Wednesday, January 1, 2014

My Holiday Company

Other than the big city decorations there was no sign of Christmas and New Years around

The holidays have come and just about gone and my week cycling with a companion has flewn by, literally.  I can’t remember the last time I went so fast on a bike……in fact, I forgot I could go fast on a bike!  Usually I hop on my bike every morning and start pedaling thinking about how many kilometers I’m going to do before I stop for my first iced coffee.  Everyone goes about tour cycling a bit differently and it was refreshing to experience someone else’s style this past week. JOIN!

Ed came on Christmas Eve from Hong Kong to ride just under 1,000 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, exploring the Mekong Delta and Southern Cambodia. Who is this Ed guy anyway? I know you are all wondering…..a boyfriend, roamantic fling,….Actually he was my warm shower host, I know, that sounds even better, right? I know, it needs a bit of explaining.  Careful if you Google warmshowers, you might be surprised with some of the sites and images you find, but add that dot “ORG” and you’ll see what it is all about. is the next best invention to the bicycle.  It is a network of cyclists that take in other cyclists in while they are out on the road traveling.  In the modern world, it is like couch surfing, I think, but just geared toward tour cyclists, so you know that you will at least have the bike in common.  Not that we don’t like to have a beer at the end of your day or crash on each other’s couches, we DO do that, but we have one underlying interest in common: the passion to pedal!  We love to talk about bikes and share stories from our tour travels, look at roads and routes on maps for hours on end, and eat and drink our hearts out.  To someone who doesn’t like to cycle, we might bore you, but regardless of our culture, the different languages that we speak, or the places we’ve traveled on a bike, we have plenty to keep and exciting and engaging conversation going all night long!

So that is how I met Ed.  He was my host in Hong Kong when I was stuck without a bike and trying to figure out how to get my SE Asia route underway.  He came to the rescue and took me in for a couple of nights, helped get my bike up and working, and since then we stayed in touch.  He’s an avid cyclist and has done some touring himself, but never in SE Asia.  Therefore, the idea to meet up with me over the holidays sounded appealing.  It was a bit of a challenge to figure out when and where to meet up.  I didn’t have my route of SE Asia completely outlined, but given his arrival date and the places I wanted to see, I was able to use Ho Chi Minh City as a destination goal for my holiday itinerary. 

After out last day cycling through the dust and dirt entering Phnom Penh

We met up in Ho Chi Minh City on Christmas Eve day, where we stayed for one night before setting off to explore the delta. Santa must have know I’d been a good young lady this year as he even found me in Ho Chi Minh City and gifted me some necessary items.  I got new bike shorts, and a sports bra and underwear to replace the ones from my previous mishap and for stocking stuffers, the Spanish elves visited and brought me some Spanish cured cheese, olives, and membrillo (quince), and even some bars of dark chocolate (a big “Thanks” to Ed, Aglae, and Quim).

We set out on Christmas morning, when things had “calmed” in the big city.  I led the way for maybe the first 10 kilometers and then I passed my duties over to Ed, and he became the navigator for the rest of the trip.  He had internet connection which was a huge treat because we could reserve hotels along the route during the day and update our route and distance as we went riding. 

The first day was a bit rough….I had a little crash, that has been a long time coming.  As most of you know, I am not the best at staying on someone’s wheel.  I get ansy and like to move around rather than hang out behind. I know drafting is more energy efficient, but I just don’t sit still, not even on a bike! Eighty kilometers into the first day I got a bit too close to Ed’s wheel and couldn’t keep my handle bars under control. I ended up face planting in the gravel, with my bike on top of me.  I skinned up my knee and elbow pretty good, got a minor cut on my forehead, a huge bruise on my thigh, and a stiff neck.  It looked a lot worse than it actually was. I laughed as I got to my feet because I couldn’t believe I had actually crashed!  I think I gave Ed a good scare and I’m sure he questioned who his riding companion was for the week and how sh’ed managed to go 10,000 kilometers on her own. Funny thing is, I’ve never crashed on my bike, before except for a silly clipping in or out mishap or chain problem, but those were in the first few months of road biking.  Here I had been on the road for 10,000 kilometers on my own without any problems and all of a sudden when I have company, I bite it!

The bruise, day 4
The skinned knee, day 4

The only good thing about that accident, besides not having done worse damage, was the fact that we decided to get a go to a nice hotel that night, and from the first night on, continued at luxurious hotels, or at least luxurious, in comparison to the places I had been staying.  The Mekong Delta and Southern Cambodia are pretty developed relative to the places I was previously up north, hence there was a lot of selection in terms of hotels.  I’d been staying in the most basic of basic places, sometimes I had hot water, other times just a faucet and a bucket.  Really my only standard on my trip is that my hotel be relatively clean and quiet.  Usually clean is easier to find than quiet because there will always be a rooster crowing at the crack of dawn in a big city or a small village.

The pool and view from our bungalow at The Vanna Hill Resort in Kep, Cambodia

On a two person budget, we opted for staying at 4 and 5 star hotel resorts for a reasonable price. These hotels had a huge breakfast buffet, modern facilities, thick western mattresses, down comforters, air conditioning, swim pools, and fancy restaurants/bars.  I felt incredibly spoiled for the week when it came to our accommodations, but hey, after all it was a special week with the holidays, and the only week I have really splurged on my entire trip, so it was easy to justify! 

