Wednesday, July 26, 2017

TCR N05: My Crazy Adventures Continue to Evolve

Lago di Resia, Italy in July on a reconnoissance trip

How I Learned About the TCR
It was Thanksgiving of 2013 when I first learned about the Transcontinental Race.  I had just arrived home from my world bike tour and I was hosting my first warmshowers guests, who happened to be two Catalans.  Raimon Escapa had left Barcelona shortly after I had and followed me throughout Europe and part of Asia.  His girlfriend at the time, Maria Joana, had arrived in Canada, to cycle with him from Alaska to Mexico.  He had contacted me as they were coming through Eugene and ended up staying with me and my parents for a week.  It was good fun sharing stories and experiences, and connecting with Catalans in Oregon.  Thanksgiving night we were on the computer looking at cyclist’s blog when Raimon mentioned that he had cycled with a really cool Chinese women, Min Hsieh, who also bike tours alone.  She had turned him onto the Transcontinental Race and was interested in doing it herself.  We had a look at the website and at that late date in November, registration for the the Transcontinental 2015 edition was already closed.  After browsing the website, I was interested, it looked like a good challenge, although drastically different from the bike adventure I had just finished.  Therefore, I put my name on the email list to receive notice of the race next year.  

Raimon, myself, and Maria Joana, Catalan Bike Tourers responsible for telling me about the TCR
Sure enough, one year later, October 2015, after completely forgetting about the TCR, an email arrived in my inbox for the 2016 edition. Unfortunately at that time, I wasn’t in the right place or state of mind to take on such a feat.  It was my first year back after my world tour and I was struggling so to adapt to life after my trip.  I had landed a job in Switzerland, which was what I had wanted, but life out of the saddle was a real challenge.  I was in a new country with a different culture (one that is completely contrary to Spanish customs) and French buzzed all around me like background noise.  I was teaching a new grade level at my new school with a totally different curriculum.  Normally, all these factors stimulate me and are the motivation to drive me to live abroad, but this time, there were too many variables in the equation and I was sinking rather than staying afloat.  

For someone like me with an incredible amount of positive energy and optimism, I hesitated to say I was going through a bit of a down time.  I knew I was privileged to have been able to take a 2 year sabbatical from my profession to travel around the world on a bike.  It is an opportunity that not everyone has, and I cherished my experience, but I couldn’t figure out how to settle back into the normal world after that.  I hadn’t expected there would be an adjustment after my bike trip, but here I was finding it hard to get out of bed on the weekends, let alone hopping on my bike to ride for fun. For the first 3 months of school, I wanted to quit.  Not because I hated teaching, but because I hadn’t done it in so long, I felt out of place and therefore my confidence were shaken in front of my students.  I had discovered so many other facets of my personality on the bike that I forgotten about myself as a teacher.  When I found the motivation, I hopped on my bike and went out to discover the Swiss roads. I spent a lot of time alone that year, without much desire to be around others or integrate, it was the way I dealt with my transition. Therefore, at the time the TCR No4 email arrived, I knew that the 2016 wasn’t the year for me, but I remember promising myself to get my act together, because there were no excuses for 2017.

Applying for the TCR
And so be it.  The email arrived once again at the start of October 2016, and thankfully, I was in a better place and my life in Switzerland had turned around.  I had finally settled down and found my groove teaching. I started cycling and traveling, and had found a really nice group of active and international friends.  When the TCR email arrived, I had no excuses this time.  In fact, I clearly remember explaining the TCR to my older brother who was on business visiting me.  I wanted his opinion to know if he thought I should do it or not.  He is the brother that always supports me on my crazy adventures without making any judgements and never tries to convince me out of my ideas.  I pretty much knew his answer, before I asked but I had to hear it first hand.  He got this huge smirk on his face, laughed, and said, “It’s completely crazy but I think you should do it!”

And so I continued.  I spent a few weeks looking over the application and filling it out.  I struggled with the route planning calculations and ended up calling my Dad, who is a math whiz, to help me figure out all the average speeds, and total distances.  At one point he said to me, “Melissa, sweetie, if you want to finish, you have to pedal at least 17kph for about 18 hours a day, that’s a lot of biking.  Do you think you can do that?”  I don’t think there are many Dads, who do those kinds of calculations for their daughters without discouraging them to take on such a feat.  But my parents and family know me at this point, as do my friends.  There is no point in talking me out of doing something that I really want to do, in fact, if they try, it just give me more incentive to take on the particular challenge.  I submitted my application late October and awaited the arrival of an acceptance letter.

