There's not much I’d get up for at 4am. Santa Claus, definitely. A fire alarm, maybe. Exercise, not a chance.
So it was with much stumbling, eye-rubbing, and confusion that I emerged from the comfort of my bed last Saturday before either the sun or a rooster had eaten its breakfast. Being the intrepid reporter I am, risking life and limb in search of a good story, I stepped, or rather pedalled, out of character for a few hours. In the line of duty I cycled the 30km Angkor Wat Bike Race (and another 16km there and back for good measure.)
You see I’m not what you’d call an exercise buff, a fitness freak, or even a sports fan. My interest in all things sporting stretches as far as flicking between synchronised swimming and gymnastics during the Olympics, or heading to the pub for some scoops to support the homeland if they’re playing.
But since coming to Cambodia, the land of few cars and too-hot-to-walk weather, I soon gave up a bad tuk tuk habit and boarded a bike. In the intervening months, it’s become something of an attachment, a side kick if you will, so I figured I was in good enough shape to partake in some sportsmanship.
I made my way toward the temples in eerie darkness, passing a few cyclists along the way, while others (pfff, lightweights) passed in tuk tuks with their bikes on board. As I reached the starting line at Angkor Wat, I was taken aback by the lively set-up. The announcer was already cracking jokes, groups gathering together for photographs were cheering, and the refreshment stand was in full swing. Immediately I woke up from my bleary state and began to enjoy the festivities and chat to fellow racers.
As the usual masses began to arrive for dawn at the temples, tour groups looked around at the rowdy assembled bikers with bewilderment. Riders were divided by race category: 100km, 30km, and the 17km family ride. As I saw the hardcore racers line up in front, and the more nervous-looking 100km novices further back, I felt a bit wussy for not stretching myself that bit further. This guilt was to be short-lived; let’s just say a bruised tush hurts more than a bruised ego, and after 30km my butt wasn’t capable of any more cycling.
The race kicked off just as darkness lifted. As if the heavens had known what day it was, riders were gifted with the most magnificent sunrise I have seen creeping up above the tree line and reflecting in the moat waters. I doubt the riders pause in the Tour De France to check out the Eiffel Tour or the lavender fields in Provence, but it felt rather sinful not to take in such a morning, in such a location, at a more reverent pace.
As the race kicked-off, I over-eagerly flew up the opening strait. I know you’re not meant to exert yourself too soon, but I was really desperate not to come last and trigger school sports day flashbacks. So I made it as far up the back as I could. My enthusiasm (and fitness) didn’t last so long. By about 10km, the only people I was overtaking were those pausing for pictures.
There were many characters along the route: the dashing and encouraging waterboys, the festively clad Green Geckos, and one not-so-feminine flying nun. I was impressed by other people's fitness more than my own; an athletic-looking 60-something lady who raced past me, the 77-year-old who whizzed through the 100k, the little kid who beat me by miles in the 30. Cambodian people aren’t known for their sporting endeavours but I was also chuffed to see how many Khmer people were in the leading packs of each race.
As I crossed the finish line, (one hour and 42 minutes later) I was really flattered by the warm welcome from fellow riders and the Village Focus team cheering from the sidelines. And even more pleased that (unlike the egg and spoon race of '98) I’d made it back before a lot of others. Of course I was miffed that my 67th place didn’t qualify for a medal but I was chuffed with my certificate all the same.
Minutes after I finished my 30k, race leaders were reaching their 75th kilometre of the big race. We didn’t have to wait long for the finish. In what took me almost over 100 minutes to pedal, they completed the last lap in less than 50, with a finishing time of two hours and 52 minutes. There was a sprint finish, with race leader, and two-time winner, Samnang (Lucky) Meas being defeated by American John Robert Mucha with as many as a dozen riders finishing close behind.
I heard later that he generously gave his prize, a Giant bike to Ran Khemarak, winner of the 30km race.
As the race wrapped up, riders make their weary way home, either to breakfast or to bed – undoubtedly proud of both their athletic achievement and the money raised for Village Focus-funded schools and shelters.
But 625 racers from 40 countries raising $50,000? An impressive feat by any standards. As for my 46k, well, that was an impressive feat by mine.