Over the past few months I have been collecting all the stuff I need, or should I say, think I'm going to need, for my epic Cycle Around India adventure. So as it's now less that a month before I leave Cambodia for India, and less that 2 months til I begin the cycle tour I thought it was maybe about time that I got thinking about how all my stuff would fit into my panniers and how heavy it would all be. I’m planning on taking 2 rear panniers, 2 front panniers, a handlebar bag and a few things on top of the back rack. So finally after a week of packing and re-packing the 25kgs of gear it was time to hit the road and see how the beast, whoops! the bike handles fully loaded.
Perhaps now is as good a time as any to let you know the bike has been named Dhanya, which in Sanskrit roughly translates to mean lucky, thankful, fortunate, happy, all of which sum up my feelings of being able to fulfil and combine two long held dreams, undertaking a challenging, long distance cycle tour, and visiting enigmatic India.
Leaving Phnom Penh I decided on heading 150km south to the coast at Kampot, a quaint small French colonial era town, then back up north via some dirt roads to the non-descript small town of Takeo, approx, 120km, and then the short 75km back to Phnom Penh.
I didn’t really have any intention of blogging about this ride. As I have lived in Cambodia for over 7 years I do not find it so easy to wax lyrical about it as all those bizarre, wacky sights and experiences are all more or less second nature to me now. Plus I have been down to Kampot so often that the sense of excitement of discovering a new place is not so great, however saying that I really do enjoy visiting Kampot as it is so laid back.
So with a tinge of excitement and a few nerves at how the fully loaded Dhanya would handle / cope, or rather how I would cope pedalling this extra 25kg weight, I headed out of Phnom Penh at around 5:30 in the morning, just before the sun deemed fit to illuminate the city streets. Cambodians are very early risers and by 6am the streets are a hive of activity. I wanted to be outside the city limits before this ‘activity’ manifests itself into crazy traffic on the streets. Rules of the road in Cambodia seem to be voluntary rather than obligatory…
As I escaped the city hub-bub and with the sun just peaking over the horizon off to my left through the iconic Cambodian sugar palm trees I reflected on my initial thoughts of riding a fully loaded touring bike. The initial shock is how chuffin’ heavy the bike is when you are off it and just want to manoeuvre it. There is no casually lifting up the back end to swing the bike round, no casually holding the saddle as the weight on the forks twists them quickly one way or the other resulting in the bike wanting to take route 1 to the floor! Unless you have the biceps of Arnie the bike is more or less stuck to the floor, preferably in an upright position.
Anyway, enough of off-bike handling, what about when actually cycling. The immediate observations were i) I needed to be in a much lower gear than usual to comfortably push off from a standing start, and ii) how ‘wobbly’ the steering felt with all the additional weight. Fortunately this ‘wobble’ was easy to get used to, just having to realise the bike is not as responsive, thus quick steering manoeuvres are a bit of a no-no. As I continued cycling I realised that when spinning along in a straight line the bike felt surprising stable, as mentioned before, ‘stuck to the road’. In terms of braking you need to ride more cautiously and with greater anticipation, especially when in traffic, as the stopping distances are greater. However, I did get ceramic coated rims on the wheels and when coupled with the ceramic rim specific brake pads the braking performance is actually very good. Especially when in traffic the Rohloff hub gear with its twist shift gear changer is a real blessing, as you do not need to be pedalling to change gears the continual slowing and sometimes sudden stopping and getting started again is so much easy with such a heavy load. Unfortunately every small incline is felt! Sections of road that previously I hadn’t realised had a small rise I certainly felt with all the added weight and needed to drop down a gear or two. Having said that, generally Cambodia is as flat as the proverbial pancake, and this 300km plus test ride was not going to include anything that would remotely be called a hill. So the big question will remain unanswered, how will the bike, or more correctly, how will I cope pedalling up hills with all the additional baggage…
With a friendly tailwind I was spinning along the recently widened and renovated National Highway 3 under clear blue skies, passing emerald green paddy fields, and through the occasional very small town. Great cycling conditions and all was going well… Then at 88km a psssh, psssh, psssh sound. Initially I thought something was rubbing against the rim of the front wheel. Then suddenly b-dump, b-dump feelings from the rear wheel, yep I had a puncture… Very fortunately I rolled to a stop outside a small palm leaf shack, the only sign of life, and shade, in sight. The owners, an old husband and wife who were inside sheltering in the shade sold Johnnie Walker bottles full of petrol, cigarettes, rice wine and warm water. When they realised my predicament with big, more or less toothless smiles they invited me into the shade, a welcome relief from the unrelenting sun and 32oC heat. I removed all my panniers and flipped the bike upside down, and then very much to the amazement of the old-boy I quickly and easily removed the rear wheel – no tools required. I quickly found my spare inner tube and tyre levers, but could not remember in which pannier I had stowed my pump. Sod’s law it was in the last one. Mental note – study and remember what is in which pannier… Whilst I was searching for my pump the old-boy had been inspecting my wheel and excitedly called me over pointing out the offender, an 8mm triangular slither of metal protruding from the tyre.
