Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The final day

Despite an earlier than usual rise from bed, there were no bleary eyes amongst the riders on the last morning of the ride. The level of anticipation, nervousness and excitement was palpable. The previously monotonous, zombie-like routine of paying hotel bills, packing vans and checking bikes was now punctuated by hugs and squeals of excitement.  

The 108km between us and the finish line felt like nothing; today our destination would be home, and our friends would be waiting for us.

This morning, Danny’s stretch routine took a less fascist form. Barked orders for squat thrusts and burpees were replaced by laid back limbos and dance moves. There were some interesting choices from the team, including Luke’s ‘start the lawnmower’ and Danny W’s ‘forwards roll on the floor’.

See you again?

The phone call to Becky, the passing of her sash and the team squeeze that immediately precede the cycling carried a lot more emotion this time. It was the last time we would carry out the morning routine that had now become second-nature. Even though we weren’t saying goodbye to each other, we were saying goodbye to this bizarre experience that we’d grown so close throughout. It’s strange how you can feel affection towards waking up and exercising at 6.30 AM every day.

Setting off for the last time!

As we left the hotel on our bicycles, a mixture of excitement, apprehension and sadness filled the air. A few tears could be seen on cheeks as, for the last time, the team filed onto the road outside the hotel. This time we were accompanied by Chuong, our team mechanic, who had fixed up one of the spare bikes to cycle with us for the last stretch of our journey. Over the month, Chuong has become so much more than a mechanic, so it was great to see him getting a chance to pedal some of the distance back home with us.

Chuong dons a jersey for the ride

The cycling itself wasn’t much of a highlight today. The scenery had shifted from hills and trees to dust and gravel. In our minds, all we could think about was rolling down Le Loi towards the Opera House, but the road conditions forced us to divert our attention, for a few hours at least. They were bumpy, and crowded with vehicles. Fortunately, the national holiday meant that most of the traffic was leaving Ho Chi Minh City, and the flow of bikes and trucks was going in the opposite direction.

Early on in the ride, I noticed lines of people either side of the road, cheering and whooping as I pedaled hard down a smooth, open hill. Enthusiasm from locals is not unusual, but this morning it felt like people had abandoned their routines and were expecting something. A couple of familiar motorbikes passed us and we realized that we were just ahead of the motorcade that guarded the professional cycling race from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. We encountered the race yesterday, when their day finished around the corner from our hotel. We pulled over and watched as the impressive convoy of racers and support vehicles zoomed past. Chris would later tell me that some of the locals had mistaken us for the racers, overhearing some confused questions to the effect of, ‘I thought this was the Vietnamese race, why are these guys in it?’  

Le Tour de Vietnam pelaton

After the race passed, we continued, being forced to dismount and walk over completely un-cycleable gravel tracks. This particular portion of the ride was a perfect example of the poor standard of driving that can be encountered in Vietnam. We felt much more comfortable pushing our bikes for a few hundred meters, avoiding the traffic that seemed oblivious to the fact that they were on a single lane gravel track, not a five lane motorway.

We reached a lunch spot halfway through, where a television showed the cycle race rolling over the finish line at the Reunification Palace. This made Saigon feel a lot closer - the cyclists that had passed us two hours before were now reaching the destination that we too were heading towards, on bicycles. The weather decided that this feeling wouldn’t last long.

The rain starts after lunch

As we set off from lunch, the heavens opened. The situation was exacerbated by three flat tyres amongst the group. With Chuong a long way behind, we found shelter and replaced inner tubes with the kind of efficiency that develops from doing said task dozens of times in a month. With reports of heavy rain in Saigon, and things not clearing up on our end, we decided to proceed cautiously in the wet weather, covering as much distance as we could in the hope that things would brighten up before Saigon.

Eventually, features started becoming more recognizable. The faint outline of the Bitexco tower on the horizon along with the slowing of the rain contributed to a morale boost as we pushed on. We finally got to our rendezvous point, McSorely’s in District 2. Former rider and film-man Joe Piechura was waiting there for us, along with a box of chocolate and biscuits from his recent trip to the UK. Needless to say, these were devoured quickly. Shortly after, one Tin Mai arrived with a box of chicken nuggets. Needles to say, these were devoured quickly. Gradually all of the riders arrived, and excitement levels were restored. We were in Saigon, a few kilometers of city-cycling away from the finish line.
As we were about to leave McSorelys, Andrea announced that she had a flat tyre. Andrew, Danny and I replaced the tube. Chris decided to time us, and I can proudly declare that we did it in 2 minutes and 28 seconds, an achievement made possible by a month filled with burst inner tubes.

We hit the road, with Tin and Joe acting as driver and cameraman respectively. The group could hardly contain their excitement as we made our way down familiar streets to our final destination. When we reached Ben Thanh roundabout, we lined up and cycled down Le Loi. We were all beside ourselves with anticipation, as chants of ‘H2H! H2H!’ rose from the group. We crossed the junction before the opera house to be met by a sizeable crowd of friends and loved ones, holding banners and cheering us as we reached them. I’m not sure which group was more excited! Before I could get off my bike, a beer was put in my hand, and everyone was overcome by hugs, squeals, drinks, pizza, burgers, and donuts. Seeing how many people were there for us was quite humbling, and made all the struggles of the day feel like a distant memory.

A sign with a photo of Becky’s face was also present, and we spoke to her on the phone as she prepared to head back to the US. To say that we were gutted she couldn’t be there to celebrate with is would be an understatement, but it was good to know that she was recovering well.

The next few hours were filled with good vibes as we all hung out in front of the opera house making quite a lot of noise, surprisingly causing no issues with the nearby police.

The finish line. Note Andrew's ludicrous tan-lines

At the finish line, Chris Rolls said to me, ‘I bet that felt like the longest and shortest month of your life’, something which strangely hit the nail on the head. I suppose as you get older, months seem to fly by quicker and quicker, but this was one filled with so many different phases, so many highs and lows, and so many new experiences that in some ways it seemed to last forever. To try and sum it up in a closing paragraph would be impossible, so I won’t attempt to. I think the best way to get close would be to look back over this blog. It’s great that we’ve had this to record our experiences and thoughts as the days progressed, and it acts as a good snapshot of what H2H has been like to different members of the group. However, each day was different for each rider; each section of the journey carried its ups and downs on an individual basis. What I think is most important, is that everyone pulled through as a team. Cycling long distances every day, sleeping in different beds every night, and being in close quarters with the same people for a month would normally be a recipe for huge disputes and fall outs. Of course, things weren’t always rosy, but I think I can safely say that the team stuck together pretty well, and I think that’s a testament to the strength of character of everyone involved. This will be one of the most memorable experiences of my life, and that’s in no small part down to the people that were on the team. The aches and pains of cycling 2100km are easily forgotten when you’re part of a group that has such a great sense of humour and ability to support one another.

Now all that remains is for Becky to heal up so she can get back over here and have the most important welcome-back party of all!

Words by Matt
Photos by Matt/Thuong/Luke 

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