Riding safe

With the deaths of six cyclists in London making headlines and subsequent appeals for increasing safety levels I wanted to write a blog that took both the perspective of cyclists, car drivers and truckers into account. Far too often the arguments are polarised, completely biased and quite frankly lack a level of honesty that I believe is critical to move the debate forwards.

I’ve driven trucks, up to 7.5 tonnes, held a driving licence for 21 years and have ridden thousands of miles on my bike. Maybe I’m lucky and there will certainly be  many incidents people can point to where they were blameless but, while I have met with very aggressive road rage having shown my dismay to a driver overtaking way too close, I have never been knocked off my bike. Long may that continue.

I find it ludicrous that in the UK bike lanes are shared with buses, end in the middle of the road or are in gutters where potholes render them unusable. I find the “no road tax” argument utterly ridiculous. As is often pointed out, not only are many cyclists also car owners but the very nature of tax is that we all pay for services we may or may not use. It’s how we create society/ community – I wonder what it is that those of us on bikes have done to be singled out in such a way?

I find cyclists with no care for those around them just as annoying as anyone else. They give me a bad name too. They make the road less safe for me too.

As a member of CTC I follow the debates and lobbying. I understand the need for a hard line at times (drivers seemingly getting off with manslaughter on killing a second cyclist through dangerous driving) yet wish there was a recognition of bad riding and an understanding of blind spots on larger vehicles (sometimes lorries and buses really can’t see you). I don’t agree with the call that all lorry drivers should be called to account on the death of a cyclist. I do believe that we should try and determine if accidents were due to bad driving or bad cycling.

Every new driver is taught mirror, signal, manoeuvre yet having past their test this three stage process is often long forgotten. I ride assuming no one uses the side view, few regularly check the rear view and people will pull in or turn without an indicator. I look over both shoulders frequently, expect people to pull out, turn left front of me and open their car door. With all this in mind here are my tips for riding safe.

1. Value yourself. Ride to live. Look around you. Anticipate actions of others and adopt mirror, signal, manoeuvre. That’s what everyone else on the road has been taught. Exemplify this behaviour.

2. Wear a helmet. I think this is a no brainer though am aware some folk differ. Better to arrive with messy hair than not at all!
I’ve seen a number of cracked helmets that have saved riders from serious injury.

3. Be visible. Lights, clothing and eye contact. I do my best to make people see me and acknowledge they have done so – get a smile from the person behind the wheel while you’re both waiting to pull away.

4. Don’t sneak between cars leading up to lights unless you know they are not about to turn red. Cars pull away assuming all is stationary and lined up behind them. This is a time when people really don’t check mirrors. It may not be right but it is what happens.

5. When riding near buses and lorries give them space to turn. You know the length of their vehicles. You’re not stupid and you know how far they will swing out when turning so give them room. If you’re behind them – it’s your responsibility – they have a much bigger blind spot than a car.

Of course, I won’t be perfect and not everyone will agree with my red light policy – avoid stopping late at night and go when it is safest (occasionally this will be when lights are red) but we’re in this together.

We all use the roads….the only irony….if more people felt safer they would ride and if there were more cyclists we would be safer.

Killing Fields

As I’ve travelled I have, much to my embarassment, been constantly surprised by my own lack of knowledge. We were already in Japan when I registered the land was 90 percent hills; in Africa I would realise it was not all a dustbowl and could be pretty chilly; in Cambodia I would learn more of the extent of the misery, torture and power of the Khmer Rouge. Nothing will ever prepare you for visiting The Killing Fields.

Just outside Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia is an area called Choeung Ek. Nestled in among paddy fields, we rode down a bumpy, muddy track, passing children cycling to school and the usual hustle and bustle of village life. Our driver pulled in, under some trees and arranged to meet us there in two hours time. We had decided to visit what in essence was a scene of  great brutality. Around 17, 000 people (men, women and children) were brought to this extermination camp from a prison, known as S-21, where they had already been held and tortured.

While much of the site infrastructure (waiting rooms, tool stores etc) have long since gone, mass graves are clearly marked and a chilling audio guide leads you around. Steadfast on a communist ideal whereby cities were destroyed and peasant farming and manual labour were the standards being set to bring equality to all the Khmer Rouge led a war of unimaginable proportions. Teachers, foreigners, anyone who spoke more than one language , those who spoke up against them, took rice or belongings from the collective pool or it seemed anyone even with a vague association to any of the former were simply removed. While the exact figure is unknown estimates are as high as 3.5 million deaths (half the population).

8595 bodies were exhumed  at Choeung Ek in 1980 and as you wonder through what is now a quiet memorial site, clothing remnants, bones and teeth that continue to rise to the surface each year as rain disturbs the ground are displayed.

