All posts by ashley

Riding in Kyoto

Finally got out for a decent ride in the Kyoto area, courtesy of local cycling ambassador Ionut and his work friends, who showed me some gorgeous countryside and some secret cycle-nut locations.

I was promised a “gourmet ride” and wasn’t disappointed. First stop was after about 20 minutes of riding (!) for sen zay, a sweet soup involving red beans and sticky rice dumplings, with a side of super-salty kombu seaweed for contrast.

The sen zay place is very traditional and the host came to greet us in full kimono drag. She then proceeded to tell us about her pink custom steel frame. Total bike nut! A few other roadies turned up to eat while we were there and got the same warm welcome we did.

Right next door is the amazing Ishiyama-dera temple, a famous location for cherry-blossom viewing. The trees are so close to flowering. Our ride also took in a quick visit to Bydoin, which features on the 10 yen coin. This place is just teeming with culture.

Next stop was the weird and wonderful Kizakura sake factory. The brand logo features a kappa or monster. So naturally the factory features a kappa museum. Kooky.

The factory shop. As well as all the various sakes, they make Kyoto craft beer in 3 or 4 styles, as well as a Kizakura  kriek (sweet cherry beer).

Next stop was a bicycle nut cafe right off the 45km river cycle path that goes all the way from Kyoto to Nara. The owner has bikes and trainers strewn all over the place, and provides racks and locks for customers.

“You mean I came all the way to Japan to eat a ham cheese toastie!?”

Luckily the coffee was really good. Espresso is still a very niche thing here, and drip filter remains the strong local preference. I was initially dubious, but have come to really appreciate it. The general standard of bean and roasting is amazingly high. Morning Glory  really impressed in this department. The owner obviously takes pride in it.

After coffee it was back onto the path and in to central Kyoto – an awesome way to get into town, avoiding the traffic and enjoying the scenery.

I’d only heard good things about riding in Japan and these were all confirmed for me. It truly is the promised land of great roads and tame drivers.

Thanks for being such a great guide, Ionut. Hope to ride with you again soon.

ABC+ Tour

Bleeksie enjoys a milk tea in Dong Phu In other news from Vietnam, Ash, Bleeksie, Ci and Frederik enjoyed 5 days’ riding in the Central Highlands in dry but sometimes freezing conditions—courtesy of a once in 40 years cold front that’s still making things chilly in the inadequately heated Larkin mansion in Hanoi. Jeez, Matt, come on.

Ci is a good friend of ours from Hoi An who runs the famous Mia Cafe, the local equivalent to LSR. He’s recently gotten into cycling in a big way and was keen to come along when I proposed a 5 day trip into the hills. Concerned he wouldn’t be able to keep up, Ci went and organised a 16 seater minibus to be our backup vehicle. This brought undreamt-of levels of comfort and convenience to our touring experience. Nice one, Ci.Ci tucks into a bowl of organic porridge in Kham Duc The plan was for we three to ride for three days, then to meet up with Frederik and families for a bit more cycling and some and some Khatu village homestays in the uplands.

Day 1 was a relatively chilled 100km along quiet and picturesque rural backroads up towards the mountains. After a mostly flat ride through the rice paddies, then some climbing past dams and acacia plantations, we arrived at the jungle along the Lao border and our home for the next two nights, Kham Duc. This frontier town had been the scene of a goldrush in the 1990s, and I’d heard things about it being pleasant as a result of the wealth this generated. The rumours were true. We found a friendly and relaxed town with an excellent hotel and some brilliant food.

