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Cycling Sri Lanka: All You Need To Know to Get Going

Disclaimer: The author of this piece is really an armchair aspirationalist having cycled a meagre 30 km in total and 3 times in the last year ‒ from which limited experience she would recommend heading through the inland paddy fields of Galle. This piece is therefore informed by conversations with Lankan cycling guru and Spinner founder Yasas Hewage, co-founder of women-led Pedal Pushers cycling group, Dharshini Ariyaratne, and Ironman tri-athlete Tisara Samarasuriya.

The Growth of Urban Cycling in Sri Lanka

In no more than the past 5-6 years, cycling in Sri Lanka has extended from a primarily rural or lower economic utilitarian transport mode, to being the activity of choice for an estimated 2,000 person community of urban enthusiasts. This community represents an increasing number of city dwellers prepared to invest time, energy, and money (starting at 20k up to 500K+) into what ranges from a hobby or invigorating exercise routine, to an all consuming adventurous and, at times, competitive way of life.

Cycling’s growing prominence is visible in considerations such as the inclusion of designated pathways around Independence Square and Parliament Grounds, the establishment of specialist stores offering top of the line equipment (e.g. Open Road Equipe, Gekko Trekko, Pro Bikes, Giant Sri Lanka, Suriyage Bike Shop), and the viability of all-in-one cyclist hubs such as Spinner (cafe, bike fit lab and service center) in Madiwala. Perhaps the most obvious indicator of success is the spawning of biker sub-groups (i.e. the off-roading Boralu Boyz, the more laid back Freewheelers, the recreational and adventurous Pedal Pushers, or the endurance riders at Wroom) who, separately or in partnership, host rides and events targeted at both steadfast core members, and the general public. In their own way, each group seeks to provide an avenue for fun and fitness, while also engaging participants in thinking about healthy living, getting outdoors, environmental sustainability, and road safety. Most of these groups also appear community service oriented, leveraging their group visibility for important causes both related and unrelated to cycling.

Image Credit: Dharshini Ariyaratne

Cycling Tourism

Interestingly enough, despite all of the above, a still overlooked area for building on the cycling buzz is in relation to local and foreign tourism. While the experienced adventurers say that once you get past the traffic suffocated big cities (Colombo, Kandy, Galle), the roads of Sri Lanka are a bicyclist’s dream, the facilitiing infrastructure ‒ in terms of bicycle rental points and bicycle tour companies ‒ is still minimal. Companies such as Action Lanka, Eco Team, and Idle Bikes do seek to fill this void with the provision of one-day and longer package tours, while hostels and roadside shops in certain areas provide basic cycles for independent short-distance wandering. However, for determined cycle tourists wanting to make their way independently, the approach is still to bring their own equipment along.  

Gaining some positive ground in bridging the gap between the urban enthusiasts and tourism aspects of local cycling is Around the Pearl (ATP). Now actually entering its third year of execution, and grown from 11 riders to an expected 40+ this year, ATP invites cyclists from Sri Lanka and abroad to ride the diverse and inspiring 1,427 km perimeter of our island, while raising awareness and funding for cerebral palsy and much needed patient wheelchairs.

While the challenge may not be for everyone (an average day’s ride is around 120 km), Yasas (also a co-founder of ATP), Dharshini, and Tisara also provided guidance of some other routes worth the riding:

Image Credit: Around the Pearl

Colombo By Night

For those seeking a different vantage point for taking in the island’s capital, consider night riding through Colombo. With the traffic quietening after the work rush, and the cool evening breeze coming through particularly as you drive past Galle Face, this scenic and generally flat, smooth road ride is good for starters.

(And, if you don’t feel comfortable taking on the Colombo streets alone, the Pedal Pushers host a weekly night ride to Fort on Wednesdays setting off from Independence Square at 8 p.m.)

Beach View Rides

While most come to lie or surf by the beach, you can also cycle past them (not through, as this would require specialised sand bikes). The tranquil and stunning Trincomalee to Mullaitivu stretch is unsurprisingly a top recommend. So is the Negombo to Puttalam stretch, where you can experience the Negombo lagoons give way to the Puttalam soft sands. As added incentive it is suggested you seek out some Puttalam crab curry to sate the appetite you would have built up.

Sangupiddy Bridge. Image Credit: Around the Pearl

For those willing to rise early to avoid the blaring heat, the Kilinochchi-Jaffna trail is also apparently stunning in its emptiness ‒ there’s hardly a vehicle on the road and the landscape is beautifully bare. The must-do part of the route would be heading over the Sangupiddy Bridge which crosses Jaffna lagoon. It offers clear views of the sea from both sides so you can catch a morning sunrise or an evening sunset from the same location.

Tea Country Trails

Ella to Ravana Falls is a less congested alternative to Nuwara Eliya for a ride through the rolling green hills of Sri Lanka’s tea estates. These rides however are for the more experienced and fit, as both routes feature steep climbs and sharp switchbacks which are notorious for being the achilles heel of already dangerous Sri Lankan driving. However, if you feel prepared to test your hill climbing prowess, the Ramboda area deserves special mention in this regard.

(also suggested is Ella to Kataragama via Buttala.)

Alternatively, resorts and bungalows such as Ceylon Tea Trails do provide easier going cycling through their estates as an activity for guests.

Ride With Elephants

Not recommended for individual bikers and the animal wary, but if you’re up for it, there are cleared-for-riding routes that go via Yala, and (with permission from the Forest Department) through Wilpattu National Park. There is a decent chance you may find yourself passing near elephants, or at least wild buffalo, as pictured with Tisara here.

Yala with Wild Buffalo. Image Credit: Tisara Samarasuriya

Freewheel With Feathered Friends

Alternatively, you could spot some plentiful winged wildlife while cycling through the Kalametiya Bird Sanctuary (the park’s landscape is also endowed some beautiful mangroves and coastal lagoons). Start here and wind your way to the magnificent beaches of Tangalle, which is only 25 km away.

You can also Bike and Hike Kitulgala (beware of leeches!) Image Credit: Dharshini Ariyaratne

Unexpected Beauty

When asked for a ride that was unexpected in the best way, Tisara proposed the journey from Kataragama to Moneragala where he found himself cycling under a long stretch of green archways created by the trees from both sides of the road, leaning in to meet each other overhead. For a cyclist looking for shelter from the Lankan sun, this was a gift.

Ride, Rent, Join An Event

Now after all this, if you’re interested to get those wheels rolling, but unsure of your readiness to purchase, you can rent a selection of road-tested bikes from Branded Mountain Bikes. Additionally, Spinner can support a limited number of cycle rentals for serious bikers (contact them direct) or their bike lab can provide you a Retül USA bike fitting consultation (related fees apply, of course) so you can find what custom specifications you would need to get the most out of your bike.

In terms of events we wanted to highlight the Pedal Pushers monthly fun and female-powered Mud Bunny rides (women only) and the upcoming Valentine’s weekend heart health celebration via Spinner’s running and cycling Duathlon (open to all age groups).

Share Your Cycling Stories

If you’ve got recommendations for this starter guide to two wheel exploration, do share them in the comments section and we’d be happy to expand in a potential follow-up. Additionally, we’d love to learn more about other local entrepreneurs, particularly outside Colombo, doing bike rentals, tours, and independent or group rides.

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