Thankfully  those arriving at the site were unaware of their fate.  They didn’t use bullets here but bludgeoned people to death and the audio guide played loud vitriolic songs that were blasted out alongside the noise of the generator to cover up the sounds of people screaming as they were killed.  I couldn’t listen to the audio. They had done too good a job of stimulating the noise of the environment. One grave housed many bodies that had been beheaded – thought to be soildiers who had raised objections- and the site marked a tree where babies heads were thrashed before being discarded. Again, the audio was turned off. It was too much for me.

In 1988 the Memorial Stupa was built on the site. In essence, a narrow tower, ten stories high displaying the skulls and bones of some 8000 people.

I had not been sure whether to visit The Killing Fields. The War Museum in Saigon had also been vivid in it’s portrayal of the Vietnam War and I saw only enough there to understand. Nothing is masked here. I had been ignorant of the full extent of the torture Pol Pott had inflicted and while The Killing Fields was far from being a pleasant experience this is history I am now much more aware of.

Lest we forget.

Cycling South East Asia

Despite the fact that my panniers contain guidebooks, each of a few hundred pages, for Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia this blog acts as my overall write-up and guide to cycling in south east Asia.

When planning bike routes, given I am of course also a tourist, one of the first places I often start is by looking at the routes chosen by cycle tour operators in the region. I won’t know exact routes and don’t have access to support vehicles for bus transfers between areas where there may be little to see but the itineraries will give a sense of key places to visit, an idea of where there are places to stay and an indication of what’s possible in a given time period. Having been on one of these trips to Vietnam around ten years ago for a three week holiday I was also aware that just over three months to tour all of south east Asia would be a significant challenge. It would require  careful reading and selection, a good understanding of border crossing points  and possibly a train or two. As ever, I started off with a very optimistic plan and one that has been constantly adapted throughout this tour.

The original intention had been to cycle all the way from Singapore to Bangkok – it always felt like quite an iconic journey. We knew to avoid the border between Malaysia and South West Thailand though had no exact plan for this when we started and from Bangkok to Vientiane, in Laos we had always planned to take a train before riding to Vinh and up to Hanoi, in Vietnam, crossing the border at Lak Sao. As things turned out, some of this worked out as planned and some of it…well, it was changed either following further research, talking to other travellers or, in the case of one border crossing was a force majore.

So, as outlined in a previous  blog we left Singapore in a thunder storm, rode up through a very generous Malaysia and then made our way to Thailand. Given border complications we decided to take the boat option using a ferry from Langkawi to Saturn. However, given we arrived at a land border we had a visa in Thailand for only fifteen days. We didn’t want to detour to get this lengthened and so we would use public transport between Krabi and Hua Hin and then again, this time as planned, from Bangkok to Nong Khai. As it turned out this worked out for the better or we really would have run out of time here.

We were only due to be in Laos for a very short time but as soon as we arrived it felt so calm, comfortable and welcoming we wanted to stay longer. I love being in the hills and we decided to go to Luang Prabang and Vang Vien though yet again we had time for this only if we left the bikes behind. We would have to cheat. This was our trip after all.

One week later and we were back on the bikes making our way towards Hanoi. Some of my favourite days riding came as we pedaled our way to the border near Lak Sao. We were climbing and our route took us through beautiful paddy fields, past limestone crags and friendly villages. Just glorious. We also hit more rain and as we passed through muddy roads and landslides up to the border we had no idea that we would soon be riding back the same way. Vietnamese soldiers would not let us continue and border control showed us photographs on a mobile phone to explain why. The road ahead had actually slipped away in the rain leaving a gap of around two hundred metres. While a detour was possible by foot – a bamboo ladder and forest trek we later found out- they would not let us through with The Captain and Kylie. Back to Lak Sao; back to the drawing board; back on the bus!

Thirty six hours later and we were in Hanoi. More sightseeing, a trip out to Halong Bay and then another bus down to Dong Hoi. Well, we are tourists as well as cyclists and we were now really running out of time.

Our detour here came as we decided to visit Paradise Caves following a glowing recommendation from another traveller. The walk through the cave would go beyond the standard visitor route, following guides and headtorches through rivers in the cave, clamouring over rocks and getting wet. The cave was vast and it’s hard to imagine it hasn’t long been discovered with no previous signs of human visitors.

It was another fabulous tourist day though we were both very much looking forward to riding. We would follow the coast and highway one for a few days visiting Hue and Hoi An from where we hoped to cross back into Laos. It quickly became apparent that if we did this we would see nothing of Cambodia and so we changed plans again….

