Sunday, 3 August
My first night in Lourdes was shared in a room with two other Soldier On riders; a tight yet restful night after trying to get sleep the day before without much luck. After breakfast Adam, Matt, Justin and I met Andy and Jodie for a coffee in down-town Lourdes. Although we were still down two riders (they were en-route from San Sebastian) a quick walk around the busy square followed before we decided a lazy spin to get the legs moving after all the travel was needed.
The easy 63.5km ride saw us head out to Luz-St. Sauveur for some sight-seeing and a taste of the Pyrenees’ weather. This was the ride in which it finally sank in that we had actually made it to France and in a few days time would be representing Soldier On in the Trois Etapes. The ride out was quite an emotional experience for me as it was the culmination of months of training, many set-backs (physically, emotionally and mentally) and a few late minute changes to the travel that threatened to delay our arrival. The ride was very enjoyable and we all soon found a nice rhythm riding together after a few weeks apart. Not wanting to push too hard on the first day in France, we headed back to Lourdes to catch up with the other two riders, Dan and Shane, as well as team driver Bruce.
Dinner was a casual affair at a local restaurant (not called a French restaurant in France) which proved challenging for this vegetarian; luckily salads are quite common in most European countries – albeit with an excess of tomato and cheese.
Monday, 4 August
The next day’s ride was a typical coffee ride that would see the entire team, and driver Bruce, explore some of the local countryside over a relatively easy 47km. There was of course a couple of ugly ramps leading up to a hill-top church including a nice little 28% stretch that left me trying to bite my front wheel!
For the first time since the Trois Etapes was confirmed, Team Soldier On had it’s full roster and was gearing up for the race in four days time.
Tuesday, 5 August – My 33rd Birthday
The plan was simple… Breakfast and then an easy ride to the Col du Tourmalet followed by a quick descent back to Lourdes. But like all simple plans; this one wasn’t. Not even 10 minutes into this ride and I was separated from the rest of the group thanks to some red lights and me not knowing the route out of Lourdes.
Suddenly I found myself riding alone and heading out of Lourdes towards the airport; definitely not the way to Tourmalet. After stopping and some back and forth messaging later, I decided I was too far away from the team and went for a solo ride instead.
I spent my 33rd birthday riding the French countryside; not a bad day at all.
Wednesday, 6 August
A very unexciting day of eating, resting and tapering for the three-day race.
Lourdes put on a fantastic day of sun and warmth; the perfect day for a slow and steady ride to spin the legs.
Thursday, 7 August
With the entire Soldier On team finally in Lourdes, photographer Matthew and manager Clare arriving the night before, it was time for us to have a look at some of the unknown sections of the race; this time in the cars!
We drove up the Col du Soulor, Col de Spandelles and Col du Tourmalet. I can honestly say after the day-trip I was dreading each of the climbs, especially the goat track that was Spandelles!
In the afternoon we set off for another short ride to keep the legs fresh for the first stage of the race the next morning, this time we were joined by coach Scott Sunderland.
In mid 2012 I started mountain biking, something that would ultimately serve to fill the huge void that had been left in my life when I hung up my uniform. A tight-knit community of caring, encouraging and like-minded people enabled me to feel part of a team once again. And in late 2012 I approached a the contemporary veterans group ‘Soldier On‘ and asked if I would be able to fund-raise in a mountain biking event called The Battle of the Beasts. When the dust had settled and my aching body had calmed I had raised a substantial amount of money that would directly assist younger veterans like myself that were struggling with the visible and hidden scars incurred during our service in the Australian Defence Force.
Day 13: We checked out of our hotel and were picked up by our driver and guide Quyen, for a two and a half hour drive to the Bac Ha Sunday markets. The first sign that this day was going to be interesting was the distinct lack of functioning seat belts in the back of the Toyota Camry in which we were traveling. About 10 minutes into the drive down the mountain I couldn’t help but foresee my own death caused by rapid ejection through the windscreen.
In the end the drive to the markets was uneventful except for the dozens of close calls with buffalos and completely clueless idiots wandering onto the road.
The markets themselves were huge and full of the ‘upland’ people who still dress in traditional clothing. The markets were full of the usual meat, fruit, vegetables and tourist trinkets; as well as buffalo, horse, dog and singing birds. Quyen was ever helpful in explaining some of the customs of these mountain villagers. After wandering the markets for an hour or so we stopped for lunch.
