Here’s a roughly drawn map of Team Dai‘s route.
Day 1: Purple
Day 2: Red
Day 3: Green
View Team Dai 2010 in a larger map
Amazingly we experienced very few casualties – human or mechanical. Every bike and every rider made it to the finish line, not necessarily in top form, but that didn’t matter. Over three days, we had a total of four flat tires, fortunately belonging to riders who – unlike me – knew how to fix them. Several of us had problems with our gears and chains. My chain fell off repeatedly on that last day, and I often had to turn back down mid-hill to get all the parts working again before tackling the ascent. One rider, Nanny, actually had to get off her bike and manually move the chain if she wanted to shift gears. As we wrapped up our ride, Nanny turned to me and said, “Well, I think we learned a valuable lesson about buying cheap, crappy bikes!” Ain’t that the truth?!
Physically, I’m a wreck. In addition to the predictable sore muscles, windburn and chafing, I’m also black and blue. No, I didn’t fall off my bike. But I DID fall down a short flight of stairs at the first hotel. I didn’t trip; I just toppled over backwards and banged up my elbow and leg. I also sustained some minor injuries the morning after we arrived in Phonsavanh, when we visited the Plain of Jars. How can you visit human-sized jars and not feel compelled to climb inside one? I scraped up my knees pretty badly. Serves me right. On the way out of the archeological site, we saw a big sign warning tourists not to climb all over the jars.
As my sister Megan said so supportively this morning, “No offense, but I just can’t believe YOU did it.” I’m not offended because I, too, can’t believe it. In January, when we started training in earnest, I doubted my ability to complete the three-day ride, and that nagging insecurity plagued me right up until we arrived at the ice-cream shop in Phonsavanh. For some riders in our group, athletic challenges are a drug, and maybe their sense of accomplishment was muted by so many other similar ones. For me, this was most likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I’m savoring it.
Team Dai held a promotional event Friday at the COPE Visitor Center here in Vientiane to present the big prop “check” to our three beneficiaries: COPE, Handicap International, and Deak Kum Pa Orphanage. Through private donations and raffle ticket sales, we raised more than $17,000. If you visit the Team Dai website, you can see a list of all the private donors. On that list of 122 people, I can proudly claim a disproportionate 15 friends and family members. I feel deeply grateful for your generosity and heart-felt support. Thank you so much!
Our fearless leader, Wil, is moving back to Australia, but Maurice has agreed to take over the helm for next year. I’ve thought a lot about whether I’ll do it again. Most likely, I’ll find another obsession. That’s the way I work. But it sure was a wild ride!
Our three-day bicycle trek ultimately dropped us in Xieng Khuang Province, which is generally known for two things: unexploded ordnance (UXO) and the Plain of Jars.
Here’s what the Lonely Planet guidebook says about UXO in Xieng Khuang:
Unexploded munitions, mortar shells, white phosphorus canisters (used to mark bomb targets), land mines and cluster bombs of French, Chinese, American, Russian and Vietnamese manufacture left behind by nearly 100 years of warfare have affected up to half of the population in terms of land deprivation and accidental injury or death. A preponderance of the reported UXO accidents that have occurred in Xieng Khuan happened during the first five years immediately following the end of the war, when many villagers returned to areas of the province they had evactuated years earlier. Today about 40% of the estimated 60 casualties per year are children, who continue to play with found UXO – especially the harmless-looking, ball-shaped ‘bomb light units’ (BLUs, or bombies) left behind by cluster bombs – in spite of warnings. Hunters also open or attempt to open UXO to extract gunpowder and steel pellets for their long-barrelled muskets – a risky ploy that has claimed many casualties. Several groups are working steadily to clear the province of UXO, including the Lao National UXO Programme (UXO Lao), financed by a UN trust fund that has significantly increased the availability of multilateral aid for this purpose.