However, before any email was sent out to those who had applied, a competition was posted for the TCRN05 by Mike Hall, the founder.  He was calling for a race ambassador for the 2017 edition.  It was something new for this year’s edition.  He wanted to find someone who he thought embodied the spirit of his race to become the ambassador.  The candidate had to express their interest in being an ambassador in a short video clip and also do a solo ride of 250 kilometers.  This person would also be given all sorts of free gear and clothing.  I saw his video explaining this competition after a long hard day at work on a Friday, mid- December.  I was interested and thought I’d make a good ambassador for this crazy race, especially if free gear was involved!  I looked at the brand of clothing sponsoring the TCR, PedalED. I had never heard of them before, but then again, I’m not into cycling for all the fashionable clothing or gear.  I don’t own any Rapha cycling clothes and I’m lucky if my cycling top matches my shorts. For me, it is about being on the bike regardless of what you look like.  After looking at the PedalED website, I couldn’t seem to find any women’s gear, so I googled “PedalED Women Bike Clothing”. Wouldn’t you know, my search pulled up with one item, a pair of socks.  Instantly I was furious!  No longer did I care about being an ambassador for the race, but I wanted my voice to be heard.  Do you think it is respectable to hold a competition asking for an ambassador for a bike race, and then give a price that is really only useful for men?  It was like offering a competition to a bunch of men and saying that the prize was going to be lingerie.  How many men do you think you’d have sign up for that competition?  Exactly!  I was determined to make a video, just based on the fact that they weren’t really expecting a woman to submit an entry.  

I passed my idea by my friend the following night when we were out celebrating a birthday.  They all thought I could do the 250 kilometers, and we discussed routes for the following day, the only weekend day I had left before the winter holidays.  Knowing temperatures wouldn’t make it much above freezing, I choose the Lake Leman loop as it was at a low elevation and flat, but ended up extending it to reach 250 kilometers.  

I quickly called it a night as it was approaching midnight, and I hadn’t even gotten my bike ready!  On my walk home, I thought about how I could put together a video, but the idea intimidated me since I had never used done one before.  I quickly organized my things and prepared my bike and set my alarm.  Four hours later, I was up and on my bike.  I set out at half past five in total darkness, slightly warm-ish, only to pedal into colder and colder conditions.   Somehow I managed to arrive home in time to meet up with the same friends who were now at a Christmas party.  With an insatiable appetite, I showed up just in time to clean up the remaining dishes and share my crazy experience.  That week, before my winter holidays, I put together a quick video and submitted it to Mike.  I wasn’t expecting to win the competition, I just wanted to raise awareness of the situation and I was pleased to see there were 3 or 4 other women who had also submitted videos.

I get asked this question A LOT! Why do you ride your bike so much? Why are you always on your bike? Why do you like to bike alone? Why are you cycling around the world?  Do you really enjoy riding you bike for so long?  Why do you do these crazy things?  At the root of the question, the answer is the same, but for each new adventure or challenge, the answer varies slightly.  For those of you who know me, I have an unbelievable amount of energy.  Some might say I’m hyperactive, but thankfully I have sports as an outlet to channel all my energy. I can’t explain where all my energy comes from, it’s just there and sometimes it even surprises and exhausts me!   You’d think teaching would also be a good use of this energy.  Although most of my colleagues are exhausted at the end of an 8 hour day teaching, when the bell rings at 4 o’clock, I’m itching to hop on my bike and ride.  I send my students home tired, but they’ve transmitted all of their energy to me and I need to do something to get it out.  Luckily I have a 20 kilometer commute each way, which helps, and oftentimes I extend my return trip home!

I’m also a sucker for a good challenge.  I love putting myself to the test to find out what I’m capable of doing.  It’s fun and exciting because I learn a lot about myself in these situations.  Although I’m quite sociable, I love solitude and enjoy being alone working through different challenges.  Being on the bike is an active form of meditation that gives me time to digest all that life throws at me.  If I don’t have this time in the saddle to think and reflect, I miss it!

