Before the coronavirus pandemic, I wouldn’t have got on a bicycle in Bali for a billion dollars. The island’s grinding traffic – the result of narrow winding roads and tourist numbers that surpassed 16 million arrivals in 2019 – made the proposition a game of Russian roulette. But when an international travel ban was introduced in April last year, traffic was reduced to a trickle and thousands in Bali, like millions all over the world, dusted off rusty bikes or invested in new ones and reclaimed the streets in the name of recreation, transport and good health. I was among them. At first, I limited myself to the deserted tourist district of Kuta, where I spent the afternoons gliding along uninterrupted on a coastal boardwalk previously hidden under a sea of tourists and hawkers. But as my confidence grew, I ventured further afield, eventually reaching the World Heritage-listed Jatiluwih Rice Terraces, an 80km return journey through the green valleys of central Bali. Now, a year later, armed with a lightweight, carbon-fibre mountain bike and stout calves to match, I’m attempting to cross the island from south to north on a two-day, 220km (135-mile), thigh-crunching journey from the south coast surfing mecca of Canggu to the twin lakes of Buyan and Tamblingan. A mountain resort area in the central north of the island with a cool climate, pristine waterfalls, vast coffee plantations and views of deep blue crater lakes edged by cloud-ringed mountains, the lakes stake a claim as the Switzerland of Bali. From Canggu, I head west to Tabanan, one of eight regencies of the island. The main road is busy with traffic again but after the first turn, I enter another world, pedalling past emerald green rice terraces that drop like the keys of a giant piano towards the coast. Before the pandemic, Tabanan had been earmarked as ground zero for Bali’s next property boom, with interest buoyed by a deal inked in 2015 by Donald Trump and Chinese-Indonesian tycoon Hary Tanoesoedibjo to build a six-star luxury resort and an 18-hole golf course next door to Tanah Lot, an ancient temple that sits on an offshore rock continuously shaped and pummelled by the ocean. But, like so many other investment and holiday plans, the deal has been permanently put on ice and the gentle rhythms of rural life in Tabanan remain undisturbed. Taiwanese, Russian influencers kicked out of Bali over fake mask stunt An old man sits by an aqueduct, bamboo fishing pole in hand, while naked children splash about in a stream. Ducks clamber through flooded rice paddies picking at grasshoppers and worms under colourful triangular flags that flutter in the wind, protecting the harvest from the birds. The road meanders through villages where hand-carved Hindu temples outnumber houses and children wave hello. It drops into deep river valleys, crossing rickety wooden bridges before rising on the opposite side. I do not see a single car – only bicycles and mopeds – for more than an hour, until my route shoots me onto the Gilimanuk-Denpasar Bypass, a 130km long, pothole-strewn highway connecting the island capital, Denpasar, to Gilimanuk Port, on Bali’s western tip. As the gateway to Java, the road heaves with overloaded trucks and speeding buses day and night, and is rated the most dangerous in Bali. According to estimates by transport authorities, more than 25,000 accidents and 50 to 90 fatalities occur on the bypass every year. It’s not for nothing that locals call it the Skull Track. Like any bike nut worth their salt, I’ve preprogrammed my route into my smartphone to avoid, or minimise, travel on busy roads. These truck drivers from Java get paid by the kilometre, are often jacked up on amphetamines and drive as fast as possible. They could bulldoze me and not even blink. It’s with great relief when, 10 minutes later, I detour onto a country road that marks the start of my northerly ascent through the heart of Bali. The gradients are not overly steep, while the views of Mount Batukaru, an active 2,276-metre-high (7,467ft high) volcano, are electrifying. The constant exertion and relentless tropical heat take their toll, forcing me to take increasingly frequent breaks, during which I fuel up on kerbside gastronomy: grilled fish satay sticks smothered in peanut sauce; soto ayam – chicken soup with vermicelli, fried potatoes and shallots; and nasi campur – white rice with pork, vegetables, peanuts, egg and fried shrimp. It takes four hours to complete the 26km run to Pujungan, a village in Pupuan district 1,090 metres above sea level, where locals wear parkas and sometimes even beanies to ward off the relative cold. Canadian deported from Bali for offering ‘orgasmic’ yoga class From here it’s only 3km to a cute little guest house in the hills I’d found online. But it’s straight uphill, on a track pockmarked with fist-sized rocks, forcing me to get off and push. When I reach it, the gate to the guest house is boarded up. Like so many others on the island, the owner couldn’t hold on during the pandemic. I consider turning back to Pujungan for the night, but then see on my map that there are a few guest houses about 10km further north. I push on uphill along zigzagging mountain roads, wary of the ticking clock. I have only one hour of daylight left, no mobile phone signal and there’s not another living soul in sight. The next two guest houses I find are also closed and night has fallen by the time I reach the fourth, in Buleleng, the northernmost regency of Bali. It’s also closed but the groundskeeper invites me to stay with his family in the cottage next door, where I pass out to the sounds of crickets and frogs. Bali’s economy may have been hammered by Covid-19 but the famous hospitality of its people remains intact. The following morning I begin the final and most challenging leg of my journey: a 20km climb to the northern rim of Mount Bedugul, a dormant volcano that erupted millennia ago and is now home to the massive crater in which Buyan and Tamblingan are found. The first half-hour is a killer and I progress in first gear. Then I hit an incline that I’m sure even Lance Armstrong and his performance-enhancing drugs couldn’t scale; I have no choice but to dismount and push my bicycle uphill. At the crest I get back on my bike and ride no more than 100 metres until an even steeper hill appears, making me dismount again. I continue in this fashion all morning – riding for one minute, pushing the bike uphill for half an hour, panting, sweating, sighing, swearing, praying for it all to end. Every step becomes a chore, a fight against fatigue and heat and the piercing rays of the rising sun. I even try ordering a car from a ride-hailing app, but alas there are none available. It’s noon when I finally reach the rim of the volcano, swathed in mist and clouds. Backdropped by layers of blue-grey mountains that fold into each other like the hide of a sleeping giant, the sapphire-coloured lakes are a sight for sore thighs. I still have a 75km run back to my front door, but it’s all downhill – literally, figuratively, in every possible way.