As I got on with replacing the inner tube with sweat dripping from my nose a wizened local old guy pulls up outside on his clapped out Honda Cub motorbike, walks in, picks up my empty 500ml bottle of warm water I had just bought from my hosts, and hands it over to the old lady. A verbal exchange takes place, she removes the lid from this large glass container, and from the immediate shock to my nostrils it is obvious the cloudy liquid inside is unmistakably potent rice wine. The old lady fills up the water bottle, the old guy hands over some cash, takes a swig of the rice wine and without the slightest grimace brushes his mouth with the back of his arm, mounts his Honda Cub and putters off – and this at 9:30 in the morning…
With the tyre reassembled and panniers refitted, prior to bidding my farewell I order another bottle of warm water, thinking it wise to forego the offer of a quick shot of rice wine…
About 30km further on I take my final rest stop before the last push into Kampot. I’m sitting on a rickety wooden slatted ‘bed’ watching a mother swing her sleeping baby in a hammock, eating a samosa I had brought with me (how’s that for preparing for India!!) when I hear a faint sssssshhhhhhhhhh sound, but didn’t really think anything of it. As I stand up to leave I glance over at my bike and, surely not…, the rear tyre is flat again! I laugh and point it out to the woman still swinging her baby. She then shouts out and a young lad appears from a shack about 30m away, very luckily he is a puncture repair man. Due to the preponderance of people who still use bicycles as their main mode of transport in rural Cambodia, plus the growing number of motorbikes, you are never that far away from a puncture repair establishment.
To help out the local economy, or is it just me being lazy??, I decide to let this young guy fix my puncture. I hand him my rear wheel and he soon whips off the tyre and is searching the inner tube for a hole, which isn’t difficult, a 1cm gash. Not sure how that happened?? He collects together his gear and I realise it is going to be a hot fix. Rather than having the ‘conventional’ cold fix, glue and a patch, he uses some old looking contraption that looks as though it has been fashioned from an old car piston. He cuts a small section of rubber and places it diligently over the gash, then places a 10cm circle of metal cut from the side of a used beer can over the rubber and clamps all this together in his contraption. Now the bit that always worries me, he squirts some flammable liquid into the contraption and sets fire to it – my poor inner tube!! However, after about 5 minutes he removes the inner tube from the contraption and the small bit or rubber has well and truly plugged the hole. Shortly after he is inflating the tyre and I’m thinking I’ll soon be on my way… Pppppssssssshhhhhhhhh…. when a certain pressure is reached the tyre suffers a dramatic and rapid deflation. Bummer!! The young lad once again whips out the inner tube and upon inspection his patch was holding firm. Further around the inner tube we discover another new 2cm gash. Aha! Now it becomes clear. This spare inner tube has been flattened, rolled tightly and stored in my Camelbak for perhaps 3 years. Both gashes were along the ‘fold’ of the inner tube so I guess the rubber must have begun to perish over time… Luckily the young guy sells new inner tubes, so I was soon back on my way, and in no time was rolling along the dusty roads of Kampot, in the shadow of Bokor Mountain.
