Friday, April 24, 2015

H2H 2015 Days 15 to 19: Entering the Highlands

Leaving Thanh My there was great excitement among the team, as we had a second rest day ahead of us at our next destination: Kham Duc. Though this was only a 57km leg, it turned into a challenging ride thanks to rising heat and a couple of short, but very steep, climbs at the end. The first 40km or so were manageable, as the terrain was rolling and it hadn't gotten too hot yet. Several of us stopped at a waterfall which proved immensely refreshing - the cold flow left everyone wanting to just start the rest day there.
The final kilometers after the waterfall were challenging, as already mentioned, although I seemed to handle the heat better than most. I had forgotten how tough the last climb was, and most of the team was caught off guard. By the end of the day everyone had learned that a short ride doesn't necessarily make for an easy ride.

Our reward at the end was a fantastic meal by the lake that sits at the start of Kham Duc. Later that evening a group of us attempted to paint the town red since we had the next day off, but small towns don't exactly have much of a night life. Surely some of the residents will have stories to tell of the drunken foreigners staggering down the street at 10pm.
 On the rest day itself I went for a short ride around town just to keep my legs warm, as it seems that my muscles simply shut down if they go a whole day without use. There would be no room for muscle problems the next day, as it was one of the hardest of the whole route. Our second Evil Bitch Day took us 111km from Kham Duc to Ngoc Hoi, with a monster 18km climb thrown in for good measure. We left earlier than usual so that most of the climb would be out of the way before it got too hot, and I reached the mountain with the front pack. We stopped for shade a couple of times, but I felt great on the incline and pushed ahead with Jack, the only rider who can keep up with me on a long climb (he is 3 inches taller and six years younger than me so I'm ok with that). We reached the top, caught our breath and immediately downed several ice-cold Revives.

The huge downhill on the other side of the mountain brought us into the Central Highlands and a change of scenery; we were leaving behind the lush forests of central Vietnam and entering a region of arid sloping hills, where the wind blows constantly and the sun burns relentlessly.

The following days took us through Kon Tum and Pleiku, both relatively large cities that factored prominently in the Vietnam War. On the way to Kon Tum we passed through Dak To, home to a memorial to a major battle fought nearby.

These rides were short, allowing us to reach our destinations while avoiding the afternoon sun. Pleiku is also home to the Thien An Orphanage, which is supported by funding from H2H. We were unable to spend the night as in past years due to the sensitive political situation around the upcoming 40th anniversary of reunification, but we visited in the afternoon and the following morning. I'll cover that in my next post, along with a few more riding days. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

H2H 2015 Days 12 to 14: Into the Mountains

The most challenging stretch of riding on H2H begins right out of Hue as we head west and then south into the mountains that straddle the border with Laos. As we left the Imperial City on day 12 I felt good, but shortly into the ride my left glutes started hurting. I stopped and the pain subsided, so I carried on. As the kilometers passed by through the rolling hills that precede the mountains several muscle groups in my legs went through various stages of pain - given my history of quad strains on the ride I was getting nervous. It was as if my legs were re-activating piece by piece and putting up a fight along the way. The various pangs went away, but then my left butt started acting up again, and this time it didn't stop. 35km in I decided to get in the rear support van instead of trying to ride through the pain.

I was dumbfounded, and finally realized that something about rest days really throws my body off. At the lunch stop I felt better though and decided to get back on the bike for the final 20km to A Luoi. My legs were problem-free the rest of the way, even on the tough 15km climb that took us up onto the plateau on the border.


I was riding with a good group and we stopped regularly for pictures of the amazing scenery, and we rolled into town as the afternoon was beginning to cool down.
We were treated to a stunning sunset over the border from our hotel, and it quickly cooled down to nearly 60 degrees, which feels freezing when you are used to tropical southern Vietnam.

The next morning dawned cool and clear ahead of our first official 'Evil Bitch Days', one of three days on the ride so named for their combination of long distance and intense climbing. We had to tackle 105km on the way to P'Rao, with two major climbs and several smaller ones along the way.
My muscle issues of the previous day were a distant memory as I powered up to the first stop, a tunnel through a mountain.
The team tagged the walls to serve notice for next year's H2H.
After that first serious climb came a massive downhill - these curvy downhills are exhilarating but also terrifying at times, as you rip around blind hairpins wrestling with your brakes as your hands wear out. At one point a herd of cows took up the entire road, forcing us to a complete stop until they decided to move.

