Cycling from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City is more than a physical journey, but eventually the bodies of the 19 riders on this year’s H2H Charity Ride began to tell their stories, in ways both humorous and tragic. Words by Ed Weinberg. Photos by David Harris andFrancis Xavier

 

It started as a joke, with a rider from last year’s H2H Charity Ride describing her thighs transitioning from cross-country class to slappy, fat things. “I’d walk into a room and you’d just hear them making this thick sound,” Emma said / I paraphrased. “They blew up to twice their size with six hours of cycling a day, then just turned to pudding.”

 

Inspired by easy metaphors, Word decided to do some before-and-after measures of this year’s riders, with a highly unscientific yet hilarious method.

 

Afterwards we met up with trip leader — and leading thigh-girth burner, to the tune of 3cm — Andrea Towne, to talk about the 2,000km H2H covered between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and the emotional truths behind their legs of steel. And then the story got less silly, and we got into that too.

 

Who’s the Firmest?

 

 

“I hate to say — Paul [Cordier],” Andrea says. “But Paul’s really in shape for all of this stuff. Danny Walsh had really good calves. He has a small frame, but really good calves. Collette [Auger]? Really nice calves.

 

“I don’t know what the measurements are, if people’s legs got bigger. But we were standing around touching people’s bums and seeing who’s the most firm.”

 

A ride like this is a feat of strength and willpower, but it’s also a month-long trip around Vietnam with your new best friends. Not all of that added girth is muscle.

 

“A lot of people gained weight last year,” Andrea says. “And that was kind of my goal this year, not to gain weight. A lot of the food on the ride — people aren’t sensible when they just eat a ton of carbs... you’re hungry [after a day’s ride] so you eat that.

 

“I tried to have a diet of vegetables post any ride if I had any carbs in the morning, so that helped me not gain weight — and this year it seemed like most of the riders stayed the same [weight]. It’s bizarre, I don’t understand it. We drank a little more than last year.”

 

It was like that through the first four days of the ride, pretty much like last year’s edition. And, with people well on their way to cartoonishly sculpted thighs, tragedy struck and almost derailed the whole endeavour.

 

The Long Cut

 

 

The road from Tin Gia to Do Luong isn’t the best. It’s narrow and gravel-strewn, and too far off the coast for the sea breeze to cut through the unremitting heat. And it was the scene of the low point of the 2014 H2H Ride.

 

Andrea was in the front of the pack when she got the phone call — a truck had hit a rider. She doubled back to see Becky Chmiel on the ground, and blood everywhere.

 

“It’s really hard for me to put together,” Andrea says. “I saw the wound, and basically from her ankle to mid-calf, all I saw was bone. The flesh was ripped off and her calf was hanging off... it looked like a knife serrated it off.

 

“I think the tire grabbed her leg and like pulled her somehow... According to her, the truck ran over her ankle and then had to back up over it to get off of it.”

 

Becky, Andrea and a few others first went to a smaller hospital, then to the provincial hospital, which couldn’t help either. They took an ambulance ride up to Hanoi, while the rest of the crew waited in the small seaside town it had started the day in. It was a long, solemn two days, waiting for a phone call.

 

“They called it purgatory,” Andrea says. “When they were waiting for us in Hanoi, they were in purgatory. It was an abandoned beach town, a resort beach town with nobody there. And it was cloudy and rainy, and they had to wait for us and wait for an answer.”

 

When Becky finally stabilised — even getting on a stationary bicycle in her Hanoi hospital’s exercise room — Andrea finally made that call, after the Tan Gia contingent had made up their minds to continue on. “They worked together so well and got everything done and were so happy for that phone call.” Becky was happy they were going on as well.

 

“Oh, it felt so good to be reunited,” Andrea recalls. “It felt like forever.”

 

Downhill from There

 

 

“It took about a week,” Andrea says. “Each truck horn felt like a knife in my back. It was so scary, hearing the sounds of trucks, hearing them thump by you.”

 

The biggest challenge on a ride like this isn’t the ride itself — it’s how your mind handles the long days, the hot sun, not thinking about the 50km between you and the bed you will sleep in. Becky’s ordeal helped with that, immensely.

 

“How it impacted our team,” Andrea says, “was that no one was having as bad a day as Becky was. When you think of physical issues, like a really long mountain or a really hot day, it kind of puts it into perspective.”

 

Towards the end of the ride, the riders’ perspectives shifted. They began to feel less challenged and more confident in taking on whatever the day would bring.

 

“You definitely get stronger cycling every day,” Andrea says. “That’s one physical thing that you definitely notice. You know, by the end of the ride we’re like, ‘Oh, 80k? Piece of piss.’

 

“You surprise yourself with how far you can go, or how high you can climb.”

 

 

And these rock-hard thighs and calves?

 

Andrea wants to keep them toned. “I have to keep running and doing triathlons if I want to maintain them. I have to do something or they’re just going to fade away!”

 

H2H Charity Ride runs yearly in April. This year, they raised an unfinalised tally of VND720 million for Saigon Children's Charity. For more information, go to h2hcharityride.org

 

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