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Cycling Heaven: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Cycling Heaven: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Posted by Stevan Musulin on

Written by Tristan Cardew

Ask any cyclist to name their dream riding destination and you’ll more often than not hear the same answers; The French Pyrenees, The Italian Dolomites, Mallorca, Tuscany. Girona. (Ha!). Rarely will someone point to Asia on a map and say “here”, and rarer still will you find someone who’s ridden in the north of Thailand and puts the area on par with Europe. I certainly wouldn’t have. So it was an interesting proposition for me when I got a call one Tuesday morning from Jordan at Attaquer EU’s HQ with a question...

“Tristan, hey mate, look i’m meant to be heading to Thailand this Saturday for the Attaquer x Union.cc Chiang Mai trip but something serious has come up... wanna take my spot?”

After a few moments silence, a mental scan of my diary, and the inward acknowledgement that I’m staring down the barrel of a European winter and that this may be my last chance to ride in Summer kit for a while: “..umm, shit. Sure? Why not?”

And just like that, it was settled. Thailand. Let’s do this.

Day 1 – No rest for the wicked

85km, 1,500m vertical

Running on zero sleep, a 2:30am bus from Girona to Barcelona airport, the red-eye to Doha and another 6 hour flight to Chiang Mai, it was a welcome change when our taxi pulled up just 10 minutes after leaving the airport and pointed to the building outside. “Here”, the driver announced, Jamie, who'd travelled from the UK, and I know we'd arrived at our hotel for the next week.

Given it was 7am and we couldn’t check in until 2pm though, there was really only one thing to do - build our bikes in the lobby and try to track down the rest of the crew. A couple of WhatsApp’s later and it turns out they were already on the road following the ‘Samoeng Loop’, which, to our knowledge, was just an easy introduction to the local roads. Boy, were we wrong.

Because Chiang Mai

Because Chiang Mai. Photo: Simon James

Quirky upcycle hotel rooms

Quirky upcycle hotel rooms. Photo: Simon James

Attaquer Hotel / Pop Up Store in Nimman, Chiang Mai. Photo: Union Cycling Apparel

Bike building time. Photo: Andrew Walsh

Tristan and Jamie chasing the bunch. Photo: Simon James

Kitted up and bikes built, we decided to chase the main group made up of about 25 local Thai riders from Union.cc, plus another 20 Attaquer international riders who had a few minutes' lead on us.

We started with a gentle 20 kilometre roll out of town where Jamie - 24, from London, first time in Asia, was wide-eyed at every turn. Loosely following the GPX route we’d been sent, we began to wonder when we’d see signs of the Sydney lads.

Just up ahead of us we saw a large group of riders, sure enough it was the local Union.cc bunch. We caught up to them and asked how far ahead the Attaquer crew were, they replied ‘not far’, so we pushed on with a even more excitement.

As the road got quieter and the gradient increased we laughed at our fortune. Two days ago Jamie was riding laps of Surrey's famed Box Hill in the rain and the temperature in Girona had just dropped to 4 degrees Celsius. Now it was 26 degrees, humid and we were riding in a place neither of us really expected to be riding in November.

Attaquer & Union, pre-ride. Photo: Union Cycling Apparel

Attaquer and Union rolling thorough Nimman

Attaquer and Union rolling through Nimman. Photo: Union Cycling Apparel

Thai Squad

Thai Squad. Photo: Union Cycling Apparel

After 10 minutes of climbing I started to wonder what the profile of today’s ride looked like. According to the route there were zero meters of climbing. Hmmm... definitely a glitch, as the road only seemed to point upwards.

After 40 minutes of climbing, with many sections hitting double-digit gradients, we passed a sign that said something in Thai and then had the number 8 underneath it. Surely that wasn’t a Col sign? 8k’s to go?!

Moments later, a sight for sore eyes: at a convenience store ahead the bunch we’d been chasing had stopped for a drink and much needed shade break. So with a major sigh of relief, we pulled into a round of applause and high fives from all corners of the globe. After some brief greetings, we topped up our bidons and rolled out again. No rest for the wicked.