To make up time we would need to catch the train again and so after riding to Quang Ngai we caught the sleeper to Ho Chi Min City, still more commonly known as Saigon. Pedalling in from the station to find a hotel was such fun. There were so many scooters it seemed like chaos though actually traffic flowed very well. The only rule….”never don’t stop”.  Here, like in India, the horn is a must, the  only difference being the biggest vehicle is not automatically the one with right of way.  The little guy wins as bikes and scooters weave their way forwards advancing much more quickly than their larger counterparts.

Arriving on a high it would not be long before we would ride again in the mayhem on our way to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. While our time in Saigon had been slightly marred by a passing scooter rider trying to grab John’s camera we’d enjoyed the change of itinerary and, after two days riding we would be in the capital of Cambodia. Described as pancake flat I was surprised to be finding it so hard and on that second day was struggling badly in the first 10km. My legs wouldn’t work, I averaged only around 17km pr hr and it was only the fact that we had a hotel booked that meant I was determined to continue eventually making 120km. The next day I was reminded of the fact that I’m a girl on a bicycle though at least that served as explanation for the achy legs the day before. I had been worried this was a more serious lurgy.

We’re in Siem Reap as I write this having followed route six north and with sightseeing here now over we will head out by the border west of Battambang back into Thailand. Our south east Asia trip is drawing to a close. We’ve taken the train much more than expected, changed routes and plans on numerous occasions,  seen far less than we would have liked and despite being perhaps a little tired of rice and noodles would certainly love to return. Cycling in this part of the world is a real pleasure – you just need more than three months.

Talking about the weather

We waited until September to start our tour through South East Asia. The rainy season was apparently coming to end and we would have just over three months to explore. However, not only did we leave Singapore in a thunderstorm, the most powerful storm to make landfall has just taken place leaving a trail of devastation in the Philippines before moving on to the Halong Bay area where we were just a couple of weeks ago. Thousands have died and many more people are displaced, losing the few possessions they held dear.

While us Brits are known for our obsession in talking about the weather many of us actually have little understanding of the real power of wind and tornados, water and flooding or heat and out of control fires.

Climate had played a significant part in trip planning and in looking at places we would visit, while we couldn’t always go at the best times of year we would certainly avoid the worst. However, it seems it’s becoming harder to follow the seasons and despite reading about weather conditions we simply do not have the experience to know how bad it can really get.

We had already just missed storms on the central coast area of Vietnam as we arrived in Dong Hoi and a few days later as we moved South from Hoi An another storm was predicted. This part of  the country is relatively poorer than other areas and it’s tough to see people who already have comparatively little repairing the damage that high winds and rain have caused. I can’t even begin to imagine some of the scenes described in recent events.

We”ll be home in a few weeks as we head back for Christmas before heading out to New Zealand. No doubt we’ll moan about the temperature, talk about how hot and humid it was through South East Asia and may even have snow. What we will also have of course is central heating, double glazing and perhaps even a cosy real fire and a wee dram to keep us warm. We can’t change where we’re born, lifestyle or geography, but even as I will inevitably shiver and grumble (just a little) I am fully aware of how fortunate I am both in terms of origins and my ability to travel.

I can’t change that, for me or anyone else but I can give a little to help in such a disaster.


Five favourite climbs

It’s been around ten years since I last came to Vietnam, on a trip in fact that would ignite my interest in longer distance cycling. I was in my late twenties then and it’s fair to say my body was not a temple at the time…….unless Dionysus was involved that is. I still remember riding over the Hai Van Pass on that tour. It was baking hot, sweat bubbles collected between my skin and sun cream and on arrival at the top I was ready to collapse. Two cycle tourists past us that day and I remember commenting that they were absolutely mad. Today I rode the pass again and this time I too was a cycle tourist. While riding up, what for me would be a real pinnacle of our South East Asia tour got me thinking about my favourite climbs of the trip so far. While there were other notable climbs, including riding in Japan and the 36 hairpins up to Ooty, here then is my top five, in reverse order of course.

5. Hai Van Pass. Central coast, Vietnam

It was fifteen kilometres from our hotel in Lang Co to the peak of our climb today though we would be almost 5km in before the hill really started.  The road is itself a continuation of Highway 1 and the key road link from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Since my last Hai Van cycle attempt a new tunnel has been built (2005) and so while ten years ago the route was busy with scooters, coaches, lorries and cars today it is only scooters, oil tankers and bicycles that have to go over the top.  There are also still some tourist buses choosing this route though at least a warm welcome and cold drinks at the top are then guaranteed.


With a gradient of up to 8% this was actually okay and as we passed the 10k mark I called to John that we were a third of the way – not bad maths – I thought it was a 15 km climb! In the end it took 1 hour 37 minutes riding time from hotel to peak though there were also a number of photo stops. By 21km we were at the bottom and the route down the other side was even more picturesque. Beachy enclaves, winding roads and the city of Danang far into the distance.

