Friday, November 18, 2005

Day 77 - near Moc Chau to Mai Chau

Start: village near Moc Chau, Vietnam
End: Mai Chau, Vietnam
Distance: 120 km
Time: 7'47"
Avg: 15.4 k/h
Max: 52 k/h
Total: 4968 km
Total riding days: 56
Roadkill: very, very nearly me. I should probably be dead now.
Riding hours: 0630 - 1720

Two things:

1. The road from Moc Chau to the Vietnam-Laos border (signposted to 'Cua Khao') is 32 km long, almost all uphill, and very hard work. At the top, a very polite Vietnamese border official will inform you that this border is no longer open to foreigners, and you will have to go back down again. So I am not in Laos.

2. From Moc Chau east towards Mai Chau, the road climbs for about 25 km, and then descends steeply and longly on a winding mountain road. There was near-whiteout fog and drizzle. My brakes failed. (My fault, I did not maintain them properly.) The pull of gravity down the slope outweighed any remaining friction in my brakes, and I lost control. The bike was going faster and faster, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I hit 52 km/h, my computer tells me later. One overtaking car, broken down truck, vehicle out of position, motorbike coming round a bend, landslip, roadworks, cow, old woman... anything would probably have killed me, and quite possibly them too if it was something animate that I hit. All of these things are extremely common on this road. I must have been going 3 or 4 kilometres in this condition, screaming all the way hoping that people would get out of the way.

I had both brake levers pulled right down to the handlebars, and I was still accelerating. I tried using my feet as friction brakes, scuffing the soles of my sandals on the road, but they kept catching on the road surface and being pulled backwards (nearly breaking my legs in the process).

Eventually, when the road flattened slightly, I was able to get onto the crossbar of the bike and 'run' along astride the bike, gradually taking more strain on the legs and pulling the bike up with my arms.

I stopped. But I was very, very lucky. My chances were probably worse than 50-50, given the frequency of broken-down trucks on the road (but none, by a miracle, on my runaway stretch). In retrospect I should probably have baled out and taken the cuts, bruises and breaks; they would have been less life-threatening. My bike would probably have gone over the cliff though.

Afterwards, as I stood shaking by the roadside, unhurt apart from some bruising on my thighs from stopping the bike, a man past whom I had hurtled a minute or two previously, yelling like a lunatic, came down to check that I was all right, and shook my hand. He stayed to help me adjust my brakes, too. People can be very, very kind.

Message to any other cyclists as foolish as me: do not let your brakes get to the point where they are at full-stretch to stop you in the dry. When it rains, you will not stop.

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