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.



Nepal…. At 4 mph!


Blimey. In the last blogs noted that all was about to get bumpy… Well….

We left kathmandu on 9th September – the same day our original world cycle challenge was due to start. Despite being mostly uphill it was an easy ride. A gentle climb as we left the big city we were glad to leave ( very hectic; missing our bikes)- all in all a lovely introduction to our ride around Nepal and the Annapurna circuit.

It was day two when the challenge really became apparent. Two mountain passes, lots of pushing a 36kg bike (39 kg for john) and kit up steep off road/river bed tracks and the first precarious bridge. I crossed that one on my hands and knees much to the amusement of the locals.

While aware our trip was a little early and at the end of the monsoon season it’s fair to say neither of us really understood what this would mean. The paths were muddy, some tracks were closed – I’m not sure how many landslides we saw or carried/ pushed bikes through. Crossing rivers and streams was a daily occurrence though as we got higher and clothes became impossible to dry out, electricity reduced, showers got colder and the dreaded stomach lurgy kicked in – the mental as well as physical motivation became critical. According to our guide he knew of no one else to do this route with heavy touring bikes and panniers. Yep- next time (really!!?.) we would definitely use a mountain bike, walk or start at besi sihar like most sensible people.

It was on our trip to Gorkha that fears of height were truly confronted as we traversed cliff edges. Using local porters to carry our bikes, ducking under rocks in flip flops, and in my case even paying a local to hold my hand we were finally past the river where monsoon had taken out the local bridge. Strangely, given the cliff edge to follow and a fear displacement I was okay on the precariously placed logs on this occasion. This was no trip for the faint hearted.

The early part of our route took us on an old trekking path from Kathmandu and it was day 6 when we hit the main walking trail with a guest hotel in Bhulbhule. Already tired at this point at least now we were in the land of snickers, coffee and a few of those nice things can can become all important. To date we had two home stays – best hospitality though with ply wood beds or earth shelters, gnarling dogs and toilets 5 minutes up the road this was far from a hot bath and sprung mattress following trips back home.

For me it was Bhagarchap where it started to get tough. My arrival at the hotel there saw feet so red raw the hotel owner – former British army guy- prepared a hot salt bath for my tootsies. I actually cried that day as the antiseptic cream was applied and for a girl with a high pain threshold, for 10 minutes it was all too much. River beds, grit, wet socks and pushing my bike uphill certainly takes its toll. Unfortunately rest was not in sight. I spent most of that night nipping outside to the bathroom. The tears for my feet was just the start – it now appeared my stomach was upset too!

While we had used porters to carry our bikes through a steep climb from Chamie ( we took our panniers) I needed a porter again. With no energy, sore feet and a need to nip off frequently our journey the next day was shortened. I could only do a few hours. Why did I leave my hot water bottle in Kathmandu! With an afternoon in bed I felt better the next day. Unfortunately my cycle buddy John now had what I was suffering from. We did the second of our short days finishing in Bardang. This really was the toughest challenge either of us had ever undertaken…. And did I mention the monsoon rains!

The hotel in Bardang lit a fire for us and a great opportunity to try and dry some clothes. Unfortunately I burnt our socks so wet feet were again the order of the day. John was also now a little better and we set out for Manang.

Described a a paradise town for trekkers, a haven of all goods you could possibly want we were excited and according to our itinerary were due a rest day. Hallelujah! If a rest day didn’t include a 900 metre climb, carrying bikes to the next stop then walking back down the hill in the rain to Manang as part of an acclimatisation day then it would have been great. Given rest was not really the order of the day I found this day the hardest. It was day 12. It was no rest. Psychologically that was tough as expectations had been set quite differently. What were we doing?

Sadly news also came in that day of a French traveller who had died from acute altitude sickness and with an update a few days later of an avalanche taking out a group of climbers it was beginning to sink in. Faint hearted or plain stupid. We were no longer sure.

Now at altitude, walking and riding was tough. John, my cycle buddy did amazing. I was so proud on meeting him on the way to phedi. While I used a porter he carried and pushed his bike up steep climbs and muddy tracks. Along with other Trekkers we really didn’t know how. Quite the hero.

Following a chocolate pancake at phedi the last steep climb took us to high camp. A tough walk and sadly one with a brief dash for the tummy upset that still lingered we arrived. It started to snow. The following day we would go over the Thorong-la pass at 5416m.