I've always enjoyed a good physical challenge.  I signed up for an Ironman in Salou Spain in 2012, just to finish, and ended up being the first woman to cross the finish line
And finally, the main reason for signing up for the TCRN05 is that I needed something to focus on this year.  I didn’t want to fall back into what I went through my first year in Switzerland.  I decided early on that I needed to have a goal for my second year in Switzerland; something to keep me busy. The TCR was the perfect distraction to help me learn how to have a work-life balance.  As a result, I think I’ve become a better teacher and a happier person outside of work.

How do you Prepare for Something Like the TCR?

My training rides took me to lots of gorgeous places.  This happens to be Mont Sant Michel in Brittany, France

The best part of preparing the TCR was the riding.  I rode and rode and rode, and just when I thought I might be tired, I craved to ride even more!  I’m happiest when riding my bike, so naturally I want to be on my saddle as much as possible.  I made a goal to ride 2,000kilometers a month to prepare. I already get about 700 to 800 kilometers a month just commuting to work, so another 1,200 kilometers a month wasn’t unheard of.  Winter was a bit challenging with the cold weather and the snow.  At times I glanced at the ski slopes in the distance, thinking it was a better alternative to getting down a mountain rather than slipping all over the icy roads, but there is plenty of time to ski here in Switzerland.  I made a lot of sacrifices as a result of being on the bike so much, obviously I chose this.  When my friends made plans to go do something, I would make an effort to go, but usually arrive by bike, a bit later. At a party with friends, normally I was the first to leave, wanting to wake up early to ride the next morning.  I got to know the roads in my canton very well, and my surrounding area in both Switzerland and France.  I went to Mallorca for my February holidays, and for Easter I traveled to the Loire Valley and Bretagne, France.  I saw a lot of gorgeous countryside that kept me smiling and in awe.  When the long weekends came round in the spring, I also took advantage and hoped on my bike Friday afternoon for 3,5 or 4,5 full days of cycling.  I made sure I did a few long rides, of 300 plus kilometers and my last test ride, I did a bit of reconnaissance of my route through Germany, Austria, and Italy, averaging 310km a day for 5 days.  It was an excellent test to give make me review all my gear, my bike, my route, and my race approach.

I did a few 300km+ rides, the record being 352km while crossing Switzerland from Lake Constance to Lake Leman

Climbing the Furka Pass in Switzerland on a gorgeous 25C day on a test trip in May during a long weekend
Coming down from Brittany, France, I explored a lot of the little island's

I went on three test trips at various stages, all solo, which proved to be very helpful in preparing my gear and material for the TCR, an another important aspect of the race.  Coming from the world of bike touring, you don’t ride 4,000 kilometers in 2 weeks with 30 to 40 kg. of gear on a hefty steel frame.  I had to learn all about the art of bikepacking, which was mostly done through my trial trips, although I did read some blogs and asked some other cyclists for advice.  I also treated myself to a new road bike, a titanium frame with disc brakes and an Ultegra group, from a local bike shop in Lausanne.  Up until May, I was still riding my original Specialized Tarmac that was 8 years old, purchased with my first paycheck when I taught in Barcelona.  After living and working in Switzerland for a year, and with all the time I spend on the saddle, I had no problem justifying the purchase.  I tried out my gear as much as possible, wearing different kits, eating a variety of snacks, and tried different set-ups on the bike.  I got everything adjusted and placed just how I wanted before the race. I pared down my packing list as much as possible, but I’m sure I will be able to trim down my list of gear even more after the race!

I started off my world bike tour with way TOO much weight on my bike....

My bike touring set-up has most definitely evolved, My set-up for the TCR N05 
A bikepacker's version of wild camping; sleeping next to a walking path on Lake Constance, Switzerland

The route was also another part of preparing for the TCR.  The Transcontinental is the only race that doesn’t have one specific route to follow.  Participants have 4 controls point they have to pass, but it’s up to them how to get there, as long as they follow the local traffic laws and don’t ride on any of the roads the race organization has prohibited. Route planning for me was rather intimidating although one of my favorite pastimes is looking and studying maps.  Its different when you have to choose the fastest and most direct route to get from A to B  I’m used to choosing the prettiest route with the least traffic.  There is more pressure and stress planning the route for the TCR, which is why I procrastinated with route planning, and gave it more attention once my summer holidays started at the end of the school year, when I could sit for hours on end on my sofa and plot my route more meticulously.  I used a variety of resources including paper maps, google maps, especially street view to see the conditions of the roads.  I also watched youtube videos to see certain border crossings or sections of roads that wasn’t in the google street view, and kept abreast of the road updates on the race’s Facebook forum.  Participants aren’t allowed to ride with other riders unless they’ve signed up together, but I have a feeling I’ll be seeing many riders along my route, as we are all looking for shortest route from A to B.

