Thursday, October 24, 2002

Lampang, Thailand

Friends: Never has the handlebar tape on my bike been so soggy and squishy. Today we had three climbs of at least three miles each with a cumulative gain in altitude of nearly 5,000 feet in 87 miles. At our slow climbing speeds we weren't creating enough of a breeze to dry the sweat that was pouring off  us. It was running down my arms in rivers onto the handlebars. I wrapped a neckerchief around each brake hood to help soak up the sweat, but they were soon saturated too. It was by far our most demanding day--not only our most miles in a day, but also our first day of climbing. We knew we were in for a hard day so we ate a lot the night before and went to bed early, as if it were the night before a big game. We arose early and ate breakfast as we packed--me some pad thai left over from the night before preserved in my Tupperware bowl, and Laurie a mini-loaf of bread with peanut butter. It was the first bread we had found in a week.

We were on the road by 7:30, though we regretted we hadn't left earlier when we realized by mid-morning we were in for a serious race with the sun to the horizon before we reached our destination. Our first climb was more demanding than we anticipated, making us nervous about the next two. I put on my cycling shoes for the first time in our seven days of pedaling. Sandals had been just fine on the flats, but they would have had the balls of my feet burning today with the extra pressure I would be applying to the pedals on our climbs. It was nice that I had saved them, as they made my legs feel a little more powerful. There was no flexing on my pedal strokes. It was the strongest I had felt on the trip, thanks partially to four helpings of pad thai the night before, my first night of noodles rather than rice. Noodles give me more energy than rice, and since my diet had consisted mostly of rice dishes with some glop of a sauce, I hadn't been feeling as strong as I'd like until today. But today was the first day it really mattered.

Since we had only ten-and-a-half hours of light to cover 87 miles, we only took two breaks all day aside from a handful of brief respites to catch our breath on the extended climbs. And they were our two most enjoyable breaks of the trip. The first came after two-and-a half hours on the bikes at the summit of our first three-mile climb. We were surprised and delighted to discover a cluster of restaurants at the summit. It was almost too good to be true. We both had a bowl of noodle soup. I supplemented mine with some chicken. Our soft drinks came with a bucket of ice. At the higher elevation it didn't entirely melt during our 45 minute stop.

At our second break three hours later, a while after climb number two, we came upon an isolated restaurant. I scouted it to make sure it was open. They had no cold drinks, but they nodded affirmative to our favorite word "nanh ken" (ice) and brought out a small bucket. What luxury! After several minutes the elderly Chinese owner brought us a platter with five mini-bananas and said "free." It reminded me of a similar gift I once received in Mexico when biking in the Sierra Madres out of Puerto Escondido. I stopped at a small, rural restaurant not unlike this one, more as a place to rest and get out of the sun and have a drink, than to have anything to eat. I ordered a soda and munched on my own stash of peanuts, perfunctorily eating them one at a time. A few years later I stopped in the same restaurant while biking with my friend Lino. The restaurant owner told us a gringo cyclist had stopped in his restaurant a few years before and was so poor that he ate his peanuts one at a time, so he gave him some bananas.

I was repeatedly transported today to my travels in Latin America, as Laurie and I were treated to a continual chorus of friendly horn toots from passing motorists who were startled and thrilled to see a couple of farangs on bikes as they came around a hairpin turn. Not since Crissy and I bicycled through Guatemala in 1980, when gringos were still an oddity there, had I experienced such a welcome. Crissy and I would even catch motorists taking their hands off the steering wheel to applaud when they saw us. No applause here, but lots of upraised thumbs to go along with the friendly toots. We felt obligated to look at every oncoming motorist. If they were acknowledging us, we wanted to respond. We gave plenty of people an opportunity to flash an even bigger smile than usual. Even soldiers in the back of open air trucks waved and smiled when they passed us. The dogs too have only been friendly.

When we left our second restaurant of the day at 2:30, we had thirty-five miles to go and one climb. We knew we'd be cutting it close depending on how severe and prolonged the final climb of the day would be. We reached its summit at four, leaving us twenty-five miles to Lampang. We thought we would easily beat dark after an eight-mile descent in less than half an hour, but we had two more unexpected, somewhat gentle, climbs of a couple miles each. Both times we could hear a slow moving truck struggling up the climb that could offer drafting possibilities or even the possibility of giving us a pull if we could find something to grab hold of as it passed. I'm generally content to draft, rather than being pulled, and had in fact drafted a truck the last half mile up the first climb. Laurie had attempted neither, but was willing.

On the first of these last two climbs, the slow moving truck didn't catch up to us until after we had summitted. But on the second, longer climb, the truck we could hear grumbling up the hill overtook us less than half way up. After it passed I swung out into the middle of the road and immediately started drafting. Laurie then swooped in and grabbed on to a slight ledge at her shoulder height. It was a bold and courageous act, especially in her fatigued state, but it did not surprise me, knowing her spirit. I had briefed her on slightly speeding up as she latched on and to maintain a little speed so she wouldn't be jerked when the truck started pulling her. She executed the operation as if it were second nature. And she held on for better than a mile, upping our climbing speed from five miles an hour to eight, but, even better, giving her legs a break.

She was worried the driver might not appreciate her grabbing on to his truck, but he stayed well away from the edge of the road so Laurie would have plenty of space. She could see his assistant waving to her. It was a bit treacherous, holding her handlebar with her left hand and the truck with her right and just a few inches between her front pannier and the truck's rear wheel, but she held it steady. It was another great moment in her achievements on the bike. Now we're looking forward to more hills and more struggling trucks to latch onto.

We pulled in to Lampang just as dark was settling in. It was pitch dark by the time we had groped our way to a hotel by 6:30, eleven hours after we had begun our day. Exhausted as we were, we couldn't have been more exhilarated.  It was another great day on the bike.

Later, George

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