The first sign of this friendliness came in the form of “Milk Tea Girl.” As we rolled into town we noticed a milk-tea sign, and all paid close attention since earlier that day we’d each had an awesome dose of this beverage, replete with chocolate syrup and exploding raspberry sago pearls. The next thing we noticed was a set of very long legs protruding from behind the stall out onto the street. Ci immediately fell in love with Milk Tea Girl, owner of said legs. Bleeksie and I are not entirely sure what transpired, but the next morning Ci was invited to brew up his organic porridge hipster food in her kitchen while we waited outside in the stall eating noodles.
Yet another waterfall on the Dak Glei road
Day 2 saw us tackle a demanding 120km out and back course to Dak Glei, which takes you over the Spring Pass twice. This climb is a triple-headed monster that takes you up to 1100m and takes about 80 minutes to climb. Luckily we had mostly cool overcast weather, and the amazing jungle scenery studded with waterfalls helps take your mind off the pain. On the way back up the pass after lunch (even steeper than the northern side) it was rumoured Bleeksie grabbed onto the side of a slow-moving lorry. The UCI is currently investigating this case of suspected mechanical doping.Ci conquers Spring Pass (in the van) At the end of a gruelling day we were glad to see Kham Duc and Milk Tea Girl again.

Day 3 saw us heading back north 120km to meet up with Frederik (based in Danang) and families in Bhohoong village. This ride involved yet more spectacular jungle scenery and good quality, quiet roads. After a nice descent to Thanh My for lunch, we set about the business end of the day: an 8km climb at 5% closely followed by an 11km climb also at 5%. The cool temperatures made these bad boys much more enjoyable than usual.


The families arrived before us and reportedly the first thing the kids witnessed was a snake being clubbed to death in front of the bungalows. Welcome to Khatu country. Rest assured this was not wanton slaughter:  somebody ate the snake. After processing that one, our kids enthusiastically joined in the local childrens’ games around the buffalo sacrifice altar. Luckily it was not buffalo sacrifice season.
Day 4 saw Frederik join the riders, bringing with him the new, Bleeksie-designed Velo Vietnam jerseys from our manufacturer in Danang. Today and tomorrow were to be shorter rides allowing us to meet up with families and explore some local sites. The first of these was the beautiful waterfall below the Tay Giang turnoff, getting to which involved some passing of children (and some adults) across the fast-flowing river.

After a baguette lunch by the waterfall, we made our way to Tay Giang town and our accommodation for the night, another Khatu village. The evening’s entertainment was to involve a show by a Khatu song and dance troupe. Prior to the performance, we invited the members of the group to eat (and drink) with us. The Khatu brew two types of alcohol, the better of which is a very palatable ginseng rice wine called ruou bakich. (Don’t ask what the other one tastes like.) Early in the evening I overheard someone saying Khatu women are very good drinkers. Later in the evening I glanced down the other end of the communal house and saw Bleeksie trading shots with three of these ladies. I asked one of our hosts what the alcohol content of the ruou bakich was and he said “Not to worry, it has ginseng in it, so the cure is in the poison. You never get a hangover with this stuff.” If I recall correctly, this was the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il’s theory about Korean ginseng wine. This truth did not seem to apply to Bleeksie, however, who ended up having a bit of an episode outside the stilt house.

Day 5 started with a visit to a local school where we were able to make a small donation. Some of the Khatu junior high school students kindly gave our kids a mini tour around their school. As many have to walk for 3 hours to get to it, this has become a boarding school with a kitchen that provides much better meals than the kids would get at home. Meanwhile, the cyclists watched a kickass game of volleyball that was in progress.
Then it was on to the main event of the day: assault on Cinammon Peak, which goes for over 14km at an average of 5%, with some long, steep pinches. Despite his adventures the night before, Bleeksie conquered this beast in just over an hour. Frederik made it to the top after a little rest on the way, and Ci, after a little crash the day before, came up in comfort in the van. It was so cold at the top we decided there was no dishonour in getting in the van for the descent and the trip back to Hoi An. Once home we repaired to the Irish pub for some stouts, ciders, burgers and, on Ci’s part, fond reminisces about Milk Tea Girl…

Dance Race

The Dance Race is a fiendish concept thought up by someone in the Danang cycling club. Rules: No seats. No contact with the top tube. No feet down. 1 ascent of Tony’s old friend Monkey Mountain, 5.7km @ 10%. Go.

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Dude where’s my seat?