I love picnic lunches from supermarkets when cycling because it satisfies all your cravings in one stop.  I know they can slow you down, but I located a lot of Lidl and Aldi grocery stores on my route, my favorites as their layout and products are identical regardless of the country

As a non-European passport holder, I have my doubts if all the border crossings will allow me to pass through without any problems.  I had problems on my previous world tour, even with Schengen countries.  From Slovenia to Croatia, I had to try three different border controls before they accepted a non-European passport of a traveler on a bike, and despite sweet talking the border control from Kosovo to Serbia, the Serbs denied me entry, which meant back tracking 200 kilometers to advance.  I don’t have the time to deal with these issues during the TCR.  I was also advised to get an emergency passport to avoid any problems with stamps as well, as I only had 2 pages out of 50 left in my passport. My fingers are crossed this time that I pass all the borders with ease.                                                                                                            
The Perks of the TCR
Most people think a self-supported, ultra-endurance cycling race is pure punishment!  But for me it is the complete contrary.  In fact, there are a lot of perks that come along with endurance cycling.  It is a niche within the world of cycling, and there aren’t many people who do it.  Therefore, there is a very small group of us crazies, and I have met some amazing people as a result of the TCR and I haven’t even arrived to the start line yet!  In January, I came across another TCR participant  in the Geneva area through the Facebook forum.  Felix Burkhardt participated in the 2015 edition and was signed up for No05 with his childhood friend.  He’s German and has a very practical and simple approach to such a race, which he transmitted to me, helping me remain pretty calm during all the preparations.  I never had a cycling friend before I met Felix, who said yes to almost any crazy ride I proposed!   We trained a lot together in the winter, from cycling over the Jura mountains in -3C, or cycling around Lake Leman starting at 11pm, to cycling over to Lyon for the weekend, around the area, and back for a total of just under 600 kilometers in 2,5 days.  I also haven’t ever met a dentist who ate so much candy.  Haribo’s are his main source of fuel for long distance endurance cycling.  I’m surprised Felix still has any teeth left with all the kilometers he pedals!   He will be an interesting dot to watch in this year’s race as he and his partner are persistent and consistent cyclists!

Felix and I did some crazy training rides in the winter
I also met another TCR participant, Jonas Goy, during the winter.  He came to my presentation about my world tour at a local bike cooperative in Lausanne.  Jonas had also did a world tour, although his was quite different; aiming to break the Guinness Book of World Records for the fastest circumnavigation on a bicycle.  Jonas had also participated in the 2015 edition of the TCR and was very knowledgeable about how to prepare for such a challenge, although his cycling level was truly superior to mine.  I don’t know how we ever became good friends because Jonas speaks no English, and my French is very primitive, but somehow our friendship works.  He’s a true swiss and very organized when it comes to planning such a challenge.  Within a few weeks of knowing me, he labeled my approach more “artistic” and had a good laugh every time I explained to him my outlook on the preparations and the whole race.  Needless to say, my French has improved considerably, If only his speed and endurance would rub off on me, then I’d be all set.  If you want to see some incredible manpower, watch his dot fly across Europe.  He should be one of the top ten fastest participants.  

Jonas and I rode to see Juliana Bulhring, at a book signing in Geneva.  She is the author of This Road I Ride, an Endurance cyclist who cycledd the first edition of the TCR, and also holds the women's World Record for the fastest circumnavigation of the world on bike.  She is one of this year's race organizers. 

And of course, it was inevitable that I met Chris White and his wife Heather as a result of preparing for the TCR.  Chris has participated three times and has an incredibly informative website about endurance cycling.  He and his website have also answered countless questions to help prepare me. Both Chris and Heather entertained me by sharing a number of funny stories from past TCR races. He has a way of explaining things so I understand, although he approaches the subject from a scientific perspective and has gathered a considerable amount of data to back up his findings. He also built my front wheel with a Dynamo hub and my back wheel as well!  With a week before the race, Chris gave me a thorough crash course in the basic mechanics I’d need for the race and we serviced my bike together, one last time so I could learn as much as possible.  There aren’t many people out there with that kind of patience!  Chris will be an avid dot watcher this year.

