Riding in Sri Lanka 2: It’s harder than I expected!

(This is part 2 of my posts about a bike trip in Sri Lanka.  Parts of this were written real-time, diary-like.  I started this on the morning of Day 4 of riding, the day we were told was the hardest day of the 12 day trip.  This trip is harder than I expected it to be, and I’m struggling with the heavy mountain bike, so I thought I would capture the lived experience.  This trip is making me ponder “how hard is too hard?”).

Part 1: the dread 

It’s 6:50 am and I feel like I’ve been awake for most of the night. It’s a … modest… hotel near a national park, and the bed is hard and the walls are thin. The AC was too cold, and I’m sneezing and congested. Even with the loud AC, I could hear my neighbors peeing, and people shouting at each other, and a swirl of barking dogs right outside my door. A surreal dream soundscape.

We ride day 4, “the hardest day of the trip” today.  We’re riding mountain bikes with fat tires, which makes sense on the rutted and muddy back roads. But I find manoeuvring the heavy bike uphill a struggle. On my roadbike, facing a 55 km day that apparently has 20 km of ascent, I would take a deep breath and feel a secret thrill about the challenge. I would feel confident. Now I’m anxious — will I hurt my knees? Will I grind to a halt and fall over still clipped into this unyielding heavy pile of bike?

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If dinner last night was any indication, coffee will be Nescafé and breakfast will be leftover, lukewarm dhal. My riding gear is almost all soaking wet from the monsoon rains that hit us every day. (Yes I didn’t quite clock the implication of wet season when I booked the trip).

My alarm just went off.  Shower.  Go.

Part 2: the bus transfer 

We ride a bus from the hotel to the start of today’s ride. At the start of the trip I was impatient at being on the bus. Now I welcome it.

I’m worried about my knees on these hills with the heavy bike. I tried to get hybrid wheels put on but the driver forgot to put them on the truck.  The 32 year old Aussie woman who eats 15 bananas a day thinks it’s all about a positive attitude. My 51 year old knees silently rebuke her.

Part 3:  The first break

img_041613.5 km into the day and I’m already feeling like this is the hardest thing Ive ever done.  It’s steep and hot and we are only partway through the first 9 km climb.  A serious climb with suddenly super-steep grades. I resent the Aussie girl for eating all the bananas and being so cheerful. I resent the American guy for being 35.  I’m drip sweating and I hate everyone. Quietly.

Part 4:  up up up

I’n wearing my road bike cleats because I thought it would help with climbing, but they are insane.  They make it theoretically easier to climb but when the steep hills grind me to 4 km an hour I worry about falling over, and they make me look like some kind of clumsy bear on a unicycle when I try to get going again.  It’s a mountain pass and there is only up. I’ve forgotten my gloves at the break and my hands are sweaty on the grips.

We finish the 9 km of climbing, and there is a downhill I don’t cherish because of the sweaty hands, and then I think there is respite and lunch, when Nishan the guide says “here is the next 11 km climb.” I almost start to cry.  I begin pushing up, and have to stop because there is a bus from another cycling group who were at our hotel last night and it keeps stopping and then passing me.  The roads are 7 feet wide. I hate this red bus, and I can’t find joy in this jungle mountain.  After stopping for about the 20th time this morning, I say wildly, “I can’t do another 10 km of this, I’m getting on the bus.”  Luba, the lovely Russian woman who lives in the UK, says “just get your gloves, you will be fine.”  The woman who comes from a gloomy pessimistic culture is my cheerleader.  It’s a low point.

Part 5:  lunch

I am very quiet and drained, but I still want to take a photo of the unbelievable landscape we’ve ridden into.  It’s the centre point of a park, and many local people are picnicking happily. They drove.

We’ve done about 7 of the 11 km climb, and I am drained.  Everyone else is chattering and I leave the group and go lie on a bench.  Change my soaking wet shirt and try to figure out if this is just hard or if I’m going to seriously hurt myself.  Decide to keep going.

