When I first heard about the mountain bike racing at Wat Phnom Cheal, I jumped at the chance to help organize the event. I loved mountain biking even before coming to Cambodia and I was intrigued by the idea of holding such an event on the grounds of a rural pagoda. I had also heard about the impressive natural landscapes and national parks of the rural province of Kampong Speu where the race would be taking place. I was excited to explore the region known for its lowland paddy fields, upland forested areas, and palm sugar, whilst also analyzing the relationship with local Buddhist religious life.

Kampong Speu is located only 48 kilometers to the west of Phnom Penh, but getting to the countryside was a challenge. Unlike the Olympic events in Hadleigh park, some of the logistics here in Cambodia were not quite as detailed and smooth. The bus arrived in Phnom Penh an hour late and after finally loading riders and bikes, the trip was further delayed by having to pick up relatives, paying bribes to officials in order to leave the city, and scrambling to find alternate routes when the bus couldn’t cross bridges or navigate the narrow dirt roads of the province. As we entered more rural areas in Kampong Speu, I began to have doubts about the success of this initiative: would anyone attend such an event in this remote region? Is there enough of an interest in mountain biking? And how would the track be constructed within the pagoda itself?

Upon arrival, my concerns were eased by a welcoming warmth and energy reminiscent of a Buddhist festival. The pagoda committee members were huddled under the marquees, operating a large sound system powered by a tiny generator. One of the organizers of the event approached the microphone and instructed the flurry of practicing riders that the races would start in 30 minutes.

Before the start of the races, I took the opportunity to explore the two race tracks. The novice track looped along the dirt road outside the pagoda grounds before cutting back through the rice paddies and climbing up along the pagoda’s highest shrines. It then entered into a clearing with sculptures of important characters from Khmer traditional stories like deer and crocodiles. The clearing descended towards the start/finish line and the riders circled the track again. The advanced track began instead with a steep climb to the top section of the three tiered Wat Phnom Cheal, and then descended into a rocky and technical downhill ride through the forest and back into the pagoda. This track looped around the baray—a natural pond water-storage for the monks at the pagoda—before climbing the steps leading to the main area of the pagoda. It zipped past the monk’s quarters, nun’s quarters, shrines, spirit houses, and traditional sculptures to arrive at the finish line.

After exploring the tracks, I took my place on the sidelines and readied my camera. Riders dressed in the latest lycra and riding gear lined up for the races with their high speed Cannondale and giant bikes. Over 80% of the riders were Cambodians from Phnom Penh, with a handful of expatriates and local villagers (who were given subsidized entries to take part in the race) relishing the opportunity. There were over 100 riders divided into eight categories, including a women’s category with ten women competing for gold.

I was surprised to see so many riders. Though bicycle riding is a crucial part of Cambodian village life, it is rarely in the form of formal mountain bike racing. In fact, the traditional bike race during the Khmer New Year celebrations is called ‘the slow bike race’ where the last rider to cross the finish line without putting their feet down is the winner.

Because such an event is not common in Cambodia, I was also surprised to find a vibrant spectator crowd inside the pagoda. Monks and nuns watched the races from the safety of their living quarters, whilst the local villagers took breaks from their work in the paddy fields to sit along the edge of the track. The police officers assigned to guard the event watched the races happily with their families under the shade of the surrounding trees. The lycra-clad riders, villagers, police, and even a few of the nuns enjoyed the bright yellow electrolyte sachets of rehydration drinks provided by the sponsors of the event, and chatted among themselves throughout the races. I sensed a genuine appreciation and excitement for the event among these crowds.

One rider said that he felt that the local village pagoda enabled a community atmosphere. The pagoda is home to many community events, and this appreciation and acceptance for a non-traditional event created an added fascination for locals and visitors. This interest, noted a 27 year old monk called Hang, brings positive attention to the monks and nuns in the pagoda. “We are very happy to have the race here because so many people can know about this specific pagoda,” he said. “They can come visit and enjoy being here at Wat Phnom Cheal. It is really important to see the communities working together.” Hang added that, “it is easy to have an event at the pagoda because we have the facilities people need. We have the speakers and we have the toilets.” This infrastructure makes it more convenient and cheaper to hold community events on the pagoda grounds than on government-owned or private land. The organizers of the event paid to hire the pagoda sound-system and offered a donation to the monks, but no other fees were incurred, such as paying for police or permission to use official land (which in some areas can be more than $10,000 per event).

Through the generosity of the local pagoda and enthusiastic individuals in supporting this event, Cambodian mountain biking has taken another step towards opening its doors to international opportunities. This includes both assisting Cambodian riders in competing abroad and drawing international riders to Cambodia. The pagoda’s race track proved challenging for many of the riders, as almost one third from each category were unable to complete all the required laps due to the intense heat and technical turns. The event thus showcased Cambodia as a competitor for the international mountain bike series, both in regards to ability of riders who successfully completed the race and the complex track design.

As riders prepared for the Olympic final in the UK, the buses departed Wat Phnom Cheal, heading East towards the city. I sat at the back of the bus and spoke with two 15-year-old riders about the possibility of Cambodia competing in the future Olympic Games. To my knowledge, Cambodia has only entered riders once in the history of the Olympic cycling events, which was in Tokyo during the 1964 games. However, judging by the caliber of riders and the interest and devotion in the sport, I think that it won’t be long before the riders here will move from pagoda to the Olympic stage.