Vicious Cycling

The moment we arrived, we realized we had made a mistake.

The sign next to the entrance read “VICIOUS CYCLE” in all-caps, and 3 young, whippet-thin Khmer guys in cycling spandex with high-school wrestler muscles were milling about the garage office, tuning up some Trek mountain bikes for a ride.

“Sousaday, ummm, do you know if Grasshopper Tours is near here?” I asked, hoping we had fumbled the directions to their office.

A girl behind the counter perked up, “Sousaday! Are you Scott? Doing the Beng Melea tour today? We are Grasshopper Tours, yes, or Vicious Cycle– same same. Please sit and have some water, the other man in your group isn’t here yet.”

We sat on the couch and looked around the garage, then at each other with a corner-of-the-eye glare that said, “oh crap… what the heck did we get ourselves into?”  What we thought we’d gotten ourselves into was decidedly less serious…

A couple of days earlier, Steph found a tour company online, Grasshopper Tours, that offered guided bike trips to Beng Melea, one of the out-of-town Angkor temples. The idea of visiting a temple by bicycle was already high on our list; in December we toured Angkor Wat and its sister temples in Siem Reap by bike, and the freedom to move about at our own (slow) pace really made the whole experience for us. Of course, we aren’t cyclists by any means, and the tours we had done earlier amounted to maybe 30 kilometers – tops. We carefully read the text on Grasshopper’s website, trying to gauge if it would be at all doable…

“If you ride a bike regularly and have a reasonable level of general fitness, then this ride is for you. The distance is approximately 65km on mainly flat tracks and small roads. We will stop often for photos and refreshments.”

“Regularly” didn’t describe our biking habits in the least; in truth, the last time we’d sat on a bicycle was the aforementioned rides around Angkor Wat. But a “reasonable level of general fitness” sounded like a… well, reasonable , if a little generous, depiction of ourselves, and the words “flat tracks” and “photos and refreshments” made it sound all the more casual. The distance however, did not. 65km was more than twice as far as we’d ridden last time, and definitely farther than we’d ever ridden a bike in our lives. Again in our favor though, the ride would be “assisted” by a trailing van, and that same van would take us all home after the temples, so one-way was all we’d need to do. We mulled it over for a day, and in a moment of “what the heck, we’re traveling around the world, right?”, I called Steph at work and said, “let’s do it, the website does make it sound pretty low-key,” and thus we booked ourselves for Sunday morning, 7am sharp.

A few minutes passed at the bike shop, and a European man in full cycling spandex gear walked in. He had a stout, barrel-chested frame, and like the guys at the shop, had calves like footballs – but unlike the other guys, I’d guess he was in his 50s (a slight advantage for us?…). He sat down on the couch near us, “Hello, are you on the tour today also?” We affirmed, exchanging introductions and nationalities with our tour partner.

“So, are you into cycling?” Steph asked, hoping that he too was here for a relaxing ride to the temple, like us. “Oh no, I’m more into running. I ran in New York once, actually!” – a friendly nod to our homeland. Being a running enthusiast myself (or a former one, at least), I took that to mean the New York Marathon; little did I know just how right I was.

With that, our guide Samnang, “Sam” for short, fitted us with helmets and bikes, while our Norwegian third wheel, who I’ll affectionately refer to as “Lance” from here on out, affixed an action-sports video camera to the top of his helmet. Steph asked if it was for taking pictures along the way – he chuckled, and said no, it was for taking video.

Not seeing any vehicles around, we asked Sam whether the “assisting” van we’d read about would be alongside us the whole way or following shortly behind, but he said that the van was busy on another ride and wouldn’t be able to trail along today – we would meet up with it after seeing the temple.

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 6.51.50 AMWarning signs abound, we were off.

Bike trek to Beng Mealea

Our tour started fast, speeding and weaving us through tuk-tuk traffic and road construction, while we tried to keep up with Sam and Lance, who were already gapped a hundred feet in front of us. Just when I became worried they would lose us entirely, the two of them dove off the shoulder onto a dirt single-track, and we followed; almost instantly, we were deep in the beautiful, rugged Cambodian countryside.