We had a few spare hours before our flight back to Vientiane on Tuesday, so we hired a couple vans to take us out to see the Plain of Jars. The 2,000-year-old stone jars are scattered across several areas on the outskirts of Phonsavanh and remain a mystery. Were they used for human burial? Wine fermentation? Rice storage? Nobody knows for sure.
Despite my muscles screaming in protest, I somehow mustered enthusiasm comparable to our first day’s adrenaline rush. Maybe it was the knowledge that it would all be over soon. Maybe it was the promise that the last 35 kilometers would be flat (which turned out to be a massive lie). Maybe it was the chocolate. For whatever reason, this was an awesome day.
The highlight was an extremely long downhill switchback (reported to be around 20+ kilometers/12+ miles) through lush forest and flowering trees. Few vehicles invaded my zen, but I did freak myself out when I looked down at my bike computer to realize I was zooming along at 53 kmh (32 mph) just before a sharp gravelly bend in the road. Reality check. Brakes. All was good.
The hills never really stopped, but we had a tailwind most of the time, and I felt re-energized every time I crested the top and sped back down.
We broke for lunch at the only restaurant around, but unfortunately it had closed. We sat on its shady deck overlooking a murky pond. More fruit. More chocolate. More granola bars. More motivation to get to the end of this day and eat a real meal. At the end of our break, I headed to the restroom, and when I emerged everyone was gone. I took up the rear with Wil, our wonderful coach and organizer, who always hung back to make sure we didn’t leave anyone behind. I rode hard to try to catch up, but I didn’t reach the team till the next rest stop. I wasn’t the only one who’d been ditched during bathroom breaks, so I didn’t take it personally. The end was in sight, and we were all very excited.
After another 15 kilometers, we regrouped to ride the last stretch together. The van led for a while, blasting “Eye of the Tiger” from the stereo. Finally, we arrived in Phonsavanh! Just a bit further, and we stopped at an ice cream shop (owned by a rider’s colleague’s family) for hugs of jubilation, as well as ice cream, French fries and beer.
After celebrating our success, it was painful to get back on the bike for the short ride to our hotel, particularly because our hotel – the lovely Auberge – was perched at the top of a HILL. As usual, I felt no shame walking my bike up the steep path, and I stepped, rather than rode, across the “finish line” with a wave and a whoop.
Thick with pine trees and overlooking the valley, the hotel’s property felt like an upscale campsite. After a decadently long shower, I joined the others for cocktails on the restaurant balcony. Later we enjoyed a three-course French-style dinner and laughed about the funny moments along our journey. All the new riders were given nicknames. Claiming that I always seemed to look clean and rarin’ to go, they dubbed me “Fresh.” What an illusion I pulled off!
Cocktails on the deck, followed by fancy schmancy dinner! The pink flowers came from Maurice, a French rider, in honor of International Women’s Day. He gave them to us in the morning as we were lining up to leave Phou Khoun, and we ladies rode with them all day stuck on our helmets, bikes or jerseys.
I had been dreading this day since I first heard of Team Dai. Riders from the two previous years told horror stories about the road between Vang Vieng and Phou Koun. “Oh sure, you don’t ride as many kilometers that day,” they’d say in hushed voices, “but it’s straight up the whole way. It’s hell. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Although we rode fewer than 100 kilometers (62 miles), we pedaled from an elevation of about 260 meters (850 feet) to an elevation of about 1,300 meters (4,265 feet). These hills didn’t roll. There were no memorable moments of gratitude for the blessed descents. The road just wound up and up and up, and as the day wore on, the temperature did the same.
I cranked my “bike playlist” on my little iPod shuffle, but many times I couldn’t even stay in the saddle for one whole song. I had to stop at the roadside, catch my breath and slam some warm water (enriched with Royal-D, an orange-flavored electrolyte mix that we all grew to despise). With sweat pouring down my limbs (and every crack and crevice on my body), I was exhausted, overheated, chafed, and unbelievably cranky for most of the day.