Crash course in bike maintenance with Chris White.  He's an excellent teacher!

I was really looking forward to meeting Mike Hall, the founder of the TCR and an incredible endurance cyclist.  Sadly he was killed in a bike race in Australia in March.  I never knew him personally except for a few email exchanges, but the man inspired me and thousands to put ourselves to the test pedaling crazy distances and taking on new cycling endeavors.  It was a very sad moment when all the dot watchers saw Mike’s dot had stopped moving and learned of his death.  Mike was very present in my mind for the next few months, especially every time I hopped on my bike.  The Swiss crazy endurance riders who knew Mike organized a ride in his honor in Bern the weekend after his death and Jonas and I rode up there to meet them.  It was a very sentimental experience, but wonderful to see the community of cyclist all over the world come together to honor someone who was “larger than life” and whose cycling legacy will continue to live on with all those he inspired. He is still very present in my mind and I’m sure will be even more so when I start riding the TCR.

Jonas and I rode from Lausanne to Bern for the Mike Hall Memorial Ride and then rode back again.

Now What?
The time has come for the race to start and I couldn’t be more excited to start pedaling.  It was recommended to rest the week prior to the race.  I of course found this more challenging than the training itself!  I cooked up a storm at home, trying to be well-nourished prior to starting the race.  I also wanted to sleep and rest as much as possible, but it’s hard for me to sleep more than 7 or 8 hours, now, at least. After the race, I’m sure that won’t be a problem!  Anxiety, nerves, and stress all set-in during the weeks prior making rest even harder, but I do have to admit I’m excited.  I’ve never done anything quite like this before.  It will be a huge learning experience, especially in getting to know myself, which I think I already do after so many hours on the road alone.  

My friends and family have been wonderful supporting me and cheering me on while listening to crazy stories about my bike adventures.  Many of them were just exhausted hearing where I went off and cycled for a weekend and wouldn’t have taken on such distances in a car!  My students put up with a lot of math word problems related to my cycling adventures towards the end of the school year.  I don’t think they will forget their Grade 4 teacher, the crazy Ms. Melissa who was always riding her bike!  In fact, they made me a playlist of their favorite songs and gave me lots of encouragement at the end of the school year.

Preparation for the TCR made for very good real world word problems for my Maths lessons 

I’m happy with the preparation I’ve done.  The race hasn't even started yet, but I've already learned so much about myself, bikepacking, and endurance cycling. Thanks to the race, I've made some great friends, improved my French, and been introduced to a world of other crazy people who are just like me! There are a lot of factors out of my control on the road, but I will take them as they come and try to make the best decisions. I’m planning on celebrating with Felix and Jonas in Meteora for the finishers party! I feel ready and now I just want to start pedaling! The moment has finally arrived, so let’s go!!!  

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Indian Himalayas: Exploring the Kinnaur Valley (Week 1)

I’ve been pedaling now for almost a week. The first few days brought me up to the Himalayan foothills and after that the real fun began. For the first few days I was tired from the lack of sleep, the plane, and getting used to the physical exertion, not to mention the noise pollution which takes it’s wear and tear.  My body was still trying to adapt to holiday mode. For the several mornings, I’d wake up and couldn’t remember where I was: initially I’d panic and think I was late for school, they I thought it was the weekend, and eventually I would finally remember that I wasn’t in Switzerland, but somewhere else, lost far off in the Northern Indian Himalayas.

Shimla is where my real route started. It took me a day to pedal up to this Indian mountain resort. The roads were under construction and traffic was horrendous. When I arrived, I was surprised to find swarms of Indian tourists who come here just to say they’ve been to the mountains and shop ‘til they drop’ on the city’s never-ending “Mall Road”. It was easy for me to depart early the next morning eager to escape this tourist trap and start my 700km route that touches the Tibet border, goes over two 3800m plus mountains passes while cutting through the Kinnaur and Spiti valleys.

