I Rode My Bike Around Some Temples
I wasn’t really sweating the 80km (50 miles) distance of the Angkor Wat Bike Race and Rally on December 6th. Sure, I did some training to get ready, but my real goal was to bike around a phenomenal set of monuments and a Cambodian national treasure. What I found was nothing short of spectacular.
It was, of course, not a smooth ride. The course had to be changed due to a long rainy season, which didn’t give crews enough time to repave washed out roads. The race consisted of three loops around the most accessible temple complexes. The roads were not without obstacles or hazards. As the race organizer pointed out, “you will be sharing the roads with pedestrians, cyclists, motos, tuk-tuks, cars, buses, even trucks. In addition to that, there will also be dogs, monkeys and elephants to contend with! Right of way is usually determined by whoever has the most engine power, which puts you somewhere at the bottom of the food chain.” We passed through a series of gates to which she warned, “If an elephant gets there before you though, well, we can safely say here that size really does matter.” And on and on the list of warnings went for three pages, advising us of the exact locations of potholes, dips, giant gaps, missing road, undulations and lots and lots of traffic. “All part of Cambodia’s charm,” was how it was explained to us riders. It left me dubious, excited, but most of all, in need of some sleep.
The race started at 5:45am (or whenever it was light enough to see the potholes in the road). The organizers advised to be at the starting point 20 minutes early, so I pedaled out from my hotel at 5:00am, with the ladle of the Big Dipper pointing the way along a dark and bumpy road. The start line was a celebration; not only did all the riders make it there in the dark, but we were embarking on a race to raise money for vulnerable children and land mine victims in Cambodia.
I must clarify here; I was going for a ride, but there were certainly people who were there for a race. My goal was to finish in under 3 hours, which meant I had to ride at least 27km per hour. The course is entirely flat, so it was a fairly reasonable goal. However, I kept telling myself, “Self, keep your own pace, don’t over exert in the beginning.” Did I listen? No.
I got off to a pretty good pace, and at the top of the loop I hooked up (more like latched on) to a group of 6 riders who dragged me along at 30km/hour. Grateful for the company, on the bottom of the loop I took my turn at leading, and with a slight tail wind was able to keep up a 31km/hour pace for about 10 minutes. However, as I dropped back, it was clear that I had spent a good portion of the energy I had previously reserved for finishing the ride and my right calf was cramping as well. At this point, I was playing the game of pedaling fast to keep up with the back of the group, and once there I would try to draft and coast, while stretching out my calf. I would then slip back 10 yards and have to do the whole catch-up again. I quickly realized that I couldn’t keep up that pace, and I let the group go. But as we made the turn to start the second loop, it had been 48 minutes, and I was averaging 29.2km per hour. It turns out that two of the women in the group that were doing most of the pace setting came in #1 and #2 in the women’s competition.
At the far side of the 2nd loop, I met up with one of the guys from the group, and we pedaled together for a good ways. He was about 7 feet tall, and almost as wide, so I just hid behind him. He stopped to help a friend with a flat at the end of the second loop, but I kept moving.
I did the third loop almost entirely by myself, and I was tired. My speed dropped down to about 23 or 24km per hour, and when I tried to push it faster, I quickly used up energy. So I settled in for slower pace, taking in the scenery.
Biking is one of the best methods to get around Angkor. You can go at your own pace. You don’t have a driver waiting for you. Everything is well marked and easy to find. As I rode along, school kids would stop to wave and give high fives. There were ancient stone carvings all around from an era long past. I tried to imagine what life must have been like for the people who lived nearly nine centuries ago when Angkor Wat was built, but couldn’t picture it. They didn’t have Specialized bikes then, so I put my mind back into finishing the race.
As I made the turn at the end of the third loop to head towards the finish line, a group of three guys passed me, and encouraged me to join in, which I did. They dragged me to the finish line at 28km an hour and we all finished together. The end result was 71.1km (don’t worry, that doesn’t count the 11.2km round trip to the hotel, so I did finish over 80km) total time 2:43:09, with an average speed of 26.1km per hour. As a comparison, the winner of the race, a super nice Cambodian named Lucky (who helped fix my bike in PP, and rides on the National Team, and is a tuk tuk driver on the side) finished in 1:53, almost an hour faster.
I didn’t see any monkeys, but towards the end of the ride I did see a handful of elephants carrying Spanish tourists. Fortunately, none of them got in my way.
On Sunday, Ronit ran the half marathon, and did a fabulous job finishing strong at 2:08:49. Despite some soreness, we went back to the park later in the day to see a couple of temples up close. The entire trip was a great introduction to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, and we can’t wait to get back to explore some more.
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