|Newsletter - 2012 Archive|
Randonneuring in Korea
Here is the story. My goal in registering for this ride was very simple, I wanted to qualify for the UK Audax Four Continent -1200 award as so few randonneurs had done so. I did have an ulterior motivate as I had befriended a young Korean rider (named Uk) as he passed through Chilliwack on a New York to Vancouver ride in 2010. He stayed with Sheryl and me and urged us to visit his family some day. Two birds with one stone. Then while visiting Jeff when he was recovering in hospital after his crash, I told him about the ride and the next thing I know he has signed up to go as well. It certainly gave him reason to get riding again.
We had absolutely no idea what to expect as we headed to Seoul on a direct Air Canada flight after coughing up $ 120 each to take the bikes. The next challenge was to find a way to get from the airport to the start city of Cheonan approximately 85km south of Seoul. No problem as it turned out; we walked out of the terminal building , stepped onto a direct express bus and we were there less than two hours later. Cost approx. $16. Next problem, how to get from the bus station to the hotel not knowing the language or script. As there were no van style taxis, we hired two separate cabs with the bike box occupying the back seat and us up front with each driver. I had printed off the hotel confirmation receipt which had the hotel address in Korean. The drivers punched the address into the GPS and we were off. The 3km ride cost 3000Won ( about $3). This was turning out just great.
The next day was a recovery day, time to assemble the bikes and explore the area on foot. The hotel had a wonderful Korean or American style breakfast, but the restaurant was not open for lunch or dinner. Where can we eat? No problem, the streets were lined with Mom and Pop walkin restaurants. Koreans seemed to like to meet for late evening dinners. Fortunately most of the restaurants have photo menus. At least we could identify 10% of what the food actually was.
The weather was stinky hot and humid, which was going to take some getting used to. It was now Wednesday, three days before the ride. Fortunately Jeff had found a free map source for our Garmin GPSs which we loaded and headed off on a 20km recon of the the starting section of the route. The traffic was heavy at times but very courteous and forgiving. We had been forewarned of some strange driving habits, which took some getting used to. Namely DO NOT drive/ride directly into an intersection on a green light as it is perfectly OK to drive through a red light if it appears safe to do so. This practice of so called rolling stops was great as a cyclist. Check for traffic green, amber, or red and if safe GO! On this ride we discovered a major construction detour at the 15 km mark that required a re-routing of the course. We dutifully reported this to the event organizer, Lothar Henninghausen.
The following day ( Thursday) we were joined by three riders from the Seattle International Randonneurs Club ( Mark Thomas, Greg Cox, and Rick Blacker). We rode out 20km on the final section of the course.
Before adding more about the ride here is some info about Korea and the Korean Randonneurs Club. Korea is approximately 10% of the area of BC with 12 times the population. It has been a democracy since 1987. It is an ancient Asian culture with strong American influences as the country was occupied by U.S. forces after WW II. There are three Koreas, North Korea ( off limits), northern South Korea where they build and sell things and are rushing into the 22nd millennium and southern South Korea where they grow things and one has the impression this area is in many ways being dragged out of the 19th century. The southern area is a land of small truck farms worked by old men and women, its a hard life. Most young Koreans have moved to the big cities. If you see a young woman working in the fields, she is likely a youth bride from China, Vietnam, or Cambodia.
The Randonneurs Club was founded in 2009 by Lothar Henninghausen. an American professor of genetics doing term lecturing in Korea. The first year there were 11 members, now the membership is over 400 ( with one woman). The average age is 25-35 year old. They mostly wear European style racing kit and ride the latest carbon racing bikes. The concept of self supported riding was completely foreign to them. Lothar says suggesting they should have saddle bags or a handlebar bag was a stretch; panniers or a rack box, forget it, rain gear forget it, tools forget it....smart phone mandatory. Every opportunity to stop and update their Twitter or Facebook entries was imperative. They were often texting and phoning as they rode.....scary.