Our speed soon lowered, but not for lack of effort, as the track started to resemble a sandy beach, and the treads on our tires spun and slipped side-ways as we pedaled choppily to keep up. Along the way, we zoomed through villages that probably looked no different than they would have centuries earlier. The cute children in every home shouted from their hammocks, “HELLO!” and “BYE BYE!”, though not always in that order. At first, we responded with “Sousaday!” and “Leahigh!”, respectively, but soon switched to English when we realized the kids were much more excited to practice the words they were learning at school.

Zipping out of the single-track, we merged into a dirt country road, which was equally soft and deep in the shoulders as motoscooters and tractors occasionally passed by up the middle. At one point, my tire twisted and I fell off my bike, looking up to see Sam and Lance charging away without looking back. I hopped back on and Steph and I frustratingly pedaled to catch up, which we finally did once the dirt road merged with a paved one and we all stopped to take a drink.

“10km so far,” Sam said, as he pointed off towards the horizon, “see that hill out there? Beng Melea is just beyond that hill. 75 kilometers.”

“Sixty five. Not seventy five, right?” I corrected.

“No, seventy five,” Lance smiled and nodded to confirm he knew as much.  We let the new distance sink in for a moment as the hot, hazy sun rose up above the treetops and Sam and Lance gathered themselves to begin again.

The next 15km were a bit of a blur. We rode long paved stretches through the rice fields where men and women were tilling and harvesting their crop. Water buffaloes rolled around in the mud to cool off, and the wind shifted to face us head-on, making it even more difficult to keep speed across the plains. It was around that time that Lance checked with Sam before breaking away on what would be the first of many all-out sprints, while Sam kindly hung back with Steph and me. Lance disappeared into a speck as we chugged along on the miragey pavement, shifting back and forth from standing and sitting as our butts were already bruised from the seats. It wasn’t until our first real break that we finally caught up with Lance again, and we sat down, exhausted, for some bananas and a brief chat.

“Sorry we’re a little slow today; we don’t ride bikes very much. Actually, we think we might be in a little over our heads,” I offered to Lance, as he graciously reassured us it was no problem at all. “So, was your run in New York that you mentioned for the New York marathon?” I asked, sheepishly acknowledging his obvious endurance advantage.

“Ah, yes, it was a great time.”

“Oh, cool,” Steph replied, proudly offering for me, “Scott has run some marathons in the past, too!”

I added, “Yeah, I’ve done 3. Well, I finished 2 of them… got sick halfway through one of them and couldn’t finish.”

Lance continued matter-of-factly (and with no hint of cockiness), “I’ve run 157 marathons. New York was the only one I’ve done in America, though! I’ve been running marathons my whole life actually, since 1970. I have also run 265 half-marathons, and many triathlons, including the IronMan, and several of this certain kind of triathlon they have in Norway that’s more difficult than IronMan – the swimming part includes 5 kilometers through the icy fjords.”

It was then we realized what Lance had meant back at the shop. When he said he wasn’t a cyclist, he meant that cycling just wasn’t his strongest leg in THE F$%@ING NORWEGIAN IRONMAN.

“It’s hard to train in the winter, but I video tape rides like this and play them on the screen in front of me while pedaling in my cycling room.”

That said, he assured us he’s even weaker in swimming, which probably just meant he’d have trouble keeping up with a dolphin or something. His best marathon time was 2:20 (an entire hour faster than my own personal best), which would place him firmly in the elite group in his day – plain and simple, the dude was a gazelle.

Bike trek to Beng Mealea

18 kilometers down, and 57 more to go, we saddled up and continued on. At this point, Steph and I already had doubts we could do very much more, at least not at this pace. Fortunately, the ride soon became much more beautiful, the dirt roads widened and hardened, and the locals became even more excited to see foreigners so far from the city. Each driveway we passed brought 2 to 5 kids running to the road to yell “hello!” as we passed, and that combined with our pace reminded us of fans cheering us along in a race.

