Those that Bike: Cycle touring through SE Asia for Adventure and Weight-loss
As most people who know me know, I have a little bit of a weight problem at the moment. I guess over the years I’ve added a kilogram or so a year on average, and even in good periods when I am maintaining weight for months on end I am still carrying a big chunk of fat around with me.
There have been a few periods in my life when I have lost good amounts of weight, the last time was a couple of years ago when I was eating and living primal in Turkey; I lost 29 lbs. in about nine weeks (~13kg). The other times I have lost weight have been when I was cycling (in Bedford & Ithaca; and during all my time living in Cologne, when I biked most days).
When I was a teenager/young adult I was normal weight, I was never one of those fat kids you see everywhere nowadays, I played a lot of football and badminton at the youth club, I was always the world’s worst runner, I enjoyed a little mountain biking, amusing all of my friends by being out of breath at the top of a climb and then smoking a fag.
My main gain in weight started when I gave up smoking, and since then my weight has been up and down like a yoyo, until I have reached the point where I am now, where I would like to lose about 20 kg (I have been heavier than I am now in the past, not that that really matters, just thought I’d mention it).
Why Cycle? Why Exercise to lose Weight and not Diet?
As I mentioned above, I have generally been at my healthiest when I have been cycling. I work online, so I am sat at a computer all day long, its not good for you.
Although I lost weight following a paleo diet I found that it only worked when I was cooking for myself (which I do enjoy) and due to all of the fantastic food available in SE Asia where I am currently based and the lack of a kitchen, going paleo just does not work for me.
So what to do, losing 20 Kg (44 lbs.; 3 stone 2 lbs.) is not going to be easy by diet alone, unlike smoking where the longer you quit the easier it gets, when dieting the longer you have to keep controlling calories the harder it gets. I am not interested in anyone’s weight loss opinions here, especially anyone who has never been overweight and tried living on deficit calories for months on end, as like most overweight people I could probably write a book on nutritional advice, but as for me carrying out all of the insights from that book, now that could prove easier said than done.
So the obvious answer for someone like me who loves food far too much is to exercise more.
On another note, that I don’t want to go into too deeply at the moment, I am finding that I am quite bored of many things in my life at the moment, well not bored, that is the wrong word (completely the wrong word, can’t be arsed editing, would rather waffle on), I am never bored – there is always something to do – I think complacent is a better word to use, not much seems to be happening in my life, even though I am where I want to be and living in a country I love, I am craving a little adventure.
So putting things together, need to lose weight by exercising more, at my healthiest when bicycling, and craving a little adventure then the answer is somewhat obvious — I need to go on a long distance cycle tour around SE Asia.
But I don’t have a bike and I’m overweight, where do I even begin to start for my SE Asia cycle tour?
I live in Saigon, cycling is much more popular nowadays and there are a few good bike shops popping up here and there. I found that I had to visit a few shops, mainly centred here, to get everything that I needed, and I also had to take a trip out to district 7 to ‘Saigon cycles’ to buy some panniers and a few other little bobs and ends.
I didn’t want to spend too much on a bike for a variety of reasons (costs/nickability) but wanted to get something that was reasonable OK.
Another reason I did not want to splash out and buy a super duper bike was because after a certain price point it costs a lot of money to save a little bit of weight and components, although super awesome and light, they may not be to rugged and easy to replace.
But the main reasons for getting a cheapish bike were (1) every 5 lb in weight I lose is probably worth $100 in upgraded component costs, and (2) I am going to carry all of my belongings with me in panniers; why spend an extra $100 to save a lb in weight only to put 22 lb.+ of luggage over the back wheel?
Anyway, after a few trips out and a lot of umming and arring, I decided to buy a Giant ‘Escape 2 city’ (pictured).
My SE Asian Touring Bike Bought in Vietnam
The bike cost 8,600,000 VND and I got a voucher for 400,000 VND in accessories from the Giant bike shop. I bought a few things there, and a few from next door where they had non-Giant products that would do the same job for much cheaper. The folks at the Giant shop were happy to fix these for me when setting up the bike. I then went to Saigon cycles the next day to buy a few other things I needed.
So here are my start-up costs for my cycle trip (note there are a few things that I still need and will get next time I am near a big supermarket before I set out in earnest (Multitool/Spanner/Allen keys/Screwdriver).
