Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

Saigon Cyclo Challenge

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Early during my stay in Vietnam, I marked my calendar for the Saigon Cyclo Challenge on March 12th. Cyclos are the bicycle-taxis that appear in period photos or paintings of Hanoi, Saigon and other Asian cities. For any other Tintin fans, cyclos appeared several times in The Blue Lotus, set in pre-WWII Shanghai. Today, a few cyclos remain in central Saigon, catering mainly to tourists hoping for a romantic experience of days gone by. But they seem to be near extinction, as they are sorely out of pace with Saigon’s hectic traffic, and their slow, open-air ride has become a less attractive amid the clouds of exhaust fumes.

That said, the Saigon Cyclo Challenge offers a fun, if a little corporatised, way to enjoy the cyclo away from downtown traffic. It is a relay race, in which corporate teams of four racers share two there-and-back circuits along a slightly bending course of approximately 300 metres. The race is set along the quay of a fake lake in The Crescent, a group of spanky new office-commercial-residential blocks in Saigon’s southern District 7. I had hoped that the race would involve the professional cyclo drivers from downtown, but instead the racers were employees of the corporate sponsors. Rather like a dragon boat festival, I guess.

The event drew a few hundred spectators. Europeans are relatively common in Saigon, but at this race, they were more numerous. More likely expats than tourists, as there were a number of families out with ride-on toy cars, strollers, etc. The Vietnamese spectators seemed to be associated with racers on one or the other of the teams. They wore the colours of their favourite teams and waved banners as the racers pedalled past.

The overrepresented group was that of press, or at least accredited, photographers. Inside the safety barrier (actually plastic tape strung between trees), dozens of photographers in high-vis vests crowded around the racers. I watched one amusing scene, in which 10 or so photographers pushed in on a rather chubby racer whose teammate was helping him put on his elbow and knee pads. The crush of photographers suggested this was Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France.

The event itself was surprisingly short. Just five head-to-head heats, with the fastest time overall winning. I arrived at 9h00 or so, thinking I was late, but the first race had just started, and the last race finished at 10h30 or so. I did not stick around for the awards ceremony, so was happily out of the sun before the heat of the day. Below are a few photos from the races.

First, the cyclo, with a close-up of its braking system:

Here is a photo of a racer pumping away. Since the cyclo is designed to ride with a passenger up front, the racers who leaned their weight forward seemed to have more control of their steed. Notice also the cheering fans with colour-coordinated shirts and flags.

Next is the relay sequence, as seen from behind the start-finish line.

Here is a photo looking back at the start line:

The next few photos show some of the staff, including in the first photo the “results car,” which circulated with the times from the previous race as the organisers prepared the next race. I believe the winning time was 2:14, which was 30 seconds faster than second place.

Along with being designed to ride with a passenger up front, the cyclos position the rider quite high above the ground, making the vehicle unstable and difficult to steer. There were a handful of crashes during the races. I never seemed to have my camera ready at the correct moment, but this blurry photo gives you an idea:

Finally, here is a photo of a rider demonstrating excellent cyclo technique:

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Written by Kris Terauds

March 24, 2011 at 06:04

One Response

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  1. It is great to see people having fun. Good thing you didn’t have to be a passenger. Take care. Stafford

    Stafford Reid

    March 25, 2011 at 05:27


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