After reaching the bottom it was time to go straight back up again, but I was still feeling strong. On this day there is almost no civilization for the first 80km so we were relying completely on snacks, and luckily I had brought enough. Finally we reached a small village with one restaurant that served up some great mi quang, which gave us enough fuel for the final 20km to P'Rao. Once we arrived I checked Strava, the app I use to track my cycling, and was astonished to see that we had climbed over 4,600 meters, or 15,000, that day. That is a proud achievement.
After the beasts that were days 12 and 13, 14 clocked in at a measly 52km, although there was still 2,000 meters of climbing to handle. The scenery and the weather remained amazing, although the heat was starting to get to a few people. I had been riding in the middle of the pack for several days, since the riders I've become closest with ride at that speed, but today my riding buddy Chris T. and I decided to smash it. We reached Thanh My, our destination for the night, in just over two hours, giving us most of the day to relax.

Weird muscle issues on day 12 aside I've felt great, and I've enjoyed getting to know the people on the team. It's just going to get hotter and hotter the farther south we go, which will become an issue, but for now people seem to be doing well. Onwards to the Central Highlands!

Monday, April 13, 2015

H2H 2015: Days 8-10, or on the 'Hue' to Hue

After the accident of the previous day we were all ready for a return to normalcy, but day eight began with yet another freak accident: a rider named Thea was walking out of a bakery, missed a step, fell and broke and dislocated her left wrist. This happened while we were getting breakfast in Quy Dat before starting the day's ride, and everyone was dumbfounded. The decision was made to send her to Dong Hoi, the third rider to be sent there, and then on to Saigon from the airport. We were now down to 17 riders. The luck was unbelievable.

There was no time to waste though as we had a big riding day ahead of us: 110km to Dong Hoi, on the coast. Once Thea was seen off we headed out of Quy Dat and rejoined the Ho Chi Minh Highway for arguably the most beautiful leg of the entire route. I rode with Tat and Chris T. through the quiet villages of the area, which are lorded over by epic limestone karsts bearded in lush vegetation. The morning mist created a primeval atmosphere, and it seemed as though a T-Rex could've wandered across our path at any time.
There was one major climb for the day over the Deo Da Deo Pass, and it was shrouded in dense fog. Trucks came downhill like apparitions, only becoming visible once they were within a few meters of us. We worked our way up and eventually reached the top, our lungs burning.
 Of course, a steep uphill almost always means a major downhill, and this was no exception. I didn't want to get too much speed going in the wet and had to constantly work the brakes, leaving my arms and shoulders sore. After descending for a few minutes things dried out and the road became much easier to handle, allowing us to pick up some serious speed. The surrounding scenery was incredible, but it's hard to look away from the road when you're topping 60kph. Eventually the road flattened out into something like an airport runway, and we blasted along towards the entrance to Phong Nha-Ke Bang.
After a short lunch stop with 50km left to Dong Hoi several of us carried on in a loose group, stopping regularly for pictures. It's challenging to describe this part of Vietnam using mere words, it's something you just have to see in person. At some point I want to come up here to trek into one of the caves and motorbike onto the western branch of the HCM Highway, which cuts deep into the national park and is supposed to be just incredible.


As we neared the coast the limestone gave way to low hills, and by mid-afternoon we were entering the busy city of Dong Hoi, which has become the gateway to Phong Nha since the caves gained worldwide notoriety a couple of years ago. This had been our longest riding day yet, but I absolutely loved it. Cruising past Vietnam's dramatic landscapes on a bicycle with almost no traffic to worry about is hard to top.

We even found a hostel in town that served Western food, where I crushed two cheeseburgers with fries, pumpkin soup and an order of onion rings. Suffice to say my appetite is out of control.

Dong Hoi was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War, and the remnants of a church stand on the coast as a reminder of the violence of that conflict.

 Day 9 took us 109km from Dong Hoi to Cam Lo, a small intersection of a town which would be our last stop before Hue (and a rest day!). This ride is pretty nondescript in terms of scenery, and I also had my first bike problems of the ride, which left me needing two new tires and tubes. That actually left me riding at the back for once, with other groups waiting around for me to catch up.

After lunch we visited the massive Truong Son cemetery, which is just off the HCM Highway about 20km from Cam Lo. The site holds the cremated remains of around 10,000 soldiers of the former North Vietnamese Army who died during the war. It's an impressive, somber place, and a light drizzle only added to the mood. Whatever your political beliefs, it's always beneficial to get a look at the consequences of war from the other side, and it's sad to see how many lives were ended in a war that should not have been anywhere near as destructive as it was.

