Monday, June 24, 2013

Ho Chi Minh style

A few months ago, I saw a question posted on reddit about "Vietcong handlebar extensions". These were apparently used to transport freight down the Ho Chi Minh trail by bicycle. I briefly imagined a simple solution involving rope and a scavenged branch, but I put the whole thing out of my mind shortly thereafter. Just another few minutes wasted on the internet, you know?


Carpathian scenery
Fast forward to the end of May. After leaving Lviv, I decided to take a loop through the Carpathians in western Ukraine. Getting there was quite challenging: lots of hills, lots of headwind, and a big stretch of tourist death traps began to wear on my patience. I was hoping for serenity, not gaudy trinkets.

Fortunately, the place was touristy precisely because there were mountains.

Hoping to take a break from people, I devised a detour that would let me hit one of the surrounding peaks on my way through the region. Just past Tatariv, I would head up a gully between two ridges, summit the highest of the four corners of a saddle at the apex of the gully, then slide down the other side of the ridge into Vorokhta.  My map, and guide, was a large tourist-information placard I passed on the road. I snapped a quick pic of it and continued onward.

My 'map', complete with useless compass rose
Things 'got real' immediately after coming through the little huddle of houses that marked my departure from the highway. Rains had left the rough dirt road partially flooded and quite stony. The grade increased dramatically. Soon I was maxing out my aerobic ability trying to keep the bike moving forward in its lowest gear. As the farmhouses became sparse, I began to feel rejuvenated by the fresh air and forest scenery, but I began to doubt how much actual cycling was going to be happening.

Sure enough, I quickly gave up pedaling and started pushing. After cresting one small shoulder, I realized that the climb would only continue, but the arc of my mood only followed suit. I love mountains!

Suddenly, I thought back to the handlebar extensions. Mountains are great, but lugging an overloaded bicycle up them is basically the height of absurdity. Might as well apply the noggin to simplifying the process, eh?

I had some paracord in my kit, and I figured I would just find a suitable branch that I could lash across the handles. Lo and behold, at that very moment, I looked up and saw a good-sized construction beam laying in the path.


Detail of lashings
Now I was feeling super pumped. And I can report that pushing a bike, as demonstrated in my video, really is easier with such an extension. I found a comfortable angle at which I could counterbalance the weight of the bike, and in this position I could use less twisting and more straight-arm pushing. Plus, my panniers were only mostly in the way, instead of entirely in the way.

It wasn't a panacea. It was still a ton of work. Being forced off the 'road' onto a 'footpath' (that may have actually been a deer trail) certainly exacerbated the challenge. But the lashings held, nothing broke, and I was buoyed with the feeling that I was channeling the spirit of both Bear Grylls and MacGuyver.

Complete with rusty nails
After a couple hours, I got to the saddle, got rained on, ate some food, took a nap, and decided to camp out. During the night, I was visited by flatulent horses.

Rolling hitch ftw
The morning was fresh and beautiful, and I felt surprisingly fit. I left my bike in the saddle and went for the peak. In spite of my "map" missing half its compass rose and indicating the peak in the wrong location, I made it in reasonable time. Sadly, deep forest negated any interesting views, and the top had nothing to show for itself besides a wimpy little 'summit cairn'. I ate a celebratory raisin. (Any more would have been a bit overdramatic.)

I jogged back down to the bike, removed my "handlebar extension", waved farewell to the horses still windily grazing nearby, and white-knuckled my way down the gravelly, wet goat trail back to the highway.


More photos in my Carpathian album!