By Robert Lofgran
It was the morning of May 12th, 2014 just after 6 AM. The sun was up and I could already feel the heat of the day setting in. From the balcony of my family’s 22nd floor apartment I could see downtown Ho Chi Minh City in the distance. On the streets below I could see a few cars trying to make their way through a sea of endless motorcycles. The Saigon River was bustling with traffic, barges hauling shipping containers while the occasional traditional canoes with local fisherman attempted to navigate the waterways around them. The city was full of chaos and commotion for such an early hour but appeared peaceful watching from above.
As I watched the city from above planning my day of business my phone began ringing. The screen said Bob Margevicius. Bob is the Executive Vice President of Specialized Bicycles. Since being transferred to Vietnam I’d gotten to know Bob fairly well but I was still surprised to be receiving a phone call from him as most conversations were by Skype. As I answered the phone I tried to sound as though I wasn’t still half asleep. Bob quickly asked if I was okay and if I knew how everyone at our surrounding factories were doing. I could sense urgency in Bob’s voice but I was at a loss at to why. I replied that I had been out at some of the factories the day before and that when I left at around 4 PM everything was business as usual.
After a moment’s pause, Bob advised me that he had just learned that the factories of multiple suppliers in the Binh Duong Industrial Park had been burned and looted by protestors. The acts were done as part of anti-China protests over China’s infringement on Vietnam’s continental shelf and the Spratly Islands. Although the affected suppliers were Taiwanese owned factories the signage on the buildings contained Chinese characters and employed Chinese management.
I spent the rest of the day and the following weeks navigating the streets on my 150cc Suzuki motorcycle checking on suppliers amid crowds of protestors. My task was simply to help gather information each day and meet with Specialized management via Skype each night to relay projected delays and plans to resume production. Each day of lost production was having a ripple effect of losses that started with local factory workers and reached as far as local bike shops globally.
A few days after the initial riots I was visited by the distribution manager for southeast Asia based out of Singapore. As I had developed a relationship with the local distributor for Specialized I was asked to join him for a business dinner where distribution problems in the area would be discussed. The distributor who had already been struggling to get a foothold in the local market with the high import costs of sporting goods was now under immense strain as their warehouse containing Specialized inventory was one of the victims of the burnings and lootings.
As we sat in an open air Vietnamese restaurant lit by traditional lanterns along the side of the Saigon River my colleague tried to keep a tough conversation with the distributor as friendly and relaxed as possible. Doing business in a country as foreign as Vietnam was a constant tight rope of politics and making sure you didn’t make a valuable business partner “lose face”. Long before the distributor had lost its inventory to arson they had been struggling to sell anything besides road bikes. My colleague was here to offer the company’s assistance but needed to push them to recommit to selling the entire product line. He wanted them to sell mountain bikes and kids bikes. In a moment when the conversation was taking a more serious tone, my colleague elbowed me as he spoke in a jovial tone. He said, “Bob, what we need is for you to single handedly build the sport of mountain biking in Vietnam.” I laughingly agreed to do whatever I could. The wheels in my head literally began turning at that very moment. I began envisioning a mountain bike race that would see athletes competing on parts of the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Over the coming weeks and months I began inserting myself in the local bike community, attending early morning group rides, hitting some local road races. Through these connections I arranged to have a Vietnamese friend meet with a local member of the Vietnamese Cycling Federation to pitch my mountain bike race idea. My friend returned solemnly informing me that he’d been told that an international mountain bike stage race wouldn’t be supported by the federation.
I continued my research on the Ho Chi Minh Trail realizing how nearly impossible it would be to create the race I had dreamed of given the fact that most of the trail was now lost. In a chance meeting with a local ride while chatting on a group ride I was informed of a small mountain bike race being put on by the federation on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. I decided I’d go to the race and see what the scene was like.
The race course was in and around what appeared to be a war monument and cemetery. As with most events, the federation made a very formal opening ceremony and a great show of patriotism and pageantry. I was beginning to wonder if we’d ever actually race our bikes. Finally we toed the line and set out at a blistering pace from the starting line. The course resembled a long cyclocross course and wound through the granite monument and on small trails surrounding it. After several laps and close to an hour of racing I crossed the finish line as the winner. Many of the very strong riders I’d competed with on the road were present. However, mountain biking was so new to them and Vietnam that many of the riders struggled with the off road nature of the event.
The member of the federation who had blown off my friend with my race idea was the organizer of the event. The organizer approached me with a translator to congratulate me. Through the interpreter we chatted for a couple of minutes. Not knowing if I’d ever have a chance to talk with a federation member again I used the opportunity to pitch my race idea once again. My idea of creating the event in the area of Pleiku in the central highlands was immediately shot down. I was told by the federation member to look into doing the event on the city of Dalat. The federation member provided me with contact information and we agreed to meet at a later date.
It was a struggle to find any information regarding trails in the central highland town of Dalat. Progress stalled as I couldn’t make any progress towards finding suitable trails. My first trip to Dalat was a bust. It was pouring rain throughout the entire trip and I could barely keep my rented Honda Dream motor scooter upright on the slippery mountain trails. After a couple of days of riding in circles without finding a single usable route I walked into a tour company called Phat Tire Ventures. I was greeted by their friendly staff who gladly pointed out some areas of interest on a large map on the wall. Phat Tire Ventures became one of the main supporters of the event who helped me over the months I travelled back and forth from Ho Chi Minh to create the routes and meet with the municipal government leaders of Dalat.
