The day started with a great buffet breakfast overlooking the Perfume River, followed by stretching in the parking lot of our hotel. The ride has been relatively mechanically lucky, but everyone was nervous for the strain the hills of the day would put on our trusty Motachies. We said goodbye to DMZ, and headed out of town to highway 49, which would take us all the way to the town of A Loui. As soon as we got on the highway (which was not much more than a 1.5 lane road), we hit some of our steepest climbs of the trip. The first few kilometers were just a rollercoaster of asphalt, with uphills and downhills mirror-imaging each other. I began to realize that I actually don’t like downhills when riding a bike- they just throw away all the hard work I did getting to the top of them. After this warmup, we hit our first major climb of the day, a very steep and long hill that reduced many of us to doggedly zig-zagging up the road. However, whenever somebody got to the “top”, they were greeted with the enthusiastic cheers of all the other riders before them, a ritual that was repeated many times throughout the day. We hung out, rested, and laughed while waiting for everyone, and then set off for a long downhill to lunch.
I used quotation marks around the word top in the last paragraph because we were actually nowhere near the top of the mountain. Soon after setting off for the long downhill to lunch, we realized that we had actually just stopped at a relatively flat turn in the mountain. I think that it was actually The Steak trying to mentally condition us for the seemingly interminable mountains to come. But, we eventually hustled up to the real top of the mountain, and then much to our chagrin, had a very long descent (In bicycling, what goes down must come up) to lunch. In many ways, the descent was more difficult than the ascent, as we were careening around blind corners on bad roads with big trucks, hoping our brake pads wouldn’t give out and send us flying into the gorge below. We had to stop to actually give our hands a rest from all of the breaking.
At lunch, we were swarmed by about 20 children in an ethnic minority village who were fascinated by our bicycles. They were all a bit shy at first, but once Connor started handing out candy and Rory got out the football, they opened up with huge smiles and laughter. We played around with them for a while, marveled at their monkey-like ability to retrieve a ball from anywhere, and ended up letting them keep the football. They were very grateful, and ended up vigilantly guarding/toying with our bicycles while we ate a lunch of rice, pork, and eggs (a staple of H2H).
After lunch, we had to make up for all the altitude we lost earlier, as well as climb to the top of the Truong Son mountain range. The ascent started immediately and relentlessly after lunch, as we were often climbing long hills with a 10% grade. I was personally worried that the sheer steepness of the climbs would be our only challenge, so I was relieved to discover that the nice road we were climbing on luckily turned into an active construction site for the next 10 kilometers or so. We all struggled up some very bumpy dirt roads clinging to the side of a cliff, praying that a landslide would render the road impassable, and allow us to return to our complimentary bathrobes and cheese plates in Hue. At some points we were pedaling hard enough (and slowly enough) to actually lift our front tires off the ground through the sheer force put into our back tires. It was also at this point that several of us started to feel our earlier meals coming back up on us (personally, the essence of a hunk of digested blue cheese sitting in the back of my throat during this was unpleasant to say the least). At several points a wondered why I was on the side of this mountain, dodging dump-trucks and destroying my back. It wouldn't have taken much for me to hop into a truck and beg him to take me back to town.
But, what made this possible for everyone was the fact that, as mentioned earlier, we did this all together as a team. Rounding a hard corner and seeing 10 people cheering you on was simply the only thing that could get us up the mountain. We really could have done that every 100 feet, stopped, waited, cheered, laughed, took photos, ate snacks, and it still would have been the fastest and easiest way to get up the mountain. And when we started again, we all left together, and there was nothing quite like the site of a single-file line of 20 spandex clad friends huffing up the dirty road, past cement mixers and construction rigs, to let you know that you could get there too.
Before we knew it, the construction had ended, we were on a nicer (albeit similarly steep road), and up in the clouds. Realizing that we had brought ourselves from one climate to another in a single day was a pretty good validation of our hard work. The road eventually began to slowly slide downhill, and we were all pulling into A Luoi within minutes of each other (and rather late in the day). After a much needed shower, we all went out for some truly fantastic bun thit nuong and pork satay across from our hotel (which can only mean that tomorrow will punish us for such a good meal). And while we know that tomorrow will be a hard day (107 kilometers with similar climbs!!!), surviving today provides us with the best motivation for getting through tomorrow, even if the Steak opts to forgo another motivational bicycle-themed quotation. After all, even Everest has a "top".
Words: Mike W
Pictures: Mike T and Andrea