Whenever something mildly inconvenient happens to me, whether it be spilling water on my laptop or running into my students while wasted and trying to buy foot deodorant, I find myself crying on a park bench wondering why such misfortune must befall me. After 22 years of searching for an answer, my newfound love for cycling has recently led me to realize that that I’m not actually plagued with bad luck; I am just incredibly stupid.
There are a number of reasons why biking is my calling, and one of them is that you can enjoy the feeling of working out from the comfort of remaining in a seated position for hours on end. Not only is it an eco-friendly way to travel, but you also get to see a variety of gorgeous landscapes while picking tons of tiny bugs out of your eyelids.
Not wanting to hoard the joys of cycling to myself, I rallied up two of my most loyal friends, Dallas and Shane, and together we formed Daejeon’s very first Shitty Bike Club. The name came naturally to us because we quickly discovered that we’re the most dysfunctional bikers in the city, and perhaps the entire Korean peninsula.
I haven’t been able to bike for longer than an hour since high school, so I thought I should begin my new life as Lance Armstrong with a light 140km bike ride from Daejeon (central Korea) to Boryeong (west coast). The fact that Korea is comprised of 70% mountainous region did not deter us from failing to plan a route, buy helmets, research the destination, or even check if our bikes were functional before setting off. We wanted to see the ocean, so we geared up and set off to see the ocean.
To give you some quick team stats: Dallas spent the last year wrangling wild horses in the South American outback. He’s our DIY mechanic and fixer of anything that goes wrong, like when a few cords were falling off my bike and he held them together using Kakao Friends band-aids. Shane looks ambiguously Asian and previously studied abroad in Seoul, thus is our resident Korean translator and Naver Maps navigator. He can order fried chicken (with or without sauce) faster than any other foreigner in the land.
While you could make a case that Shane is our MVP and without him we would not survive, I will note that I am the prettiest girl in Shitty Bike Club and self-appointed vlogger. You could argue that vlogging is useless and does nothing to contribute to the general survival and wellbeing of the team, and you would be right. In fact, it has caused me to crash off the path into foliage several times, twice being into a thorn bush.
We chose Boryeong as our destination because we wanted to swim and it was the closest coastal city to our inland location. But before we even could get out of Daejeon, Dallas discovered his gears didn’t change, Shane suffered serious booty pain, and following a near-death collision with a car I realized my brakes didn’t work. I suppose that’s what happens when you buy the cheapest bikes possible on Gmarket and pay $20 to have them assemble it for you. Despite our total lack of bike preparation, we had kimbap, oreos, and garlic toasts in our backpacks. So instead of investing in tools, we barrelled onwards, fuelled by the sheer force of saving our reputations because we had already posted on Snapchat AND Instagram that we were biking to the coast.
The beginning of anything is always the worst. This applies to biking, relationships, and salad diets. After our first 25km out of Daejeon, things were a breeze. Korea has well-maintained bike paths that go across the entire country, making cycling super fun even when you have to hand-tighten your gears after they come loose in the middle of a rice field in the rural provinces.
At first, not having brakes was great and made me feel like I was too fast, too furious for anyone. I felt infinite flying down hills and dodging all the snakes, spiders, and ahjossis (older Korean men). Unfortunately, this freedom faded after we came to our first city. I went from loving the feeling of wind in my hair to crying at the top of hills, wondering why it never occurred to me to buy a helmet before a 12-hour bike ride through a country full of mountains.
We didn’t plan a route to get to Boryeong in advance because we couldn’t find any information online, which we assumed was because it was all in Korean. Somehow this plan worked out fine for the first 100km, which was along these beautifully paved paths that took us through a stunning array of scenery. We rode through electric green farm fields, wound around mountainsides, coasted along the river, and accidentally found ourselves in the middle of a bike race at one point.
However, as we entered the last 40km, the aforementioned bike path suddenly ended, as did any sight of fellow riders. We started cycling down an elevated freeway with transport trucks flying by us. I’m not trying to be dramatic, but we sensed instant death was only a meter away, separated by a single paved white line. Our unpreparedness had finally caught up with us: there was no bike path to Boryeong. We put zero faith in Korean drivers, so we huddled on the side of the highway and tried to decide what to do. After a few seconds of deliberation, we realized that we legitimately could not turn back because a) we were on an elevated highway and b) we didn’t know where the nearest city or bus was. There was no option but to go forward, which we did.
