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.



1,126 miles, mostly downhill?!!

In planning this world cycle trip I thought long and hard about sunshine, terrain and places I generally fancied going. The pacific coast highway was chosen for sunshine, ease, reputation and chance to to test out our kit. With a few tent pole issues and the bikes now serviced so far all seems well. I have replaced my tent with a plush 3 man (lightweight but good on space) and discovered my Rohlhoff gear hub had a little less oil than it should which I have to say was a surprise, especially given The Captain seemed to ride well. What I hadn’t figured on was people we would meet, fog and mist and a sense of real America. It has been amazing.

Having left settle on 9th July, following out first encounter with the warmth of strangers, we headed north, via Bainbridge and Olympia before getting to Potlatch which had been the initial first stopover. Keen to get started on our bikes we were later to learn the lesson that adding an extra 150 ish miles reduces potential for days off. Consequently we then cycled everyday till arriving in San franscico on August 1st.

The first days wound slowly through long tree lined highways which it’s fair to say for us felt tedious and with little changing scenery, few people and quiet campsites.It was at Cannon Beach where the ride took on a new lease of life, amazing views, company and friendship. We met Tom cycling out of here and he would remain with us until the end of our ride. Ecola state park, next to Cannon Beach provided the first dramatic rocky coastline views we would meet many more times and the bar there was not only a shelter from the rain but also a great intro to Oregon ales.

As we continued through Oregon we met many more bikers and enjoyed some great campfires on the hiker biker sites. We said goodbye to a family from Vancouver over coffee in pacific city, got great food tips from Paul and jeanne in cape lookout and spent the later part of the trip crossing paths with Cameron and serge, finally biking into ‘Frisco with Bob. Tom, as noted above travelled with us through this time. In fact, I believe I’m proud to have introduced Tom to singing and riding…. Mostly all done to “we’re going up the sunshine mountain”! Sadly, no video/audio is available to link here….. Perhaps as well given most singing was done uphill, especially on the steep bits and I sense my breathing throughout may bring a different sort of blog follower!!

My previous trips to the USA have always been to cities, with the exception of  a ski hol in Colorado, and the opportunity to get out to small towns, rural areas and the vast number of state parks gives a very different perspective. While some old logging towns have looked a little run down, larger towns and most shockingly San fransciso give a tough image of what it’s like to be having life hard here, the vastness, space and distance between small populated areas provides another picture.

Having left Oregon we entered into the state of California. While budget deficits meant state campgrounds were not so well serviced the facilities on offer for the hiker biker were still way beyond what a uk cyclist can see and the fact that shoulders exist on the roads is also an added bonus. The coastline through California continued to amaze and the ride into Jenner through from Gualala was one of my favourite riding days of the trip. A tough climb, over the coastline mist and fog leading to a superb switchback descent towards clam chouder and then camping with around 20 other bikers (all boys!) at bodega bay will stay with me for some time. As we began our final trip into the city there was one last surprise… A small town grocery store really did become a one stop shop for me. The best sticky bun of trip to date and a piano…. Only my third chance to play and it took only a few seconds for me to find my sheet music.

We’re ending our USA leg this evening with a live band and as we plan now to head out for some fine picking, bluegrass style, it’s time to sign off… Tomorrow we leave for Japan. If it’s anywhere close to the pacific coast then we are in for a ball.

Can elks trip over guide ropes?

Jeep the creeps. We have entered bear land.

Two days ago we crossed the Californian border. After a long days cycle we pitched up at elk prairie campground. Another great hiker biker spot and as our guide book and other riders had told us it was not uncommon for elk to wander around the site. Sounds great huh?

The site also had a bear box.

On registering our pitch we we told to keep all food and smellies in the bear box. Having clarified this meant only the good smells we moved on to pitch our tents. All good.

I had the most sleepless night of the trip so far.

On climbing into my sleeping bag I noticed my sun tan lotion in the bag next to  my pillow. A bear item or not? I had no idea though it obviously set my mind racing. Rusting in the bushes next to my tent that night… Surely a bear? No no.that would be crazy. They don’t like sun tan lotion anyway. It’s fine. It would all be ok…. Wouldn’t it?

I decided the rustling could not be a bear. I was ok.Uncomfortable. Not wanting to turn over and make any noise but ok…Yeah?

I settled back down to sleep and having dreamt of snakes (no dream interpretation required!) and tigers it was then I decided the rustling must surely be the elks the campsite was famous for. that’s ok…. Until you have to ask….. Can elks trip over guide ropes? All answers gratefully received.

Ps bears do like sun tan lotion!




Week one

Well, here’s the week in stats … 340 miles, 1 puncture, 2 broken tent poles (since fixed) and 5 oysters.

We’ve been following the pacific coast highway  for a few days now – while to date it’s certainly been more highway than coast…. Hopefully that’s all set to change. While it’s great for getting used to the bike the scenery has been mostly tarmac, logging trucks and lots of trees. Going over the Astoria bridge meant entering Oregon though and we were told the scenery would get better….

To date the people have been the real highlight. Starting with our hosts in Seattle we have found people to be generous, interested and really helpful. The other day we met a family doing the same trip as us… Down to san fran anyhow. So impressed and what an experience for a 4 year old.

The USA is a fascinating place…. While we put up our small two man tents between coaches, 4x4s etc etc we are also coming across those folks struggling more and I am reminded that one of the real advantages of bike travel is not only the chance to feel the landscape but also the opportunity to meet a diverse group of people, lives and opinion. No judgement. Just different.

I’m so looking forward to more of that.