All smiles friends of Union Cycling Apparel. Photo; Union Cycling Apparel

A sigh of relief as we caught the bunch. Photo: Union Cycling Apparel

As it turned out, our assumptions were correct, the sign we’d seen earlier was indicating 8km to go till the summit, so we struggled our way to the top as the gradient increased.

Finally the road peaked and to our right a rewarding vista opened up before us momentarily before we dropped down the other side, thinking we were now on the second half of the ‘loop’ which surely led downhill back to town.

We reached an intersection, took a left turn, and then looked up at what can only be described as a 3 kilometre wall. It was clear there was about to be some major zigging and zagging all over the road, this thing was steeeeep.

With gradients in excess of 15 percent and back-to-back hairpins hitting the mid-20’s, we cursed and wrenched our way up the climb, the effects of sleep deprivation, humidity and airplane food now starting to sink in.

What goes up, must come down……and probably back up again, gulp.

What goes up, must come down……and probably back up again, gulp. Photo: Union Cycling Apparel

Zigging and zagging

Zigging and zagging. Photo: Union Cycling Apparel

Let’s talk about gradient for a moment

Let’s talk about gradient for a moment. Photo: Union Cycling Apparel

Grinding it out

Grinding it out. Photo: Union Cycling Apparel

Line up

Lining up. Photo: Union Cycling Apparel

What did I do to deserve this?

What did I do to deserve this? Photo: Union Cycling Apparel

Ross on fire

Ross on fire. Photo: Union Cycling Apparel

Did I mention it was steep? Check the angle of that top tube.

Did I mention it was steep? Check the angle of that top tube. Photo: Union Cycling Apparel

After what seemed an eternity but was really only 20 minutes, we hit a line on the road that read KOM and started a beautiful and flowing 30 kilometre descent that would lead us right back where we started in Nimman.

When you start out on a trip like this, you don’t tend to think about what would happen if things go wrong. Unfamiliar roads, in a big group of riders, how we'd get help if we needed it. All the standard oversights in the excitement of riding. The last thing you want is for someone to take a spill, but unfortunately on the first major decent of the trip our friend Terence Chin had a front tire blow out and took a very big spill at full speed.

Thankfully the crew from Union had us covered and within seconds a van was on hand to take Tez to hospital. By all accounts the hospital staff took good care of our Tez, he was cleaned up, bandaged, x-rayed and given the all clear within an hour, no major injuries. Good luck getting that sort of service at your local hospital emergency, not to mention the exceptionally fashionable in-patient gown.

Terence takes a high speed spill

Terence takes a high speed spill. Photo: Union Cycling Apparel

Help arrives in seconds thanks to Union

Help arrives in seconds thanks to Union. Photo: Union Cycling Apparel

Thai hospital fashion is on another level

Thai hospital fashion is on another level. Photo: Simon James

We ride on, albeit a little more conservatively

We ride on, albeit a little more conservatively. Photo: Union Cycling Apparel

Home stretch

Home stretch. Photo: Union Cycling Apparel

The parallels I began to draw between some of the great cycling cities many people have ridden in is that you can roll out of town into the hills, do a loop and be back in town having barely seen a traffic light. As we all caught up over dinner, the general consensus was clear; Chiang Mai is a very good place to ride bikes and it was only our first ride. We couldn’t wait to see what was in store for the rest of the week.

A must-try meal as recommended by the late, great Anthony Bourdain, the cowboy hat lady did not disappoint.

A must-try meal as recommended by the late, great Anthony Bourdain, the cowboy hat lady did not disappoint. Photo: Andrew Walsh

dinner and chat about how god the ridding is in Chiang Mai

Dinner and chat about how good the riding is in Chiang Mai. Photo: Simon James

so many delicious street food options

So many delicious street food options. Photo: Simon James

Day 2 – Cheese Toasties

95km, 250m vertical

After a solid 12 hours of sleep to knock off some of our jet lag, Jamie and I met the rest of the crew at Ristr8to Specialty Coffee bright and early on day 2.

