My brother stepped into the flat, took a look at me lying on the sofa, and said "You look stunned". I had just returned to my Ghim Moh flat and I was more than stunned. The proper word is shell-shocked. I don't really have the words to express the intensity of the four days I went through in Vietnam - if you were not there, I'm afraid you might not truly appreciate the situation, no matter how well I write. But I will try and perhaps you might appreciate what went on in Vietnam.

November 24th to November 26th, 2002 was the Pre-ASEAN Games Bicycle Race. It was an opportunity for cyclists from ASEAN to check out the race route that would be used in the ASEAN Games next year. However, only Singapore, Malaysia (2 men) and Thailand (1 woman) had representatives and I think, only Team Singapore sent its A squad members. The Singapore National team consisted of Lim Wee Liak aka "Soya", Seah Teck Wee aka "Park", and Teo Woon Lip aka "Lippy". Sarah Lim was the team manager. Three other guys were there on their own account - Per Stromblad (whom I called the Fridge because of his height and size), Brad Nagala and myself. We were going to be in for a real experience.

First Impressions

Soya, Park, Sarah and I flew into Hanoi on the 22nd. On the 23rd, we went for a 40km ride with the Vietnam Army Team. The roads in Vietnam can only be described eloquently in the Hokkien term "Boh Cheng Hu" which means, there is no rule on the road. It was chaos. And they say Vietnam is ruled by an authoritarian regime? I didn't see the authorities at all. If you have ever played the computer game, Grand Theft Auto, you will understand what I mean when I say everyone drove like a felon.

All manner of traffic was on the road - trucks, cars, vans, scooters, bicycles, people rolling drums and pulling carts filled with all manner of goods from steel bars to vegetables. Everything that could be mobile could be found on the roads. Every motor vehicle with a honk was using it almost continuously! You cannot drive around in Vietnam with out a honk. The honk was used for everything - to tell other users you were not going to stop, to get out of the way; COMING THROUGH: NOT STOPPING!!! Every thing on the road was all over the place. Indicator lights are for show and don't mean a damned thing. Zebra crossings are used at your own risk and red lights means to slow down but not stop.

The road quality was good - it was smooth and not pot-holey. However, there was caked mud all over the road so, it made the road virtually bumpy. On the first day with the army team, it was not raining, so it was not that cold, it was about 18 or 20 degrees Celsius and I thought it was fine that I did not bring arm or leg warmers. Stupid me. The next few days, I would pay it all back in spades. Brad arrived the afternoon of the 23rd and Lippy and Per arrived that evening. Lippy ran into a small problem with a bent spoke in the wheel but releasing some tension got it back in order. We were all hyped up for the first event the next day - a 50km criterium.

24th November 2002, Ho Kiem Lake Criterium, 50km, or The Festival of Grime

I know bicycle racing is supposed to be hard, but this was nothing like what I had ever imagined. The comfort of the hotel was to be exchanged for the harsh reality of the road. I had experienced such weather before, but in camping/hiking scenarios, where one did not have to deal with wind chill. BRRRR!!!! It was drizzling and the mercury had now dropped to about 15 degrees. We cycled the 7km from Baoson Hotel to the Lake in the rain, swerving crazily through early morning Hanoi traffic. By the time we reached the Start Line, my brake levers were jammed and not working properly. Worse, the lack of cold weather gear started to get to me. We stood for about half an hour in the rain as officials mounted the grandstand to utter their scripts. I tried to pass the time by looking at the svelte Vietnamese women. No good, didn't cheer me up that much. I couldn't feel my legs after the opening ceremonies and at the start line, I felt like I had lead in my legs. 29 riders started - no place to hide in the pack. This is going to suck.

And we're off, the pace picking up to 45-47kph immediately on the first lap. The circuit was about 1.9km around Ho Kiem Lake with wide corners but not too good roads. There were four "corners" and in the last half of the lap, the roads were really bumpy. Our rear wheels would lift up slightly in that area. With my cold legs, the lactic acid was building up really rapidly. I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth. The grease and mud on the road was now mixed into a fine colloid spread over the roads. This Hanoian shower foam was spread all over us liberally, lap after lap after lap. We were getting mud/grease everywhere. I was drinking mud and HammerGel from my bottle. By Lap 5, two Vietnamese National Team riders were off the front. I found the pack starting to lose steam as the Viets started to look at us foreigners to chase. I got really antsy and shot round the pack and asked the other Singaporeans to follow - uh, uh, all I managed to do was string out the pack and fill up myself with so much lactic acid, it was coming out of my mouth. That spelled D-O-O-M for my race. I wiggled my elbows for the next guy to pull through and the Viet guy just stared at me. Then somewhere from behind, a few more locals attacked and the pack of 26 riders surged. I heard Park telling us "Get organized!". I tried to respond, the legs were in rigor mortis; I was standing still!!! I was dropped with a Malaysian.

