Late for Nowhere

From life in Southeast Asia to backyard adventures in Kodiak, Alaska

Archive for February 2015

My life as a cyclist, documented for bored airline travelers

leave a comment »

The current issue of Air KBZ’s inflight magazine includes an 7-page interview with me about my experiences cycling in Myanmar. The transcript is below, followed by the page layout from the magazine.

How long have you been a mountain biker?

I’ve been a “serious” cyclist since I was teenager, when I started participating in competitive road races in the early 1980s. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that mountain biking actually started becoming more mainstream and mountain bikes became widely available on the mass market. I bought my first mountain bike in the late 1980s and started exploring trails in the forests of Pennsylvania (on the east coast of the United States) where I grew up. But I still owned a road bike, so I did both kinds of cycling, and still do.

How did you become a mountain biker? What attracted you to the sport?

As I said, when mountain bikes appeared on the market, I was already an avid cyclist. But mountain bikes vastly expanded the terrain you could ride on and the places you could explore. With road bikes, you’re limited to pavement; with mountain bikes you can get far away from traffic and urban noise. You can go places where not many other people go.

What are the main challenges of mountain biking?

An important component of the term “mountain bike” is the word “mountain” – many off-road trails are hilly and therefore require a certain amount of fitness to ride while still having fun.

Dirt trails can also be tricky to ride, with obstacles like rocks, ruts and sand along the way, so mountain bikers need to learn specific bike-handling skills to avoid crashing.

Also, since mountain biking can take you far from civilization, you must be self-sufficient: able to fix flat tires and broken bike parts, and able to find your way if you get lost.

How does mountain biking in the US compare with mountain biking in Myanmar?

In the US, there are vast protected parklands where development is prohibited. Mountain bike trails can take you into remote areas where you might not see another person for hours, and where your only companions are nature and wild animals. By contrast, Myanmar does not have a tradition of protecting wilderness areas: Even when you’re out on a trail, you’re likely to be passing through agricultural areas with villages and farms, so there are usually other people around. In Myanmar, it’s more of a cultural experience than a wilderness experience.

Where have you done most of your cycling?    

Although I lived in Pennsylvania when I started mountain biking, most of my riding in the US occurred in California, where I moved when I was in my 20s. In Southeast Asia, I’ve mostly ridden in Thailand and Cambodia. In Myanmar, I’ve mountain biked extensively in areas near Yangon and Mandalay, and of course on the pathways around Bagan. On longer, more exploratory tours, I’ve ridden in Mon State, Shan State, Chin State, northern Kachin State (Putao) and elsewhere.

What was your most recent mountain biking trip?

Most recently, I took my mountain bike with me on a trip to the US, which I had not visited in more than three years. I was there for three weeks, and I cycled nearly every day: In the rugged mountains north of Los Angeles, the desert of Joshua Tree National Park, the high altitudes of the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe, and the badlands of Death Valley. The rides ranged in length from around 15 to 30 miles.

What destination will you choose for your next trip and why?

I’m still trying to decide. I’d like to spend some time exploring the area around Taunggyi in southern Shan State, and I’m also interested in cycling the partially paved stretch of road between Kyaingtong and Loimwe in eastern Shan State – it’s about 20 miles long and uphill all the way to Loimwe, and of course downhill all the way back. And there are also vast areas of Chin State that have only recently been opened to foreigners.

I’ve also been feeling the urge to take part in competitive racing again, which I haven’t done for many years. Unfortunately, there are few races in Myanmar. The government-affiliated Myanmar Cycling Federation, which is supposed to be responsible for organizing such events, is completely incompetent and seems more interested in suppressing the sport than in promoting it. So I’m keeping my eye on the race calendars in Thailand and Malaysia to see if there’s anything interesting.

What has been your favourite mountain biking trip in Myanmar and why?

