By Jennifer Blaine
Jennifer Blaine is a writer and reporter who resides in Denver, Colorado. Born in Utah, Blaine moved to Colorado in 1985, where she grew up in the mountains of Coal Creek Canyon near Boulder and went to school in Golden before moving back to Utah where she attended the University of Utah. Later she moved to South America and Europe before returning back to the place she’s always called home; Colorado.
Growing up, Blaine was always riding bikes. Whether spinning down dusty back roads in Coal Creek Canyon, exploring new trails, or simply commuting around for transportation; her love of being on two-wheels started early and still persists today. When Blaine returned to Colorado in 2013, she decided to take her road bike skills to new heights; testing her legs and will by joining a whole new arena of cyclists in Colorado’s competitive race scene, aka BRAC (Bicycle Racing Association of Colorado and USA Cycling). Most recently, Blaine has been covering pro-races throughout Asia, which due to the Corona Virus, have been temporarily restricted. Races are scheduled to resume once travel restrictions and health/virus concerns are lifted.
Riding in a hot dusty, grime-covered bus through the country-side of Cambodia; I sit crammed next to some friendly locals and weary backpackers as I stare up at the shag-like tassels dancing about the tops of the bus interior. Windows rattle almost off their hinges as the bus speeds along the windy two-lane road aligned with tiny tin-roof shacks, farms and thick green jungle. I can’t help but notice and find myself a bit concerned by the smell of burning brakes and the large metal cylinder filled with, ‘who knows what’ resting beneath my feet. I try to divert my focus from the obvious red-flags surrounding me, but I find myself looking out the front window just in time to see this rolling, ‘death missile’ narrowly miss colliding head-on into the oncoming traffic.
After my near death fear subsided, I console myself by thinking how I will never forget this experience, the sounds, smells, and nail-biting fear, good or bad. These are those rare moments that push you out of your comfort zone, stimulate your senses and send your adrenaline to unknown heights; the moments that enrich your life and make traveling and seeing the world so invaluable.
This eventful journey started in Phnom Penh with a stop for a short bike-riding break in the quaint French-colonial influenced Cambodian City of Kampot. Now, in this grime-covered bus, we are making the long and unusual journey to the host hotel for the Tour of Cambodia. We’ve been scheduled to meet up with the newly formed Continental cycling team ‘Cambodian Cycling Academy’. Our assignment—to help manage, drive the team car and provide the busy multi- tasked ‘soignée’ services for the young racers. As we ride along; I notice the band-aid on my left shoulder has mostly peeled-off and is flapping open with each bump and sway of the bus. The Band-aid is covering a slow healing, possibly infected,“flesh-wound” from a rare, minor bicycle crash-n-tumble I was the star of recently in Phnom Penh.
Phnom was certainly an action-filled stop on our ‘self-guided’ bicycle traveling adventure. The streets were loud, smelly, bustling and peppered with travelers hungry for the constant stimulus of a foreign city, and whatever else some rather lonely looking travelers were seeking in this strange, albeit eye-opening place. Besides odoriferous, I found Cambodia compelling with it’s intricate nuances and jam-packed markets; but I also reveled in the chance to escape the rush and societal pressures of the Christmas holiday back home. I had visited Cambodia on a private tour in 2007, but this wing-it-style travel was considerably more enjoyable and a quite thrilling way to see all the sights, inhale all the unforgettable smells and get a true feel of the country.
My travel partner John Dam and me found an inexpensive hotel with breakfast included and boarded a Tut-tut to the heart of Phnom Penh. The bumpy, cheap tut-tut ride took us away from some of the crowded, fish-smelling markets and constant zooming of motorbikes to visit a former police colleague and friend of John Dams. His friend was in charge of the task force assigned to stop human-trafficking and child abuse throughout Cambodia.
After touring his office and learning about some of the important life-saving work they conducted; we were escorted and treated to a tasty pub style dinner, shots of expensive whiskey, and way too many beers. Not conducive with healthy living and cycling, but a fun way to mingle with old and new friends before heading out to explore the next day.