My altimeter showed a total ascent of just 476 metres so it was certainly not one of our longer hill rides. The ride will however always be remembered with a sense of progression, of improvement and therefore with a particular fondness. I’m not sure I’ll ever do it again ….but I have said that before.

4.      USA

I will always remember this as one of my favourite ride days on a trip down from Seattle to San Francisco. Following the rugged, rocky outcrops along the Western coastline this day saw us climb        . While we had seen other long climbs on our tour south the roads were often penned in by trees. One of our biggest ascents – thd climb up from Standish Hickey- had no views at the top though there was a fabulous downhill. This road however hugged the ocean. Despite being narrow  and at times without a barrier between us and the long drop down the cliffs to the choppy waves below I loved this ride. The clouds below us creating a dreamy landscape and a real sense of being on top of the world. Despite obscuring the view at times it was amazing to ride high above the white mist, glimpses of the water poking through. Simply glorious.



3. Alpe d’huez, riding to watch the Tour de France

We had some tough, long days as we cycled down from Epernay on our tour down to Southern Italy but we were determined to make it to watch the tdf. Having calculated distances and matched routes and dates of perhaps the world’s most famous bike races I wanted to soak up the atmosphere for real and we had decided that Alps d’huez was the best location to do this from. We would just have time to ride there and this year, for the tdf centenary racers would pass twice over this famous cycle challenge.

It’s around 18km to the top and my Garmin recorded an ascent of 1123m, average speed 5.8m km pr hour. While the route through France had seen a lot of undulating ( ie it was hilly) we had stayed to the West of the real mountainous area. While it would have been beautiful we would certainly have arrived too late to watch the pros. Our climb would start from Grenoble, staying first in Bourg d’Osian before heading off for Alps d’huez the following morning.

The town was packed. There were bikes everywhere. Most people were in lycra. I had never seen anything like it. The buzz was incredible and this is the reason this day makes it into my top five. The reality of this from a riding perspective was that it was incredibly busy, tough to restart riding on a steep part given finding a gap to traverse across the road to get going was nigh on impossible and, on heading downhill the following morning you could not let go off the brakes enough to enjoy any speed or ride wide enough to sweep the corners. However, who cares. I will always remember the shouts of ” chapeau”, “respect” and “I’m not sure I could do that” as I climbed, very slowly, with full pannier’s and camping gear to the top. Great memories.


2. The Blue Nile Gorge

Unlike other rides this journey started with the downhill. After around 50km of steep undulations we would finally descend into the Blue Nile Gorge. This was the biggest climb day in a trip from Cairo to Capetown. By the time I left lunch to head into the gorge it was blistering hot. I set off with Irin but she was quicker uphill than me and while we would stop together for a cold drink on the ride up she was always just ahead.

I huffed, puffed, splashed my face with cold water from a little stream and genuinely, at times was not sure I would make it. While part of a supported trip so this was the only climb listed here where I had no bags to carry it was steep, scorching and followed an already hilly 50km ride. The heat had, early on, already meant other riders had decided this was a challenge too far. I have always been a bit strong willed though. I did not want to be defeated.




The winning time from one of the Tour D’Afrique riders on this climb was 1 hour 23 minutes. I took 4 hours 7 minutes but at least I made it!

1. Throng-la, Annapurna circuit, Nepal

Where all the climbs listed above were completed in just a few hours this pass at 5416m was the epic ride of our tour. This climb would take days.

I’m not sure, in fact, I know, we had no idea what we were really letting ourselves in for. Crossing rivers, landslides, wobbly bridges, tree trunk bridges, waterfalls and cliff edges this was the toughest physical challenge we had both ever undertaken. They say ignorance is bliss – it certainly means you start and then want to complete something you may never have begun had you known what was coming.

The route followed a well known trekking route and after 5 days in was inaccessible by vehicle. It was very steep, muddy and rocky. Towards the end we would travel just 10km in a day, rising 800/900 metres. Pushing, carrying and riding our bikes. Determined to reach the top by all means necessary. For the eqivalent of two days this meant using porters due to illness (dodgy tum), difficulty (narrow, steep and carrying only) or altitude (the final day when breathing was a struggle).

I wI’ll probably never do this ride again, at least not on a touring bike with panniers but it will remain my proudest moment and my most favourite climb. I doubt this position in my favourite climbs will ever be topped…… but you never know.








Usually the reward of a big climb is the long descent. Rolling round bends, hands ready on the brakes and feet resting on the pedals. However, despite my best climbs listed above only the USA ride and the Hai Van pass offered this reward. Alpe d’huez was too busy, the gorge downhill was on a very poor road preceeding the climb and the descent from Thorong-la was almost as tough as going up.

The top position for best downhill then so far has to be the hairpins we hit after our climb through the Alps as we crossed the border into Italy.