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.
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.