Ride Captain’s Vietnam Cycle a Difference 2015 Diary

Special thanks to Knight Composites for the sponsorship.

With 12 days of cycling and over 1000 miles ahead of me in the next two weeks, I was unable to sleep well the week leading up to departure. Taking part is one thing, organising this trip for such a mixed group of riders is another. I took comfort in the fact that seven of my group where returning after riding in 2013.

Airport gathering done we met as a group, checked in for the off, a few last minute bits of shopping and some nervous laughs we were all safely on board and underway.

In contrast to the cool wet November day we left behind Hanoi offered a whole other view of the world, it is warm and humid however there is something magical about the overloading of your senses. As we make our way into the city, the hustle of life in Vietnam is there for all to see. I imagine those newcomers to this magnificent country are a little shocked and wondering how and where we will be cycling.

Vietnam 2015 ride stats
Days km Meters climbed
day 1 105.1 2724
day 2 103.9 1081
day 3 101.5 1937
day 4 156.9 2318
day 5 190 1790
day 6 189.6 2610
day 7 181.1 1309
day 8 185.2 1346
day 9 134.4 622
day 10 144.7 968
day 11 70.2 181
day 12 144.8 809
Total 1707.5 17695


After the press conferences a meeting with the British ambassador and a Royal visitor, we set off on the long bus journey north. The new road that had recently opened was strange, so little traffic as motorcycles are not allowed, we felt quite remote from the day to day life of the country we had landed in.

This honeymoon was short lived as we checked into our first hotel and built our bikes ready for the following days. I had planned the groups for day 1 as best I could from meeting the riders and assessing how I felt they would cope on the road ahead.


Day 1

The first 35km are uphill, we started in good spirits the climbing was hard the heat was not too bad. We arrived at the top to enjoy lunch before the rewards of the descent. As we climbed and descended through the clouds the view was spectacular, as the wind whipped the clouds in swirling circles it’s easy to see why the local call this Heaven’s Gate. Half way down we stopped to take pictures and I put my hand around my Knight carbon rim I was amazed it was warm but not hot. As I had had to rely heavily on the brakes this was very reassuring.

For the last climb of the day I was at the back and did some pushing of another rider. My legs where loading hard but the sun had come out and we were happy, all riders had made it to the finish.


Day 2

After a good breakfast, we were watching the intense rain from inside the hotel. Luckily it stopped, and we pushed on out of the town we were staying in and up the main climb of the day. With some steeper sections that tested the legs after cresting the hill it was too hard to resist the urge to stop and take pictures of the stunning view. The descent was fun but got congested with lots of big trucks at the bottom. The road wound into a beautiful valley by the river and undulated all the way to our lunch stop, each of the short steep climbs stinging the legs a bit more. The sun was taking its toll and the fairer skinned among us where showing a red arm or neck. The lunch was in a wooden shack barely big enough to fit all of us in, however it was a feast and quickly the cyclist locust effect cleaned up every last morsel.

After lunch the sun was high in the sky and the valley continued to reward us with stunning views, the counter was it also kept offering up short leg sapping climbs and blazing sun. We went for a late cafe stop that ended up being 4km from the end but it gave us the vital sugar boost to enjoy the last few kilometres.


Day 3

Two words beautifully hard. Why? Twenty-five people working together to ride a 105km over 2500m of climbing. Each looking out for one another is a beautiful thing and it made my legs hurt a lot. Also the scenery and the people here take my breath away


Day 4 

Ups and downs. I know from experience day four would be the hardest on my body. We rode well before lunch making good time, then came the climb on the closest to an Alpine ascent I have ridden in Vietnam, the view was amazing, and unfortunately I was in a world of hurt all the way up it. After a couple of ice towels I could not get my heart rate under control and I was sick. I started to recover a little after that, although I felt very empty as I crawled up the hill. Every so often the climb would offer up another false summit and I would feel deflated when it kept going up. In my head I kept saying don’t stop just don’t stop. I took a small banana from the motor bike support and kept churning the pedals. After what seemed like forever I asked how much further thinking I must be at the end. The reply of ‘5km’ came back and hit me hard mentally. Suddenly out of the blue the summit was in sight and Rob Daniels had doubled back to give moral support for the final few bends. The run in from there to the hotel was flat rolling and passed quickly; what a beautiful days cycling.


