Late for Nowhere

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

Fast times at the latest 11 Hills Challenge Bike Race

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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

2 Responses

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  1. How Ironic!!! I had been followimg yourblogasI gotready to cross the thai-burma borderon bike. On the8th I wascycling my loaded bike on this small mountain roadthat showed up on my google maps and camr acrossall the cyclists racing, me going west, you guys headedeast. What a hilly road indeed , but gorgeous amd quiet!

    melissa pritchard

    February 16, 2015 at 8:12 am

    • Wow, what incredible timing! That’s one of my favorite roads in the Yangon area: easily accessible from the city but quiet, beautiful and traffic-free. I hope the rest of your trip goes well. Give me a heads up when you get close to Yangon — I should be around during your expected arrival time of March 1-3.


      February 17, 2015 at 2:09 am

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