Part 6:  up up up

I hate every revolution of the wheels.  I’m going so slowly my GPS keeps auto-pausing because it thinks I’m not moving. On a road bike, this would be challenging enough and I would worry about not getting out of the pedals fast enough.  I seem to be able to hop out when I get winded, but getting back in is a a tangled feat.  The driver of our truck offers to POOSH me at one point and I consider it. I walk the bike up one terrible grade and my cleat starts to fall off. I’m grateful for the excuse to get on the bus, but then here comes Luba gamely walking her bike, and Sampat offers to fix my cleat and I keep riding.

There are many people on this mountain top, busses of soldiers and a car full of young mean who stop in front of me and give me a good natured cheer and big waves.  Everyone is kind and encouraging and I am deep inside my own effort. All around me is a deep green deeply storied mountain range and I am only absorbing it through osmosis.

Part 7:  the top

I pushed the bike about a kilometre in total I think, of this 30 we’ve ridden.  But I got up to the top on my own steam. The hardest thing. This is a 1200 m point, but we’ve climbed more because there were ups and downs (Luba’s GPS at the end of the day says we did more than 2000 m of ascent). 

I drink a cup of tea with ginger and sugar from a woman at a little stall, and Luba and the Aussie woman eat corn on the cob.  I buy a packet of cardamom seeds from the woman in the stall and imagine what I will cook with it.

Part 8: the last 20 km

Down is luscious, and dangerous, narrow winding roads through jungle and wide open edges, trucks and tuktuks coming at us. They beep, we shout TRUCK or TUKTUK.  We roll down, and out of the mountain and jungle, and at a fork, Nishan says “this is a choice — this is our usual road, through tea plantation villages.  It’s about 12 km of undulating. This Is straight down and then a bus transfer to the hotel.”

The Aussie girl is already up the hill, and Luba and I look at each other and shrug.  We’ve done the worst bit, sure.  Undulating.

The first half is the most peaceful, glorious thing I’ve experienced in my life — mostly gentle ups and downs on a road the width of a sidewalk at home.  Green lush fields of tea all around us, palm trees.  Little villages of Tamil people who work in the plantation.  Tiny Hindu temples in every village.  I feel ridiculously privileged riding my bike hard for “pleasure” in the face of their lives, but everyone smiles, waves, laughs, greets us. Except for the old man we catch bathing in the river, who scowls.  I understand that.

Then we pause, and Nishan says “be careful, broken roads.”  The next 4 km are the craziest thing I’ve ever ridden on.  Totally destroyed pavement with lumps of cement everywhere, gravel, mud, dirt.  It’s like a logging road went on a drinking binge with a monsoon and a destructive god.  And I’m on a mountain bike in cleats going steeply downhill. I dangle my right foot off the pedal and hang on, walking the bike up every incline. Around me it’s beautiful, but it’s just me, the bike, survival.

The road finally evens out, and we come to a hairpin turn, and Nishan says “okay, 3 km up and then we are at the hotel.”  I laugh the laugh of a maniac and pedal on, stopping about every 400 m for a moment.  My cleats — which were new before this trip — are so trashed I can’t clip in anymore.  On a steep bit, I stop and push, then hop on the bike and then there we are.

The most glorious little hotel, a former colonial tea plantation estate.  Graceful lines and gardens and polished wood and a man offering us juice and wet towels.  I love everyone again.

Sunset

We watch the sun set over the mountains, a flow from light to haze to focused orange energy to pink soft glow.  Every part of my body hurts, including my elbows, and I’m so tired the ancestors wedged in my DNA are asking me what the hell I was thinking. I ponder the relationship between my identity as an intrepid person and what my body can actually do.  I have found the line.  

And, the tea on top of the mountain, this sunset, are the moments where effort is suffused by gratitude, where the world is completely narrowed to the moment of now.  Elemental sustenance:  thirst, time, presence.  And prescription grade ibuprofen.

