A recap of our inaugural 650km ‘Ride to REACH’ charity bike ride.

By Emily Williamson

The dust has finally settled from our first ever long-distance charity bike ride across Cambodia, and I’ve been wondering how to properly articulate the experience, but the truth is, it’s not easy to describe what our inaugural group of riders experienced in January.

Every person walked away with different memories, but here’s my take on the experience… 

Our Inaugural Riders

first ever long-distance charity riders

This group of selfless individuals will go down in history, as our first ever long-distance charity riders for REACH Siem Reap.

31 people, 9 different nationalities, from all walks of life, flew in from 8 different countries to brave the challenge of 650km over 8 days. Our youngest rider was aged 24, and our oldest was aged 69. Every single person had a different career, a different story, and a very different personality, some had trained intensively, and others not at all… but one thing they all shared, was a connection to REACH, and a powerful desire to make this world a better place.

And so, after many months of hard work fundraising in the lead up to their adventure, on January 20th, they each met down on a tropical island off the Southern Coast of Sihanoukville, most of them, complete strangers, and all of them, nervous for the bumpy roads ahead.

I’m almost certain though, that no one in the group was as nervous, or as excited as me.

Knowing how much these incredible individuals had already done in support of our cambodia charity work, I felt an enormous amount of pressure to ensure that they would all love every single minute of the ride. As usual, I was setting my expectations far too high… after all, who in their right mind would love every minute of cycling over dusty potholed roads, in 35-degree weather?

The entire journey was a roller coaster of highs and lows, every rider had their own personal best and worst moments, and what I was quickly reminded by this event, was that “through adversity we grow”.

Nothing rings truer than that statement when explaining this journey.

Riding up and down off-road hills
Riding up and down the undulating off-road hills through the Kampot pepper farms.

The event was built around the need to raise substantial funds to fuel our operations, with the major goal of creating long-lasting, sustainable change, in the lives of more than 200 kids and their families.

An offset of this goal, which made the event truly special, was that the ‘life-changing impact’ we had set out to generate, also extended to each of our riders, at a level that I’d totally underestimated.

Mia Gartley & John Grisold
Mia Gartley & John Grisold, always smiling!

After the finish line, I received such an enormous wave of positive feedback, that I knew, without fail, every rider was going home with their hearts full. In the days that followed after the event, as the pain subsided from the ride, I was told by so many of the participants, on numerous occasions, that the event was life-changing…

Everyone’s feedback was different, but their reasons for being so moved by the experience, all drew similar parallels.

As a group we all tried to pinpoint why the enormous challenge felt so special and why all of us ended the journey on such a high.  During each of the conversations I went on to have with the 31 participants, the most common themes that I came across, were that people felt challenged, connectedgrounded, and rewarded.

It’s these 4 keys take aways from the event, that are in my opinion, what makes it so unique. 

The Challenge:

Let me take you back to day 1, where almost every single rider (myself included), went through the thought process of “what on earth have I done”.

As soon as we departed the beautiful island of Koh Russey to embark on our first day of riding, we were temporarily lulled into a false sense of security; we commenced the ride off the beaten path, on nicely sealed red dirt roads, through a picturesque rural fishing village.

Within moments we were exposed to the Cambodian countryside and way of life, we cycled past rural families who shared with us the biggest smiles and waves of support… kids ran out from their shacks to scream hello and fisherman waved as they cast their nets into the saltwater rivers.

4 young boys from the remote village were so excited by the commotion that they piled onto on their old rusty motorbike, and followed us for 10kms, cheering us on all the way to our very first water stop – It was so surreal, that some people even questioned if I’d staged it.

It was at that first water stop, just 20kms in, that I looked around, and was quickly reminded of just how unrealistic my expectation of a “faultless” experience were.

By this stage it was about 10am, and without a cloud in the sky, the sun had set in. Keeping in mind, that many of our riders had flown in from subzero temperatures, and for several members of the group, it was their first time in Cambodia.

water refill under the shade of a roadside tree
Sunny water refill under the shade of a roadside tree.