The night before the ride the riders gathered to receive their control and route cards. We then all headed off for the ceremonial pre-ride Korean dinner ( feast). Great fun! The next morning we assembled for the 5AM start. The Korea 1200 was for the most part in the southern areas of the country. For the 60ish km to the first control at Cheongyang everyone stayed more or less together. At this control we learned that finding suitable food along the course was not going to be an issue. Every town had numerous 24hr. convenience stores, most with seating areas and most didn't mind if you caught a few winks bent over a table or spread out on the floor. Great!. From there we rode on towards the coast at Gunsan and the incredible Saemangeum SeaWall, all 33km of it ( Google it). It encloses an estuary the area of greater London and was slowly being drained to be the site of a future mega city. The route continue along the coast to the first night stop ( Haenam at 393 km).about 350km of this is virtually dead flat, which made for painful riding. You didn't move around enough on the bike; hands, arms, butt started to hurt.
That first night we learned that finding a place to stay was going to be as easy as finding food. Most towns have a SPA ( a public bath usually with a sleeping room) and many 'love motels' ( more on these later). That night we stayed at a SPA, a mistake from a westerner's perspective as this was a long weekend ( Buddha's birthday) and it was packed. The shower and tub were wonderful; sharing a wood floor, with no mat, pillow or blankets with ten Koreans (non riders) was not.
The next day we got an early start and immediately climbed our first big hill and then promptly descended down to a seaside resort: Ttangkkeut ( at the very southwestern tip of the Korean peninsula). From here we headed east along the coast ( what a beautiful stretch of road and coast line) and round the island of Wando. The route followed the coast line for another 300km (againmostly flat). When was the climbing going to start? If my GPS was anywhere near accurate, we sill had in the order of 25000' of climbing. The weather was stinky hot and Jeff was suffering. There was a planned bag drop at the 618km control. Jeff was done for! He decided he had to stop and take advantage of a shower and bed in the motel room reserved for the students staffing the bag drop. He was not sure he could continue. I should mention that the forecast was for CLEAR skies, absolutely no indication of rain. Several of us jettisoned our heavier rain gear....big mistake but with what was to come I doubt the world's best rain gear would have been of much help. It was decided I'd press on with several of the American expats ( Lothar, Russell Morris, and Jason Ham) and Spencer Klassen, an American from Nebraska whom I rode with for many miles on the Perth-Albany-Perth 1200 in 2010. Spencer is a monster, a fixie fanatic ( he is registered to ride the Rocky). In short order we were about to be tested by the first of many Korean style climbs. They were usually 5-8km long, but were they ever steep ( often in excess of 10%.and much steeper). Walking became normal, and the clock kept ticking. At the summit the skies were clear, and we all stopped for ice cream and drinks anticipating a wonderful descent into the next valley.
Good news. Lothar received word that Jeff was on the move.
That night was my introduction to a so called 'love hotel'. Russell, who spoke Korean ran off to find us all hotel rooms. He had lots of possible choices as there were 3 or 4 within several hundred metres of the control. He was back in minutes, the arrangement made. These hotels are open 24hrs a day. If you arrive late at night you knock on the reception office glass to wake up the clerk and hand him/her 30000 Won ( approx. $30) for as many people as you want to put in the room; they don't ask, there is no paper work; then the clerk hands you a razor, two tooth brushes, the room key (and in some circumstance I was told two condoms.) The rooms are clean, supplied with soaps , fragrances, and mood lighting to satisfy your every desire. Cool! These motels serve a very useful social purpose when you understand that many young married couples live in the same house as one of their parents. It makes sense to me.