Day 10 was a 78km ride from Cam Lo to Hue, the old imperial capital. This is now the only leg of H2H on which there's no way to avoid Highway 1, so after last year's terrible accident on the road we made sure to be extra cautious. I stayed in front while Chris Rolls, my co-leader, stayed at the back, and we told people not to pass anyone unless absolutely necessary. It rained the entire day and there was almost constant construction work, meaning plenty of muddy stretches and hidden potholes. The traffic wasn't quite as dense as I remembered but there were still more than enough close calls with psychotic bus and truck drivers. Amazingly we made it through the hateful day without a single puncture, as changing a flat on the side of that miserable road would've sucked. Through an Agoda flash deal I had booked a 4-star hotel for the team, and that was our reward as we rolled into the Imperial City soaked to the bone and covered in mud. We now had about 36 hours without having to do any cycling.

Since arriving I've eaten a cheeseburger with fries, a third of a pizza, Indian curry with naan, the hotel breakfast buffet, a steak with mashed potatoes and most of a cheese board with several pieces of bread, with Italian coming up for dinner. All of those calories and carbs will be needed as tomorrow we head into the mountains southwest of Hue on the border with Laos. Since leaving Hanoi on April 3 we've covered about 840km and climbed almost 8,000m, but some of the hardest cycling is yet to come. These next few days will be gorgeous but grueling, but I feel strong and ready. If you'd like to me feel even better, please donate to H2H here: https://www.justgiving.com/Michael-Tatarski3/. We've raised over $28,000 as a team so far, but we're gunning for 45k!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

H2H 2015: Days 6 & 7 - The Road Bites

It's been an eventful past few days for H2H 2015, hence the lack of updates (plus spotty wifi coverage). Day 6 was a short 53km from Pho Chau to Huong Khe, all on the Ho Chi Minh Highway. This is one of the shortest days of the ride, unfortunately this year it rained almost the entire time. As a result I didn't take any pictures, and I also didn't enjoy the ride very much. It was cold and I was already battling congestion, and I also had my first crash. On a downhill a truck began passing from behind, so I moved over to let my friend Chris slide in behind me, and as I did so I accidentally rode onto the white line at the edge of the road. Immediately the bike lost any grip and slipped out from beneath me. I fell to the left, towards the truck, but knew it was there so popped up right away and moved back to the right. Somehow I managed to come away with nothing more than a slight cut on my ankle and some road rash on my thigh, even though I was probably going 30-35kph when I wiped out. Guess you could say I'm an experienced crasher.

The rest of the day was uneventful, and luckily the skies dried out by the time we reached town. Huong Khe is one of my favorite stops on the ride, as it has a pretty nice hotel and a lake which you can sit around while drinking or eating. The only negative was that we discovered that Bekah, who had crashed on the first day and hurt her left arm, had actually fractured it and needed to fly back to Saigon. We were now down to 19 riders.

Day 7 ended up being an extremely stressful one, for reasons I'll discuss in a minute. It was a 71km ride from Huong Khe to Quy Dat and started out fine enough. It was overcast but dry and I made good time towards the front with the usual fast riders - Chris T., Jack, Tat, Georges, Zak, David and Carolyn (if you'd like to see who this year's riders are check out this link: http://www.h2hcharityride.org/volunteer/). There was one significant early climb, which I remembered from past H2Hes, with a great view at the top.
The problem with this hill is that there are train tracks right at the bottom of it, which are very dangerous when hit at high speed. Luckily for us a train happened to be crossing so we had to come to a complete stop anyway. We carried on another 20km to Dong Le, a former stop on H2H, through small villages and past countless 'hellos' and high-fives from kids along the way. Once in town we had some amazing chicken curry for lunch. While eating, though, I received a call that there had been an accident - one of the female riders had hit the railroad tracks the wrong way, gone over the handlebars and knocked out three teeth while splitting open her lip. She was packed into the rear van and rushed to Dong Le, but the medical facilities there were inadequate. We then decided to have her driven to Dong Hoi, the nearest major city, about 100km away. Chris R., the team co-leader, went along, which meant I had to get the remaining riders to Quy Dat, our stop for the night, with just one support van. We made sure to stick together, and luckily the scenery the rest of the way took our minds of the accident.

We were nearing Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, and the landscape was just incredible. This region of Vietnam is a vast limestone plateau that stretches into Laos, and it is among the most awe-inspiring places on the planet, in addition to one of the only remaining largely untouched natural areas in the country.

There were a few tough climbs, followed by hilariously fun downhills, as we ascended the plateau. I stayed at the front and waited at the top of each climb before we headed down as a team. This was new territory for H2H, so I was left just as speechless by the surroundings as everyone else.