The first two days it rained on and off, a fine warm mist that kept me cool and dirty! The air was humid and was, and the scenery reminiscent of SE Asia’s mountains with lush green terraced land that descended steeply in all directions. Clouds hugged the sides of the mountains as did fog and my first two days reminded me very much of the Ha Giang province in Northern Vietnam. The only real difference was India’s incredible infrastructured, making it a much more developed area and wealthier than Ha Giang, whose charm also came from it’s isolated location.

The road, for most parts, a national highway was a paved-single lane road in each direction. This “highway” was shared by buses, taxis, trucks, motorcycles, cars, road workers, and myself. Unlike Cuba, Myanmar, and Morocco,  where unfortunate car mechanic problems are frequent, to my surprise Indian vehicles, who don’t slow down for ANYTHING, but rather honk fervently, hold up pretty well on this road. It‘s hard to get in a good pedaling rhythm on this road; a roller coaster that constantly undulates with incredible pot holes and many mud and dirt patches.

The first night I make it to Sainj, a tiny little pit stop at a major road junction. I had asked in advance about a hotel here as it isn’t listed in my guidebook. The six men working the reception desk are delighted to see me and i’m thrilled to call it a day riding the last 35 km downhill completely soaked. I cherish the warm cup of chai they serve me, wash up and get everything drying out in my room.

The next morning I hit the road a bit earlier, knowing that the ride will be mostly flat except for the last 17km up to a monastery.  The traffic has died down, none-the-less, the vehicles sharing the road with me still honk relentlessly. I try all different strategies to try to avoid them pushing their horns; I wave, say “namaste”, or wave them on, but they still feel compelled to blare their horns.

I’m pretty proud of myself for not stopping every 20 minutes to eat as there are literally roadside cafes and restaurants called “dhabas” every kilometer.  The typical dishes so far have been roti, also called chapatti (their round flat bread), dahl in a variety of colors, curd, and chai, their staple beverage, milky masala tea. I’ve managed to try an assortment of their brightly colored sweets as well, although the ingredients remain a mystery.

Cows still line the road, either standing or lying down. Monkeys creep out as well, usually in clusters. Unfortunately I heard my first monkey road kill from a distance.  It was an awful loud metal thump, followed by a lot of squeals. It was bound to happen.

The road hugs the Sutlej river that cuts deep through the Himalayan foot hills making for dramatic green valleys and breathtaking scenery. I’m baffled by how this green tropical lush land will turn into 5000m plus rugged mountains with glaciers and turquoise lakes. For now I have yet to rise above 2600m and the river flowing through the valley shows no signs of glacier silt. It’s dull greyish brown mud color roars next to me as I ride.

My second night leads me to the tiny village of Sarahan perched on the side of a mountain where the well known Hindu Bhimkhali Temple lies. It’s a grueling 1000m climb to the top of the village for 17 continuous kilometers, but it’s well worth every moment of suffering. The temple is delightful with ornately carved wooden panels and signs of the close proximity to Tibet appear. I cross my first Tibet Indian border patrol station without a problem, and the prayer flags start to appear the higher I go.  I pedal above the clouds and the rain stops. I find myself a very modest and basic hotel with a surprising view of the stunning valley on the other side of the Sutlej river, where I watch the sunset before feasting on the delicious Chinese cuisine that is now ever-present in this region. What a treat for my second night en-route. It doesn’t seem like my trip can get better than this but much more awaits me as I pedal on to the Tibet border.

A fine mist cools me off as I descend down to the river valley. The rains have destroyed the road that hugs the river as it curves and cuts through the valley. I see an official sign that welcomes me to the Kinnaur Valley. The road today is in complete ruins, mostly unpaved with large rocks in the middle that have fallen from cliffs above and deep mud in many places. Yet none-the-less the traffic is quite heavy and drivers don’t seem to be phased by the poor conditions, which tells me that relatively speaking in India, this road is not that bad!  I learn quickly to try to pedal at all times as the mud is about ankle deep in most places and clipping out only leads to a muddy disaster.

I’m amazed as to how this can be the main drag through the area, the national highway that everyone takes to get to the small villages that dot the highway ever so frequently. More than villages alongside the road there are military compounds and hydroelectric plants. India is notorious for poor electrical connections. Many times throughout the course of a day, the electricity is cut and all the lights go out. I can’t exactly figure out how this can be with all the hydroelectric plants that I’ve passed, electricity should be an abundance, but then again you have to remember that you are at 2000m plus and getting the electricity up to the villages is quite a challenge.