(Prices in VND when purchased, late September 2015)
Bike: Giant Escape 2 City 8,600,000 (382 usd/252 gbp)
Helmet (Giant) 680,000 (30.25/19.23 gbp)
Cycling shorts 670,000
Cycling Gloves 350,000
Cycling computer 200,000
Front light 287,000
Bottle cage 70,000
Spare tube 100,000
Back light 50,000
Puncture kit/tyre levers 70,000
Water bottles 130,000
Computer case 140,000
Small Bag for passport etc., 90,000
With the discount/Giant voucher of 400,000 the total costs for my SE Touring Bike came to ~12,700,000 VND (373 GBP; 572 US$; 503 Euro).
On training for a long distance cycle ride in SE Asia
So now I’ve got a bike, what is the best way to approach my long distance cycle trip? There are two main options (1) get on the bike, go as far as I can, even if it is only 30 km, then grab an hotel or (2) base myself somewhere for a few weeks, work on building up fitness/hardening up certain body parts until I am happy sitting on a bike for 4 or 5 hours/50 miles/80 km.
Although I was very tempted to take the first option, given my fitness levels and the fact that I had a lot of work to do it made more sense to go for the second scenario. So I decided to base myself by the beach and sand dunes of Mui Ne.
Train from Saigon to Phan Thiet
So I put the bike and myself on the 6.40 a.m. train from Saigon to Mui Ne (cost 165,000 VND for me, foreigner ticket, and a further 165,000 for my bike – non-foreigner ticket, had to share a goods carriage with the local scooters; so just under 10 quid/ 15 US$ / 13 euros altogether to get to Phan Thiet station). The process was easy enough, I bought the tickets the day before (counter 4 at the station) and I then needed to be at Saigon railway station in D3 (location) at 6 a.m., wait by a gate for ten minutes until they opened it, then cycle to the train, along with the scooters to the guards van, and have them load the bike into the goods van (I took my panniers and helmet on the train).
The train arrived 3 and ¾ hour later in Phan Thiet (so much quicker and nicer than going by bus). By the time I had got off the train and walked to the goods van, my cycle was waiting for me. I gave the guard the release ticket to prove it was mine, and off I went.
Cycling from Phan Thiet Train Station to Mui Ne
Although only 15km, this was the furthest I have cycled for a long time, and I had the added bonus of using the fully loaded panniers for the first time (not including a 3 km ride to Saigon train station in the morning).
Everything went well, it was hot and I was naturally sweating a lot in the heat, until I came to the hill leading into Mui Ne (about 55 metres gain in height).
I have read up a lot on gear theory and maintenance since, but suffice to say I struggled to get up this hill, largely because my front chainring would not shift down onto the smallest cog, meaning I could not get into a low enough gear to peddle up the hill without using brute force.
So a relatively easy hill became a mountain, involving me stopping about four times for a rest. I finally made it to the top, and then it was downhill or flat to my $10 a night guesthouse in Mui Ne.
(I corrected this gearing problem by twisting the tension on my gear lever wire by about 1/4 of a turn clockwise).
Cycle Touring Training Plan and Routes
After spending some time on Strava mapping out routes, I came up with a nice little 20 mile circuit around Mui Ne, this has a few hills, and a rather flattish but bumpy finish.
The first time I did this course it took about 1 hr 55 min, making it a nice little circuit for building up my endurance and getting fitter (update: my current time for this route is about 20 min quicker). Of course, at my level of fitness I should not really be going this far, for so long a time, and by the end my arms and bottom were rather sore, and my legs knew they’d been going around in circles for a few hours.
The next route I planned out was a 10 mile (16 km) flat but bumpy trip from my guest house to close to Mui Ne town and back (~45 min at my present fitness level).
My two main training aims at the moment are (1) increasing my cadence to around 90; it is presently naturally about 72. Increasing cadence rate works the slow twitch muscles over the fast twitch muscles, thus allowing further distances to be travelled without fatiguing the muscles; and (2) increasing my distance and time on the saddle.
My training routine (for the start anyway) is as follows:
Day 1: 20 miles circuit (endurance)
Day 2: 10 mile recovery (concentrating on improving cadence)
Day 3: rest
Day 4: 20 miles circuit (endurance)
Day 5: 10 mile recovery (concentrating on improving cadence)
Day 6: rest
Day 7: Longer ride of 3 hours (Ride 2 hours; spend some time at a café; another 1 hr ride).
Day 8: 10 mile recovery ride.
Day 9: rest
Repeat days 4–9 (As I work for myself I do not need to worry about following a seven day weeks/weekend rides schedule).
After the first repeat I am hoping to gradually increase the distances over the next two weeks, until I am fine to ride for 50 miles.
Hopefully I should achieve this within 4 or 5 weeks.