Ristr8to was the starting point for each day’s ride and as we quickly came to discover, the team there deliver a mean brew. If there’s one thing Chiang Mai isn’t short of, it’s specialty coffee, and after a couple of top-notch LB’s we rolled out with a combination of over 20 Sydney-siders and at least another 30 or more Chiang Mai locals in an epic, Coluzzi-style bunch headed for Lamphun. Today we were staying flat. And I mean genuinely flat, not GPX- stitch up flat.

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCMENT: 7-Eleven Ham and Cheese Toasties are the perfect start and finish to everyday. Full credit to The Tunnel Sneks for sharing this discovery. Photo: Simon James

Morning park up spot Ristr8o Specialty Coffee

Morning park up spot Ristr8o Specialty Coffee. Photo: Tristan Cardew

Spoiled for choice with coffee

Spoiled for choice with coffee. Photo: Tristan Cardew

 

As we meandered along the farm roads and chatted to new and old faces, the k’s ticked by and we covered the first 45 kilometres (half the day’s planned distance) in slightly over an hour. A coffee at Not Espresso (another specialty coffee joint our guides led us to) and some more chatting and we were back on the road, heading north along the Ping River.

With kilometre after kilometre of smooth tarmac punctuated by the odd roadside hut and sleepy street-doggo, there was little to worry about other than which $2.50 dish we’d be choosing for dinner. Eventually we made our way West and hit the day’s only climb - more a novelty than a mountain after yesterday - just 1.5k’s at 8% up to a temple and a 17-meter high seated Buddha. As usual, sparks flew on the climb but no Strava top-10’s were had; the heat of a Thai midday taking its toll on us all.

Tarmac to dirt, gravel is never far away if you want it

Tarmac to dirt, gravel is never far away if you want it. Photo: Tristan Cardew

Long and flat road section running along the river

Long and flat road section running along the river. Photo: Tristan Cardew

Did I mention it was humid as hell?

Did I mention it was humid as hell? Photo: Tristan Cardew

Taking a break. Photo: Simon James

the result of late night hotel haircuts, not half bad.

The result of late night hotel haircuts, not half bad. Photo: Simon James

On the way back to town, a handful of thrill seekers hatched a plan to visit ‘The Grand Canyon’, local Chiang Mai water park. It’s an old quarry which has been flooded, and lots of inflatable obstacles and slides have been installed. With what would be best described as ‘relaxed’ safety standards, The Grand Canyon is worth a visit if you’re looking for a swim and a fun day out.

The Grand Canyon – 500 Baht Entry. There are two entries, one is for the water park, don’t get stitched up by going next door to the swimming only area. Photo: Simon James

Front flips from the inflatable pillow

Front flips from the inflatable pillow. Photo: Simon James

Day 3 – Pay Dirt

90km, 1,700 meters

With everybody recovered, caffeinated and ready for more climbing, day 3 had us again headed for the hills. This time to the south-west of Chiang Mai in the reverse direction of day 1’s loop.

We were told by our local guide, Phil, that there would be no stitch-ups today; a sure sign there would, indeed, be stitch-ups. 20k’s in and the group started to splinter.

If there’s one thing Thailand does well, it’s build roads that go directly to their destination, even if that means straight up the side of a mountain. Watts per kilo were on display and over the next 10k’s the climbers came to the fore and those who couldn’t climb...well, they had their work cut out for them on the pitching slopes of the 1269.

Major bonus points were scored on this route, we couldn’t believe our eyes, seeing elephants along the side of the road, so, so, so much stoke.

Them there hills lay ahead about 2kms out of the centre of town. Very accessible.

Them thar hills lay ahead about 2kms out of the centre of town. Very accessible. Photo: Andrew Walsh

Bonus points as we saw elephants on the side of the road

Bonus points as we saw elephants on the side of the road. Photo: Andrew Walsh

Regrouping at the top

Regrouping at the top

Roll call, ready to roll?

Roll call, ready to roll? Photo: Andrew Walsh

Eventually we re-grouped and took an easily missable left turn down a small descent before popping out onto a beautiful, undulating and extremely flowy farm road.

With 25 of us all bombing descents and sprinting up climbs, the view probably wasn’t appreciated in the way it deserved to be but the vibes were through the roof.