Already deflated by the endless climb, my spirits took another hit when we rolled through several areas where fires raged on the hillsides. Slash-and-burn agriculture had blackened the mountains and the sad faces of the children lining the roads. Sometimes the flames licked out from the roadside ditches, heating my skin as I choked on the smoke-filled air. At the end of the day, I actually brushed cinders out of my teeth. Maybe I was projecting my own misery, but I felt a palpable desperation in these displaced tribal people.
I only had one reason to live this day: chocolate. Grete, a cyclist from Belgium, runs a catering company, bakery and gourmet food shop in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Her husband’s work brought them to Laos, where she sells her elegant Belgian chocolates. Grete whipped up a special collection just for Team Dai, and these chocolates were, for much of this agonizing second day, my only motivation to keep moving. At each rest stop, the support crew opened the cooler and pulled out boxes of the most incredible delicacies I’ve ever tasted – candied ginger coated with dark chocolate, crispy balls of milk chocolate with a center of gooey goodness, hard chocolate bars perfectly complemented by a fruity-grainy topping. Grete also donated the white jerseys we wore on this day.
As I neared the end of the day’s torture, I heard cheers from a hilltop restaurant, where faster team members waited for the rest of us. But I had long ago tossed all pride off the side of that mountain. I eagerly hopped off my bike and pushed it for the last 10 minutes. At the restaurant, we stared out over the valley at the winding road that had brought us to the top. “Are we insane?” we asked.
Phou Khoun isn’t a typical stopover for tourists in Laos, so the little town was poorly equipped for our group. We took most of the rooms at local guesthouses and then met for dinner. My roommate for the trip was Tina, a Swede who has a couple kids at our school. We took turns using the one washroom, where the “bath” involved filling a bucket with cold water and dumping it on yourself. The thought of getting up to ride again the next morning nearly brought me to tears.
It’s the weekend, and I’m only just starting to feel like myself again. After cycling for three days, my abdominal muscles apparently locked in a crunch position and my hamstrings simply went on strike. We got back to Vientiane Tuesday afternoon, and I spent the rest of my week’s vacation lolling around the house, occasionally getting out of bed or off the sofa to get a snack. A few sun salutations this afternoon stretched out my tortured muscles, and I finally feel ready to revisit the Team Dai ride. So here goes, in bits and pieces.
Dressed in our orange Team Dai jerseys with the flashy “Ban Cluster Bombs” design, we gathered at 5 a.m. last Saturday near the statue of Fa Ngum. The 14th-century warlord watched us line up in the dark, click on our flashing lights and take off in an adrenalin-pumped pack. Twenty-six riders rolled out of town, followed by a van carrying our overnight bags and a flatbed truck stocked with water and snacks.
Every 25 kilometers or so, we stopped for a short rest break. Our wonderful support crew always waved us over to the side of the road, where they offered cut-up fruit, granola bars, water and other treats.
The first part of today’s ride was flat and cool with scenery typical of our weekend training rides: rice paddies, farms, villages and water buffalo. Then we hit the rolling hills. My body put up a little bit of a fight, but the great thing about rolling hills is they roll up but they also roll down. Every downhill stretch was a little gift, and my excitement to have this long-awaited ride under way kept me going.
A highlight of this first day – and ultimately, the entire trip – was the turnout in the villages. As our group swept through, it seemed everyone came out to greet us. Women sat in clusters, chatting, weaving baskets, pounding rice, feeding babies, always working. Men took a break from building, patching, hauling, digging. Hunched-over elderly villagers shuffled by or crouched in the shade. Everyone waved and laughed with a big, “Sabaidee!” But the children ensured that a smile stayed plastered on my face all day, coating my lips and teeth with dust. The kids, some carrying younger siblings, ran into the road, jumping up and down and screaming with anticipation, holding out their hands for us to slap and cheering as we zipped by.