The most memorable mountain bike trip I’ve taken in Myanmar was to Mount Victoria (Natmataung) in Chin State, which I did in October 2009. We were a group of about a dozen Myanmar cyclists and two foreigners, including myself. We started in Bagan, and our goal was to be the first group to cycle to the peak of Mt Victoria, which is about 10,100 feet above sea level. At the climax of the five-day tour, we had to do about 30 miles of very steep uphill riding at high altitude, which we split into two days to help us acclimate to the thin air. We rode most of the way up, but the last part of the ascent was on an extremely steep, rugged hiking trail, which was impossible to ride. Most of us abandoned our bikes by the side of the trail and walked up the last couple of miles, then recovered our bikes on the way back down. But a few riders actually carried their bikes to the peak – so they became the first people to summit Mount Victoria with (but not necessarily on) mountain bikes.

What was your first trip as a mountain biker in Myanmar?

I started by exploring trails around Hlawga Reservoir north of Yangon. These rides were done with a small group of locals and expats who were all fairly serious cyclists, as the trails we were exploring were quite difficult to ride and not really suitable for beginners. Since then, we have found places to ride near Yangon that are more suitable for mixed groups of novice and experienced riders.

What advice would you give a beginner who wants to mountain bike in Myanmar?

The best way to start mountain biking is to go out with a group of people who know the trails and who are eager to show beginners where to ride. At the moment, the only group that does this with any regularity is based at Bike World bike shop in Yangon – they go out for rides through villages north of Yangon every Sunday morning, and they can be done by cyclists of all levels.

More experienced cyclists can plan independent trips to other areas around the country, but it’s hard to know where to mountain bike without local knowledge of trails and dirt roads. Most independent cyclists therefore stick to long-distance road-riding on paved routes. The area around Hpa-an is good for this, and Shan State is also popular but can be quite hilly.

What is your biggest achievement as a mountain biker? What is your biggest failure?

I don’t really see mountain biking in terms of “achievements” or “failures”. It’s more a matter of simply getting out and seeing new things, making new friends, while at the same time enjoying some exercise. Every single ride can be seen as an achievement of sorts: Successfully tearing yourself away from the hypnotic lure of television, getting away from the routine of everyday life and having a small adventure on your bicycle. For me, even those rides where something goes wrong – mechanical breakdowns, crashes, failing to reach your destination – are valuable experiences, and they’re often more memorable than those rare rides where everything goes perfectly.

Do you have any souvenirs from your cycling trips?   

I have a few permanent scars from crashes, but that’s about it. I don’t think about buying things when I’m cycling. When you’re travelling under your own power, it’s better to travel light. If you buy something, then you have to carry it while you’re pedaling.

What is the difference between cycling in a group and cycling alone? Which type do you prefer and why?

Cycling in a group is obviously more social and can be a fun way to meet people. You can hang out afterward to drink beer and talk. Plus, it’s safer: If you get injured or lost, you have other cyclists who can help you. On the other hand, cycling alone can be a great way to really “get away from it all” and clear your head, and you can ride at whatever speed you prefer. I usually ride alone due to time constraints, but I also like to ride with others when I’m able.

What kind of mountain bike do you ride?

Right now I’m riding a Trek 4700, which is a decent enough bike but a bit low-end compared to what I usually ride. Previously I was riding a higher-end Trek 6900, but I cracked the frame after several years of hard riding and had to give it a Viking burial. At that time, the 4700 was the best complete bike available for purchase in Myanmar. I’ll eventually get an upgrade, but for now it’s doing the job.

What is your ambition as a mountain biker?

I have no ambition as a cyclist except to ride as much as possible and to have as much fun as possible while doing it.








Written by latefornowhere

February 19, 2015 at 6:26 am

Spontaneous Cargo Combustion

leave a comment »


So there we were, driving through Yangon on our way home from a half-day excursion to a pagoda outside of the city, when up ahead we saw a burning truck along the side of the road …









Written by latefornowhere

February 16, 2015 at 6:09 am

Fast times at the latest 11 Hills Challenge Bike Race

with 2 comments

Blog.11 Hills Ye Kyaw Sawer

Mountain biker Ye Kyaw crosses the finish line.

During the week leading up to the Bike World 11 Hills Challenge on February 8, I had vacillated between whether to ride my mountain bike (so I could compare my time with the dismal 1h 47m pace I had set in October) or my road bike (so I could enjoy the smooth roads and set a faster time). Ultimately I decided on the latter.