Calls of “best road ever” were thrown around at the bottom as we rolled home, where a small group of us turned off toward the out-and-back Doi Suthep climb; 10k’s at 6%, the perfect way to end a great day.

Back at the hotel that afternoon, it was obvious that the tension was building as all the chat was revolving around tomorrow's climb. Everyone had a very low key evening and an early night to make sure they were fresh for the morning.

Found some gravel

Found some gravel

Best road ever. Photo: Mark Clinton

Best road ever. Photo: Mark Clinton

tree arch

Tree arch. Photo: Mark Clinton

Vistas. Photo: Doug Low

YEW! Photo: Simon James

Espresso Martini

Even in the middle of nowhere, you can still get an Espresso Martini

Freeway return

Freeway return. Photo: Tristan Cardew

Went for a few extras up to the Doi Suthep lookout – the term dad pace is born

Went for a few extras up to the Doi Suthep lookout – the term "Dad Pace" is born. Photo: Tristan Cardew

scooter doggo

Scooter doggo. Photo: Simon James

flaming tuk tuk

Flaming tuk tuk. Photo: Simon James

 

 

Day 4 – Thailand’s Highest Peak

95km, 2,600 meters

There comes a time in every cyclist’s life when they face a climb that challenges them in every sense of the word - physically, mentally, and eventually emotionally.

Doi Inthanon was that climb, for every single one of us.

I’d heard rumours of a mythical beast laying 60k’s south of Chiang Mai. A climb that puts anything in the Pyrenees or Alps to shame, that climbs to the highest point in the country. So when the opportunity was raised to wake in the dark and get a van ride to the base, I leaped at it.

The stats tell one story - 39k’s at 6% with 2250 vertical meters of climbing - the immensity of the task speaks an entirely different tale.

We were about to ride more elevation than from sea level to the highest point in Australia in less than 40 kilometres. The final 9k’s unrelentingly steep, we were warned.

Loading up. Photo: Simon James

breakfast

Breakfast. Photo: Simon James

How do you get 23 bikes and 26 people into 4 vans? Photo: Simon James

am I ready for this

Am I ready for this? Photo: Simon James

Give 'Em Hell

Give 'Em Hell. Photo: Simon James

Grammin'. Photo: Simon James

After building our bikes in the carpark of a 7/11 as the sun rose, we exchanged some nervous laughs and friendly banter as we pensively sipped canned coffee.

We rolled the initial 10k’s together as a bunch to the first of what would be many savage ramps for the morning. It wasn’t long before the bunch split into a few smaller bunches, then even smaller bunches still. Then it started to string out until for the most part everyone was riding as an individual or a pair. Everybody settled into their own rhythm and a space in their head to keep them occupied while plunging deeper and deeper into their physical reserves for the next two – three hours.

Part of what makes Doi Inthanon so brutal is the gradient, another part is the length, and, as we all began to discover, the final part is the altitude. You ride the first 25k’s with many 10% sections and you’ve reached 1600 meters; an altitude where breathing itself steadily increases in difficulty.

Smile while you can

Smile while you can. Photo: Simon James

Calm before the climb

The calm before the climb. Photo: Simon James

Jersey selection was critical. Photo: Simon James

You climb another 6k’s and you’re at 1,950 meters, higher than the top of Alp D’Huez or Mont Ventoux. And it’s at this point you cross the final National Park checkpoint and begin what can only be described as the final ascent to hell.

Picture Mount Baw Baw on top of the Col du Galibier. Walking pace was the only option, and even then it was like trying to walk on the ocean floor with weights strapped to each ankle. Each kilometre seemed to take an age, and by the time I reach 5k’s to go I was seeing stars.

"How were the others going?", I wondered. "Would they know if I got off and walked for a bit?"

I’d been reduced to looking at my speed hovering in the single digits and the gradient not dipping below 12% for a good 25 minutes when the road finally levelled slightly and the end seemed to be in sight. Or at least what I thought was the end.

