Cycling in Sri Lanka.

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Air Sri Lanka took good care of my Surly Long Haul Trucker bicycle. They happily included it as part of their 35kg economy fare baggage allowance. I used a large CTC plastic bag supplied by Wiggle. On the outward journey I removed the handlebars and strapped them to the frame. I lowered the seat and removed the pedals. I removed the rear derailleur mechanism, packed in cloth and strapped to the rear stay. I also released the cantilever brake cables and applied polystyrene pipe lagging to various parts of the frame and the Blackburn racks. I kept a few Allen keys and the pedals with my hand luggage having read about the possibility of luggage getting lost or delayed. It would be no use having a bike without the bits to put it back into use. The airline check in staff insisted on tyres being deflated.
It all took a little time and effort but was keen to give my bike as much of a chance to arrive in good condition as I could. It really was overkill with hindsight.
For the second leg I simply turned the handlebars, removed the pedals, wrapped the rear mech. and lowered the seat. Once again the big plastic bag did the final job of wrapping it up.
All credit to Air Sri Lanka. No fuss and the bike always appeared to be personally looked after on arrival and placed by the baggage pickup belts. Phew!
I was warned that the traffic might present a challenge especially in Colombo. I found the opposite to be the case. The traffic moved much slower than in the UK. Drivers and pedestrians are acutely alert of their surroundings and behave with great precision and judgement. People use their horns to warn others ahead. It can be quite annoying since some almost deafen but they really do the job.
The problem with Colombo is twofold. Hit the traffic at rush hour and it is a nightmare with everyone doing their utmost (without success) to get ahead of the next person. The second and more important issue for cyclists is the ‘idiot’ factor. As with every congested city there are a lot of poor drivers on the road. They will kill you in every major city. Colombo is not good in that respect. I found myself cursing people that cut me up and pulled out on me. Lastly it is worth mentioning that cycling in and around Colombo is like chain smoking Gauloise cigarettes. The air is acrid and brings tears to the eyes.
Given all these factors it is worthwhile to take the shorter cycle ride to Negombo for a first stop or to have a taxi deposit you and bike in Colombo. Personally I was good in the traffic and enjoyed the thrill of cycling down into the very heart of the city as an initiation of fire.
Sri Lanka does not really do pavements. Often roads have a white line which separates pedestrians from the traffic. This provides a convenient cycle or scooter lane. Colombo provides the exception with pavements where they exist that are in a dangerous condition for pedestrians except in the showcase areas of the city.
Roads throughout Sri Lanka are as good as they get. Cycling in the East, South, West and central areas made me wonder why the hell I was on 2″ wide Schwalbe XR expedition tyres. They are bomb proof but slow. A nice pair of skinny touring tyres would have saved a lot of time and effort. However
main roads leading to the war torn North are being heavily rebuilt. Many other roads in the area previously occupied by the LTTE are either non existent or in a very bad way. They can be mud, sand or water. Google maps show them as roads. They are not.
All of Sri Lanka has a proliferation of cycle repair shops or rather sheds. However most cycles in use are of the old style with 28″ steel wheels and rod brakes. I saw far more bicycle use in the Eastern and Northern areas of the country. Many look like they have been around for donkeys years.
I did not need to use a spare tube or wheel spokes but certainly recommend having a few in hand given the different wheel size in general use on Sri Lanka.
Water and bottled water is almost everywhere. Roadside shops are so frequent that you could drink your weight in tea quite quickly if you were to stop too much. The same with food. Cheap ‘Short eats’ or snacks are everywhere too as is fruit. Sadly there is far too much fizzy drinks and biscuits for sale at every turn. The place is built on refined sugar and sweets.
Where found ‘lunch packets’ are a great option for cyclists. They provide cooked rice, fish, meat and vegetables in a single good value roadside purchase. They provide enough sustenance for the main meal for the day.
Options for accommodation outside of the main tourist haunts can be limited. Given the widespread density of the population wild camping is difficult. Domestic dogs alarm people to the presence of strangers. The more remote areas provide greater opportunity but it is probably best to create a cycling itinerary that includes pre-booking hostels. There are no backpacking campsites apart from the luxury tourist sites in the wildlife parks. I was able to wild camp on many occasions but involved a great deal of stealth in populated areas and given that I almost have a survival gear set up for more remote areas.
Lastly a big factor for cycling in Sri Lanka is the weather. The country has two different monsoons affecting different areas. The central mountain area has quite variable weather. Sri Lanka has everything from tropical to subtropical, dry and wet to quite cool in the mountains and sweltering heat in the South. Cycling in January was good and did not experience too much rain or heat. However as I left it had become too hot in the West for cycling. Climate is, in my opinion, the biggest factor with regards cycle touring in Sri Lanka and requires good timing.

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