There were about 10 starters, two refs mounted on motorbikes to invigilate the no sitting rule, a bunch of MTB and Honda-mounted spectators, and a US army jeep from Saigon (it seems to keep popping up) now with improved sound system, possibly inspired by Apocalypse Now. The jeep followed us up the hill pumping out revolutionary marching music and popular hits like Gangnam Style to get us really dancing on the pedals. And musically confused.

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The big ass speaker and the axe are both awesome motivational aids.

The crazy rules made for a fun if sometimes uncomfortable race. I made an early attack and was shadowed by the 54kg wonder Binh for the first 4km or so. The last couple of kms are pretty steep so I put my attack in there and it stuck. I crossed the line at 28 mins 44 seconds – a pretty damn long time to be out of the saddle. Binh came in 55 seconds later. After struggling to keep up with Matt in Hanoi it was good to get some climbing legs back (no pressure Bleeksie).

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An additional fun element of the Dance Race is that there’s no way you can take a drink.
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When you see the old US radar station, you’re almost there.
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Old Man Monkey gazed upon our folly with his usual philosophical demeanor.

After the race we rolled down the hill and repaired to an eel soup restaurant for breakfast and the award ceremony. No-one can say the Danang Cycle Club doesn’t run a classy race.

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Waiter, there are eels in my soup.

 

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The victors. I know you guys complain I’m skinny, but look at these dudes. There’s nothing of them. 3rd, the young guy in green, is Danang CC’s next big thing.

 

 

 

 

More Race Craziness from Danang

Yesterday the Danang Sport Cycle Club held a mountain bike race up Son Tra, a lovely forested mountain right in the city. It’s a worthy opponent – equivalent to about 3 Ainslies, with some steep pinches (Strava says 23% at the top – I was having trouble turning the 28 over). I don’t have an MTB here but was allowed to ride my roadie on the course for kicks. The road is basically like a big footpath, quite doable on a roadie, but given the local skill levels it was probably a good decision to ban roadies from racing. 10614252_10204311256331959_2184344621095833200_nThe usual craziness at the start was all there: quasi traffic control stopping the whole beachfront road as we assembled. The big motorbikes were there, and the team from Saigon had brought a war era Jeep and a yellow Humvee. Nice.  1606898_10204311248291758_3935673626765575989_n10646865_10204311247411736_1483216957083493372_n

Then we did a sort of parade through town to the real start line, where we held up more traffic, including trucks going to the port. No complaints. IMG_20140830_063538

And then it was on! VPH_9637 VPH_9540 VPH_9613 P1120451

Not everyone got to the finish line in great shape VPH_9691 10325231_943599735656324_6700899522088841159_n P1120478

But all the pain was forgotten at the awards ceremony on top of the mountain. IMG_20140830_075029 P1120531

Danang put in a great showing, with second in Women’s, First in Men’s under 46,  Second in Men’s over 46. Go team. I even got a Souvenir Flag for completing the course. 1908427_10204311362174605_4194780194017660060_n

More action from the Khánh Hòa Open

Day 2 Hon Giao pass hill climb (32km @ 5.4%)

(stay posted for the action from Day 1, a 70km road race on the Nha Trang Beachfront)

set the alarm for 0330. uh huh. we have to be at the beach by 0400 to pack our bikes in the truck for the 50km trip out the the start line. Managed to get a good, early sleep so it wasn’t too brutal. we got out there nice and early, time for a coffee and breakfast at a roadside place that services people travelling to Dalat. Quite nice actually – Bamboo structure perched out over the river. start time is 0730 and by 0630 it’s getting warm already. After yesterday’s experience I make sure to stuff myself with as much food and liquid as I can manage. I’m eating/drinking continuously from about 0530 today. I have one precious hi5 electrolyte tablet that I put in one bidon. the other I fill with “Revive”, which claims to have electrolytes (dubious), but tastes less sickly sweet than Pocari Sweat – a LOT more palatable. I have an early GU for good measure, then another one 15 mins before the start. No-one knows whether we’ll be able to get water on the mountain or not. Some say if you have team support you can take drinks, others say the organisers won’t allow it because the road’s too narrow. OK. I scab bottles of water off other teams and keep drinking, doing a slow warmup.

