Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Public Vow

Yesterday clocked in as the hardest day ever on my trip.  I still can’t believe the route I took.  I don’t know if I would have done the same ride on my normal road bike without the weight had I known what I was in for.  I wasn’t trying for a new record or anything, I just didn’t have many choice for accommodations along the way and I thought I would “push through”…..famous last words!

Rainforest everywhere

I left Penang the previous day, later than I intended, but happy to do a morning school visit and a bit of sight seeing around Georgetown.  However, I didn’t get as far as I intended, but found a simple hotel in a small town at the start of the East-West road across the north of Malaysia.  I knew I had mountains to cross the following day in order to reach the East side of the country, but since I haven’t done a lot of climbing recently, I forgot what positive elevation feels like.  Really, I haven’t done any serious climbing since northern Vietnam and Laos and I think my legs are out of shape when it comes to mountainous terrain. Two days prior I climbed 13 kilometers up to 900 meters from sea level to the highest point in Langkawi. It was short and steep, but doable. 

I didn’t do my research on the climb that awaited me to go East.  Naively, I knew there were mountains, and thought, how bad can they be,….I’m no longer in northern Vietnam!?!?!  Google Maps showed 177 kilometers from where I was staying to the next “big” town with a hotel.  People had told me there was a nice resort somewhere in between, but definitely not one that fit in my budget price range.  My plan was to stop and camp on the side of the road, either by finding a gas station or rest stop to put up my tent, or asking a family.  It wasn’t my intention to ride all the way through, I thought that was impossible although the idea lingered in my head the entire day.

I set out early in the morning.  The sun rises here in Malaysia at about 7:30 and sets twelve hours later.  In reality, that makes for about 10 hours of riding time, if I needed them all, but with about five and a half or six, I usually call it a day.  I should have known after the first 15 kilometers, I was in for a difficult climb.  The road went up constantly, at a steady 7 or 8% from the first kilometer.  My average calculations of about 20 kilometers in an hour was not going to be accurate with this terrain, so I went down to about 15 kilometers an hour to gauge my progress.  I stopped to have breakfast at the first town I found and happened to witness some sort of Islamic parade going through town.  It lifted my spirits after the first section of climbing and off I went again.  The climbing subsided and turned into rolling terrain, which I gladly welcomed.  The second town was another 40 kilometers down the road.  Again, a pit stop with plenty of options for food.  It made me wonder just how few services I would actually find on the road, there seemed to be plenty?

Random, a local parade going through town entertained me for breakfast

Too bad they didn't march by my side the whole day 

I got back on my bike and continued to pedal, entering a national park.  The road went up, so did the temperatures, and my legs just kept going.  I was in the middle of an immense rainforest.  It sounded like I was in one of those stores that plays the CD with all the bird calls and jungle sounds to relax their customers.  There was every shade of green around me you could imagine, from short grass and shrubs to banana trees and mangroves, up to really tall trees shooting high above in the canopy.  I should have stopped more often to take pictures, but sometimes it is harder to get started afterwards when you have an uphill awaiting! Pedaling and pedaling, I reached the resort that was in the middle of a huge lake in the park.  At this point it was a little after 1pm and I was about 75 kilometers into my route.  Was I really going to stop this early and pay the steep prices at this resort (later I found out this resort was rather cheap, wish I knew that earlier)?  Of course not, that wouldn’t be very Melissalike to stop so early in the day, so I kept pedaling, accepting the fact that I would probably end up camping.  The idea of making it to Jeli, the town on the other side of the national park was in the back of my mind, but I still thought it was out of the question as my destination for the night.

Awas is caution, with an exclamation, well,....even more!

I should have stopped at the resort at least for some food, because 5 kilometers down the road my stomach started growling and there was no food around.  By now, I was starting to over heat although I had plenty of water to drink.  It was about 38 Celsius, and I was going up with constant slopes anywhere from 8 to 13%.  I was taken completely off guard by these mountains.  I had underestimated the climb and thought nothing could be as tough as what I had been up in the Ha Giang region of Vietnam.  I tried to use that as motivation to encourage myself, but it didn’t make the terrain any easier.  I even got plenty of honks from cars and truck drivers, but their support made no difference, the mountains were getting the best of me!

It would have made my day to actually see an elephant crossing

As the day went on, I could start understanding the road signs in Malay.  My worst enemy became the sign that informed me a passing lane was coming soon.  For a cyclist this means, caution, major climb ahead!  “Awas” and caution signs were everywhere for the sharp turns, narrow shoulders, and steep grades.  There were also crossing signs to warn for elephants and anteaters.  I didn’t see an elephant, but I did spot a few unique road kill, one an anteater and the other a crocodile.  Both were enough to make me question the wild camping option, not to mention the amount of monkeys I could see playing in the trees on the side of the road.