On the third day, I plan to ride to Recong Peo, a village up from the Kinnaur river valley where I have to do the paperwork for the Inner Road Permit, as the road travels so close to Tibet and security is strict. The office is open until 5pm and had the roads been smooth tarmac, I would have been there in plenty of time. But now I struggle, between the tattered road conditions, the sun, and my frustration, I know making it before 5pm is impossible, but actually I start to doubt if I will make it at all. The theme for the last couple of days is to end the ride on a grueling uphill climb, this time a 700m ascension over about 5km. Sharing the road with huge trucks, buses, and road works again, makes a difficult climb even harder. As i struggle to climb I wonder how on earth there is an entire civilization above me, a capital city of the region? How have they all managed to ride the road I’m on?

For the first time in a long time, I hit the wall. The body gives up 2 km from the top and I pull over to gag. My muscles are shaking and I can’t go on. I can’t remember the last time this happened to me. I’m embarrassed and frustrated with myself. I buy a juice, sip on it, and get back on my bike. What else can I do?

I’m on the lookout for the first hotel I see and to my surprise I see a westerner working on a bike outside what seems to be a hotel. I start chatting right away in hopes it will help me ignore my condition. It turns out he and his wife are my neighbors back in Switzerland, from the next canton over. They’ve come to follow the same route in the same guidebook as myself and ride to Leh. Stephan and his wife, Jessica, were a day ahead of me and got caught in a big downpour on the road making riding conditions impossible. They were told the road they were riding was under construction and impossible to pass. Rather than opt for the detour pedaling, they hopped a bus and made the detour. I on the other hand, knew of no such detour, and foolishly rode the impossible road under horrific construction. The reason for the detour is that at one point enroute the road ends as there is a bridge that has yet to be finished. I suppose I got lucky and the construction workers helped me across the bridge which was missing several panels and therefore I had to leap across a few points with the rushing river below.

With most of the traffic on the detour, my road is delightfully empty, providing a respite from the honking horns and suicide drivers. The scenery drastically changes and becomes much more arid. For the first time I can smell nature, the warm scent of pines under the sun makes me nostalgic for Central Oregon. Although the river is still muddy and roaring, above, lie the first signs of glaciers and it is evident that I’m entering a higher altitude alpine region….Just what I’ve been waiting for!

That night I’m still not well. I can’t stomach more than a cup of tea for dinner and I’m in bed by 8:30 in hopes to sleep whatever I seem to have, off. Unfortunately the next morning I still don’t feel good. I feel a bit dizzy and without energy. The thought of eating something makes me quiver. I manage to make it down to the inner permit office which opens at 10am unfortunately. I'm lucky in that it only takes an hour and a half to obtain and I hit the road descending back down to the river valley, unmotivated to pedal along the road that awaits me. When it comes to biking, I've always been a smooth tarmac kind of cyclist. The thought of mountain biking scares me; bumps, uneven surfaces, mud and dirt, technical descents, it's never appealed to me! I have NO experience on this sort of terrain, yet I have a feeling that by the end of the summer, I will have a new outlook on this sport.

I’m motivated to find the Swiss couple and French family up ahead of me, but again the road is not favorable. I bump along for 20km, and finally the road gets better. I stop at the first little store I see and they tell me that the Swiss couple was here as well as the family. It’s funny, the tour cyclist always end up going to the same place. Shortly after, I come to my first Tibetan-Indo border control and show them my permit. Then I head out, still not feeling great but determined to keep pedaling.  I stop at another small village, where I could choose to stay or continue on to the next big village I had originally hoped to rest for the night. Of course I decide to go on, knowing that if worse comes to worse, I can hitch a ride.

Surprisingly, the road is much better which uplifts my spirits at the same time I start to feel better. Some motorcyclist tell me there is a group of cyclists just ahead bathing alongside the road, I get even more excited I can make it. The road all of a sudden turns from good to new pristine tarmac, I don’t get it, the road conditions can change so drastically in a matter of meters, and you just have to be happy with what you have for the moment. With the smooth surface I pedal along with ease and finally see the French family,  Jessica, and Stephan.  