In any case, I had been looking forward to the ride because I’m now in much better shape than I was in October (when the main challenge had been merely surviving the distance), and I had lost more than 8kg (18 pounds) during the intervening period, which would help tremendously with getting over the hills more quickly.

The race attracted 49 participants, mostly locals but also a handful of expats, with fewer than 10 of us on road bikes and the rest on mountain bikes (there were separate categories for each).

The race started shortly after 9am, just as the morning coolness was burning off and the heat of the day was taking hold. The starting flag (a folded Ruby Red cigarette carton) was dropped by the monk who runs the Kalitaw School, and to which the fees collected through entry fees were donated after the event.

The out-and-back course – located about 90 minutes by car north of Yangon – totals 38.6km (23.8 miles). The first couple of kilometers are flat and straight, but then the hills begin and the road starts winding in a way that makes it difficult to settle into a rhythm for very long: With the constantly changing need to climb, descend, corner, brake and accelerate, going fast requires a combination of fitness, sound riding technique and mental calmness.

One of the local riders went to the front straight from the start and stared pedaling hard: He was Myint Aye, a former Myanmar Cycling Federation national champion. The rest of us tucked in behind him, content to take advantage of his draft and save energy before the hills started. I was comfortable with the pace as I sat in third or fourth position; this early in the ride, I didn’t bother looking back to see who was following.

As soon as we hit the first slope, two locals on mountain bikes flew past us and accelerated up the hill. One of them died a quick death and faded back into oblivion as Myint Aye powered past, but the other rider got a good gap in front and kept going, his body and bike rocking as he pushed a huge gear. Myint Aye accelerated as he gave chase, putting a gap between himself and the rest of us. I accelerated past the rider in front of me (Maung Maung Soe), and caught up with Myint Aye, and the two of us closed the space between ourselves and the mountain biker.

At this point we sat up a bit, and four or five of the riders behind caught up. I ended up at the front but was reluctant to waste energy so early in the race, so I was happy when Maung Maung Soe came past and took up the pace. His attack lasted about 10 pedal strokes before Myint Aye decided to shed some unwanted baggage (ie, everyone who was not him): He accelerated all the way to the top of the climb and kept going. I accelerated as well, knowing I couldn’t match his pace but determined to use him as a rabbit by keeping him and his orange jersey in my sights as long as possible.

By the top of the hill, Myint Aye had about 5 seconds on me. I glanced back and saw that no one had been able to follow us, so I knew the race was on: I was either going to spend the rest of the time riding alone, or I would be caught by a small group coming back up from behind and we would work together to limit our losses to Myint Aye.

I was able to keep Myint Aye in my sights for a few kilometers, but after that I was in no-man’s land: On the twisting, hilly course, I could see no one in front of me or behind me. I clicked into time trial mode, standing on the pedals up the shorter hills, staying seated and spinning a moderate gear on the longer hills, trying to find a balance between climbing fast and saving enough energy so that once I crested each hill, I could shift into the big chain ring and keep pedaling hard down the other side. Brief respites were provided only by the tight corners and the gritty, sandy sections where I was forced to coast or slow down.

I was using a Garmin computer for the first time on the 11 Hills course, and I’m not sure I enjoyed its companionship: Heading out from the start line, it sat on my handlebars as a constant reminder of so many miles to go, so much more time to spend enduring the pain of riding fast. I was hoping to finish with a time of around 1h 30m, so I expected to reach the turn-around at 45 minutes. At 38 minutes I saw Myint Aye heading back up the road in my direction. Could he already be so far ahead? But two minutes later I was at the end of the course; I turned around and aimed myself back toward the finish line, and then it was time to start pushing a bit harder on the hills. As I passed the other riders coming toward me, I saw that I had a fairly comfortable lead, but I worried that they might also have been saving something for the return ride.