Bike trek to Beng Mealea

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At around 40km, we stopped to have some Cokes and eat more bananas, and Steph got to practice her Khmer with some local guys that worked for Leo Beer. Steph had been receiving free language lessons through her work at the hospital, and it was starting to show. Not only were the local guys surprised and excited by her language skills, but our guide Sam was starting to take to us a little more – thankfully, because we were about to become more of a drag on him and Lance.

Bike trek to Beng Mealea

Back on the road again, Lance chugged off as usual to wait for us up ahead, and Steph rode up alongside Sam to break the news. “Sam, um, so if we don’t uh… think we’re going to make it all the way… can we maybe get picked up by the van out here, or maybe hire a tuk-tuk to take us the rest of the way?”

Sam chuckled with a little sympathy, “Well, there really aren’t any cars or tuk-tuks out here for the rest of the way. We’ll take it slow, and you’ll make it.”

“Have you ever had problems with anyone not making it all the way in your tours before?” we asked.

“Yes, a few times we’ve had some people who needed to ride in the van after some heat exhaustion. Then they’d usually start riding again after they felt better.” Needless to repeat, there was no van for today’s ride – the rest of our day would be a test.

Fortunately, another break came soon, around 55km, where we rested at a local community center, which was an open space that doubled as a Buddhist shrine and a shelter for visitors to sleep under when they came into town. On the walls were paintings of most of the stages of Buddha’s life, and Sam, formerly a monk himself for 8 years, was very happy to oblige in telling the story to us (a story that we already knew in parts, but it was nice to hear again, and it also helped to delay the ride!).

IMG_0396The final 20km was dry, hot, and incredibly tiring. Sam and Lance disappeared up ahead, and Steph and I hung back at our own pace, catching up every 8km or so to stop and drink some water before pressing on. Steph began to feel a little lightheaded and nauseous, and we worried she was feeling the early stages of heat sickness herself. Out in the middle of the desertous fields, all we could do was drink all the water we could and keep pedaling. Luckily too, the pretty sights of the Cambodian countryside continued all around.

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Video:

Finally we were counting down from 5km, and soon enough, we’d reached the entrance to Beng Melea, which had a rest area where we could wash up and celebrate! We’d actually made it, and in decent time too: 5 hours from the start. It felt pretty good. Sam then informed us that our group had made the distance in an entire hour less than it should have taken us, and instead of being proud, we were frankly just peeved. A slightly slower pace would have made the whole day just much more enjoyable.

Bike trek to Beng Mealea

After a nice included-lunch of traditional Khmer curry and re-hydrating noodle soup for Steph, we received our temple tickets and Sam guided us by foot around the temple. It was a beautiful, crumbling site – much like Ta Prohm, we thought, in its complete lack of preservation and overgrowth. But unlike the better-known temples, many of Beng Melea’s primary structures had completely caved to piles of rubble, and many sections were simply inaccessible to explore.

Beng Mealea Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Beng Mealea Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia

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IMG_0427Once we’d circled the temple grounds, it was time to head back. Lance asked Sam about possibly cycling back on his own, but ended up opting for the van, likely only because of the tricky directions back. We then snapped a quick picture of Lance, Sam, and the two of us, thoroughly exhausted, but happy to have made the trip.

IMG_0429In the van ride home, any self-pity left over from the ride sunk into our seats as Sam shared stories of his childhood, and the sad violence he experienced growing up in a Thai refugee camp, soon after his own parents performed forced field labor under Pol Pot during the rein of the Khmer Rouge. Seemingly everyone we meet in Cambodia has a story similar to his, and it’s these stories that leave us with no way to relate – just a reminder of how good and easy our own childhoods were back home.

To lighten the conversation as we approached town again, Steph asked Sam if he thought we weren’t going to make it all the way.  He replied candidly, “Yeah, haha. I didn’t think you would make it. But you did it. That was a long way. You did a good job.”

We were spent, but Sam seemed energized – good for him, as we learned he would be making the same exact trip again the next day. A Vicious Cycle, indeed.

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