After lunch we headed out for a tour of two of nearby villages. Quyen explained the daily life of the villagers to us and took us away from the usual tracks to see some of the crops and homes up close. The weather had changed and it was now extremely hot and humid; while it was uncomfortable to us the more overweight and heavily dressed tourists in the central village were much worse off.
At the end of the walk through the second village we boarded a river boat for a quick cruise on the Chay River. This was quite enjoyable in the cool breeze and Carly even dipped her feet into the water to cool down.
After a short break from the 40’C and 100% humidity we drove back to Lao Cai to wait for the overnight train back to Ha Noi. As we had a few hours to kill, we visited the Vietnam / China border and heard some stories about Vietnamese women being stolen for forced prostitution and people fleeing from both countries.
Finally we boarded the train to Ha Noi and soon we were off into the Vietnamese night.
Day 14: Our train pulled into Ha Noi at 04:30. Unlike last time’s shuddering stop to wake us up; soft music played over the speakers before we came to our sudden halt.
Once again it was a mad rush to get off the train and after a few minutes palming off the not so reputable ‘taxi’ drivers (possibly organ harvesters) we found our driver and headed off to the hotel.
We were able to arrange an early check-in at the hotel and get some sleep before wandering the nearby markets and food vendors in the afternoon after the temperature dropped a little.
Day 10: We left Hoi An and drove to the airport at Da Nang. After a quick flight we arrived in Ha Noi where we were met by our new guide Long and our driver Wei. We had a 45 minute drive into town where we were to do a tour of the city and have lunch. Long was extremely funny when explaining Ha Noi life to us during our drive; always giving us tips on staying safe and avoiding tourist traps.
Our first stop after lunch was the Mot Cot Pagoda or the One Pillared Pagoda built in 1049 in the shape of a lotus flower. Or as I liked to call it… temple #12’500 for the trip.
A quick walk down the road was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum; unfortunately we couldn’t go inside and see Uncle Ho as it was closed for the wet season.
Next up was the Temple Of Literature built to worship Confucius and house Vietnam’s first university. Oh yay another temple… We were supposed to visit here first up in the morning, but it was closed due to a visiting dignitary. I would have been happy with it being closed all day to be honest. The buildings and gardens around such areas are impressive but the temples themselves contain crap. I won’t mince words, the original sentiment disappeared decades ago and has since been replaced by thousands of incense candles, cheap recreations of long lost artefacts and locals trying to sell trinkets. By this stage I was well and truly over having shit thrust at me and being told “you buy something!”
After seeing paper mâché Confucius and paying the equivalent of 10 cents to pee we drove to the Ha Noi Lo Museum; better known as the Ha Noi Hilton. This was built as a gaol by the incredibly brutal French colonialists to basically torture people they didn’t like. Later during the Vietnam War it was used to ‘accommodate America prisoners of war’ including US Senator John McCain.
The rest of our afternoon was spent looking a temple honoring a magic turtle (I kid you not) and touring the old quarter in a pedicab helping to set back Asian/Anglo relations by having old Asian men ride us around town.
Later in the evening we went and watched a Vietnamese Water Puppet show. Basically these are puppets in water set to traditional music and song. It wasn’t too hard to follow what was happening but being 6 foot tall in seats designed for 5 foot Asians; the night definitely dragged on a little.
Day 11: We awoke and embarked on a two hour drive to Ninh Binh to see ‘Ha Long Bay on Land’. We embarked on a short boat ride up the river and through the ‘three caves’. This was quite enjoyable despite the very obvious tourist trap atmosphere to the area. The locals row you up the river and at the turn around point others in their boats close in and hard sell you their wares and expensive food and drinks. This is after others in their boats take your photo and demand you buy it. It’s a real shame that this area has become like this; ultimately it is the fault of the tourist trade but aggressive selling will eventually be the undoing of this place.
After spending the last half of our boat ride in a monsoonal storm we drove to the ancient city of Dai Vet wringing wet to see another few temples before the drive back to Na Noi and our overnight train ride to Lao Cai.
Day 12: We arrived in Lao Cai at around 05:30 to the sweet smell of the train having the septic tanks emptied onto the tracks. Our driver picked us up and we drove up the mountain range towards Sa Pa for an early check in and breakfast before our day trek on the buffalo tracks around the rice fields and villages of Sa Pa.
The short trek was a highlight for the trip as we were able to see the village life up close. Outside of the hustle and bustle of the big cities being able to witness their farming lives was much more enjoyable. The people use all available land to farm and only have small living areas for themselves and livestock. The villagers were very friendly and thanks to the local know how of our guide, the hawkers were kept at bay.