Jun 24, 2016

GOOD RIDING, VIETNAM

  • Spectacular views
  • Punishing rides

The Cycle a Difference Vietnam Challenge Ride is a cycling adventure across northwest and central Vietnam. Begining in Lao Cai, close to the border with China, with five exhilarating days in the mountains and ventures onto the historic Ho Chi Minh trail before heading for the famed Hai Van pass.

Q. What did it all mean to me? A. One heck of a lot.

I have been the ride organiser and leader of 3 Cycle A Difference rides so far and they are always emotional. Vietnam is by far one of the most beautiful places I have been lucky enough to ride my bike. To be able to combine my passion for cycling with my responsibilities as a trustee of Newborns Vietnam and raise such valued funds has been an absolute pleasure. Not always easy going but I have made many great friends along the way. The November 2015 edition was no exception, watching people rise above their own concept of their ability and prove to themselves they can do was so rewarding.

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Highlights of November 2015

Day 1

The first 35km are uphill, nothing like easing yourself in gently. And this was nothing like easing yourself in gently. Tears were shed, mountains conquered and, as an organiser, a big sigh of relief exhaled.

Day 3

Two words — Beautifully. Hard. Watching people working together to ride 105km with more than 2,500m of climbing is a wonderful sight. The scenery and people of this part of Vietnam take my breath away and my legs really hurt.

Day 5

The hard day over, this was a long one — 117miles by the time we would reach the finish and our first rest day. The morning went fast, the groups sharing turns in lines of two as we descended off the plateau. Fresh coconuts and great coffee greeted us after 70km followed by lots of short steep ascents and rolling downs. We stopped for lunch up on a new plateau, before setting a steady but hard pace. As the distance increased my legs felt good, I made a few hard efforts and burnt a couple of matches, I was recovering well and keen to push on. After a short coffee stop we descended off the plateau on a beautiful collection of sweeping bends, taking in the beautiful views. Near the bottom of the descent we caught the group ahead, being part of a larger group in the company of some different faces was lovely. Rest day next.

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Day 6

In and out of the clouds. We made a very early start to tackle the front loaded 8,500ft of climbing on a day of 117 miles. Rolling out in heavy mist we met our first climb — 4 miles long with a fast and deserved descent. The bigger roads became side roads and the closer we got to the hills the more obvious it became how severe they would be.

As we hit the slopes it was obvious I would be at the back as the stronger climbers in the group rode away I settled into my rhythm as best I could. The steepness of the climb and the repeated concrete sections made it hard — at one point I felt like I was only progressing via a series of half pedal stokes and track stands. My legs where screaming to stop but there was no way I would give in. As I neared the summit I saw two of my fellow riders come back to me. They were relived I had made it almost to the top and they rode the last few bends with me. I was grateful for the company, atop the first of many plateaus in this mountain range. After a rest and recount of the climb we moved on up and up toward the top. The descent down began but was only short before we were weaving through paddies and houses on route to a 28% concrete climb that tore our legs off once again.

We weaved our way up and down for what seemed like ages until we got to a descent so steep and rough I could not keep my rims cool enough and had to go down on the back of one of the motor bikes. My fears were well warranted as Mikes rim deformed under the pressure. We rolled on to lunch 20km down the road where we filled our faces as much as we could manage with serious miles still ahead. This range of hills will stick in mind for ever as one of the best I have ever cycled.

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Day 10

This route has to be one of my favourite in Vietnam mostly up all day a few downs but finishing up on a plateau at Aloi. The ride started with a few punctures that disrupted the usual smoother chain gang we had the previous day. The day started wet and got wetter and wetter — we stopped for coffee at the intersection around 50km in to the ride. We took our coffee hot to warm up.

After coffee we got into a good rhythm sharing the pace at the front. Then it rained even harder — at one point I had a strange sensation my socks where floating between my feet and my shoes. Lunch could not come soon enough but not before more punctures slowed our progression. At lunch we ate like starving animals devouring everything in sight. We decided to leave early from lunch in attempt to help out other riders as we caught the groups in front of us we met up with them and slotted in to their various groups to offer encouragement and support. It was great to see such a respect amounts to the riders of such mixed abilities. By the time we reached the hotel we were soaked to the skin and a mixture of elated and relieved to be back. Beers all round.