We finally rolled into Quy Dat later in the afternoon after a challenging day, both physically and mentally. We had received word that Rebecca, the injured rider, had received some treatment in Dong Hoi and was on her way back to Saigon for further care, along with Bekah. We couldn't believe that we had lost two team members in one day, but everyone seemed to be keeping it together. The view from the hotel was a good distraction as well.
That evening the group which had gone to Dong Hoi to help Rebecca returned, and the team was whole again (at least as whole as possible at this point). The following day would be a beast: 111km through the national park to Dong Hoi. But boy was it a good ride. More on that later.

Also don't forget to check out the team blog here: http://h2hrfvc.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

H2H 2015: Days 4 & 5

After an internet blackout in Tan Ky I'm back with an update from the road. We're now in the dusty town of Pho Chau, sprawled out from either side of the Ho Chi Minh Highway in Ha Tinh Province, one of the poorest in the country. Day four took us from Yen Cat to Tan Ky under cloudy skies - perfect weather for cycling. The scenery was beautiful (shocking, I know), and has transitioned from the dramatic limestone karsts of north Vietnam to the low, lush rolling hills of the north-central region. Rice paddies fan out to the distance, except for when you have to climb over certain hills. We entered Nghe An Province, Ho Chi Minh's birthplace and the largest Vietnamese province by area, on this day.

 The climbing has been really enjoyable though, as oftentimes you are able to carry your downhill momentum into the next uphill and power through it. I'm completely converted to the clipless pedal cause, as my feet are always connected to the bike so I can pull up while climbing in addition to pushing down. It makes for much more efficient riding and allows you to engage your glutes and hamstrings, which hold serious strength.

At lunch we attracted a crowd of curious kids some of whom were pretty friendly, while others kept their distance if you approached. It's always fascinating to see how people react to faces they just aren't used to seeing.



 After 92km we rolled into Tan Ky, a bustling town with a marker noting that it was the starting point of the wartime Ho Chi Minh Trail, which the NVA used to carry supplies down south through the jungle.
 Dave five covered another 92km on the way to Pho Chau, the first stop on the new H2H route that was also on the old route. Once again we headed straight down the stunning Ho Chi Minh Highway, and traffic was the lightest yet. It's so nice to be able to cruise along without having to worry much about trucks or buses overtaking you at insane speeds. This is absolutely the best way to see the country.

I decided to take my foot off the gas a bit and ride in the middle of the pack with a couple of different groups, which allowed me to stop and take in the sights a bit more.


The weather was overcast again, and as I rolled into Pho Chau a light drizzle began. It's been raining off and on all evening - hopefully that won't continue into tomorrow. Amazingly we had been rain-free until today, which is almost unheard of in northern Vietnam. Tomorrow we have a short 52km day, which means we'll get into town early so I can finally get some laundry done. Five days in and 410km ridden and I'm having a great time, although we have plenty of extremely challenging days ahead of us. The team is gelling and we're turning into a well-oiled machine. I can't wait to once again see more of this amazing country as we continue further south. Ride on!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

H2H 2015 Day 3: Cam Thuy to Yen Cat

Today was the best day so far in my view - the scenery remained amazing (although I didn't really take any pictures), the road was in great condition and I was able to ride with several other team members and socialize at lunch. The only unwelcome stretch was a short hill that has been heavily used by trucks carrying manure, which left the road surface covered in dried cakes of shit.

 We covered 76km from Cam Thuy to Yen Cat straight down the Ho Chi Minh Highway. We're still on the new part of the route, as we changed much of first half due to an accident on last year's ride, so this is all uncharted territory for me. There were a lot of undulating hills, which meant you could gain momentum on the downhills and use it to help you back up on the other side. My bike has been flawless so far, although I need to clean it badly, and I feel great physically. We're spending the night in a hotel compound that looks straight out of North Korea, completely empty and covered in concrete. The town of Yen Cat is fairly nondescript, but the locals are very friendly. A few of us stopped at a place for a beer before dinner and were invited over to drink with some local guys, who turned out to be cops. They did a few rounds of cheers and gave us some peanuts before we parted ways. They even invited us out later in the night, but we've got to cycle 90km tomorrow so that wasn't going to happen.
Another day in the saddle tomorrow on the way to Tan Ky - we've covered 220 out 2,000km, so there's an awful lot of ground left to cover. Please provide further motivation by donating to the H2H charities here: https://www.justgiving.com/Michael-Tatarski3/