It’s hot up here but not so bad as by the beach, and the air is a lot less humid and much fresher. our surrounds are basically just wooded mountains. nice. it’s not windy at all but people say we’ll get the ‘mountain wind’ towards the top. i don’t think too much about this at the time, just imagine a gentle cooling breeze towards the top that will help me over the line. wrong.

The 46+ age group goes off at 0700. Us and the young group are together again, and we start 0730. the pace is medium-fast at the start. one of the Hanoi Bridgestone guys is towing everyone, nice and steady. great. I’m having a medium to easy time but well aware of the likelihood of cramps and worried about running out of water. left calf was massively sore to walk on after yesterday, but feels OK to ride on. i sit in and look around.

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yesterday I was surprised at how many strong guys there were. i’ve only ridden with the Danang bunch, but it seems elsewhere in the country there are lots of good riders. and clubs have come from all over the country, by the way. there is a lot of potential here I reckon, but most people lack technique and race experience, and don’t understand a lot about nutrition. surprisingly everyone’s bike is nicely tuned and running well. this is a nation of natural mechanics. they can make anything go. evidence: lots of vespas and early hondas from the 50s and 60s are still going around. As well as soviet bikes from the 80s.

After 10kms there are three red numbers left as well as me, and a larger bunch of guys in black numbers (young group). a couple of the reds are puffing hard. one guy is still pedalling strongly but he is stamping on the pedals in the most unbelievable way, hips rocking from side to side. this guy won’t last. I decide that it’s time to pour a little pain on these guys and eject them from the black group, then rejoin the blacks myself. Everyone else is happy to let Bridgestone set the pace, so I attack and get a gap easily. One black guy goes with me. I go to about 85-90%, still really worried about cramps, and just intending to make them chase enough to drop some or all of the red guys. Do a couple of turnswith Black, but he wants to go harder. He’s a Quintana type dude, from Dak Lak, a province in the central highlands. I don’t want or need to go as hard as him so let him go.

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Who’s coming with me? Mr Dak Lak on his Giant ended up staying away and posting a searing time for this climb, winning his age category by a massive 10 minutes. A Vietnamese Quintana?

After a bit a bunch of 4 or 5 blacks and one red catch me. Good one, my tactic worked in shedding two of the 3 reds. The remaining red is breathing hard. I sit in with them for a bit, thinking he is maybe going to crack. The black guys are worried about Dak Lak, and kick a little. Red doesn’t make it. I can go with the blacks, but don’t need to. Why not take it easy and just mark red? safer. Red and i ride together for about the next 10kms. I’m surprised he can sustain this. perhaps this guy is going to be a problem, especially if I start cramping. he’s puffing and bouncing all over the seat but sustaining well. pace is medium-hard, about 80% [later my Garmin will show me I did 93% of this race at threshold, so the feels were deceptive].

the gradient is pretty even but there are some ramps. I’m pouring sweat, bottles nearly finished, getting crampy twinges in the hammies. pace is not crazy but the conditions are extreme and it’s sapping me. manage to eat a GU and keep it down while the pace is still manageable. I’m licking the sweat off my face too for the salt. this seems to help!

Red man is from the Gau Vang (Golden Bear) Saigon team. These guys are the most numerous and best supported bunch in the race. Team motos are apparently now cleared to come support their riders and his guys start coming by and giving us intel (my team moto is still up ahead supporting our riders in the 46+ group to the finish). We get to a flat spot and they say there are reds chasing, spin up! Golden Bear freaks a bit and stamps on the pedals. I’m not worried – let them catch us. I’m saving my attack for within the last 10kms. I do a few lame turns but he’s doing most of the work. On one steep ramp his support tells him to hurry it along again and he waves me through. “Can’t”, I say. “My legs are really weak”. I learnt this from Christophe. Golden Bear snorts derisively and takes the lead again, spinning up. no race smarts!!! [later I tell the Danang guys about this tactic and they look at me in awe: master tactician!]

