It was 7am and I was still groggy. I hoped the caffeine in the coffee I’d downed would kick in soon. We’d just set off on our bikes from breakfast, a roadside pho noodle stand, and it was going to be a long day on the saddle. 110 kilometers to Mai Chau.
Well, this hill should help me wake up, I thought.
It was a rather short one, no more than 200 feet, but it was steep. I snapped into a lower gear and buckled down, flexing my legs. That’s when I felt the pop. I knew immediately what it was. I had pulled a muscle in my left knee.
It wouldn’t be the first time on this trip. Both Morgan and I have strained our knees before, at similar times when we were riding in the morning and hadn’t given our bodies enough time to warm up yet. Normally it’s not such a big deal though. I was able to push through it, and by lunchtime my knee had become uncomfortable but tolerable. On the flats, it didn’t affect my performance – just a slight, nagging pain. Nothing more. I took Morgan’s suggestion and popped a few ibuprofen at lunch to bring down the inflammation. We only had 40 kilometers more to Mai Chau. It shouldn’t be a problem, I thought.
Then we entered the highlands.
They were ominous. Towering rocks with granite faces and jungle vines rose before us, jutting up and disappearing into misty clouds. The road made no diversions. It headed straight into them.
“Get ready for a climb” I grinned to Morgan.
We followed the road around a corner, where a yellow triangle sign announced the highway would slope up to 10%. That’s a steep grade to ascend with over 50 kilos of baggage, so instinctively I stood up from my saddle to get more leverage.
A sharp pain shot through my left leg.
I slumped back on my saddle.
Standing aggravated the pulled muscle, putting too much pressure on my left knee. This was an issue. It meant I was going to have to pedal the 2,100 foot pass sitting down, riding diagonally back and forth across the highway to reduce the steepness. Without the leverage of standing, I couldn’t maintain a strong enough cadence to go straight up a 10% grade.
The tactic worked for a while, but after a few kilometers my hamstrings grew tired. Without thinking, I shifted back in my seat to give them a rest, and pushed down hard on my left knee.
I swerved into the shoulder and clipped out of my bike pedals, clutching my leg.
Morgan stopped, looking at me, concerned. “How’s it feeling?”
“Well. It kind of feels like pulling 150 pounds up a mountain on a strained muscle.” I spat.
I kicked a dirt clog.
I was furious. I was frustrated that something so small could render me completely inept on the bike. I have always considered hill climbing my strength, and here I was being defeated. But I didn’t want to look too weak in front of Morgan. I insisted we keep going. We set off, and Morgan breezed right past me.
I watched him jealously as he stood up from his saddle to tackle a steep hairpin turn. The pain in my knee was becoming unbearable now. It didn’t matter what position I was in, I could feel it with every pedal stroke.
I put my head down and tried to put it out of mind, but without the use of my left knee I was crawling up the mountain. Finally I came across Morgan waiting for me at a roadside store. I had fallen behind him by at least a kilometer.
“Chris, this is ridiculous. You need to stop and let it rest.”
“Fine!” I sputtered indignantly.
I collapsed into a plastic chair and Morgan went to go find ice for my knee. I was fuming. All I could think about were the thousands of feet of mountains we’d face in the days ahead, and how this hill was just the beginning of them. I considered turning around. Maybe I’d end the tour early and go straight to Hanoi.
Morgan was more levelheaded. “It’s okay dude. There’s no rush. Just take your time.”
He pointed out that it was the first time in 16 months we’d ever run into a physical injury like this. Perhaps we were due. We’d been lucky.
Being the first victim, the thought didn’t exactly console me. All I could think about was how I felt at the moment, and it sucked. It took me a while to get back on the bike to confront the last of the pass. It turned out we’d been sitting only a 100 feet from the top.
We stopped at the lookout, and I laughed. A beautiful valley lay stretched before us, unlike few I’d ever seen. Bright green terraced rice fields rolled alongside a meandering river, all bounded by tall cliffs and steep hills that reminded me of Yosemite. Only it was more stunning.
I knew right then and there that I wouldn’t allow my knee to stop us from exploring the rest of Vietnamese paradise. In the coming days, the hill climbing wouldn’t get any less steep, and the pain wouldn’t subside until we reached Hanoi. But at least I’d learned how to resist the pain with a little motivation. Suddenly it was a lot easier pushing up the passes knowing what kind of scenery awaited us on the other side.