Just for kicks, I tried to keep track of everything that wandered in to our path, forcing us to slow down: dogs, cats, goats, cows, chickens (one with a whole passel of chicks that zig-zagged erratically, barely escaping with their lives), an enormous hog with several piglets, a guy hauling a thick bundle of long bamboo poles, families of stair-stepped children heading out to work in the rice fields with proportionally sized baskets on their backs, and so on.
Our destination was Vang Vieng, the backpacker Mecca of Laos, on the banks of the Nam Song river. There was no time for kayaking, rafting, tubing or rock climbing, but we did enjoy hot showers, a nice riverside dinner at our hotel and a big western breakfast the next morning.
We racked up about 167 kilometers (103 miles) this day!
* Disclaimer: Most photos I post about our ride were NOT taken by me! I have to credit the other riders and support crew, especially Peggy, a cyclist who fell sick and couldn’t ride so she made the trip by motorcycle.
My sporty prescription sunglasses broke a few days before our ride, so I had to wear my fake Chanel glasses from China. I was a little self-conscious till I realized Nicolette’s were even more fabulous. Rhinestones, baby!
Here’s a shot of me walking the last few meters to our hotel on a ridge overlooking Phonsavanh. We had stopped in town for ice cream, French fries and beer, so my body apparently figured the hard part was over and the time to celebrate had finally come. There was no way my legs were going to pedal up one more hill.
We returned to Vientiane yesterday afternoon, and as soon as I can sit upright for longer than 10 minutes, I’ll write more about our exciting journey!
Remember back in January? When I rode 50 miles? And it was such a big freakin’ deal? Today, I got home from the Team Dai training ride, checked my bike computer’s odometer and felt a wee bit disappointed that we only rode 93 kilometers (almost 58 miles). How crazy is that?
This was my best weekend ride ever. I usually hit the wall toward the end of our long rides and then suffer the last 20 km silently (and not so silently) cursing the headwind, the smoke-belching truck traffic, my low blood sugar, my clunky Chinese bike, the motorbike drivers who zip out of alleys and on to the roadway without noticing the approaching pack of cyclists, my deteriorating knees, my bunched-up underwear, the single hair stuck on the back of my arm that I can’t find but continues to annoy the hell out of me, the potholes, the stop-and-go-and-speed-up-and-slow-down tuk tuks, the sun, whoever is in the lead riding faster than I want to go but I have to keep up or risk losing the “drag,” the dust, and just life in general.
Today there was no cursing! I seriously loved every minute of it. Why? Potential reasons for such a great ride:
* I fueled up with a big breakfast and then did a re-do when we got to Rivertime Lodge.
* Another rider, Lieven, bought ground coffee at a roadside stand and had the lodge brew up a vat of Lao coffee.
* We crowded our bikes on to a little wooden boat to cross the river, which kind of felt like a mini-adventure.
* We rode at a manageable pace and took a route home that we’d never done before.
* Our return ride took us through traffic-free countryside with rubbish-free waterways and rice paddies, which never stop surprising me with their shocking shade of green.
* The cycling chatter was particularly distracting.
This week, we took a different route to Rivertime Lodge, stopped for breakfast, and then crossed the river to a bumpy dirt road, which eventually met up with the paved highway back to Vientiane. This was my third trip to the lodge, so the photos may look familiar!
Just a reminder: I’m not doing all this cycling for my health, ya know! We’re trying to raise $20,000 for three Lao organizations. Please consider making a donation via PayPal at the Team Dai website. Thank you so much to those of you who have already done so!
In case you can’t see the decimal point on the dirty bike computer, that’s 151.84 kilometers, or 94 miles!
Sunday’s Team Dai training ride took us back to Dansavanh (see the Jan. 24 post). This time, however, we pedaled all the way there before tackling the dreaded hills. And then we pedaled all the way home.