With my cycle computer showing 152km I coast into the Kampot Guesthouse and order a very refreshing Anchor Beer before even bothering to enquire as to whether they have vacancies or not. The beer doesn’t touch the sides as I gulp it down, ‘Ahhh, that’s better. By the way do you have any rooms?’, ‘Yes sir, would your like fan or aircon?’ Excellent – life’s good…
Early the following morning I spin out of Kampot under overcast skies heading east towards Kep into a relatively brisk north east headwind. After a scenic 35km and a very brief rain shower, I’m getting close to the Vietnamese border hence the fairly decent surfaced road makes a sharp left turn and heads north. Pedalling north I pass more limestone karst outcrops and vibrant green paddy fields punctuated with sugar palm trees, coconut trees, water buffalo and cows. As I reach the small dusty town of Banteay Meas the clouds have dispersed and I turn off the sealed road, this is where the bike will get its first fully loaded dirt road test. Mostly it was a delightful 45km ride, along a fairly compact laterite surface, through a string of tree lined villages providing welcomed shade and shelter from the wind, and cheered on by an almost endless chorus of ‘Hello’, ‘Hello’ from bare-footed and often bare-chested grubby smiling kids. However, there was a more testing 10km stretch which Cambodians would call a ‘dancing road’ due to the manoeuvres you have to undertake to negotiate it. The 3m wide dirt road in reality only has a winding ‘singletrack’ trail along it as you weave around potholes, dip in and out of potholes, and carefully choose your line through muddy, gloopy puddles.
Eventually I pass under a rather ornate concrete archway painted orange and gold and I’m presented with the main road which leads from Phnom Penh south to the Vietnamese border. Pleased with how Dhanya performed on the dirt roads, I turn and head north towards Takeo along the billiard table smooth surface of National Highway 2, a welcome relief even if the headwind isn’t.
By now I’m getting fairly tired and hungry, but with only about 25km to go till I reach a decent little local restaurant I know in Takeo I decide to push on for food but take one last rest break and have a fresh coconut juice. The final few kilometres were tough and I found myself singing aloud ‘5ks to food’, ‘4ks to food’, ‘3ks to food’… With much delight I ride into the outskirts of town and pull up outside the restaurant… ‘What?? No this cannot be happening!! Have I gone delusional??’ The little restaurant I had been dreaming of eating a tasty Beef Lok Lac at for the past 15km is no more, it’s now a beauty salon!!! After finding another eating place where the food was certainly nothing to write home about, but served its purpose, I happily collapse onto my guesthouse bed having completed a fairly tough 120km.
The final day of my mini 3 day test tour was fairly uneventful, just a bit of a grind. 75km along, the at times, bouncy Highway 2 into a headwind. After a couple of short rest stops and about 25km south of Phnom Penh I was back onto familiar territory, a stretch of road that forms my regular training route. Heading into Phnom Penh the roads get dustier and more congested, a mixture of heavy trucks carrying sand, stone and cement for the capital city’s recovering building boom, a whole mish-mash of smaller trucks carrying people, pigs, steel, ice, and who knows what else, spewing out blacks clouds of exhaust fumes, the growing number of Landcruisers whose drivers seem more interested in chatting and texting on their smartphones than watching the road, the tuk-tuks stopping without warning to pick up customers, the non-stop buzzing of motorbikes like bees around a honey pot, and finally, at the bottom of the pecking order the occasional cyclist.
All in all it was a great 3 days and gave me a really good insight into cycle touring with a fully loaded bike, plus a number of ideas of how to tweak things here and there with the packing. And most importantly of all Dhanya did a sterling job – she felt very stable to ride and carried the load with ease with no apparent issues with pannier rack mountings and such like. C’mon India – we are ready for you………… I think