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Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, a regular contributor to this blog. She lives in Toronto and explores the world whenever she can. She also blogs at fieldpoppy.wordpress.com

13 thoughts on “Riding in Sri Lanka 2: It’s harder than I expected!

  1. Tim Kenyon says:

    Brilliant!

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  2. drspeedy628 says:

    I have to ask – why did you go with road cleats and not recessed mtb cleats? Even if I didn’t have mtb shoes, I think I’d buy a pair for a trip like this as the cost would be relatively small compared to the trip – and you can walk properly in mtb shoes. Not to mention they, and the mtb pedals, are much more forgiving in muddy and tricky terrain.

    But equipment choices are tricky when you don’t know what you’re in for. I did an adventure tour in the Himalaya a few year ago – the guide said, ahead of the trip, that it was all do-able on a touring bike. I took my hardtail mtb just in case (as there were a lot of very long climbs at high altitude – well over 4000m) but with tyres with a slick centre and side knobbles instead of lightweight X-C knobblies. These tyres turned out to be absolutely useless in the mud on the first day and I had to borrow a knobbly back tyre just to be able to move forwards. Everyone else was on full-sus bikes with full knobbles – presumably they didn’t get the ‘touring bike’ message.

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    • It’s not always clear what one is getting into on a trip. There’s road and then there is road.

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    • fieldpoppy says:

      As Susan says, the level of mountain biking wasn’t clear when I embarked on this trip, or I obviously would have chosen different shoes. The unexpectedness of this is part of the difficulty for me. I did a similar trip in Vietnam last year but we had hybrid tires, less intense grades and all sealed roads. Cleats were perfectly appropriate for that trip and I made some assumptions that weren’t correct. Obviously, lol

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  3. Jean says:

    I will be honest: I see wilderness adventuring ..in Canada/US. When we bike on our trips outside North America..it’s just nice (for me personally) to be up close daily with a completely different culture, history and language…when I travel overseas and spend enough money to get there: I want to experience the culture full-on, not out in remote areas.

    I kept reading the 2 parts about Sri Lanka bike trip..and wondered about local people encounters during your trip.

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    • fieldpoppy says:

      Sri Lanka is the 49th country I’ve traveled to, and I run a project in Uganda. Most of my travel is about people. This trip happens to be a more remote cycling trip, where I’m seeing the landscape and riding. I write about the different kind of travel I do at my other blog. These two posts are the physical activity slice of a lot of highly diverse travel — there are many many ways to see the world in all of its crazy glory and I wouldn’t be judgemental about how each of us chooses to do that.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. lorettamuses says:

    I just love your writing so much. thank you. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. marycycle says:

    Fantastic Christmas Day reading I am on the ride with you because of your detailed emotional writing. Thanks! And you made me laugh out loud with stuff like this: The woman who comes from a gloomy pessimistic culture is my cheerleader. It’s a low point.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. RunBikeThrow says:

    Your post reminded me I hadn’t had a banana that day. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. uma197 says:

    I loved the post. I dont ride myself but my two boys do. Gorgeous writing. Love your humour. I am originally from sri lanka. Which part was this?

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    • fieldpoppy says:

      Hi Uma — thanks for the comments ;-). Central west coast to central northeast, then a circle clockwise down to Galle. I flew into Negombo, then we transferred by bus to fairly close to Sigiriya, then rode to Polonnaruwa, then did a big circle through Knuckles and downward. Included Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Ella but were in more rural areas for a lot of the riding. Saw a great portion of that beautiful country. 😉

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  8. uma197 says:

    Oh wow. You are truly gutsy. My parents hail from the north. But because my dad worked as a scientist at the tea research Institute in talawakella (near nuwara eliya) I studied in nuwara eliya for the junior years and then moved to kandy. When you get a moment check out my posts where I do talk a bit about my old country.

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