it’s stupidly hot. Golden Bear has team people all along the route. They pour bottles of water over his head every few hundred metres. no-one helps me! i get close to him to try and get some of the spray. yes, that desperate. people are saying ‘Don’t help the foreigner!’ Funny. Occasionally I come up beside him and steady my breathing to psyche him out a bit. He’s puffing like a billy goat. Not worried about him any more but plenty worried about cramps. My chain is also skipping and making alarming noises. uh oh. keep it steady, in the saddle. about 7kms to go.

my team moto turns up. yay!! but no water yet. Huan (on the moto) tells me there’s not a lot of steep stuff to go. OK. I wait for the next long, steep ramp and attack Golden Bear after he’s done a long turn. I distance him very quickly. Good one. I keep it steady in the straights where he can see me then accelerate in the turns when I’m out of view. He’s out of sight now, but I’m pouring with sweat and twinging in the hamstrings. My chain is skipping. Fark, I’ve got this won if my chain doesn’t break and I don’t cramp massively. Need water.

hooray, the moto comes back with Lien (lovely lady who rides in DN) on the back with water bottles galore. she gives me one. I pour it over my head, drink the rest. that is just awesome. It cools down a bit but … here comes the mountain wind! a fricken 30km/h headwind!! Ok. 5km or so to go, Golden Bear a safe distance behind. Just maintain. I shift to the back of the saddle and use the quads, easing the cramp twinges. I’m going to be fine. But I dare not make any big out of saddle efforts for fear of a mechanical. (I put a new chain on and snapped the connecting pin off dodgily with the chain tool – no pliers and no file handy. a little lip is protruding, catching on the cassette.) Now my front mech goes wobbly too and won’t stay in the big ring  when I get to a flat section where the headwind becomes a tailwind.

about 2kms to go now, it’s in the bag. I pass the rest of the black group (2nd to 4th). They still haven’t caught the solo breakaway guy. they are hurting. They look at the ground as I go by. my team moto is giving me more bottles of water now. awesome fun! race cars and a crew from Khanh Hoa province TV go by. the moto club guys roar by on their big bikes. I’m living my TDF fantasy. Yeah!!

The top comes into sight. It seems like hundreds of people are all over the road at the finish line. Golden Bear is out of sight. The last vehicles go by, I see the flag. As I cross the line I do a Confucian martial arts ‘respect’ gesture (left hand over closed right fist at chest height) to show my gratitude to the race organisers and fans. Goes down well. My team meet me and hustle me to a shady spot. More TDF fantasy role play. I have come over the line second of all, a bit behind the winner from the young group. the finishing blacks sprint it out for second and third. awesome.

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other riders and team people come up and give me kudos. One guy keeps pointing at my bike and going “Colnago”. A bit of waiting around, then the awards ceremony on top of the mountain in the courtyard of the forest protection building. What a haul: trophy, pennant, jersey, cap, and a Bridgestone roadie worth 1500USD. The awards are given by Suzuki san, retired Japanese pro and Bridgestone ambassador. He says congratulations in Japanese. Luckily I know enough Japanese to give the proper formal response (arigato godzaiimas) with a little bow. He’s loving it. random people come up to be photgraphed with the winners. I’m totally losing touch with reality by now. 

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My homies from the Danang Sport Cycle Club, and a random lady from Son La who was attracted to the bling.

we get back on the bus and head to Nha Trang. I manage to upload to strava from my phone and start getting comments, including an offer to ride with a sponsored team in a race in the Philippines. The fantasy continues… This is hysterical. If Steve came over here he would probably attain demigod status and be able to make a good living as a pro.

A quiet night back in Nha Trang. Vuong and I go to a sports bar that has the TDF screening, drink some Tiger draughts (they are cold so they taste good) and eat some dodgy pizza which also tastes awesome. no train tickets left so we fly back to Danang the next day. Just like pros…