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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Whoosh.

The Captain is back!

Those of you who read my blog “bike swap nightmare ” will be aware that for the last section of my trip I had needed to borrow a friends tourer at the last minute in order that I could do the trip as planned. An incorrect sprocket had been fitted to my Rohloff hub gears meaning my belt drive would no longer fit. With this becoming apparent the day before we were booked on Eurostar to meet friends in Epernay there was no way it could be fixed in time. Apparently only one place in the UK had the tools needed to do the work. I was very fortunate to have a friend, Cath, close by who lent me her Specialised Rockhopper for my tour. Following a few adjustments, Bob, as he was named, was soon fit to ride. Despite being very grateful I was very pleased however to know that my custom bike would be ready for my South East Asia tour.

While I had been in France and Italy, The Captain was collected from John Atkins cycles in Leamington Spa to my usual bike store, Edinburgh Bike Co-op. The guys in Leamington had been really helpful but with Edinburgh now taking on the job of getting my bike back in working order I was left with little choice. I’d been very frustrated on finding I could not take my own bike and had been desperate to know how such a mistake had happened. The bike store had only been able to order the one sprocket available; suppliers did not say the system had changed; the next mechanics undertook the sprocket change without raising any questions. It seemed my predicament was due to a chain of human errors. All I could focus on now was getting my bike fixed for the next stage of my tour.

An upgraded belt had now been fitted  (thanks Edinburgh Bike Coop) and the wheel had been returned to Rohloff to check for any damage. Apparently all was now working though I would be in Singapore before I had the chance to test this out. All was good. The new belt was like velvet, revolving in near silence. Gears changed smoothly after a full hub service. The Captain was back.

The only thing to work on now would be the decor and boy, have I seen some ideas for that….

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These machines certainly had more flowers than I’d ever seen on a bike before…and at night – well, that’s when they were really bling.

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So, inspired by the tri-shaws in Melaka I purchased a set of L.E.D lights, 5 metres long, from one of the bikers there. I’m not sure I’ll fit them just yet but a marker has been set and I do think a rickshaw would make a great addition to my bike collection when I’m done.

Tour de France 100

The idea to combine our trip through France with the opportunity to watch the tour was a mere glint, a slight possibility and a “nice to do”  given we’re going there notion. While I have watched the tour, as much for the scenery (the riders and the landscape) and take a distant interest in bike events I don’t really have a full history and understanding of the competitive cycling world. While my interest has grown as British cycling success has, getting to Alpe D’huez to watch stage 18 has become a major factor in our route planning and daily mileage targets.

Having travelled around 650 km from 9th July we finally arrived at the top of the mountain the day before the tour. Cycling up from Grenoble to Bourg d’Osian then up to the peak at around 1800m was a real buzz. Surrounded by thousands of other riders, they were all so encouraging as with my 17kg bike (well, Bob, the borrowed bike) and a further 30kg or so in panniers etc, I slowly made my way to the top. Bon courage, bravo, respect and chapeau – hats off – all shouted at me as I slowly pushed ahead.

While the climb was far from easy it was not as difficult as I was expecting. Sometimes I guess we can build these things up to be much bigger than they are. I was nervous as I started but as I got into granny gear the trick was Ghent to keep a comfortable pace. I was not planning (and had no hope) of keeping up with John and Thijs. I stooped at corners when I had the chance – I could not get my bike going again on the hill so when I spotted a chance to rest on a flattish corner turn I just had to do it.

Nearer the top  I got chatting to another rider – he had also done a little touring. It was great to talk to him though unfortunately his front wheel ran into mine – just where I knew getting going again would be difficult. Usually in situations like this I would traverse the road first, then quickly turn to continue my journey. Alps d’huez was very busy. I waited for a gap and went for it only just avoiding a collision with a guy heading downhill. Chatting was nice but did make things tricky! The same happened again closer to the top though I did finally arrive. Seen as a real cyclists badge of achievement I finally reached the top after just under 3 hours ride time. Averaging 5.8 km/hr , my Garmin recorded a climb of 1123m over a distance of 18 Km. slow but yep, I was quite chuffed.

Having drunk a few coffees to warm up again we were on the lookout for a wild camp spot for the night. Despite picturing this as a spot with magnificent views and a quiet nights sleep, we soon had our homes built. On the roundabout, next to a water tap and porta loos. There were a lot of folks “wild” camping tonight! We woke early after a very noisy night – exuberant supporters (aka drunken idiots), fleets of trucks and about about 2am – the barriers were being erected for the next day.

We left early to make our way to the Dutch corner. Given we were travelling with our Dutch friend Thijs then where else would we go. We arrived at 930 am and it was here we would wait for 5 or so hours before the pro riders came through. The atmosphere was buzzing as bike, after bike, after bike came up the mountain, just as we had the day before.  Soon trucks, vehicles and pedestrians would follow. The smell of burning clutches, Dutch carnival music and the sheer mass of cyclists will be my over-riding memories. It was estimated there would be more than 1 million people on the Alpe d’huez that day. To me, it looked like this was be exceeded. Phenomenal but very glad I rode up the day before.