The sun was belting down, and despite water refills, bucketloads of sunscreen, arm sleeves and zinc, we rapidly learned who was climatized and who wasn’t. Come lunchtime, at the peak of the heat, many riders already looked totally wrecked… At this stage, we were just 40kms in, with 50km to go.

At 5.45pm, the group made it to famous riverside town of Kampot just as the sun was setting over the Mekong. The weary riders made the most of an early night sleep in the air con, and I remember lying in bed thinking to myself “I really hope tomorrow gets easier”.

But despite beautiful scenery, and the incredibly hospitable people, as the days progressed, the physical element only seemed to get tougher…

By the 3rd day, the group had experienced some standard Cambodian red dirt “off roads” and a few bumpy unsealed rods, but the infamous “under-construction road” that came next, will forever be known by our group as the worst talking point of the entire tour.  

I’ve done thousands of kilometers on a push-bike in this country, but this stretch of terrain was the most difficult I’d ever come across. It was effectively 20kms of crushed up pieces of rocks, cement and rubble, that had unavoidable corrugations that were so bad we all still shudder at the thought.

In an emergency water refill, the group took shelter from the sun under a tree out the front of a pagoda and with most riders ready to call it quits and get in the van, in an effort to prevent this, we sent our Guide Heang ahead on a motorbike to find out how much further we had to do…

He came back 10 minutes later with a big smile on his face proclaiming, “only 5 more kilometers to go”.

And so, with what little energy we had remaining, all of the riders got back on their bikes, and pushed forward, shaking their way across the crushed rock, until finally hitting some sealed tarmac, igniting a communal sense of relief that every rider shared.

Julie Ricketts & Ian Hayllor enjoying
Julie Ricketts & Ian Hayllor enjoying some time sitting on the grass between legs.

Getting Connected:

After the mental hurdle of the first three days, the group quickly succumbed to the fact that there was no turning back, and with that notion, they rapidly began helping each other through.

With most participants entirely new to the concept of ‘group cycling’, I made it my mission for these first few days, to float my way around all speeds of the group, attempting to teach everyone how to signal and verbalise instructions to each other.

For those reading this that haven’t ridden in a group before, yelling out and signaling about all obstacles is critical to avoid domino effects of people falling off and pile ups on the road.

As a group we had to dodge everything from cows, dogs, kids, tractors, trucks, cyclists, tuk-tuks and buffaloes. And so, in an effort to promote road safety, I shouted “car up”, “moto back”, “passing”, “slowing” and “stopping”, as many times as I could, as loudly as I could…I was extremely annoying, I’m sure.

In a split second though, the terrain could change from a tarmacked sealed road, to sand trails, and if you didn’t yell out “sand or signal for the “pot holes” quickly, the person behind would come off.

James Rogers’ epic slide through the mudThe aftermath of James Rogers’ epic slide through the mud.

And quite a few of us did, so it was not long before the group learned to become vocal, so that the instructions would make their way down the line of riders… camaraderie became paramount.

Team building was instant, and with a down to earth group of everyday people, it was totally and utterly authentic. Through shared pain, heat exhaustion, dehydration, and physical ailments, people were showcasing compassion for one another at every turn.

Whether it was cooling each other down with icy cold towels, dressing each other’s wounds, sharing medication, or talking one another through their toughest legs, the riders came together.

Thankfully, to counteract some of the hardest moments, we had our local Site Supervisor Chen, who went above and beyond to support us. Nothing was too hard for Chen and following Sean Doyle’s request for an ice bath on Day 2, he event went to the length of sourcing a large Cambodian Esky and filling it full of ice… he was only there to please! 

Georgia Rajic cooling off DIY ice-bath
Georgia Rajic cooling off in Chen’s DIY ice-bath which became an end of day routine!

Connecting with others was the silver lining to spending the majority of each day on the saddle, we had so much time to engage in genuine conversations and get to know each other. With most of us coming from busy careers and fast paced busy lives, the trip served as a unique opportunity to properly disconnect from technology and reconnect with people.

As we all cycled across Cambodia in our unflattering lycra, we were all equals, brought back to basics, with no social pressures and no distractions, just a lot of time talk with each other and plenty of time to reflect and think.  I had the pleasure of enjoying meaningful conversations with every participant, we all opened up and shared personal stories that we’d normally only share with long-term friends or family.