The highway only lasted for another 10km, but for anyone considering biking the Daejeon-Boryeong route I would recommend skipping Boryeong and following the bike path to Gunsan. I would actually not recommend doing this trip at all, especially if you have the fitness endurance of a two-day old bowl of oatmeal. I would particularly advise against completing this trip after August, because September is jellyfish season at the beach. Naturally, we did not realize this crucial fact until it was too late and I was screaming for someone to carry me out of the ocean and pee on my leg (please note that this cure is actually for sea urchins).
You know how some people see the Virgin Mary in rock formations or spaghetti sauce and think they’re seeing God? That’s how I felt when Boryeong’s local buses came into view. The sun was beginning to set and the sky was softening to blue linen. Gold light filtered between the mountains, which was blinding but in a cinematic way. I couldn’t see anything, certainly not the gaping hole on the side of the road I nearly ended my life in, but it was a magical sort of blindness. We felt lighter too. Despite our exhaustion peaking on its eleventh hour, we knew the city was just around the corner.
We biked that corner. Then biked another corner. And that corner turned into a slight incline. And that slight incline turned into a decent hill. And that decent hill turned into a mountain. And that mountain had no mercy on our legs or how many kilometers we had already biked or that night was falling or that we didn’t buy bike lights because we thought we’d be finished by early afternoon.
In an executive decision for the wellbeing of the team, we decided to take the bus into town because our map said we had not yet reached the peak. It was too dangerous to bike in pitch darkness on a winding mountain, cars whizzing by every minute. We waited 15 minutes for the bus until its headlights rounded the corner. I looked down at my bargain bike and back up the mountain. After pushing twelve hours through rural countryside, it was all about to end on a sweaty bus. There is no victory worth that ₩1,200 bus fare. We gave up when we had come within single digits of reaching our destination, all because we failed to buy lights.
Except the bus didn’t stop for us because it couldn’t see us in the dark. \ (•◡•) / So onwards we went without consulting the map. Ignorance is bliss until you find yourself hurtling down a mountainside and into a high traffic tunnel at over 60kph with dysfunctional brakes. The best way to describe this was that one scene from Perks of Being a Wallflower where Logan Lerman leans out of the sunroof and feels infinite, except I was a lot crustier and probably much more finite.
When we finally got into Boryeong, we were ready for the sweet release of death. I somehow survived the mountain without brakes, gears, lights, or cardio endurance without falling once, but as soon as we got into town I somehow managed to topple over sideways on the curb of 7-Eleven. All the skin ripped open on my calves didn’t matter because I was starving and so ready to tear into a seafood pancake.
At traditional Korean restaurants, you take your shoes off at the door and sit cross-legged on the floor as you enjoy the best meal of your entire existence. I hadn’t realized how this custom discriminates against long-distance bikers until we took off our shoes for the first time in 12 hours and nearly died from the stench that filled the room. I have never had to choose a meal based on how little clothing I need to remove and I hope I never have to again.
Several fried chicken burgers and grape sojus later, I crawled into bed and prepared for a relaxing sleep, but was unexpectedly met with perhaps the worst night of my entire life. I know I have a reputation as the queen of exaggeration, but know that I am not stretching anything in the least when I say I woke up every half hour crying and whimpering in pain because my legs felt like someone had simultaneously set them on fire while slowly ripping the muscles apart. Sometime around 5am I rolled over and googled “Can you die from leg pain?” to which I found the answers “no” and “see a doctor immediately”. The thought of having to speak Korean to an ambulance driver terrified me, so I hoped it was the former and tried to go back to sleep.
The next day, Shane and I popped a few painkillers while Dallas happily led the way to the beach. Minus the fact it was jellyfish mating season and I still felt like my life was ending, we had a lovely day eating fried chicken, splashing in the Yellow Sea, buying matching helmets, relaxing at a Korean spa, and finally taking a bus back to Daejeon. This dumb trip was the most fun I’ve ever had, but there is no amount of money in this world that could have convinced us to bike home.
While we do consider our trip to be a general success despite its many unfortunate events, it didn’t have the happy ending we hoped for. The perfect ending to our first bike trip would have been returning to the bus station to find our bikes stolen. But unfortunately, due to Korea’s extremely low crime rate and 1984-style surveillance, they were still locked to the bike rack. And thus, stay tuned for the Shitty Bike Club’s next adventure as we attempt to bike across the entire country, 650km from Incheon to Busan during Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving)! Will we throw ourselves off the top of the nearest mountain?! Will we quit and take the train in Daegu?! Will we finally invest in foot deodorant?!
The answer is probably yes. But stay tuned to find out anyway.