In 2015, I took a journey on the biggest and most important ride of my life. I can look back now and see that all paths had been leading me there my entire life. The trip was a 1200-mile attempt to ride the entire length of the historic Ho Chi Minh trail through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The Ho Chi Minh trail was a maze of dirt paths and hand built cobblestone roads through the jungle that served as the main supply route for the North Vietnamese to get soldiers and supplies to take over the South. Geographically most of the trail lies in Laos along the Annamite mountain range that forms the border between Vietnam and Laos. The trail was built and rebuilt many times over after bombing strikes. Today, there are still original cobblestone roads and many paths being used daily by villagers. The area is often inaccessible by anything other than bike or foot. A bike is certainly one of the best ways to travel through this remote part of the world.
During this life-changing journey, I hoped to find the place where my father’s plane was shot down and also find a missing piece of myself. In the end of a month on the trail, I uncovered so much more than I expected or dreamed of. The entire story will be documented in the soon to be released Red Bull Media House feature length film, Blood Road.
But I knew I couldn’t wait until the film release to share the story with someone. During a month pedaling the trail, I got to know the people, the terrain, and the living history. I also got exposed to the devastating issue of unexploded ordnance (UXO) that still affects the lives of the villagers along the trail. During the Vietnam conflict, the US dropped the equivalent of a planeload of bombs on Laos every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years. It is estimated that nearly 30% of those bombs did not detonate on impact. 45 years later, these UXO still regularly injure and kill locals and prevent them from farming their land.
I came home from that trip in 2015 with a deep appreciation for the beauty of that part of the world and a desire to use my cycling and my influence to be part of the clean up efforts. My father was an F-4 Phantom pilot and while he didn’t enjoy his job, he was part of the crew that bombed these villages. Now, I am motivated to do my part to help clean it up.
I knew I would go back to Laos and I knew I wanted to bring friends who had an appreciation for travel and riding their bikes in beautiful places. I also knew that I wanted to tell this forgotten story and raise awareness and funds for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG). They are one of the primary non-profit groups responsible for clearing UXO from areas like Laos.
It was time to use my bike for a purpose much bigger than winning championships or breaking records. Through my contacts from the first trip, I was able to assemble a small, but mighty crew with my trusted bike mechanic, motorcycle support friends, logistics team, guides like my husband and a local connection who knows the history of the trail like the back of his hand. I hand selected a group of 15 riders from the US that I knew could handle 8 days of jungle riding in unpredictable conditions. They all needed to have physical skill, mental tenacity, patience and appreciation for far away people and places. They also had to be sensitive enough for me to feel reassured while sharing this very personal journey.
We covered over 400 miles in the Khammouan Province of central Laos. Due to the proximity of the border, this area of Laos was heavily hit by air bombing. It’s one of the most remote places in the world with villagers living off the land in wooden huts. They have few amenities other than what the land provides. They are spiritual tribes who believe in the spirits of the jungle, the caves, and the trees. While they have the distinction of the most bombed country in our history, they are also the most forgiving and genuinely friendly people I have ever met.
Our entire group was moved by the experience of peacefully and respectfully passing through this beautiful landscape. It is also some of the most stunning riding I’ve ever done. My goal with this very first #MTBLAO trip was to share some of the magic that I found along the Ho Chi Minh trail with my cycling friends and to also spread the message of the UXO clean up.
I have always loved adventuring on my bicycle. When I add in my personal connection to Laos, a newfound purpose to support the UXO clean up and also being able to share the extraordinary experience with my closest cycling friends, it all adds up to a life expanding expedition.
I hope you enjoy the stunning images and if you are inspired to do more to expedite the UXO clean up, just $36 funds the disarming and removal of 8 bombs. At the current rate of clean up, they estimate that it will still be another 100 years before all of the UXO from the Vietnam War are cleared. Hopefully by sharing the images and stories from #MTBLAO, we can dramatically decrease that time estimate.