I can’t tell you why such deep friendships formed so quickly within the group, I can just tell you that they did, and that the mutual respect each rider had for each other’s selfless commitment to the cause, made for an unforgettable bonding experience.

Stephen Peirce with a cold towel & mango
Stephen Peirce with a cold towel & mango sitting with Sue DeBroglio smiling at a rest-stop.

Feeling Grounded:

Throughout the journey, no matter how much we were struggling, we were reminded on every leg, through every remote village, that the short-term suffering we were experiencing, paled in comparison to the day-to-day suffering of the resilient Cambodian’s we cycled past.

Through each village, poverty and the repercussions of the Pol Pot genocide were demonstrated through heartbreaking scenes of children fishing and working, elderly grandparents carrying heavy loads on their backs, villagers travelling long distances on their old rusty bicycles, and soldiers on crutches with life-long injuries from the war.  

Yet, it was these exact same Cambodians, who smiled the brightest and welcomed us with open arms.

driver smiling during a river crossing Our kind boat driver smiling during a river crossing.

I’ve lived in this country for close to 7 years, yet I was still blown away by the level of encouragement and hospitality we received from the people.

As I rode with Mardy our Siem Reap born Education Manager, she told me time and time again, how proud she was of her people, and how touching the experience was for her. She knew that the people in Siem Reap province were nice, but never knew how kind the rural communities were across the entire country.

On day 4 of the ride, to put into perspective the intergenerational effects of the Khmer Rouge, and to highlight the importance of Education, Mardy bravely stood up to share her story.

Mardy Sok’s heartfelt speech
Our Education Manager Mardy Sok’s heartfelt speech.

Each rider listened intently, and many eyes began welling up.

It was at this point, that so many of us were reminded of how lucky we were to grow up with access to education, nutrition and healthcare.  Knowing how intelligent, driven and positive Mardy is, learning about the challenges her family has faced as well as her personal sacrifices, was difficult for many to comprehend.

Everyone was so inspired by Mardy’s resilience and her courage to work hard and fight for her Education.

The group also had the pleasure of sharing the experience with Seangheng, our Youth Pathways Leader, an incredible woman, aged 21, who works diligently to support the future changemakers in our community. She spent most of her time on the ride boosting morale, building positive relationships, sharing her culture, explaining her program and the role she plays in leading REACH’s youth towards a better future.

Riding alongside both of these resilient women, was the perfect way for the riders to connect with Cambodia, and to understand more about the cause.

Throughout the journey, there were countless special moments that grounded us.

I remember one afternoon, when we stopped at a local house to fuel up on snacks, John Grisold and Patrick Stritch took cover under a Grandma’s hut. She came out and insisted they sit down, she then went back inside her house and came out with some fruit and a large bottle of water to make sure they kept hydrated, and with a big sincere smile, she wished them the best of luck on their journey.

John Grisold and Patrick Stritch
John Grisold and Patrick Stritch standing with their newfound friend in the countryside.

Kind gestures like this, from people who had so little, were genuine and regular.

Through these experiences we were reminded to avoid complaining about superficial things, to stop comparing ourselves to others, and to instead look for the positives, smile more and appreciate the small day to day joys that life brings.

It was a total reset.

The Reward:

After 4 incredibly challenging days we made it to the halfway mark where we enjoyed a celebratory night of free flow, followed by a well-deserved rest day in the capital city of Phnom Penh.

After this mid-way point, a psychological shift occurred within the group, and on the morning of day 5, we had come to the realization that despite how tough the journey had been, we were in fact, going to make it to the finish line.

And as soon as this realization had occurred, time went so much faster.

Bonds escalated, stories flowed more freely and everyone began to embrace the ride more.

Despite being one of our longest days in distance (106km), day 5 was collectively one of our easiest. We’re not sure if this was because we were re-energized after our day off the bikes, or if our confidence was just rising, but by the end of this day, we were all absolutely buzzing. Amanda and Ucha had completed their first ever 100-kilometer milestone and feelings of accomplishment were beginning to permeate through the group.

