Ride: Suanbo, South Korea to Mungyeong, South Korea
Terrain: This segment has some of the nastiest climbs in all the Four Rivers Bike Trail - we had only read about one beforehand, but there’s actually three in reality. You’re really deep in the mountain ranges of South Korea now, so the first 18 kilometres is just one massive elevation gain up Juheulsan (-san means mountain). But as always, you are rewarded at the top with immense views of the countryside (and a café), and a downhill ride that lasts pretty much the rest of the day.
Today was the day. The dreaded climb up the mountain. The biggest climb we’d encounter between Seoul and Busan.
Obviously, Jess had hyped this up in her head to be as tall as Mount Everest, so she was nervous and shaky as we ate the free breakfast of toast and cereal that the Suanbo Saipan Hot Springs Hotel offered. Neil, annoyingly unflappable as ever, just shrugged and shuffled off to pinch another loaf. Perhaps he had just seen the clock on the wall that gave relevant advice for the day ahead.
There were two other cyclists who were staying at the hotel and set off before we did, only adding to Jess’s concern that they knew more about the ride (and its potential severity) than we did. But because it had rained heavily in the middle of the night, it was serendipitous that we had waited a bit longer to let the ground dry up. By the time we left, there wasn’t a cloud in the clear blue sky, and today was already shaping up to be another beautiful day of riding.
We rode through town and rejoined the bike path on the other side of Suanbo. Immediately, we hit a hill, and as we had studied the terrain earlier, we thought that this was the first of two climbs along the route - the first one being “easier”, and the second one being the real test. It wasn’t until we had gone up and down the latter that we realised we were wrong. There are in fact three hills on this route:
The little climb out of Suanbo - about 1.5km, 20m of elevation
The first climb into Juheulsan - 3km, 150m of elevation
The big climb to the peak - 5km, 300m of elevation
The first two, in retrospect, were really not that bad. It never gets above 7%, and you’d think very little of them on a road bike, but a loaded tandem is more of a challenge. Nothing you can’t handle, though. Spin to win.
For most of the big climb, we were able to stay on the bike. We weren’t going to break any speed records, but at least it wasn’t as heart attack inducing as we (well, Jess) had thought. It’s a steady climb most of the way, close to the edge of our comfort zone, but doable.
Ever considerate, the authorities have painted on the road at regular intervals a countdown of the distance to the top, just for cyclists. Depending on the weather, your bike’s loadout, and your own disposition, you may perceive this as either a motivation or a taunt. For us, it swung from the former to the latter and back again as we ascended.
There are also a number of rest points built at the roadside for you to sit down, get your breath back, and enjoy the view. Amusingly, they grow in frequency the closer you get to the top.
We’re not ashamed to admit that as the temperature and gradient rose to uncomfortable levels, we ended up getting off and pushing the last couple of hundred metres, which are distinctly steeper than the rest. Granny gear just wasn’t low enough in the end.
For those who reach the top, a spectacular view of the valley below (and a stamp!) await you. There’s a service station with snacks and coolers full of refreshing drinks, and an area with park benches directly outside where you can eat and relax. It was there that we decided to christen our camper stove and cook some dirty ramen, until the owner of the service station knocked on the window and told us off for lighting it. As he could tell we were foreigners, he decided to make it clear in no uncertain terms that he was displeased with our actions:
Not to worry - we quickly scuttled off and found a quiet place where we could enjoy our food in peace, while enjoying the stunning scenery. After cleaning up and disposing of our trash, we availed of the predictably immaculate bathrooms. The only weird thing was the lack of sinks to wash our hands - we had to walk over to the neighbouring gas station and make use of the water hose there. Seemed like a bit of an oversight.
Then it was an amazing 10-kilometre downhill rollercoaster, which we absolutely flew down, with one of us (Neil) having the time of his life. The rest of the ride was wee buns, with a gentle decline for the entirety of the 35km to Mungyeong (not to be confused with Mungyeong-eup, which is a suburb to the north of the actual city). If you wanted to, it would be no trouble at all to ride a lot further today, but this will do us for now. We’ll be staying here for the next two nights, and treating ourselves to our first proper rest day. Thank goodness.