On this particular bike adventure, that actually began in Phuket Thailand, I decided to leave my road bike behind in the states for fear of getting a second bike smashed in a hard-case by theairlines. I was told it wouldn’t be a huge ordeal to rent a bike when I arrived so I went somewhat reluctantly with that option. In retrospect, I probably wouldn’t recommend or attempt to go on a trip without my own, or at least a decent loaner bike in the future.
Luckily, while we were over-indulging in small glasses of pricey brown ethanol back at the pub, I asked our generous ‘police officer’ host if he knew of anywhere I could rent a bicycle. He didn’t have a lot of promising rental places to recommend, but considering his work and the fact he had been living and working in Cambodia for years he had an intricate web of helpful connections. He gave us the name and number of a well-to-do Cambodian businessman who he thought could possibly help us with a loaner bike and we subsequently contacted and arranged to meet him briefly for a beer the following day.
After meeting Mr. Tao, the Cambodian businessman, only one beer, and chatting with us for roughly fifteen minutes, he said glowingly that we could borrow one of his bicycles.
Not only did Mr. Tao offer his brand new $20k Specialized bike for us to borrow, he also drove us in heavy Phnom Penh rush-hour traffic, to a bike shop to pick up a few items and then all the way out to his home to pick up the bicycle we were borrowing. I was astounded by the generosity and trust this stranger offered to me by loaning his expensive bicycle. I don’t know if I would have been that trusting with someone I knew well, let alone a complete stranger.
Tao, who loaned me the bike, seemed pretty excited to meet up with two foreigners who were just as, or even more enthused about bikes then he was, and hence invited us to join him at 5 the next morning to ride with his local bike shop group. I’m sure he was also motivated to check out my riding skills before letting me keep his bike for any extended amount of time.
That night as we adjusted and admired the expensive loaner bike I would be riding; I found myself slightly concerned about riding in a town filled with hundreds of motorbikes, zigging and zagging, pulling out from side streets without even a glance toward on-coming traffic, and seemingly very little or no regard for traffic laws, (at least not compared to back-home anyway). To add to my concern, was the thought of heading out in a strange city early in the morning without proper lights on the bike. I shrugged off what I thought were minor pre-ride trepidations, and slept well believing that I had good people accompanying me and years of cycling experience under my belt; or at least in my chamois in this case.
The morning came quickly and I was excited to get out, ride an expensive new bike and enjoy the adrenaline rich experience of riding in Cambodia for the first time. After a few laps up and down the dimly lit street in front of the hotel to check the new bikes adjustments, Tao appeared out of the shadows of a side street on a brand new top of the line Cervello. We exchanged good mornings as we eyed his other fancy steed; (apparently he had quite the fleet of pricey bikes in his collection at home), and with a few clicks of the pedals we were off into the darkened streets of Phnom Penh.
As we weaved and twisted our way through the still cluttered but mostly quite streets of Phnom, I felt invigorated and thankful to be back on a bike, riding fast and enjoying the exhilarating- feeling of freedom that only a bike can give and the undeniable novelty of the experience. I’m sure it’s a phenomenon many travelers can relate to; those moments when you are in a different country, a strange new land, basking in every revelation and enlightening discovery. Sometimes these traveling experiences seem like sensory over-load, perhaps some people feel intimidated of the unknown to which they are embarking and all the newness of their unfamiliar surroundings, but to me, these once in a lifetime experiences are when I truly feel alive.
As we rode swiftly through the darkened early morning streets following Tao to meet up with his cycling group, we emerged onto a fairly open road that had more street lights than the inner city streets. I was happily cruising along as we made our way up a slight incline, possibly an overpass of some kind. I reminded myself every few pedal strokes to keep an eye out for foreign objects and unsuspecting morning travelers, but I didn’t let my cautions detract from my elation and welcomed apprehension of meeting up with a new group of cyclists.
I looked up the hill to mark where Mr. Tao was in relation to me as to not get somehow dropped in this unfamiliar place. As my eyes focused back down to the road ahead in what was an instant, but felt like slow motion; the unthinkable unfolded beneath my spinning feet.