Day 5

Today was a long one, 188 km by the time we would reach the finish and our first rest day. The morning went fast the groups sharing turns effectively in lines of two as we descended off the plateau we had spent the previous night on. Fresh coconuts and great coffee greeted us after 70km. After the coffee stop we started to climb again, steady at first and then lots of short steep ascents and rolling downs as we pushed on to lunch. We stopped for lunch up on a new plateau. We had made up good time on the groups in front of us so we were rewarded with a longer break. Pushing on again after lunch we set a steady but hard pace as the distance increased my legs felt good I made a few hard efforts and burnt a couple of matches, I was recovering well and keen to push on. After a short coffee we descended of the plateau to a beautiful collection of sweeping bends and breath-taking views. Near the bottom of the descent we ran into the group ahead we joined them and took the chance to spin some lactic out of our legs and enjoy the company of some different faces. We made it 188 km to our first rest day.


Day 6 

We rolled out and the mist was hanging heavy in the valley, after 19 km we started the first climb, 6.5 km of climbing and then back to the valley floor at a fast pace. We had been on bigger roads until then however, that was about to change. We flicked off down a small side road. The closer we got to the hills ahead the more obvious it was just how hard the next climb would be. As we hit the slopes it was obvious I would be at the back as the stronger climbers in the group rode away I settled into my rhythm as best I could, the steepness of the climb and the repeated concrete sections made it hard, at one point I felt like I was only progressing via a series of half pedal stokes and track stands. My legs where screaming to stop but there was no way I would give in. As I neared the summit I saw Mike and Ruairi come back to me to ride the last few bends with me. I was grateful for the company to the top of the first of many plateaus in this mountain range. After a rest and recount of the climb we moved on up and up toward the top. The descent down began but was only short before we were weaving through rice paddies to a 20% concrete climb that tore our legs off once again. We weaved our way up and down for what felt like ages until we got to a descent so steep I could not keep my rims cool enough and had to go down on the back of one of the motor bikes, my fears were warranted as Mike’s rim deformed under the pressure. Once down safely we stopped for coffee and recounted what had been an amazing experience. We rolled on to lunch 20km down the road where we ate as much as we could manage. After lunch we still had some serious km to go and we were all feeling it in our legs. Back on flatter roads with a few shorter inclines my legs felt strong, at times too strong and a few times I pulled off so I would not hammer my fellow riders with my enthusiasm. With 40km to go to the coffee stop we started to rotate effectively on the front however my enthusiasm to push on was too great and Ruairi and I push away from the group, we rode as hard as my legs would handle all the way into the hotel where we waited to greet the others. This has to go down as one of my best days on a bike ever.


Day 7

What started off as a gentle rolling day, mostly flat, turned into a real day of discovery. We made it 88 km to lunch and just after we sat down the heavens opened. The other group behind us arrived soaked through. We finished our lunch as the rain was abating and we added extra layers and headed down the road. After what seemed like ages we stopped for a drink and to take on some bananas. Roughly 19 km out I found myself off the front of the group with Barbara; she was on a mission pedalling hard so I jumped on her wheel and had to go full gas to get ahead to take my turn in the front. From there in we rode together, pushing as hard as we could, the small leg sapping climbs were killing us but we kept the pressure on. Each km that passed on the road markers was a welcome sight. Until 3km to go we hit one last climb of 10% our legs screamed and lungs bursting we pushed on for home. It was such a pleasure to ride in with Barbara like that. I think she found out she’s a real cyclist today, one who can suffer well and ride hard. To put in that kind of effort after 152 km is hard and takes a lot of courage and strength. It was an honour to share this moment of self discovery with her, a memory etched in my mind for a long time to come.


