(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?
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
13.5 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.
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.
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