Rice paddies, Southern Vietnam

Floating Market, Can Tho, Vietnam

After a 100 kilometers or so, the scenery in the Mekong Delta all starts to look the same.  There are a lot of palm trees, flat rice paddies, far land, lots of livestock, and canals and little fingers of the Mekong everywhere.  You get a little bit of elevation with the short bridges, and a bit of stop and go with ferry crossing on the widest parts of the river, In fact, you can even predict where the little cafés are selling iced coffee.  It was a good thing the scenery was rather monotonous, because I spent the majority of the time looking at Ed’s wheel and backside!

My view every day,....well Ed's back side.  We had the coast in most of Cambodia and rivers in Vietnam

Like I said, the riding was fast.  In my non-touring mode, I can normally keep up with the strong guys in the CC Gracia club.  Obviously when their testostrone kicks in and they decide to attack for no reason, I fall behind, and on the hills as well and usually I opt not to participate in the pace line.  But I am a strong enough rider to be able to hold on to the A’s.  Unfortunately that strength has disappeared over the past 4 months of tour cycling and I’ve gotten pretty comfortable riding at a comfortable 20 to 22 kilometers per hour.  In fact, I usually don’t even look down at my speed and can basically tell how fast I’m going by the way I feel.  I don’t have to huff and puff, nor is my tongue hanging out.  I can’t be bothered to push myself past my limits, because I know I have to ride again tomorrow, and the day after, and the next, and the next…..  Therefore, I just keep a constant steady pace and manage with 100 to 120 kilometers a day in about 5 and a half  to 6 and a half hours. 

I could tell Ed was a strong rider from the start, just by his positioned on a touring bike.  He looks like a road cyclist, with a wee bit of extra weight.  He is way more aerodynamic than me and less capable of being distracted than myself.  While I’m off looking at the local vendors and waving and smiling at the kids and curiously observing my surroundings (I guess only one crash is lucky!)  Ed is pedaling fast and hard, and if I’m not careful, he gets away!  I tried my best to stay right on his back wheel, and take advantage of someone else doing all the hard work.  I hadn’t had many days of head wind since I started the trip, maybe a handful of days at most when I really noticed the wind.  Unfortunately, we had strong head and cross wind every single day, which makes for challenging cycling with an extra 20 kilograms of gear on your bike.  We rode like this for 7 consecutive days, putting in anywhere between 115 and 145 kilometers a day.  Poor Ed, he did the majority of the riding into the head wind, and by the majority, I think I rode in front for about 20 kilometers out of 882 total! 

A typical pit stop for us.  Our fuel?!?! 1 kg of mandarins, 1kg of apples and 2 iced coffees each

Twice the cyclists, twice the audience starring......
He deserves a prize for all his hard work, which is why I delegated myself as the “Fruit Fetcher”.  We’d spot a café together, he’d sit and order two iced coffees (Yes, the iced coffees and condensed milk are that good I even got an English bloke addicted) while I scurried around in search of fresh fruit and snacks.  Our pit stops consisted of about 2 kilos of fruit and about 2 to 3 drinks each, juices, iced coffee, coke, you name it! We drank anything and everything in order to keep us hydrated and get some calories into our bodies.  Just from my sweat marks and little need to pee, I know I was burning and sweating far more than I did at my normal touring pace.  I still had to make a few bathroom stops along the way, but Ed cycled 850 kilometers before having to search for a place to pee on the side of the road.

Poolside lounging, a rare occurence for Melissa

Mekong riverside hotel 

At the end of the day, we were always worthy of a nice ice-cold beer and some snacks, and a bit of R & R by the pool,…. again, another reason or need for the nicer hotels.  We did a bit of exploring in the evening and might walk around the town where we were staying.  One morning we got a later start as we went to see a floating markets, which was interesting, but a little too touristy for our liking.  Our favorite places were in Southern Cambodia along the coast, although the roads were in much better condition in Vietnam.  Riding into Phnom Penh on New Years Eve was chaotic to say the least, and it was also our longest day on the bike!  A sewer had burst with about 5 kilometers to go.  We were sooooo ready to be at the hotel, but here we were dodging potholes filled with sewage and dirty water on a gravel roads.  Then with about 2,5 kilometers from tour destination there was a massive accident.  Ed saw the victim from the motor scooter, dead and ripped open,  thankfully I was spared.  I have too many kilometers to go in this country to see such a sight.  Really, we can’t believe we didn’t stumble upon an accident earlier due to the poor road conditions and terrible drivers! 

Some go for ice cream to ring in the new year, others beer,....we did both!
All-in-all, we had a fun week and I was thrilled to have some company along my route.  We cycled 882 kilometers together in 7 days.  We celebrated Christmas Eve in Ho Chi Minh City, and New Year’s in Phnom Penh.  Unfortunately, I feel like we just got in our riding groove together towards the end of the week, which is a shame because we could easily do another week together, now that we have figured out how we ride best together.  For anyone else who might be thinking of joining me (come on,….I know you are out there with vacation time to burn), know that a week is welcomed, but ten days or 2 weeks is better to actually develop a riding style together! I actually wish Ed would meet up with me again in the final stretch of my SE Asia route as I have one long straight road to follow from the Thai border to Singapore and I could use his wheel for drafting.  What a treat!  Thank you Ed! 

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