Day 8

A long day again, over 160 km with a lot of fatigue in my legs, it was a little daunting to be in the faster paced group. I had been awake in the night with an upset stomach and a light fever so I felt drained. The first hour rolled by and the group was sharing the pace in a continuous rolling line, with just six of us, turns came quickly and we kept tapping through at a steady rate, climbing easy to protect our legs early in the day. We ran into the group in front after 32 miles at our coffee stop and again at lunch. Having ridden the same stage in 2013 I knew we had a few more hills to face in the afternoon, one near the end that had a couple of hundred meters gain. We had agreed that was our place to attack each other today so we kept the smooth pace going, nothing disrupted us apart from a few punctures and dodging the odd dog or cow in the road, there were very few vehicles around as we approached the climb. Once we hit the slopes I pushed as hard as I could, fully expecting to be passed by the others as my legs began to burn. After a minute my lungs where heaving and my chest felt uncomfortable as I was pulling in all the air I could manage. The burn in my legs continued and soon I was passed by Phil, but instead of giving in I pushed on harder trying to stay in touch with Phil just ahead. I was using the gears well and changing as the incline allowed to get every ounce of power I could through the pedals. Not far from the top I gave a ‘big sigh’, big enough for Phil to hear and back off, allowing me to push on past. I eased on the pedals a little until a glance over my shoulder produced a storming Mike Hall with a grimace on his face, I was off again, stamping as hard as I could to maintain the gap. I felt I had more to give, I pushed and pushed, my ribs ached and my legs screamed, I felt my heart beat in my ear. It was great to reach the top ahead of my group, it was even greater to ride the last 48 km from the top with them and the last 24 km on the front taking the wind.


Day 9

Rolling to flat, not much elevation gain and a strong headwind, as a group we shared the workload to lunch and then had a picnic at the side of the road. It was an unusual stretch by Vietnamese standards as there where little or no houses for long periods of time and only a few cafes or rest stops. The run in to the city after lunch was very busy as expected, our support team pulled in around us brilliantly and we rolled into the hotel 133 km done, it seemed so easy today but that’s probably because tomorrow is a hard one.


Day 10

This route has to be one of my favourites in Vietnam, mostly up all day, a few downs but finishing up on a plateau at A Loui. The ride started with a few punctures disrupting the usually smooth chain we had from the previous day. It was also wet to start with. Then it just got wetter and wetter, we stopped for coffee at the intersection around 50km into the ride, we took our coffee ‘hot’ to warm up. After coffee we got into a good rhythm, sharing the pace at the front. Then if you could believe it the rain came even harder. At one point I had a strange sensation my socks where floating between my feet and my shoes. Lunch could not come soon enough but not before more punctures slowed our progression. At lunchtime we are like starving animals, devouring everything in sight, partly because you don’t eat as much in the rain as you don’t want to take your hands off the bars. We decided to leave lunch early in an attempt to help other riders as we caught the groups in front of us. We met up with them and slotted into their various groups to offer encouragement and support, it was great to witness the respect between riders of such mixed abilities. By the time we reached the hotel we were completely drenched and were greeted by a mixture of elation and relief on arrival. Beers all round.


Day 11 

The shortest day, mostly downhill with the odd sharp incline to test the legs. On paper it should be a very easy day, however the rain persisted from the day before, making our descents slower and we struggled to maintain an honest pace. Our group made up the ground to those in front quickly and immediately went into support mode, fixing mechanical issues and handing out food and drink. We pushed on as best we could, relived to arrive at the hotel with enough time to get out and see some of Hue, very pleasant.