I’m delighted to join the group. Never have I encountered a family of 5 on the road, it was an honor to pedal with them. The whole 8 of us were going to the same destination that night so we all pedaled along at a mellow pace. As soon as Ariane and Sebastian, the parents of the 3 children knew I was from Oregon they asked me if I knew of another woman tour cyclist from my hometown, and sure enough I did. The degrees of separation in the world of tour cycling is incredibly small. Here we all were from different parts of the world, never met before, but with friends in common. Amazing!!!

And so was the final ascend up to our destination, another steep climb up to the village.  The Swiss couple and myself volunteer to pedal on ahead and reserve rooms for the whole group. I offer my bike and my extra energy to them to carry a bag for them up to the village and releve them of their weight. Ariane jokes with me, telling me it takes her a good 4 days to warm up to the heavy load she pedals, but once she is used to the extra weight, it's quiet manageable. Ariane pedals a tandem with a recumbent bike in front for their daughter Adélie, age 9, and has a small bike attached to the back for their son Titouan (Tito), age 5. They call themselves the TSAGA tribe, an acronym that incorporates the initials of all their family members. If Tito gets tired he goes in the trailer his dad pulls behind his bike and if he wants to pedal solo, his bike detaches from his mom’s bike and he can ride freely. Gaspard, their 12 year old son, is incredibly bright and mature has been riding his own bike since he was 7. Ariane and Sebastien were never cyclists, but before having kids they were passionate alpinists and ski tourers living close to Grenoble. When they started having kids, they figured tour cycling was the way to go to still enjoy the outdoors and travel. Tito was still breast-feeding when he went on his first tour, amazing. They camp many nights as they pedal on average 30 km a day, especially on rough roads like these! But they are used to these challenging conditions as they’ve cycled the Patagonia, Kyrgyzstan, and the Dolomites to name a few of their destinations. When they find out I'm from Oregon, they immediately ask me if I know of another female cyclist from there. It always amazes me how small the world if, especially in the world of tour cycling.

I was truly in awe witnessing this family and their lifestyle as we shared an evening together in Pooh. By the time we made the climb, found a hotel, unpacked, showered, sat down to order dinner, the two smallest kids were sleeping with their heads down on the dinner table.  But the next morning around 8am, they were all dressed and ready to go with big smiles on their faces having fun while never seeming to be phased by the fact they were traveling in a foreign country. I’ve always believed that children are resilient and adapt to any situation. Ariane and Sebastien introduced their children to this lifestyle and for them it is the norm, it is all they know, and they thoroughly enjoy it, despite it being hard work.

That morning we all depart together, descending what we climbed yesterday at dusk, but not before a photo shoot takes place. Being a solo female cyclist, I get a lot of stares and requests for pictures, but I can't even imagine the amount of photos albums of random strangers in which TSAGA tribe are features. As I ride behind them I witness the heads turning of the locals. Road-workers breaking stones nudge their friend and tell them to look. Jaws drop, comments are passed, and smiles overcome the local's faces. There is a huge amount of respect in their presence. At the junction on the main road that once again follows the Sutlej river we say good-bye and wish everyone a safe and happy journey.

I cycle with the Swiss couple that day. It is a pleasant ride in good company. Stephan and Jessica have traveled the world on bike and my mouth is open wide as are my eyes as I listen to their travel tales. A more enjoyable day couldn’t be had amongst good company and the Kinnaur Valley. The mountains continue to impress us and in the back of my mind, I can't fathom how the TSAGA tribe will make it up these climbs and down the descents. We slowly ascend to the last village in the Kinnaur Valley, a gentle 1200m climb to Nako.  It’s another Buddhist village with prayer flags flying briskly in the wind and an old monastery. Prayer wheels can be found all around the city as well, turning in the wind and from all the people passing by. The town is a labyrinth of small alleyways and it is easy to get lost. All the houses are made of stones or dried mud bricks, painted white with sticks piled on the roofs. It seems to be the Tibetan architecture style, practical for the brutal winters they endure every year.

In the morning, Jessica, Stephan, and myself decide to walk up to the shrine on the top of the hillside, a huge prayer wheel that chimes when the wind blows. We get gorgeous views of the peaks that surround us in all directions and watch the sunrise over the mountains makings the prayer flags light up in the bright blue sky.

It is the perfect way to end our time together. They stay back to have breakfast and I hit the road, eager to enter the Spiti Valley.