The third day was hot and muggy with an endless series of climbs (tick,tick..... the banked hours were disappearing all too quickly). It was mid afternoon and as we approached another summit the skies were looking very ominous. I was with Lothar as we began the steep descent, with one eye on the road the other on the skies. Within a kilometre or so down the mountain, the sky went BLACK, the rain started and then everything turned WHITE. Hail stones the size of marbles pounded down...^%$%*(*...did they hurt!). I stopped the bike as fast as I dared and looked back for Lothar I saw his bike lying on the road, but he was gone. Along many sections of the steep roadways there are deep concrete ditches; I heard Lothar shouting. He was cowering in a ditch that had some tree cover above it. I dropped my bike and was beside him in a flash. We had some protection but another problem was developing quickly. The ditch was turning into a raging torrent, we had to get out of it for fear of being swept down the ditch, fortunately the hail had subsided to a heavy rain. We grabbed our bikes, raced down the hill and took shelter in the first bus shelter we saw. Unfortunately the damage was done, we were soaked to the skin, and our panniers and handlebar bags were completely soaked through and through. I was to ride to the finish in wet everything.
The only talk at the next control was THE STORM, but it wasn't over. We left the control in sunshine, but it was short lived, as the skies opened up again. Circumstances were such that we got separated along this stretch of the route, and I rode for the next 6 hours into the night alone. Although the cue sheet was excellent, there were times I found myself in doubt as to where I was. The fact I was having some issues with my GPS didn't help. Somehow I nailed it and arrived at the next control only minutes after Russell, Spencer and the lone Brit on the ride (Chris Wilby).
With Russell's help again I got a room at a nearby 'love hotel'. Paradise, a private room to myself. I opted for an early start (3AM) and was delighted to see Jeff's bike leaning against a wall next to mine. He was making up time. I went off into the darkness. The next control was 70 km away; when I arrived I found Mr. Kim and Lothar enjoying a leisurely breakfast. I joined them. I had a great feed of rice and fried eggs. We set off and would ride to the finish together. More climbs, a directed side route for what seemed like forever along a designated bike route ( slow going ) with more mountains looming in the distance. As things sometimes happen we found ourself at the Chungju control ( 1110km) when the main group of Korean riders arrived. We all rode together to the next control at Goesan ( only 31 km away). As we left town and headed west, I developed this very uneasy feeling, we were riding into what looked like a box canyon that just got narrower and narrower. At last there appeared to be an escape if we followed the road to the left; %^*^&%(*(% the route branched to the right. This was not the longest but definitely the steepest climb on the entire route. As the mountain side was heavily forested I lost sight and count of the switchbacks. What an ending.
We parted company with the Korean riders at the next control (Goesan) as we headed into those real mountains. We followed a new super highway with moderate grades that punched through the mountains with very bike friendly tunnels. Approximately 35km from the finish the Korean caught up to us and started to set a feverish pace towards the finish. At first we just hung on but the pace slowed, got slower and was down to a per verbal crawl. I was getting antsy about the closing time ( I'd forgotten we had that extra 73 minutes). Lothar wanted to finish sooner than later, so the decision was made, I moved to the front and upped the pace into the low/ mid 20kph range. They followed, sort of. Every few kilometres I'd stop and wait for them all. Lothar said their pace had climbed a bit, as they gave chase. I think they were surprised that this 'old guy' by their standards had anything left in his legs. In the end eight of us rode to the finish together. For the 6 Koreans in the group this was their first 1200km. We had a subdued ( emotional ) celebration at the end. What a ride.
I don't think there is such a thing as an easy 1200km. It always seems they are fraught with a surprise or two. This was no different. Physically this was a hard ride, the heat, the humidity, the concentration of the climbing in the last 500km and the very nature of the climbs, steep by our standards. Riding in a non Euro-Centric culture (unlike riding in N.A. , Australia, or Europe) added a whole new dimension to the experience. Would I recommend going to Korean for their next 1200 in 2013 (they plan to use a new route every year), most definitely. Perhaps we could send a club team and make a holiday of it by heading to one of the beach resorts on the south coast after the ride.
Oh, my Korean friend.. After the ride Jeff and I took a train (this is another story) to Uk's home town of Jeongeup where we were showered by his family with a level of hospitality hard to describe. What a fabulous experience to see family life in Korean. We finished our trip with a whirlwind visit to Seoul and to the DMZ (the no man's land between S. and N. Korea). The S. Koreans have, in the absence of shooting, turned this military nightmare into a tourist carnival. Fascinating!!!!!
June 15, 2012