I saw that the road I was traveling on had dropped down and I was losing control as the carbon wheels of Tao’s bike begin skidding and wobbling along a lip of pavement that suddenly jutted up higher next to the road beside me. In that fateful second, I caught myself in a panic-filled assessment of just what I could not believe was happening. I was losing control of the expensive bike I had borrowed from the friendliest of strangers and was on my way down at 25 mph to the concrete below. Instinctively, although not the wisest, I turned my body, shoulder down, with my arm extended a bit to lesson the impact, (or so my instincts thought) in my frightful few seconds of plummeting to the ground.
As I crashed down and skidded along the pavement I felt furious that I had lost control, so furious that the severity of the crash barely registered in my mind. I know physical injuries should have been my first concern, but as I uttered a few profanities and picked myself up off the dirty pavement, all I could think of was Tao’s bike and the damage I might have just caused. My companion John Dam heard the carnage and rushed back to check on me, but by the time he reached me I was already up, assessing the bike quickly and jumping back into the saddle.
Besides the crash, I was afraid we might have lost sight of Tao and our whole morning would be further ruined. Luckily, we caught up with Tao, just as he had rolled into a gas station where a large crowd of brightly dressed Cambodian cyclists greeted us with big smiles and friendly curiosity.
I tried to play off what had just happened. I knew I would be explaining the incident to Tao soon, but I didn’t want much attention drawn to me, the bike, or the embarrassing tumble. I know nobody wants to crash on their bike, especially if they end up injured or totally demolish their ‘pride-n-joy’ bike, but before this crash, I had only gone over the handlebars a couple of times on my mountain bike and landed on soft pine-needles without a scrape on me or my bike. To me this bike accident, couldn’t have happened at a worse time. Never in my most outlandish imaginations, would I have ever thought I would lay down one of the most expensive bikes I had ever ridden, a bike I didn’t own, at 5 am in a strange city.
Tao’s group of fellow riders were welcoming and exuberant. You could tell they couldn’t wait to hop on the bikes and show off their skills; but first it was selfies and group pics with their new American/Australian cycling buddies. Both my companion John and myself remarked and noticed how all of the riders had top of the line bicycles; something you wouldn’t have expected in Cambodia, but really, these expensive bikes you wouldn’t expect at a lot of casual group rides. In between phone camera snaps, I smiled and introduced myself as calmly and politely as possible despite my adrenaline still elevated from my crash-n-tumble just minutes before.
I thought I could play it off so cool, like nothing happened and no one would notice; however, little did I know I had tore a large hole in my jersey that was black and exposing a bright red bleeding road rash for all the group to see. I felt embarrassed when I finally noticed my visible wound but everyone was concerned when they noticed and inquired about my shoulder. Tao was not even phased about his bike, which really only had a small scuff on the seat and few small scratches. I apologized profusely and pledged to repair any damage I had caused. Tao again surprised me, by dismissing my woes about his bike and only expressing genuine concern about my well-being.
What was a disaster in my mind, turned out to be a special morning; meeting new friends and fellow cycling enthusiasts, riding in a pedals-down fast group ride through the interestingly chaotic streets of Phenom Penh, and a smile-filled stop at a clean, hip, city coffee shop to conclude the eventful early morning escapades.
Phenom will not only bring back cringeworthy memories of my bicycle tumble, but also unfold a vivid, unforgettable movie-like script in my mind. My mind is now full of bright thoughts of the kind generosity of strangers and the welcoming cycling community of Phnom Penh. You just never know who you will meet, or what you will encounter while traveling and exploring the world; and now just as fast as I had hit the pavement on Mr. Tao’s bike, time had whizzed by and we were onto the next path of this prolific adventure.
As we ride along in the grimy bus through the jungles and hillsides of Cambodia; we are once again embarking on the next leg of our bicycle journey. The major contrast between this part of the path and the last, is this leg is pre-planned and scheduled. It is to commence at a five-star resort, at a pro-bike race with a pro-bike team. I can’t help but think of what may unfold, what new things I will see and learn and how every experience good or bad changes your perspective about people and just how small you really are in this big world.
As I stare down at the Band-aid on my shoulder flapping open with each bump, I find myself grimacing about my bike tumble but smiling with great content at the deeply instilled memories and irreplaceable experiences lying beneath that band-aid.