As I grew increasingly fatigued, I found it harder to maintain good riding technique on the tricky course. I felt like my cycling was too choppy, and I was wasting energy with bad gear shifts and bad lines through the corners. I also descended into a mental fog that made me forget the details of the course: The hill on which I really decided to start hammering turned out to be the monster climb with the surprisingly steep finish that was invisible from the bottom – I died about halfway up, and by the time I crested I was barely turning over my gears. On the next hill I made a bad shift and dropped my chain, forcing me to stop, dismount, and put the chain back onto the small front ring. This only took about three seconds, but then I had to restart in the middle of a steep incline, which sapped a bit more power out of my depleted legs.

After this little shock, I focused less on the physical side of the ride and more on calming myself mentally, and from there the rest of race went smoothly; I was able to power up the hills quickly and without too much unnecessary effort, and then swoop through the curves going down the other side. When I reached the final flat section I noticed (compliments of my Garmin) that I was way ahead of my expected time, so I shifted into the biggest gear my legs could handle and pedaled hard in an effort to cross the line in under 1h 20m – a minor goal that I missed by 14 seconds.

Aung Myint had finished in 1h 16m, and we both beat the previous course record of 1h 25m. The next finisher was Maung Maung Soe at 1h 27m. I ended up second overall, and first in the Over-40 age group.

Once everyone was across the line, beer and soft drinks were consumed, stories were told, medals were awarded, and 243,000 kyats were donated to the Kalitaw School, and then it was time to go home. I loaded my bike into the back of my pickup truck and enjoyed the all-too-brief drive through southern Myanmar’s gorgeous countryside before descending back into the gridlock apocalypse of downtown Yangon.

Written by latefornowhere

February 13, 2015 at 8:45 am

Nay Pyi Taw cycling weekend: My races

leave a comment »


There I am: the fat white guy in the middle of the group.

The second round of the year-long Cycle and Make a Difference Charity Series was held in Nay Pyi Taw on January 24 and 25, featuring races for both road cyclists and mountain bikers.

I had been doing a fair amount of cycling throughout December and January, but many of the competitors were residents at the youth training camp in Nay Pyi Taw. I was interested to see how my 47-year-old lungs and legs would hold up against the young locals who were training for the Southeast Asia Games scheduled to be held in Singapore in June.



The road race on January 24 was short and fast, starting with 35 kilometres (21.7 miles) on flat roads before tackling the steep, unrelenting 8km climb to the peak of the inappropriately named Mount Pleasant. I had little trouble keeping up with the main group on the flat section, despite speeds hovering in the 40-50kph range: My advantage over the young riders was my racing experience, and I was able to hide in the middle of the peloton without expending too much energy.


This all changed when we reached the bottom of the hill, by which time we had shed about 20 rider out of the 50 or so who had started the race. Once we hit the slopes, there was nowhere to hide: I was one of the first riders to be ejected out of the back, and all I could do was pedal at my own pace while I watched the young, fit national-level riders disappear up the road.

I eventually finished in 27th place (1h 24m 46s) overall, and in 5th place in the Over-26 age group. Chit Ko Ko, 23, was first across the finish line in the men’s race with a time of 1hour, 15 minutes and 55 seconds, while the women’s event was won by 24-year-old Thu Zar (1h 22m 20s).


The mountain bike race on the following day consisted of five laps of the 4.5km 2013 SEA Games circuit, for a total of 22.5km. The course is tough, with plenty of singletrack, rocks, ruts and steep hike-a-bike sections.


My effort was doomed to failure virtually from the start, as a I suffered a pinch flat about 200 meters into the race. As I rode slowly back up the first hill to the start line, I thought I would pack my bike away and spend the rest of the day taking photos of the race. But then I found myself at my car, putting a new inner tube in my rear tire. Before I knew it, I was back on the course riding the race, albeit nearly a full lap behind the frontrunners.


Despite spending 15 minutes changing my tire, I somehow managed to finish 9th out off 11 starters, and 4th out of 6 in the Over-26 age group. The event was won by 18-year-old Mann Tin Khung (1h 3m 55s). No women entered the mountain bike event.


The next round of the six-race series, sponsored by Myan Shwe Pyi Tractors (MSP) and the Myanmar Cycling Federation, will take place in Mandalay in late March. In the meantime, Bike World in Yangon is holding another 11 Hills Challenge on February 8.




(All photos courtesy of MSP)