The Malaysian didn't want to work either so I pulled a bit and then he attacked me to get into the pack again. Lap 9 and I was alone?!!! This sucks. REALLY, REALLY SUCKS. I finished another two laps alone, got lapped and pulled over to watch the race from the sidelines. I wished I could have stayed in the race, it would have been warmer. I watched the race go on for another 16 laps, as more and more Vietnamese attacked the pack and Team Singapore tried courageously to ride tempo to control the breakaway. But it was to no avail. The breakaways were 2 Viets in the lead, followed by a lone Viet and another two Viets. Then there was the pack. The two Malaysians did not seem to be lending a hand from my side of the lap. I watched as the riders got dirtier and dirtier, and the breakaways inevitably closing down on the pack. Just before the breakaway caught the pack, I saw my room-mate, Soya, shoot out of the pack in an attempt to stay clear. He did managed to stay clear and I believe he was not lapped - but the marshals started to pull everyone over except for the remaining Viets in the breakaway. The riders ended up looking like they had just finished Paris-Roubaix, with grime all over them and their machines. Just plain nasty. In the mirror, I noticed that my face was brown but my mouth area was white - guess where all that gunk went? I think officially, 5 men finished (all Viets).

I did not stay for the women's race or medal presentation as I was so cold. I headed back to the Hotel with Brad where I coughed up some black phlegm and tried to recover from the grime and cold. I should have followed Park's example and rested that afternoon instead of going out to look at Hanoi. Its a dreary city, Hanoi, cold, grimy, crazy traffic. The shopping center wasn't very interesting nor were the roadside shops of much interest. We did see roasted dogs cut in half - quite a revolting sight for the dog lovers.

25th November 2002, 40km Time Trial, Some ulu place 30km away from Hanoi, or Time Trialling through Molasses

Fortunately, today was dry, so we only had to contend with the headwind and mud cakes on the road. I completed this race really slowly, my heart rate was at threshold, but there was no power in my legs. I only started getting a rhythm after 15km, and after that only 2 riders passed me, but in the first 15km, 4 guys went right past me!!! This is what you get for racing on base alone. Still, not too bad for my third time trial. I was wobbling down the start ramp, and in the first 2km, I was pushing at 43kph; I was a bit amazed and thought I was going too fast - I wasn't it was a slight downhill in the start, and the ramp allowed one to pick up speed. Then, we hit the open road with padi fields stretching for miles in either direction with a crosswind and false flat - I felt like I was riding through molasses. I was so dejected at my sub-30kph speed that I just put my head down and started grinding and refused to look at the speedo for the rest of the race. A really pathetic 71 minutes. I could not have gone faster though, so I just gotta accept the result.

Per stormed his way on his $1600 (105 equipped) bike to 5th place and by ASEAN rules, he was promoted to 3rd podium. His first ever Time Trial and he places in the money for a Regional Race - Per is really talented! Brad had major problems with his wheels and chain, costing him some 3-4 minutes which he was unable to make up, although he had one of the higher average speeds.

26th November 2002, 140km Circuit Race around Hoa Binh City, or The Big, Bad and Cold Mother

I woke up with Vietnam Flu - diarrhea, sore throat, runny nose and maybe 2 hours of sleep the night before (from visiting the loo all night).I must have woke Soya up a number of times with my tossing and turning. I don't have the constitution to travel to cold countries I think, every trip I've been on this year, my body has simply broken down and underwent inflammation. This really, really sucks. What's stupider was that, I had time to go for coffee the previous day, but neglected to check my bike. I was really envious of Lippy - that guy even checks his chain links - damn, if only I had paid attention to my equipment a bit more. I'm whining about this, because I had a mechanical on the start line. The whistle blows, and I'm left 50m behind, cycling one legged because my left cleat refuses to clip in. I chased with one leg up the first few hills, about 300m behind, and then I pack it into the van with Sarah. Enough with the excuses. The only good thing about packing it in early is that I get to follow the race and watch the drama unfold. It was a freaking hard race.

Hoa Binh is about 100 km from Hanoi. Its a rustic little town, not really a city at all, but just a large town. There is a dam, holding back the Da River Reservoir there and the race starts in downtown Hoa Binh, races up the hills to the dam, down the valley, into the tunnel across the dam, and up the valley again. That concludes the hilly part of the race. The next part is flat racing through the flat and bumpy streets of the suburbs, over a bridge and into downtown Hoa Binh again. The hilly part lasts about 4 km and the flat part about 5.5 km. This is a very selective course and a strong all round rider will have a good advantage.

The road quality was crap. It was smooth in the hilly part, but bumpy in the town. However, the entire route was again covered in grime, hence I think it was a real crappy condition. It was drizzling for the better part of the race and the temperature was low. I don't know how low, but when we exhaled, we could see condensation. It was that cold. Even sitting in the van, following the race, I was shivering. I could feel the riders' pain coming through, as I followed them in the van. Their legs turning around and around, in the cold wind; it must have been sheer agony. My respect for the boys who raced has really multiplied - the sheer determination needed to simply survive and stay in the race is beyond my comprehension.

