We had just emerged from the jungle when my left crank fell off.
A cyclist really does not want this to happen, even in the best of times. The crank is the arm which connects the pedal to the bottom bracket of the bike. No crank means no go.
But this was not the best of times. We were in the middle of nowhere, Cambodia’s Srepok Wilderness Area in Mondulkiri province, to be precise. The wildlife ranger station was 40km back through the leopard-populated forest. And the nearest town was almost twice as far – up a hilly road – in the other direction. When things go wrong while mountain biking in Cambodia, help can really be a long way away.
Moire O’Sullivan knows this feeling as well. Her recent four-day trip to the Cardamom Mountains turned into a litany of mishaps – from impassable rivers and unrideable tracks to broken bikes and – ultimately – bodies. Her four-person guided tour survived trips over the handlebars, kinked chains and gear cables so clogged with mud they had to be replaced. They dangled themselves and their bikes from zip-wires to cross fast-flowing water and, with the rainy season arriving early, battled the leeches to string up tarpaulins and hammocks between trees in the forest. The undulating, cratered terrain proved too much for the suspension on one of the bikes, causing one rider to pull out. And another had to be evacuated after cutting his foot to the bone while crossing a waterfall.
But a hair-raising experience in the Cardamom Mountains is a more extreme option for those who want to see Cambodia under their own steam. The country is mostly flat, so the terrain is ideal for novice and leisurely cyclists.
It is possible to ride fifteen minutes from the bustle of Phnom Penh and find yourself pedalling through small villages, surrounded by shimmering rice paddies. Local children rush from their homes to shout hello at the passing riders, often adding “What is your name?” as they laugh and wave.
Meeting the recent demand in pedalling tourists, several companies now offer half- or full-day trips around Phnom Penh, often using ferries or vans to spare riders doing battle with the traffic on the main roads.
“Cycle tours have grown up very quickly over the past two years,” said Prum Raksmey, the owner of Phnom Penh’s Offroad Cyclery, which offers bikes for sale and rent as well as organised tours.
Smey, as he is known, is something of a legend in the Cambodian cycling community. He has pioneered bicycle tourism in Cambodia for the best part of a decade and been heavily involved in organising races and supporting Cambodian competitors in international events.
There is a twinkle in his eye as he describes the Cardamom Mountains as a “hard adventure”, but Smey said there are other options.
“You can do leisure rides, family trips, a soft adventure or up to 14 days’ cycling through Cambodia. You can combine it with journeys through Thailand and Vietnam. But for a short ride I like to go to Kirirom National Park – it’s a wonderful track, 960 metres elevation, with a pine tree jungle providing shade for the riders.”
December is perhaps the best month to visit Kirirom. The temperature is relatively cool, and the annual Mountain Bike Challenge gives riders from across Southeast Asia the chance to test their skills on a track which has just the right mixture of technical challenges, taxing climbs and rapid descents in a picturesque setting.
Cooler winter months are also a good time to cycle around the ancient temples of Angkor, whether that means a leisurely exploration or entry in the annual December bike race for a more rapid “grand tour” of the monuments.
To meet locals, join one of the groups which set out from Phnom Penh every weekend. The pace of the rides ranges from leisurely to competitive, and increasing numbers of young Cambodians are taking part, attracted to the shiny new GT, Giant and Cannondale bikes which are now available in several shops around the city.
A machine like that would probably never have suffered a detached crank, like the vintage – and self-maintained – mountain bike which came to grief in Mondulkiri. But then we would have missed out on the fun of reattaching it armed with nothing more than the pliers on a Swiss Army knife.