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Day 12

Final Hue to DaNang is a special stage having ridden it twice before I knew what lay ahead. The last climb of the tour was around sixty miles away. The 5mile ascent of the Hi-Van pass has become the grand finale of the Cycle a Difference rides. As ride captain the lead into the climb is a stressful one — the prospect of the narrow beach road leading to the climbs and ranks swelled with sponsors and supporters joining us for the last day. We split into smaller groups with a plan to regroup before the small section of highway one that joins us to the Lang co beach road.

Our stronger riders were all acting as support, sweeping up stragglers and keeping the pace on for the whole group. We popped out of the tiny beach road into the mouth of a new tunnel. Conveniently a nice coffee shop had been set up by our ever attentive support team. Coffee drained, food consumed and a few last minute bike repairs we set off as one large group to tackle the Hi-Van. Plagued by a series of punctures we rode hard at the back to try and bring everyone back together at the foot of the climb. The rain hammered in our faces as we changed tyres and tubes left, right and centre. We could only laugh after 2.5 days the rain.

We were lucky the group ahead waited for us and we regrouped just a mile or two from the foot of the climb. As the climb approached I went to the front and started to raise the pace, knowing I was not the fastest climber in our group I took the chance to push off the front and get a lead before the road started to rise. I hit the rail crossing at the foot of the climb just as the level crossing came down. My lead evaporated I just had to wait.

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I was determined so as soon as the barrier went up I shot away giving my all to the pedals and forging ahead — knowing I would be caught by our fastest riders and content to try and hold them off as long as possible. Corner after corner passed and still I was ahead. I could feel the presence of riders behind and pushed harder determined to hold them as long as my fatigued legs could. Then came the catch they rolled past me, I responded and held them a few lengths ahead for as long as I could slowly they pulled ahead. A few more riders passed me and I was able to hold them until my front wheel let go — the tyre was going down and the tyre rolled, nearly leaving me in a heap in the road.

Realising my best time would be harder to achieve, getting this tyre to the top without stopping was the new goal. I resolved myself I would have to complete the climb seated. I kept going as hard as I could and over my shoulder I saw another rider approaching but I was not able to push too hard as my tyre would not allow it. As it steepened again I had the gradient to help with most of the drive was on the rear wheel. The top was in sight one last big push and I would be there — I gave it all I could, desperate to rise out the saddle and finish the job, but all I could do was sit and spin the cranks. What a time to get my first Vietnam puncture — over 2,300 miles on the roads and my tyre chose then to let me down.

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I was greeted by my fellow riders who had all given their best effort to the pass. Changing my tube and removing the offending sharp stones and glass from the tread of my tyre I returned down to meet the last rider. Samantha had joined us in Hue for this the last stage she was not an accomplished cyclist however she had quickly grasped the spirit of Cycle a Difference to suffer on your bike to raise money for Newborns Vietnam and she did herself proud, pushing each painful pedal to the top. She claimed she could not do it with several corners to go just to be met with a chorus of yes you can from those of us who were around her.

Once the dust had settled we descended off the pass to lunch and made plans for the roll in to the hospital. Finishing such an epic journey where people had searched and found something magical through the pain and suffering offered by the beauty of turning the pedals over 1,000 miles in Vietnam in just 12 days of cycling. This is one of the hardest parts of this trip with the biggest, ugliest of riders wiping away a tear or two.

All along the way the people of Vietnam cheered us, asked for photos with us and the national TV cameras followed our last pedal stokes. We rounded the last corner and ascended the red carpet adorned ramp to a raucous reception, the relief palpable. Bikes whisked away by the support team, riders embraced each other in elation, relief and many a tear behind dark glasses. The joy at realising we had made it to the finish together. Some riders had been pushed to their limits mentally, some pushed physically, some just rode selflessly for the good of those who were struggling around them. Everyone had a bad patch at one point or another. This bond of pain suffering and sacrifice embodied everything the ride stands for. The reception and presentation by the nurses and doctors of the hospital and visit to the NICU intensive care unit that we had ridden all this way to support capped off the effort beautifully. This may be the last 10-12 day CAD ride but our cycling adventures in Vietnam may have just begun.

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