Luckily I saw a water hose on the side of a road at a truck pull off.  There were two trucks washing down their vehicles. I used the water to wash down myself jumping right under the hose as if it were a cold-water shower.  Delightful!  I asked the drivers the distance to the next restaurant and was finally filled with optimism when they told me it was only 5 kilometers up the road.  I made it to that restaurant and couldn’t stop drinking.  It reminded me of my days touring with Ed, when we had about 3 drinks apiece on the table.  I downed a can of juice, a liter of water, an iced tea, and a new fascinating sweet syrup and milk drink.  I got some sticky banana rice for energy did some quick planning.  Looking back on it, I probably didn’t have enough oxygen flowing to my brain to make a rational choice.  It was 3:30pm, I had cycled 100 kilometers and the owner of the restaurant told me the road went up for another 20 km and then down for 40km,….and there was another 15km to account for in there somewhere.  If I could do the 20 km in 2 hours, I would have a little over an hour of downhill, which meant I would arrive in Jeli as the sun set. 

discovering new beverages along the way

I try to blame it on the oxygen, but I don’t really know what possessed me to make the decision to keep riding. I suppose I wanted a bit of down time to myself, and if I camped at a restaurant or behind the house of a local, I would be in constant company and have to socialize.  I wasn’t in the mood.  Wild camping was out of the question as there was no place next to the road unless I penetrated the thick rainforest filled with all sorts of jungle creatures. No way! 

Cycling to Jeli it was, another 70 kilometers to go!  The road continued to go up and up for almost 20 km.  Every time I saw a passing lane sign I got frustrated, yet every time I came across a little hut where a family lived, I discarded the idea to camp.  I’m stubborn, I know!  I was soon going down, but unfortunately it wasn’t a true downhill as I imagined.  After every 5 kilometers down, it went back up hill until finally I reached a much-needed long continuous downhill of about 30 kilometers.  However, the hours of daylight were coming to an end.  It was about 6:30pm but the dense vegetation of the rainforest made it feel later.  Now I was determined to make it to Jeli!  I kept an eye out for a hotel as I came out of the rainforest and passed through small villages, but there didn’t seem to be any.  I pulled over to put on all my lights and continued cycling. 

I began counting down the kilometers to Jeli and it continued to get darker and darker.  Luckily drivers here are used to small vehicles with little light, as motor scooters are frequent on the shoulder of the road at all hours of the day.   I continued to get a few honks, although at this time of day I think they were warning me rather than encouraging me.  I made it to the turn off for Jeli and had about 4 kilometers to go.  I never really came across an actual town.  I could see a few signs for hotels, but they were still 8 or 10 kilometers ahead, further than the town itself.  I couldn’t make sense of where my “saviour” town actually was.  I passed a fire station and almost pulled over on the verge of tears to ask them if I could camp behind their station, but didn’t.  I did pull over to ask a man for a hotel, but when he tried to initiate small talk, I got impatient and rode off, something I would NEVER do had I not just had the longest day on my bike! 

Clouds rolled in as it started to get dark 

Here I had made it to Jeli, it was 8pm, and I couldn’t actually find the center of town or a hotel.  With tears in my eyes, I pulled over at a grocery store to ask the clerk for a hotel.  She pointed around the corner.   I went around the corner and saw nothing.  I went back to her and asked again.  This time a customer must have realized how desperate I was and walked me over to the guesthouse.  It was right next door, but it was closed.  There happened to be another 200 meters away, and he guided me there.  This one was open.  It was a bit sketchy with tinted windows and advertised as a 24 hour hotel, but for tonight, it would have to do.

I had pushed myself to my limits and I couldn’t walk another 10 meters.  I was done….completely destroyed!  I wheeled my bike in my room and thought that if I didn’t go get food before I showered, I wouldn’t make it out again.  My punishment was the fact that no restaurants were open in this odd “ghost” town.  At the mini-market I found crackers and tuna fish, and called that dinner.  Oddly I wasn’t hungry,….my appetite wouldn’t come back until tomorrow morning when I woke up and visited the local market.  The ride had made me nauseous.  I had done too much, something I will hardly ever admit: 177 kilometers, 2,500 meters of climbing, and just shy of 11 hours on my bike.  I’m not proud about this ride, that is why I have to make this vow public! 

Three weeks ago I did set out intentionally to see just how far I could ride in one day on fairly flat terrain.  I needed a challenge and I wanted to change things up for a day.  I was inspired and motivated to do a loong ride crossing into Thailand from Battambang, Cambodia.  There were plenty of towns along the way in case I needed to stop early.  This was a fun challenge.  Yesterday was different, it was more out of need than desire and never again to be repeated, especially with mountainous terrain!  100 to 110 kilometers is ideal with fairly flat terrain.  140 if I really have to,….but NEVER, will I ever ride 177 kilometers in one day with 35 kg of weight strapped to my bike on a road with limited services and lots of climbing, it just isn’t fun!  So there, I said it out loud, you have to hold me to this!  You are responsible.....

Oh, so there is just one day coming up in March when I’ll have to modify this vow. I’ll be in Australia and doing a Gran Fondo race with some Thomson Bike Tour clients. However, this doesn’t really count because I will ditch the weight but still have the racks on my touring bike,…..what a sight that will be!


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