The ride got off to a shaky start for me. As we were cycling out of Vientiane, we approached a red light. I waited till the last minute to put my foot down, forgetting that I had recently added cages to my pedals to strap in my shoes. By the time I un-stuck my feet, I had keeled over like a drunk sorority girl. The fall banged up my knee a bit and delivered a mild ego blow, but nothing serious.
The ride out to the hills was perfect. Spirits were high. The temperature was low. The team stuck together, taking turns in the lead. When we reached the turn-off to the hills, we all cheered and then quickly recharged with snacks and water. I had brought my iPod Shuffle with my carefully crafted Biking Playlist (heavy on Beyoncé, Madonna, and old dancefloor favorites), so I plugged in and set off.
I had hoped to conquer the hills with less effort than the first time we went there. The music definitely helped, but I still had to get off and walk a few times (although it was no easier to walk than to ride; it just used different muscles). The road climbs and climbs with few breaks until it ultimately plummets down to the Nam Ngum Reservoir. That last stretch is a wild doozy. The first time we rode here, I braked almost the whole way, but this time I just threw caution to the wind and whipped down the hill. More than once, my bike went airborne, and I popped off my seat several times. Another rider, Christine, clocked her max speed at 58 kmh. “Faster than I feel comfortable riding,” she said. Me, too.
One of the riders, Mark, won the Liar Liar Pants on Fire Award as we were huffing and puffing up a steep incline on the return ride. “This is the last hill,” he said. So when I crested the peak, I yelled, “Woo hoo!” and flew down, braking only to take a sharp turn, at which point I noticed yet another looming hill. I vowed to do something mean to Mark if I survived. Almost at the top of the real last hill, I jumped off and took a photo of Christine cruising up.
Riding back to town, the team broke off in to three groups with our little pack taking up the rear. Our motivational leader, Wil, and his wife, Bridget, had each ridden one leg of the journey while the other drove a car with their two kids. Bridget was driving back to town, so Wil caught up with us and pushed us to ride a bit harder. Miraculously, we caught up with the next group and rode together in a big pack until we reached the Tha Ngon river.
One family pulled off for lunch at the floating restaurants – little boats that cruise on the river while you nosh. The rest of us bought water and treats at the side of the road. Our pack split up at this point, and I ended up in the back again with Christine, Wil and Jeremy for the last 30km back to Vientiane.
And that’s when I hit the wall. Despite tricking out my bike with a second water bottle and a fabulous new snack bag attached to my handlebars and full of raisins, nuts and granola bars, I felt absolutely depleted. We had a head wind and not enough riders to create much drag, but Wil and Christine kept us going.
When we reached town, the boys headed home and the girls headed to lunch. We got to Joma and joined some other Team Dai riders. I thought I would want one of everything, but it turned out I could barely choke down a sandwich. I guess my digestive system was taking a break as all my muscles cried out for blood.
Although I felt on the brink of death, I had to give myself a pat on the back. That was my longest bike ride ever. And I did it! Now, can I do it three days in a row? That remains to be seen…
Check out my Team Dai posts for more info.
And visit www.teamdai.org to make a donation – we’re trying to raise $20,000! All money benefits three local organizations that are doing wonderful work for the people of Laos.
Here’s the fund-raising poster for Team Dai.
I’ve been training with this team for a big cycling challenge that will take place March 6-8 to raise money for three fantastic Lao organizations.
Here are some of my concerns:
(a) I’m easily the slowest rider, which means people often have to wait for me.
(b) Being employed, I haven’t been able to offer much of my time to benefit the team’s fund-raising efforts.
(c) My only social network (beyond the bike group) is at school, but I’m not allowed to promote the Team Dai raffle because our PTSA is staging its own raffle!
(d) All of the above means I’m not contributing much to this team.
Please help me help the team! Consider buying a few raffle tickets from me (if you’re here in Vientiane or if you have another way to get me some cash!), or you can make a donation at www.teamdai.org.
Thanks so much!