Amid Vietnam’s recurring Covid-19 outbreaks over the last 18 months, outdoor exercise has become an important part of daily life for many people looking to escape their house while still practicing safe social distancing.

As a result, bicycle sales have exploded, with some retailers reporting up to 300% increases in sales. The market has become so popular that the electronics retailer Mobile World has started selling bikes at some of its outlets across Vietnam.

While many of these new bike owners are only looking for relaxed city rides, two groups in Ho Chi Minh City are aimed at more serious cyclists, with the high-end gear to match.

Before dawn several mornings each week, the Thao Dien Riders, shortened to TDR, gather to cycle around Ho Chi Minh City and neighboring provinces like Binh Duong and Dong Nai. So named because many of the group’s members live in Thao Dien, the informal club began over a year ago during the national social distancing campaign in March and April.

“About five of us started cycling together on road bikes when Covid-19 hit,” Scott Mayers, one of the co-founders, said. “Knowing that team sports were being canceled due to social distancing laws, we thought cycling would be a good alternative.” This began with simple 25 kilometer-long rides through the Sala development in Thu Thiem and other parts of District 2.

“A couple of months into cycling, we joined up with a group of French riders, and that expanded us to about 12,” Mayers went on. “At that point, we thought it would be fun to start a cycling club and get custom jerseys made. That’s when the Thao Dien Riders club really started.”

Fast forward to today, and the group’s WhatsApp chat, where rides are planned and routes discussed, has grown to 167 people living all over Ho Chi Minh City, both Vietnamese and from countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Argentina, Australia, the Netherlands and more. Individual rides during non-outbreak periods routinely see well over a dozen cyclists take part.

“It’s been really fun to see the group grow and also see the riders get stronger too,” Mayers said. “When we started we thought 40 kilometers was really far, and now we do 45-kilometer weekday rides and rides over 100 kilometers on the weekend.”

The Tuesday and Thursday pre-work rides, which begin around 5 am, make use of the Hi-Tech Park in District 9, Pham Van Dong Boulevard, Vo Van Kiet Avenue and other large roads that allow for a fast pace before the morning rush hour begins.

Meanwhile, the long-distance rides allow group members to explore parts of the region they wouldn’t normally visit, such as verdant Cu Chi District; the rolling hills of Binh Duong Province beyond the industrial zones; and Bach Dang, an island in the Dong Nai River which is home to a golf course and has become a favorite location thanks to a relaxed riverside cafe there.

However, these rides have been curtailed during this summer’s severe Covid-19 outbreak, with riders largely remaining within the city’s borders and groups limited to three people, in line with social distancing regulations.

They still offer members an escape from isolation and provide an opportunity to socialize in the relative safety of the outdoors.

Another group, the Turtles Squad, has also grown over the last year and uses many of the same routes, though generally at a slower pace – hence the name.

Both groups can be contacted on Instagram, at turtlesquadvn and thao_dien_riders.

TDR’s rides are divided into categories based on speed, with ‘A’ rides averaging speeds near 40 kilometers per hour and attracting very experienced riders on highend road bikes, while the ‘B,’ ‘C’ and ‘D’ rides maintain gradually slower speeds, with the last intended for people just getting into cycling.

In March, as an extension of the community-building part of the group, the Thao Dien Riders organized an overnight trip to Ho Tram that drew over 30 cyclists on two routes through the rubber plantations of Dong Nai and windswept coast of Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province. This gave group members a chance to socialize outside of early mornings when many are in a rush to get to work after a ride.

“It’s just promoting a great sport and bringing people together,” said Lucas Chama, another original member. “That’s why I normally say the coffee stop at the end of the ride has to be mandatory because the social aspect of it is still very relevant.”

If this cycling group’s fast-growing membership is any indication, Ho Chi Minh City has a bright future when it comes to attracting residents with an affinity for bicycles. [C]

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