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Soon, 2pm arrived and the carnival was about to begin. I thought ads on the TV came on at a much louder volume but boy, this was mind blowing. Hundreds of cars, decorated to theme , built in microphones and “goodies” galore just thrown at the crowds.  The  trucks sped round the corner we were standing on and it was not uncommon to have to very quickly jump back to avoid being run over. As for the goodies we got – while perhaps not what everyone was looking for, we were really pleased with our small packets of washing powder – Very useful for the touring cyclist!

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The record up Alpe d’huez is for 37 minutes and as we lined up to watch the pro riders we would get a sense of the speeds it is possible to go should you chose. I missed Froome the first time around – lucky for me they sent the pros up twice!

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The chaos of course then began as everyone headed down the mountain back to Bourg. We all rode slowly down the hill, avoiding other cyclists (some riding like lunatics giving cyclists a bad name) and pedestrians. Finally we set up camp ready to say goodbye to the tdf and continue our journey into Italy. Seeing the tour was such a fabulous day. I’m already looking forward to seeing the mayhem in Yorkshire … infact I’m starting to have an idea about that one … I’m sure you”ll all find out soon if the plan comes together…

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The secret race

In his book, “The Secret Race” , ex pro cyclist,  Tyler Hamilton, reveals much of the talked about doping that has surrounded the world of professional cycling in previous years.

I was on my tour through Africa when Lance Armstrong finally confessed to taking performance enhancement drugs. Writing as someone who struggles to play “cheat” at cards and could never even attempt poker, I found it incredible that someone could keep up a lie so significant for such a period of time. With this background and many people asking how I could remain cycling for so long I have chosen this time to reveal my top riding secrets.

It’s 9pm. The party (though also the thunder and lightening) is just starting here on Alps d’huez. I am already in my tent, with my hot water bottle and about to sleep. No doubt a surprise to many who know me. While I love riding it’s possible only with adequate rest, carbohydrates and, given we are in France, cheese, pain au chocolate and a cheeky vino.

I don’t waste my energy constantly doing laundry. Obviously I’m going so fast on my bike no-one could smell me anyway though I do wash shorts daily to avoid sores.  I have invested well in a good saddle, and unless it’s wet don’t bother with chamois cream. I don’t try to keep up but stick to my own comfortable pace.  While fully aware that increasing cadence is a better way to ride I find it exhausting. That said, I occasionally work on this for shorter distances but ultimately I listen to myself.

Having managed around 20, 000 km so far (I will soon calculate the distance more closely) I think I’m doing ok. So, for now I”ll carry on. The only thing I need to keep going is to continue enjoying it. I may not lose weight;  I may not go any faster. I will see the world and thoroughly enjoy my time doing so.

The only real secret….it’s not a race.

Detour de France

This part of the trip started out as a filler. We were waiting until rains reduced in South East Asia. Yet, as plans were made and ideas were formed it certainly became a fabulous trip in it’s own right.

We decided we would ride to North East Italy to visit John’s father. We would meander through rural France, chose the flatest route over the border and slowly make our way through these culinary wonderlands. Then I started gazing at maps and getting yet more crazy ideas!

To date, each part of our trip has included a significant element of physical and mental challenge. In our first stage we cycled, pushed and carried our bikes and panniers around the Annapurna circuit in Nepal – the peak of which being  the Thorong La pass at 5416m. We had followed much of the Yak Attack race route – listed in the top ten endurance bike challenges in the world. This list also includes our second stage trip -  Tour d’Afrique (TDA), a race covering the length of the African continent.

So, given this year sees the 100th Tour de France and we can, we are heading to climb Alps d’huez from where we will then watch the pros coming after us. Unlike many other amateurs we will attempt this 1800m climb on our touring bikes with luggage. No doubt I will look on at the lightweight carbon racers with envy yet the sense of pride when we finally reach the top will be amazing.

To date we have cycled around 540km having left Epernay on Monday – 6 days ago – and we now found ourselves camping just South of Montalieu-Vercieu. For this trip I have finally invested in a GPS system, given our ability to carry very detailed maps is limited. However, with such a hectic time at home I have neither managed to load detailed maps or really find out how my new Garmin Etrex 30 actually works. Fortunately, our fellow rider is more tech savvy and so we have been planning routes on his Garmin and I hope I can get a basic lesson in how to use my new device.

I had planned a route using my Cycle France book though with two broken spokes (on Thijs bike) and with John now unwell we have stayed to the West and away from tough mountain climbs until we have to face the inevitable. As with all independent bike tours we have constantly been changing and adapting our route – such is the freedom of carrying all your gear. These detours then have seen us go via larger towns, in search of bike shops and building in a full rest day in the hope John will feel better ready for our Alps d’huez day. We smiled as we arrived into Troyes, spotting TDA flagging tape as we entered the town but this time we were going our own way and detours are simply part of the ride.