Day 12 final 

Hue to Da Nang is a special stage, with the last climb of the tour was around 96 km away. The 8 km ascent of the Hai Van pass has become the grand finale of our Cycle a Difference rides. As ride captain the lead into the climb is a stressful one. Two things; our ranks had swelled with many more riders from sponsors and supporters joining us for the last day, the other is the narrow beach road that leads us to the climb. We split into 5 or 6 much smaller groups, the aim being to regroup before a small section of Highway 1 that joins the Lang Co beach road. After several convenience stops we eventually hit our coffee stop. Our stronger riders all acting as support, sweeping up stragglers and keeping the pace on for the whole group we popped out of the tiny beach road into the mouth of a new tunnel. Conveniently a nice coffee shop had been set up by our ever attentive support team. Coffee drunk, food consumed and a few last minute bike repairs, we set off as one large group to tackle the Hai Van. We were plagued by a series of punctures and we rode hard at the back to try and bunch everyone back together. At the foot of the climb this became harder and harder to achieve as we were forced to change more tyres, and as rain started to hammer in our faces all we could do was laugh, after 2.5 days of rain it no longer bothered us. We were lucky the group had waited for us ahead and we linked up just a mile from the foot of the climb.

As the climb approached I went to the front and started to raise the pace, knowing I was not the fastest climber in our group I took the chance to push from the front and get a lead before the road started to rise but I hit the rail crossing at the foot of the climb just as the level crossing came down. My lead evaporated, I just had to wait. I was determined and as soon as the barrier went up I shot away, giving everything to the pedals and forging ahead, I knew I would be caught by our fastest riders and was content to try and hold them off for as long as possible. Corner after corner passed and still I was ahead. I could feel the presence of riders behind and pushed harder determined to hold them as long as my fatigued legs could. Then came the catch, they rolled past me, I responded and held them a few lengths ahead for as long as I could. Slowly they pulled ahead, a few more riders passed me but I was able to hold them at a fixed gap. I got up out the saddle in an attempt to close the gap but my front wheel let go, the tyre was going down and rolled nearly leaving me in a heap in the road. Realising my best time would be harder to achieve and getting this tyre to the top without stopping was the new goal, I reset myself, I would have to complete the climb seated. A small pump on the handlebars made the rim contact the ground, I was in trouble here with at least 8-10mins to go, and I adjusted my weight back on the saddle and focused my peddling to make it as smooth as I could. The odd bit off rough road bounced my run off the ground. I now feared a secondary pinch puncture. I kept going as hard as I could and over my shoulder I saw another rider approaching. I hoped I could hold him off, he was closing on me through the flatter sections as I was not able to push too hard as my tyre would not allow for it. As it steepened again I used the gradient to help and most of the drive was on the rear wheel. The top was in sight, one last big push and I would be there, I gave it all I could, desperate to rise out the saddle and finish the job all I could do was sit and spin the cranks. What a time to get my first Vietnam puncture, over 1,707 km on the roads and my tyre chose that moment to let me down. I was greeted by my fellow riders who had all given their best effort to conquer the Hai Van Pass.

Changing my tube and removing the offending sharp stones and glass from the tread of my tyre I returned down to meet the last rider. Samantha had joined us in Hue for this the last stage she was not an accomplished cyclist, however she had quickly grasped the spirit of Cycle a Difference, suffering on your bike to raise money for Newborns Vietnam and she did herself proud, pushing each painful pedal to the top. She claimed she could not do it with several corners to go just to be met with a chorus of yes you can from those of us who were around her.

Once the dust had settled we descended off the pass to lunch and made plans for the roll in to the hospital. Finishing such an epic journey where people had searched and found something magical through the pain and suffering offered by the beauty of turning the pedals over 1,707 km in Vietnam in just 12 days of cycling. This is one of the hardest parts of this trip, the biggest ugliest of riders wiping away a tear or two. We rolled as one towards the hospital. All along the way the people of Vietnam had cheered us, asked for photos with us and now the national TV cameras followed our last pedal stokes. We rounded the last corner and ascended the red carpet adorned ramp to a raucous reception the relief palpable. Bikes whisked away by the support team riders embraced each other in elation and many a tear rolled behind dark glasses. The joy at realising we had made it to the finish together. Some riders had been pushed to their limits mentally, some pushed physically, and some just rode selflessly for the good of those who were struggling around them. Everyone had a bad patch at one point or another. This bond of pain suffering and sacrifice embodies everything Cycle a Difference ride stands for. The reception and presentation by the nurses and doctors of the hospital and the visit to the neonatal intensive care unit that we had ridden all this way to support capped off the effort beautifully.

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