Here I am, looking out over the river from a balcony in Hoi An, Vietnam.
I can hardly believe I have just ridden more than 800 miles across this beautiful country and that my fellow riders are gone. The decision not to fly back with the group has left me full of strange emotions and enough time to pause and reflect on a gargantuan task begun with a map of Vietnam and a crazy notion of a road cycling tour across the northern reaches of this vast country.
I planned the ride with my mother, as we are both trustees for Newborns Vietnam. As a life long cyclist, I could think of no better way to raise vital funds, and so it all began. Weeks and months passed by: riders signing up, routes changing due to landslides, burst dams and many other challenges faced on the ground in Vietnam. After a final logistical change, the date was set May 14, 2013. As the day loomed nearer and nearer, with nerves gathering and riders contacting me with questions, it started to seem far more real.
Heat, humidity, and 10 stages in 11 days
After a brief panic at Gatwick airport, my riders were all checked in on the flight and the responsibility of being the leader of the group had begun.
As I have been to Vietnam before, I knew what to expect and watched the other riders as the sounds, sights, smells and wave of humidity left them in state of terror. Just getting out of the airport and into out the bus with bikes packed on the truck was a challenge in 38 degree heat with a high humidity. Once underway, the next wave of fear began to build: watching the road in Vietnam when being driven anywhere is something I always try to avoid. It has a tendency to scare the life out of you, a treat for those who had not been to this country or any part of south east Asia before.
Watching the road in Vietnam when being driven anywhere is something I always try to avoid. It has a tendency to scare the life out of you
Check in at the Soffitel Metropole hotel brought opulence and a certain calm before the storm. In recognition of the efforts of our riders, the hotel offered us breakfast and the use of their bedrooms for the day to unwind from such a long flight (one of the best breakfasts I have had, I should add). From this wonderful calm, we were ‘bussed’ to dinner in a small, traditional Vietnamese restaurant in the city, before heading to the station to catch the night train up to Lao Cai to begin our riding.
Ten stages in 11 days lay ahead. Full of chat and a little beer, we settled down to a bumpy night’s sleep on a train scheduled to reach its destination by 5am. At the appointed time, we awoke to mist-coated mountains, but were told the train, as is common here, was running a little late. On arrival, we gathered our day bags and disembarked, heading for breakfast and to begin the search for bikes whisked away at the airport and taken by truck to the start point.
By the time breakfast was eaten and our bikes built, we had become local celebrities. A crowd gathered to watch as 20 plus riders fettled newly unboxed bikes, made up energy drinks, and fretted about how-on-earth they where going to ride out of the station car park in one piece, let alone 850 miles across Vietnam’s northern provinces. A lot of sweat had been shed building the bikes and heat was a hot topic, if you’ll excuse the pun.
Ten stages in 11 days lay ahead. Full of chat and a little beer, we settled down to a bumpy night’s sleep on a train scheduled to reach its destination by 5am
After a quick briefing, it was time to roll out. A steady group of riders emerged onto the road following our bus and we were away. Within just a few kilometres, people were stopping to adjust handlebars that had not been aligned correctly, skipping gears and other easily remedied mechanical problems. Probably the funniest incident was one rider who had never ridden this kind of thing before and had his regular underpants on under his padded shorts and had definitely never used chamois cream before. I must add he learnt very quickly and acquitted himself very well through out the ride.
I am not going to tell you much about the day-to-day stages as you can view most of them on the Cycle A Difference website. The thing I want to tell you about is how magical cycling in Vietnam was and how many riders have emailed or messaged me to say how the trip has changed their life for the better. Watching riders grow as people, taking on new challenges every day – dealing with power cuts, incredible heat, and ever-changing conditions – was a very moving experience.
Riding highlights for me included the long winding climbs, and more 10 per cent gradient signs than you would believe possible. (I’m sure they do not measure the incline, or they only have just one sign). Dodging the rice drying on the road and buffalo in its centre (and generally all over the place) also left an impression. The people who scream hello at you, the children who run to the roadside to cheer you through, how people who, by our standards, have so little, but who seem to be happier than we are with their lot in life. The food was both delightful and challenging in equal measure. The team of drivers and guides who supported us were incredible.
The thing I want to tell you about is how magical cycling in Vietnam was and how many riders have emailed or messaged me to say how the trip has changed their life for the better
The most memorable climb came on the stage from Dong Ha to A Loui. I started the stage at the back with our ‘steady’ group. When our rapid group made contact, I let them go past. Pleasingly, several riders dropped off the back and took over from me, taking the responsibility of guiding my group. Free to push on and with legs feeling strong, I made light work of the constant undulations, catching all but four riders ahead by lunch.
After lunch, I rode with a young man who has more guts than most. After suffering with the heat and an upset stomach, he made a heroic effort to finish the day on his bike. We slowly wound our way up the last big climbs of the day: me pushing him where he needed the extra support. Out of nowhere, came two of our strongest riders. They had turned back to meet us. We must have been a sight. With two riders pushing from each side and me pushing one of the ‘pushers’ from the back, we tackled the last steep slope as a team – one I feel very lucky to have been part of.
The best descent had to be the final one of the tour: down the Hi Van pass to Da Nang. Let’s talk first of the road: sweeping switchbacks with amazing views (not that I was taking them in – my eyes where firmly fixed on the road). Warm tarmac and hot tyres made for unlimited grip. With the police escort motorbikes clearing the road, I felt like I was free to plummet as fast as possible.
After overtaking most of the police escort, I tried to pursue the last three motorbikes. Unfortunately, they could see me coming and were able to pull away out of the corners. Corner after corner, my confidence grew. By the end of the steeper slopes, I wasn’t braking, just setting my position, spotting the apex, and riding like I never thought I could.
After lunch, I rode with a young man who has more guts than most. After suffering with the heat and an upset stomach, he made a heroic effort to finish the day on his bike
The relief at the top had been one of a great burden lifted. The responsibility of mapping the ride and planning its logistics drifted away, leaving a sense of great achievement a memory that will last for years: tales that will be told a hundred times.
I am missing Vietnamese coffee, my 21 new best friends, and the smiles on people’s faces, I miss riding my bike through the most beautiful scenery day in, day out, and having new experiences every day. I miss watching people learn about themselves.
I am not missing 5am starts (although jet lag is playing a few cruel tricks on me), fixing bikes until 11pm, and bruises from my saddle.
In 2015, we do it all again: this time with a knowledge and appreciation of what’s waiting for us. The ‘pioneers’ have all concurred: this is a challenge they want to return to. A slightly modified route is being worked upon as new roads will have opened by the time we return.
I want to thank everyone who took part as well as all those who helped riders to raise money, the sponsors who support the network in Vietnam, my mother who worked tirelessly to make this the resounding success it has been. And finally, I’d like to thank Mike Hall, the adventure cyclist I have always respected and cheered for, and who I am now am happy to call my friend, Mike has been with me from the beginning, giving his support, and without him the ride would not have been possible.
What next for Cycle A Difference? There is already talk of 2014 challenges, like four Belgian Classics in five days, and grand sportives. Watch this space, and who knows what you could find yourself doing.