The tedium of being stuck in traffic day in and day out prompted bicycle tour guide Elena Shim to re-evaluate her daily commute.
She gave public transport a go but discovered “transiting takes time as well”. She then decided to try cycling, starting within the neighbourhood before slowly branching out.
“I just had to slowly venture out on my own and come out of my shell,” she says, adding that while it was quite unnerving at first, her confidence grew as she got to know more cyclists.
As Elena, who is originally from Sabah, began to explore some of the inner secrets and hidden gems of Kuala Lumpur, she felt a desire to share what she had discovered.
And so, in 2016, she set up her own bicycle tour company, Bike With Elena.
“The timing felt right – there were no cycling tours at the time, and my contract as a researcher at the University of Malaya had just come to an end,” explains Elena.
She had already obtained a tour guide licence in her previous job as a full-time lawyer. “I thought the licence would come in handy but I never thought I would actually use it for bike tours,” she shares.
Elena, who works with three other part-time guides, conducts tours within the Klang Valley, including in Kuala Lumpur and rural areas such as Telok Panglima Garang in Kuala Langat and Sungai Janggut in Kuala Selangor.
She provides bicycles for her customers – vintage Raleigh Seven Up and Mamachari models, “the ones used during the Japanese occupation, which I salvaged and repurposed”, she says, explaining that she believes in upcycling and living sustainably.
With a plethora of fascinating facts at her fingertips and an affable personality, it’s not surprising her bike tours have been popular. Bike With Elena has rave reviews on Tripadvisor, and even won the Travellers’ Choice award last year.
She says one of the best things about conducting bike tours is she gets to meet people from all walks of life. “Some clients have become friends and we keep in touch until today. It’s not just a business transaction.”
Her customers consist of both locals and foreigners. On her tours, she uses old roads and smaller alleyways instead of the busy main roads as they are “safer with more speed bumps and traffic lights to slow down cars”.
And while she has never really felt unsafe while cycling, she was once robbed at a traffic light. “A motorcyclist snatched my bag from my basket and I was very lucky to have not fallen,” she says.
Naturally, the movement control orders have had a significant impact on Bike With Elena, and she concedes she might have to start practising law again to provide for her family.
But she has no plans on giving up her tour guide licence, and looks forward to conducting tours in different states in the not-too-distant future.
For now, though, Elena has chosen to refocus her energies on infrastructural improvement for cyclists and pedestrians, such as reporting on broken traffic lights and providing recommendations on bicycle lanes.
She often works with the local council and participates in focus groups. “Advocacy doesn’t stop just because the tours do,” she says.
And while the pandemic has been discouraging, it’s not all bad news – Elena has seen more cyclists around her neighbourhood since it started, and her friends with bicycle shops have also reported an increase in sales.
Elena has advice for those who are thinking of taking up biking. “Start in your neighbourhood by doing 2-3km first, then gradually increase it to 5km, and then 10km.
“If there’s a cycling community nearby, join them, or else just venture out slowly. You could start by doing your grocery shopping or running errands,” she says, stressing that it is important to know how to repair your bicycle on the spot.
“Lastly, it’s beneficial to have a basket,” she laughs – but do place a protective net over it to avoid misadventures at traffic lights!