After riding thousands of kilometers on a 150cc Honda dirt bike exploring nearly every trail the area had to offer I finally had three routes to propose to the government leaders and the federation. It was January already and I knew if the race was going to work we needed a March date to avoid the rainy season and attract international participants from the region.
The first meeting didn’t exactly go well. The meeting began in a room adorned with Vietnamese flags and we sat at a conference table with a statue of Ho Chi Minh himself overlooking. Both the federation and the municipal government members of Dalat expressed worry I may embarrass them by not being able to pull the event off. The officials would have to get multiple officials from around the area and country to sign off and apparently a previous event organizer had greatly embarrassed them by cancelling a trail running event at the last minute after officials put forth great effort to get everyone to sign off on it. Through a translator I convinced the officials and federation that I’d ensure the event took place even if it came at a financial loss. Little did I know just how expensive the endeavor would be!
As our meeting wrapped up the federation and government members stated they would give me the go ahead under the condition that I take a selected group of Vietnamese riders to pre-ride all of the courses. They wanted to ensure that the courses were safe they said. I was given the go ahead to open up registration and begin promoting the event. Registrations began coming in very slowly and I prepared to take the group of selected riders to pre-ride the courses for the three day event.
On the first day of pre-riding we set out early in the morning. The pine covered mountains of Dalat were covered in misty fog and the temperature was brisk. Due to the characteristics of the region’s mountains and the fact that none of the selected trails were created for recreating, the course was admittedly somewhat climb heavy, especially for locals coming from Ho Chi Minh City at sea level. Each time we crested a hill top the leading riders would stop at the top to rest and wait for their friends, either having a smoke or making a picnic out of the stop. Soon night was falling and we were only just arriving back in the heart of Dalat. We were all exhausted and I was extremely annoyed at the cultural experience I’d just had.
The next day brought the same experience. As we loaded a bus to make the overnight trip back to Ho Chi Minh I was advised the event couldn’t go forward unless the courses were shortened to allow locals to be competitive. I was taken aback. The courses were already relatively short by comparison to other similar events. I had no choice but to agree and went back to my apartment and poured over routes I’d ridden to find a way to make the officials happy but still have quality routes.
A couple of weeks later I took the group of riders back to Dalat where we rode the modified routes. The experience was similar and the riders still struggled. The courses were now shortened to just 53 kilometers for the first two days and slightly less for the final day. So at just under 32 miles of riding per day I was worried riders outside of Vietnam would think the event wasn’t worth the trip. After riding the courses we met with the federation and other officials who again demanded I shorten the stages to allow the local riders better chances. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! At this point I already had athletes from the US, Canada, Singapore, and Malaysia committed to coming. As carefully but as confidently as I could I replied to the officials that the courses couldn’t be shortened any further without risk of being embarrassingly short. “Any shorter” I said, “would discourage athletes from making such a journey to participate.” There was a long silence and I was convinced the project was dead in the water. However, after a short conversation amongst themselves, the officials gave the go ahead.
I’d already spent more time creating the event dubbed the Vietnam Victory Challenge than I had ever imagined and the event was still two months away. We had only a handful of registered riders and besides having a website everything still had to be done.
Somehow we secured valuable sponsorship support from several large companies including support from one of the bike manufacturers I’d been working with who had lost their factory. And on March 20th, 2015 just over 100 riders from more than five countries took to the starting line for the first ever international open mountain bike stage race in Vietnam. The event was a major success and was widely publicized throughout Vietnam. Having participated in countless events as an athlete I never imagined the hard work and struggles necessary to create such an event. However, even as much as I absolutely love racing my bike, I can’t ever remember participating in an event that gave me such a feeling of accomplishment, pride, and happiness. I’ve never participated in an event where athletes were so hungry and so happy to be given the chance to compete at a high level with international riders.
Everywhere I looked from athletes to spectators, people were sincerely enjoying themselves and there were smiles all around. I couldn’t have been happier with the way the event turned out and with the effect it had on the local athletes and the businesses that were involved. Many of our sponsors sent teams of their employees to assist as volunteers, feelings of pride to be part of such a big event seemed palpable. I can never thank those who participated enough for being part of the event.
We ran another amazingly successful event March of 2016 with more than double the participating with roughly half of all participants coming from another country. At the request of locals in Ho Chi Minh City we also created a 50 km ultra marathon on one of the same courses used by the mountain bike race. Other companies who were affected by the anti-China riots of 2014 came on as sponsors in an effort to further build the sport of mountain biking in the country.
By June of 2016 arrangements were made for mine and my family’s return to the US after a more than three year stint as Supervisor of Southeast Asia Quality for Specialized Bicycles. Our time in Vietnam remains the biggest adventure of our lives as of yet. The Vietnamese Cycling Federation in conjunction with the the municipal government of Dalat now run the event under the name Dalat Victory Challenge. The event continues to give local athletes the chance to compete. The Federation now runs a mountain bike race series in southern Vietnam called Vietnam MTB Series and the sport continues to grow thanks to the enthusiasm of the locals.
For more information on mountain bike racing in Vietnam, see vietnammtbseries.com