Mountain biking is gaining popularity in Cambodia. Photographer Conor Wall and writer Ellie Dyer spend the day with the Kingdom’s two-wheeling enthusiasts at one of the country’s biggest cycling events.

As morning mist clears from the paddy fields, the cyclists are already well on their way. Around 25 men, many clad in skin-tight lycra, had crowded into a minibus before first light to make their way from Phnom Penh to Kirirom National Park for one of the highlights of the mountain biking calendar.

Three hours, a sing-a-long and a banana buying stop later, the vehicle winds its way through steep wooded slopes and arrives at its destination: a buzzing campsite where hundreds of enthusiastic bikers are preparing for the eighth annual Kirirom Mountain Bike Challenge.

“When you travel by bike, you see a lot of interesting things. It’s quiet, faster than walking, and it keeps you healthy,” says competitor Marie Phouek, who is preparing for the women’s race. “If you compare to about three years ago, there weren’t many girls cycling, but now it’s getting [to be] a lot.”

As the morning heat ramps up, cyclists of all nationalities, ages and abilities take to the looping track. They scramble down steep slopes, tear around a lake and wobble over a rickety wooden bridge to reach the finish line.

Each takes on the challenge with sweaty glee, though some resort to carrying their bikes over trickier sections of the forest course and another rider is rumoured to have broken a collarbone during the competition. Despite the challenges involved, insiders say the sport is gaining in popularity in Cambodia as people’s perceptions of cycling change.

“Bicycles in Cambodia were something people used when they had no choice; when they had a choice they used a motorbike. Now it starts to be a pleasure,” explains Frenchman Denis Astgen, managing director of engineering company Comin Khmere, which helped organise the event.

The competition started with just 30 to 40 people, he says. Competitors now number around 200, and it is not the only event in the Kingdom drawing in riders.  A recent bike race around the Angkor Wat complex in Siem Reap also attracted hundreds of eager cyclists who raised money for charity.

Specialist bike shops — such as The Vicious Cycle and Flying Bikes in Phnom Penh — are also springing up as more and more locals take to two-wheels, with some shelling out thousands of dollars on top-class equipment for both personal and competitive use.

“We also have the mountain bike championship, which consists of five rounds,” says Pierre-Yves Catry of Flying Bikes. “Mountain biking, it’s just a new activity that is affordable.”

“Most of the young people who take part in our events have bikes that cost probably $200 or are second-hand with a few special parts on… If they train hard they can still beat me with my $5,000 bike,” adds the cyclist  who regularly helps to organise events and finishes in second place in Kirirom’s top ‘A1’ class.

Another man who has helped encourage the sport is Seang Makara. After becoming enamoured with the discipline after buying a second-hand bike, the Cambodian national went on to compete internationally in Thailand and won domestic titles from 2003 to 2007. Now aged 30, the soft-spoken former champion takes time to cheer on fellow cyclists from the competition sidelines, telling AsiaLIFE that technique and practise hold the key to success.

On top of the hillside, the excitement is contagious. Bikers whoop with joy and pump their fists as they cross the finish line, cheered on by the crowd and accompanied by deafening dance music.

One previously injured competitor, who travelled from Kuala Lumpur for the race, is so enthusiastic that he completes the course despite having to walk on crutches.

After a closing ceremony, where beaming winners — the vast majority Cambodian — hold trophies aloft in front of a crowd of dusty onlookers, weary competitors cram into the minibus to make the long trek home. As the winning A1 cyclist, 20–year-old Kheang Ty, speeds past the bus on his bicycle, with a golden trophy poking out of his backpack, it seems that two wheels are better than four.

Flying Bikes and Grasshopper Adventures holds regular leisure rides in the countryside around Phnom Penh and further afield. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/flyingbikes2 or grasshopperadventures.com.