I went to bed with a slight headache and an overwhelming paranoia of altitude sickness, lack of breath and a fear that during the night we would need to descend. If you fall ill it’s the only thing you can do and this is no risk worth taking. Fortunately, despite a complete lack of sleep we survived the night and at 530am began our ascent. The journey usually takes 3 to 4 hours but with John arriving at 710 and me following 50 minutes later we were so joyous. I undertook the obligatory star jumps at the top of the hill and John too told me that he too did 3 star jumps on arrival – the first time this trip!

It was so cold at the top and following pictures, masala tea and celebration with some of the people we met on the way it was time to head down. With so much energy taken in aiming for the pass neither of us had really considered the other side. We knew it was steep- that’s why most people all walk the Annapurna circuit the same way- and we knew there was a road.

We were expecting an amazing 1900m downhill. Wrong. The gravel and rock covered road was one that even the mules took no passengers and if you think downhill is easy on a bike try holding back up to 40kg from hurtling down a mountain in cycle shoes. We finally arrived in Muktinath around 5 hours later. Gee whizz.

Still. The pride in our accomplishment, the people we met on the way, the scenery, adventure and tales to tell all made this the most incredible journey. It was the cheers from our Israeli pal travellers, local Nepalis and last, but not least, our guide, Roshan who made this possible. That and sheer stubbornness, determination and absolute ambition to reach the top that got us there. Thank you. Never again.

(I’m not able to add pics but given this blog would really benefit from a few photos here’s a link to johns blog on the start of this ride

And finally…… While embarking on this trip I’m also trying to raise funds for The Homeless World Cup. Teams for this year are just heading out to Mexico… Give them a boost… Surely cycling Annapurna is a tough enough part of the challenge….. Just go to the fundraising tab on my home page….. thank you!)

It’s about to get bumpy…and slightly uphill!

So far, in the two countries we have cycled through, alongside sightseeing and viewpoints there are also key images, sounds and even smells that come to mind. In the USA streets had lines of post boxes and the noise of logging trucks; Japan had areas of gravestones and loud humming insects in all the trees. For Nepal to date the key things we noticed was rubble along side the roads and the beeping of horns.

We’ve only just started our journey here and so in fairness it may be wrong to draw an overall impression so early. I’m sure some things will change – the rubble, along every street in Kathmandu, is part of an ambitious road widening scheme, already running way behind schedule. As Edinburgh continues to also introduce a new tram network I can’t help thinking both places could benefit from help from the Japanese. Our visit to the centre for earthquake research in Kobe highlighted just how quickly key systems could be replaced – the example there following the 1995 disaster. However, as I introduce our new journey through Nepal I will move on from an Edinburgh tram rant! ( be good once completed… Question is simply when?)

The original idea for our journey here was to do the friendship highway, as part of an organised tour, from Lhasa to Kathmandu. Unfortunately while we were away the news we had expected was confirmed. We were unable to get a visa for Tibet. However, undeterred and with flights already booked we arrived in Kathmandu on the 2nd September. Our guidebook also arrived that day in the parcel we picked up at our first nights hotel. It was time to investigate our plans for the next month.

While much of the planning for mine and Johns trip had fallen to me it was his contacts in Nepal that would now help us determine our route here. Following a quick call, lunch 15 minutes later and then a meeting with a cycle guide 2 hours later we had a plan. To get the most from Nepal and avoid highways as much as possible we would use a guide to take us off road and to the best viewpoints. Our original trip went via Everest base camp and I was looking forward to this challenge, knowing that we had support as we cycled at altitude. Without visas I did not think it would be possible to reach these heights. Wrong!

We left Kathmandu yesterday and took an uphill climb finishing at Nagarkot. A short ride with amazing views. While we had an itinerary and had discussed the rest of our route before leaving it was only while we were talking over dinner that it became apparent that our new route,through the Annapurna circuit, would take the highest mountain pass in the world. Eek.

We always knew this would be one of the most physically demanding parts of our trip but this new information mixed with a now real understanding of how important it was we had suspension fitted on our bikes fills me with a sense of sheer excitement and utter dread. Still, we are now carrying even less kit ( I have only two cycle and one non bike outfits) and are having a very real lesson in what we really need.

With power and water at a real shortage in Nepal we too face this as we travel and understand just how much we oft take for granted. Power goes off here twice a day for four hours and our guide in Kathmandu told us how he has running water at home for four hours every six days.

However, what Nepal has in abundance is some of the best scenery I have ever encountered ( a rival even to Scotland!), smiles and friendliness and curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Here goes…..