Paul Fisher, James Rogers & Seangheng enjoying their restPaul Fisher, James Rogers & Seangheng enjoying their rest at the base of a Cambodian cave.

As we made our way north from Kampong Cham and on to Kampong Thom, day 6 was over in the blink of an eye. And on day 7, we woke up on the morning with the exciting realisation that the following day we would be riding through the finish line. This realisation came with many mixed emotions, and suddenly I was wondering why, despite all of the challenging days, I didn’t want the journey to come to an end.

Already feeling emotional, this second last day was a personal highlight, because at lunch time our group was met by 3 more special members of the REACH team. Our Co-Director Kosal, Cycling Leader Theng and wonderful Kitchen Hand & Cycling Assistant Theap. 

By this stage, we were just 50kms from the outskirts of Siem Reap, knowing this, these incredible team members came out on their mountain bikes to motivate our group to make it through the day.

And motivate us, they did.

Kosal took hundreds of photos and got to know all the riders, Theng talked to the group enthusiastically about his cycling club, and with a broad brimmed smile, Theap continuously cheered ‘Go Team REACH’ and hi-fived us at every stop.

That evening marked our final night together as a group, and it was sentimental beyond belief.

In an intimate setting, Theap shared her personal story, and as she explained the transformations her children have gone through since enrolling at REACH, our group got one step closer to understanding the gravity of their impact.

The next morning, we were met bright and early by a group of REACH’s Youth Pathways students who had applied to represent our NGO. The speaker was turned on and they began by leading the warmup session with their aerobic dance routine, one by one they introduced themselves and were so excited to show the riders around their backyard: the UNESCO world heritage site Angkor Wat Temple Complex.

 REACH Riders kidsThe REACH Riders kids show us how a group warm-up session is done!

We went on to spend 45km riding with the students in a tight pack through picturesque jungle trails, as they sang songs and practiced their English, in their first ever volunteer role as ambassadors for the cause.

This day was the pinnacle of it all.

As we rode with more members of the REACH team, and heard more heartfelt speeches from the community, the group was able to see first-hand the benefits of our programs, and exactly where the money they’d worked so hard to raise was going.

group shot in the temples
A group shot in the temples with the kids, our riders and the REACH team.

800meters prior to riding into the Finish Line, 10 REACH families waited on the roadside to pour the last water refills for our group. They clapped and they cheered, but nothing could have prepared the riders for the overwhelming experience that was about to hit them.

Riding into REACH, over the finish line, and into our community center, left every rider with sense of pride and achievement like no other.

This moment was so emotional on so many levels, that it’s impossible for me to properly articulate. With the kids, families and many of our own loved ones waiting for us, tears were streaming and hugs were flying.

After the ride, one of our first ever volunteers Josh went on to tell me:

“I underestimated the impact of REACH on its donors.  Whilst we do our best to contribute to the school, what we experience in return is irreplaceable and life changing in different ways.  Once you have created this cycle of community exchange it becomes more self-sustaining with limitless potential for change.  The inaugural ride encapsulated that perfectly.”

Josh Lane at the Finish Line with 2 of the REACH Riders Club kids!

In Summary

Through this article I’ve tried my best to recap the event, but every person’s perception and journey is different, and the only way to properly understand it, is to experience it for yourself.

We could not possibly be more grateful for our group of 31 inaugural charity riders, they are forever imprinted in REACH history, and will always be our heroes; click here to meet them all in our ‘Riders Hall Of Fame’.

I am incredibly lucky that from here on out, this unique experience will form part of my annual plan, and that I’ll be able to do it all over again, with another incredible group of people in 2024.

We must have done something right, because despite all the pain we endured, already one third of our inaugural riders have put their name down to do it all over again. Next year’s dates are now live on the website (19th – 29th January 2024), and we’re asking anyone who wants to share this experience with us to ‘Save their Saddle’ now.

If this event sparks an interest in you, I strongly urge you to take the plunge and sign up for our next ride.

Places will be capped 40, and we have a feeling it will fill up fast.

If you’re interested, but still have questions, please email me on emily@reachsiemreap.org, I’d love to connect.

Steven Lewis hugs fellow rider
Steven Lewis hugs fellow rider Mardy at the Finish Line.

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