Late for Nowhere

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

My life as a cyclist, documented for bored airline travelers

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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

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