The race started out with a furious pace. The Viets started shouting and they attacked up the first hill right around the first corner. Lippy said that by the first time, they reached the tunnel, a few Viets were already broken away. But cooperation between Army and Singapore managed to bring the break back. On the first lap itself, a Viet and a Malaysian collided after a slippery downhill corner - game over for the two of them. The pace was furiously fast - if you were dropped from the pack, it was going to be difficult to get back on. In the van for the first 2 laps, we were averaging 45kph on the flat and 35kph on the uphill. The uphill is not unlike Prince George Park in gradient, except, that it might be about 5 to 6 times longer.

On the second lap, there was a lone breakaway by a Viet rider who lasted one lap by himself. Then he was brought back by the pack. Another Viet goes up the road, and this time, Soya is onto him. The gap grows as the two of them work together. Two more Viet riders make it across to them and even though outnumbered, Soya does his share of the work. The gap is maintained as the pack starts to shatter under the punishing pace. Park and Per make it into the second chase group of about 6 riders. Brad and Lippy are in the last pack of about 8 riders. Communication problems with our driver (who seems more intent on honking at local women) means that we are unable to follow the breakaway for two laps. A brief stop, a shrieking session by Sarah, and the timely intervention by the Viet's Russian coach means that we are able to pull over for one lap to latch onto the breakaway. It was amazing to see Soya's legs pumping over and over as he gamely worked the Viets. The first feed lap arrives, we take a shortcut to the feed zone and pass bottles to Soya, Park and Per. It was my first time doing a feed in a race and I was damned nervous - I watched the Russian coach showing his wife how to do a feed and tried to learn from them - Monkey see, Monkey do. It was quite thrilling to be standing in the drizzle on a desolate hill side, watching the riders struggle up the hill in the distance and then you see, the outriders coming up your own hill, sirens blazing, then the cyclists, mud-streaked and suffering coming up, and you yell to get their attention and to pass them the bottles and bananas.

We did another feed, this time for everyone, and then Sarah pulled over to have lunch and to prepare for her own afternoon race. I was damned nervous as she said "Take over the feed ok? You'll be fine!". I tell you I was not feeling fine at all. I was freaking out and I was not even racing. I scrambled to the back to break out the spare wheels, one set for Shimano, and one set for Campy. Turns out that we never got to used them as only Per got a flat and he got a spare from the neutral support.

Lap 10 or thereabouts the Viets in the lead attack Soya and three of them go off the front. Soya is unable to react this time. He still has one Viet on his wheel and then the situation worsens when three more Viets come up. It was quite miserable to see him totally outnumbered by the Viets. He decided that from then on, he would not work. After all, the other Viets wanted a good placing too and did not want to be too distanced by their compatriots. By now, the dropped riders were losing steam. The last time check I remembered had Soya's group at 1:45 from the lead another 2:15 on the third group. Soya rode very well - a marshal passed him some water and he would share it with the other riders in the group. Even on the final run-in, the other Viets offered to let him take the sprint, but like a real champ, he refused and insisted on them finishing together. This little guy oozes with CLASS. Being 7th and the highest placed foreigner, he was awarded the bronze podium - I could see he was really happy and excited despite the exhaustion - he really earned it. Taking on the Viets on their home ground and gamely working with them. The rest of the boys finished as well - for Lippy and Park it was a great, if painful, experience as this was their first cold weather bike race. You could see the relieve on their mud-streaked faces. Park told me his Campy shifting started to go out of whack and Lippy and Per's speedos no longer worked. Cold hell indeed.

The race organization has found a really tough race course. However, I have less pleasant things to say about the driver and official assigned to drive us. The two of them kept stopping the van and pulling over for the slightest reasons. When the Malaysian guy had crashed, the driver stopped and the official kept talking to the marshals at the scene. Whatever for? The Malaysian manager was already on the scene and assistance was already there, but they kept dawdling, refusing to go around the stopped motorcycle - it was as it they didn't want us to follow the race. The driver was really lousy, he would slow down whenever he saw girls, so he could honk and wink at them. Once, he pulled over for gas (in the middle of the race!!) although the van fuel gauge still showed a third full. No amount of pleading and yammering could convince him to continue following the race. We had to run according to the logic of our driver who did not seem at all concerned that our riders might need some of support from our van. We missed a couple of feeds because of this and it was really annoying.

Final Thoughts

I read somewhere that cycling was a blue-collar sport. I never really understood that statement until I went to Vietnam. If I were moderately well-off, I probably would not pick up cycling as a sport in the 'Nam where the weather is cold, the roads are chaotic and filthy, and the conditions are so plain miserable. The conditions there are a bike-killer. The Viet cyclists know how to suffer and I take my helmet off to them.

Personally, I bit off more than I could chew this time, but that's life. I told one of my friend's before leaving that what I hoped to get out of this was a sense of a real crit and road race - in that respect I was not disappointed - and I have my grime-stained TA jersey to remind me of it all. I also appreciate the fine roads in Singapore and Malaysia so much more right now and I don't think I'd ever complain about riding in the local rain here again. I also got to know Soya, Park and Per, who are all classy guys. And it was a real pleasure to race with them, if only momentarily. Brrr, next year, the route is supposed to be the same but in December when its even colder. But with this trip behind them, I have no doubt that the National boys will be fully prepared and ready for it.

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