Saturday, 22 April 2017

Day 18: The Beast Rears Its Head

We woke early today. A sorry excuse for a cockrel began his morning call but got choked half way through. “Cock a dood chchchc”. He then repeated this until I could take no more and dragged myself out of bed. Bianca was already up and commenting on the view from our balcony. Kham Duc is a nice little town, nestled amongst the hills. We quickly inhaled our breakfast as we discussed the long day that lay ahead, including a 18k grade 1 climb.

The rising sun cast sleepy shadows across the road as we rode in single file out of town and into battle. We had heard scary stories about this grade 1 monster that must be defeated before we could get to our beer and our beds. We are, in general, more confident in our mountain slaying abilities since Hue, having left a string of beaten beasts in our wake. But this one was to be a tougher kill.
The beginning of our ride was nice and easy. The road was in good condition, the air cool, and the rolling hills just steep enough to help our battle worn bodies wake up. It’s slightly disorientating to only fully wake up as you pedal past screaming children and foreign, ever changing surroundings. The clouds hanging around the mountain tops and the early morning light add a strange dream like quality to the scenery. The views of the valleys to our left were truly spectacular, if surreal. Less like a real life view and more like the set of primary school play, each depth-adding piece of cardboard painted by a different student. The most talented child’s at the front, a lush, life-like forest scene. The interlocking pieces degrading in detail and colour until you get to the dunce of the art class’s grey-blue smudge of mountain on the distant horizon. Is that a real place? Is that our monster mountain?. We cycled on.
I knew our beast awaited at roughly the 18 kilometer mark. However, I had no way of telling how far I had come. The whole “only waking up as you cycle through mountains” thing has a way of messing with your biological clock. Also, I’m not sure if I have any real understanding of distance/time/space or the relation between. So I had been on my bike for an unknown amount of time when I heard our behemoths battle cry - the screeching of truck’s brakes as they come down something really steep. I cycled around a bend. This must be it. Attack! But it was over too quickly and the road plateaued. I caught up with Grace and Storm at the DHL van. “Is this it?” “I think this is it” “Look up there” “It gets worse?”. We carried on puffing and panting our way up hill. We stopped for fizzy drinks near a waterfall in the belly of the beast. “Another 2k.” “Are you sure?” “Don’t get your hopes up”.
Our beast was resilient and clung on for another few kilometres. On a few occasions we thought it was finally dead as we began to coast downhill. But then it would rear another ugly head of ascent. Finally, we felt confident our grade 1 monster was really defeated and cycled on with big, delirious smiles on our faces.
At about 50k we stopped in a little town and got some coconuts, nuoc mia and fresh fruit from the market. We expressed our surprise at having already completed the toughest part of the day. Now all we had to do was finish. But then the sun came out. It got hot. We were tired. We were not expecting the hills that rolled between us and our finish line. About 18k away from Plei Can we stopped again for some cold drinks and to get out of the sun. We lay in hammocks and complained about how little we wanted to get back on our bikes. For me, mentally, the following 18k were amongst the most difficult of the ride so far. My legs were heavy. I was tired. Each time we went over a bump in the road I felt like my wrist was going to shatter. I really wanted the day to end and cursed out loud each time we turned a corner to see another stinky hill. Mr. Sexytime, Keith, kept me company as I grumbled and moaned and sighed my way up and down the rolling hills.
Just after seeing the 3k sign we found Grace on the side of the road. Her chain had become jammed. After scaring away some well-meaning but clueless road workers determined to pull Grace’s chain off we rang the support van. Unfortunately, it was 40k back. The DHL van sped out from the hotel and was with us in minutes. When it was clear that no one had an idea what to do they moved towards putting Grace’s bike in the van. Not so fast boys! After 100k, a grade 1 climb and hours in the sun Grace was not prepared to spend the last 3k in the DHL van. And so, in solidarity, we began walking our bikes up the hill.
If there's anything more perplexing to the locals then a group of foreigners in spandex cycling past in the mid day’s sun it’s a group of foreigners in spandex glumly pushing their bikes in the mid day’s sun. However the bike gods were not through with us yet. Attempting to coast her bike down a little hill Grace’s chain miraculously fixed itself and we rode together into town.
Cue cheering and victory screams. A little walk around town led us to the best roadside banh xeo we have ever had (and also the most expensive). By early evening those of who were not already in bed were struggling to keep their eyes open. A quick meeting-less decision was made to leave early the next day. And we stumbled off to bed, battered, bruised and glowing in the knowledge that, no matter what is thrown at us on this ride, we always come out on top.

--Amy McInerney

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