(Update: I’m currently up to 30 mile rides, and will probably just go for it now (in a couple of days time) as there will be plenty of options to stop at if I get a little tired).
Planned Route for SE Asia Cycling Tour
Where do you go and how do you travel in SE Asia if you have no time constraints?
I need to work a few full days each week, and on most other days I do a further two or three hours. So my plan is to cycle around ~80km per day for a few days, find somewhere to work for a few days, and then get on the bike again. If I find somewhere nice I might stay for a week or so, and have some cycle based sightseeing trips in the area.
I am presently in Mui Ne, with about eight weeks left on my Vietnamese visa. I will spend the next four weeks or so training in Mui Ne.
Then I plan to travel down the coast towards Long Hai over a week or so, catch up with friends in Saigon, then into the Mekong delta for two weeks of exploring before crossing into Cambodia.
Then my plans go hazy, I will probably follow the coast, try to escape from Kampot, possibly going up to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat (I’ve been before, but it’s worth seeing again) or hug the coast and into Thailand, and down to Prachuap Khiri Khan.
I was thinking of going further down the coast and cross into Malaysia via Langkawi – a beautiful island I really want to cycle around – but most cycling blogs say it gets a bit samey the further south you go in Thailand. So I’ll probably see how I feel by the time about things when I get to the Hua Hin area. I’ll perhaps head towards Sukhathai, which I’d love to see again, and then into Issan; then depending on fitness levels reached at that point either take a mountaness route through Northern Laos back into ‘nam, or a more gentle one through southern Laos and Cambodia.
My SE Asia tour route will no doubt change many times over the trip.
On Gear Selection for overweight cycle touring
I have been doing a lot of reading on gearing and thought I’d mention the following information, as it may prove useful to beginner cyclists. My bike has 24 gears, but in reality it only has 12 or 13 .
There are three cogs on the front chainring (48 (for downhill); 38 (for flat); and 28 (for uphill).
At the back the cogs are sized from 11 (fast speeds) to 32 (slow speeds).
Ideally you want to make the chain travel as straight as possible, so if you are on the biggest front cog, you should be on the smaller back cogs, and vice versa; the middle cog should be focused on the middle four or so cogs at the back.
If you look at the cycle gear ratios picture you will notice that when a large front cog is used with anything other than the smallest four back cogs then its ratios overlap with those of the middle cogs (and the opposite for small front cog/big back cog combinations). Thus, in reality you have only 12 or 13 different cycle gearing ratios in your range.
So when you ride, to limit stress on your chain, you should change as follows (fast/downhill speed to slow/climbing speed)
48 front: smallest cog to 4th smallest cog.
Double shift (front down; back up)
38 front: 3rd smallest to 3rd largest back cog)
Double shift (front down; back up)
28 front: 4th largest to largest cog.
The double shifting is easy once you get used to it, just ease off a little when pedalling, push both gear levers or do one slightly ahead of the other. Depending on what is ahead of you, you may want to stay on the chainring you are on, even if it is time to change e.g., you are about to go up a big hill but have a little dip before it.
On gears, ratios, and cadence (cycling for overweight people and those with luggage in the panniers)
Unless you are a normal weight person who does not plan to put anything other than a few sandwiches and a change of work clothes in your panniers then the odds are that nearly every reasonably priced bike that you look at will have the wrong gearing set up for you (unless you live in a flat area); this is especially a problem if you are overweight, carrying supplies on the back of your bike, and there is an hill in front of you.
Simply put, the best way of going up a hill is to use a low gear and peddle at an high cadence (90 to 100, say). If you are healthy you will slowly and steadily go up the hill without putting a dangerous stress on your body; though your heart rate may raise a tad you should hopefully not be heaving on all but themost difficult climbs.
If you are fit, of normal weight, and carrying no load you will probably be able to do this over a slight ascent angle in – for want of a better term – third or fourth gear, probably dropping down to 2nd gear above a 6% gradient or so, with a big granny gear in reserve; maybe your cadence will drop to 60 or 70 in the steeper areas, but it should not be an issue.
Now what happens when you are overweight/unfit cyclist, carrying a load, and go up the same little hill on a medium priced standard issue bike?
You will find that it is hard to maintain a high cadence at 4 or 5% and you will soon be dropping down to your granny gear, from there there is no way back, as the slope angle increases there is no higher gear to drop down to, so you pedal slower, decreasing in cadence.
This results in you going up the hill using the fast twitch muscles instead of the more aerobic, go all day, slow twitch muscles; these muscles are built for power and sprinting and you can only use them so much before they run out of steam, causing rapid fatigue and a struggle to carry on, even over the flat.
So what do you do if you are overweight and want to cycle over hills? The answer lies in your chainrings. A typical road bike will have front chain rings of 50 and 34 teeth (if compact); this is great for an unladen fit cyclist looking for speed on a light bike. A more recreational bike may come with a triple front cog of 50/48-38-30/28, again ideal for most people; at the back you may perhaps have a 11-28 cog.
However, if you are unfit with a load and going up the hill you will soon find that these gear ratios are not that great.
First off, you are hardly ever going to be hitting high speeds on a bike tour, even going downhill you will probably want to control your speed so you won’t be peddling like a mad person possessed (and the extra weight will help give you momentum anyway).
Pedalling on the flat should be done on the middle ring at high cadence, or perhaps on the biggest chainring with an intermittent sized cog depending on conditions and fitness. But what about going up a hill? Even with a 28 front cogwheel and 28 at the back, you are going to struggle to keep a high cadence and get up the hills with a load if you are overweight, taking away all the fun of the cycle trip and just adding pain and a sense of failure.
So what gears should you be packing if you are an obese or somewhat overweight cyclist, or/and planning a long distance cycle tour?
Well, the easiest change is to drop the size of the cog at the front from 30 to 26, and increase the size of the largest cog at the back to 32–36. This may require a change of derailleurs too, as a ‘standard shop bought bike’ may not have derailleurs with a large enough range to do the job.
To prove this point, if you take a look at a good quality (not cheap) specialised touring bike such as a Surly disc trucker you will see that its front chainrings are 26/38/42, and at the back the cog ranges from 11–36, giving a bottom gear ratio 26/36 of 0.72 (about 19.5 gear inches) compared to my bikes (not too bad for an off the peg cheap bike) bottom gear ration of 28/32, 0.875 (about 23.6 gear inches), and a more standard size racing bike of 34/28, 1.21, (about 32.8 gear inches; try getting that up a hill fatty).
TL;DR To get up hills, overweight and laden touring cyclists should change the smallest cog on the front chain set to 26, and increase the size of the back cog to 32. This will give them more lower gears to work with, and help them maintain the high cadence necessary to get up a hill without fatiguing the fast twitch muscles in the legs.
Cycle Gear that I’d like
Although I bought a reasonably cheap priced bike for my tour, and have bought most of the basic extras required, there are a few pieces of more upmarket equipment that I would really like to have on it (other than gear ratio related) if they were easy to get hold of.
First off, if you are cycling long distance you are going to spend a lot of time sat on your bottom. So a good saddle is a must, to me this can mean only one thing, the Brooks 17. A thing of beauty and comfort.
And second, I’m a numbers geek. I have a standard cycle computer at the moment ($10, does the job), should have spent a little more and got one that counted cadence. I also track my rides using runkeeper on my phone. Ideally I’d use Strava and/or map my ride, but for some reason I can’t get either of these apps to work on my phone in Vietnam as they won’t log in, so I add this information after my ride manually.
Now what I really want is this beauty.
I have read through all the Garmin Edge 520 reviews over at DCRainmaker, and well the thing is pretty amazing, uploading all your route data seamlessly, giving important cadence, power, and heart rate readings, and won’t drain my phone’s battery on a long trip.
Yeah, so the two things that I’d really like probably cost as much as the bike did. TBH I think I’d only ever buy these if (1) I’ve got a few thousand miles in on the bike, (2) I was then planning on riding a few thousand more, (3) I had the money, (4) and in the case of the Brooks I struggled to get comfy after a long distance ride. Regarding the Garmin Edge 520, I’d probably be as happy with an Edge 500 for a hundred bucks less and the new Polar M450, and TBH it would probably be more useful now, while I am training to work on my pre SE Asia cycle tour fitness and the cadence/HR readings would be most useful than on the tour itself.
Afterthought: I could also do with some bar-ends and a pump with a pressure gauge.
Cycling burns about 40 calories a mile (25 a km), and much more if you are overweight and/or carrying loaded panniers in the heat of SE Asia. Not only do I see many new sights and experiences in my future, I also see guilt free Pizza. More seriously, it takes 3500 calories to burn a pound of fat (7,700 for a kilo), so at 40 calories that’s about 4,600 miles (7,500 km) of cycling that I need to do to be thin, that’s quite a long way, but over 5 or 6 months more than achievable, and if I fail, well at least I’d have tried 🙂
I will most likely post again after the first couple of legs of my journey.