A stunning, golden temple, shimmering in the sun. As I got closer though I realised this mirage was simply a ploy to lure cyclists into a false sense of security as a sign on the side of the road read ‘3km to top’ before the road pointed straight back up again. From there, at 2,200+ meters, it was simply a matter of survival, with the air thin, the watts slowly dropping as the altitude rose, and questions of ‘why’ running on a constant loop in my head.

Cycling is beautiful, but at moments like these, it’s far more painful. I slogged on and eventually made it, collapsing in the car park at the top. 2 hours and 9 minutes the Garmin read, just outside the coveted Strava top-10. Then, steadily, as each and every one of the boys rolled in they said the same thing: “Hardest climb we’ve ever done”. I think I may have even seen tears being shed.

The group rides together

The group rides together. Photo: Mark Clinton

smaller bunches are forming

Smaller bunches are forming. Photo: Mark Clinton

Bunches into Pairs

Bunches split into pairs. Photo: Mark Clinton

Eventually, most were alone

Eventually, most were alone. Photo: Mark Clinton

Hydration station. Photo: Mark Clinton

what are you looking at……help me.

What are you looking at……help me. Photo: Mark Clinton

Pain face

Pain face. Photo: Mark Clinton

To give you perspective, this shot was not taken from a drone, but from the lookout around the next bend where the road shoots up

To give you perspective, this shot might look like it was taken from a drone, but in reality it was taken from the lookout around the next bend where the road shoots up. Photo: Mark Clinton

Nearly there but it’s just getting steeper

Nearly there but it’s just getting steeper. Photo: Mark Clinton

even some of the strongest guys cracked on this section.

Even some of the strongest guys cracked on this section. Photo: Mark Clinton

Why is Vladimir smiling when everyone else is grimacing, is he getting a tow or does he enjoy the pain? That’s a red flag, investigation pending. Photo: Mark Clinton

Stick a fork in me I'm done

Stick a fork in me I'm done. Photo: Mark Clinton

Doi Inthanon – The highest mountain in Thailand

Doi Inthanon – The highest mountain in Thailand. Photo: Tristan Cardew

Still, when you’ve made it to 2,550 meters from close to sea level, there comes a sense of satisfaction and group elation. We’d been told a good time up Doi Inthanon was 3 hours, and pretty much everybody made it in under that, so fist bumps, hugs and a group photo were had before we bombed the descent (a few Strava top-10’s had there...), smashed some 7/11 specialities at the bottom and packed up to head home.

Day 5 - The Afterglow

101km, 450m vertical

With fatigued bodies and a little less desire to climb anything more than the stairs up to Ristr8to our fifth day in Chiang Mai was what you might liken to a Grand Tour rest day and it saw the group split up into various smaller groups and many different rides were on offer depending on how you felt.

Some went for an easy local climb, others went for pure off road adventure, while the rest of the crew had planned long sleep ins and a lazy afternoon spin.

For me, I decided to join The Tunnel Snek Boys AKA Over Yonder’s Esjay, Tobias, Tam and Summers. I wanted the kind of ride that keeps the body moving but at minimal physical cost.  The boys had mapped out a rice paddy ride which they guaranteed would be chill.

We rolled out of town on the familiar north-bound highway then weaved our way onto quieter roads that reminded us, once again, of why we ride bikes. After yesterday’s brutality, today’s beauty was true Thai style. Narrow, clean roads, very few cars, more sleeping street dogs and a pace everybody could manage; world’s away from the hustle and bustle of Sydney or Barcelona.

We passed banana plantations and rice fields, temples and groups of Buddhist monks, and ended up finding some gravel to keep the Over Yonder lads content. Eventually we made our way back to town for a swim on top of the Art Mai hotel, some mango sticky rice and eventually a trip to the famous Cowboy Hat Lady street food vendor who serves some of the best fried chicken in Chiang Mai.

 

Flat, smooth and quiet farm roads. Photo: Simon James

passing through villages

Passing through villages. Photo: Simon James

Not a car in sight

Not a car in sight. Photo: Simon James

People Power. Photo: Simon James

 

Buddha steps. Photo: Simon James

giant golden buddha

Giant Golden Buddha. Photo: Simon James

smooth, quiet, peaceful roads and villages

Smooth, quiet, peaceful roads and villages. Photo: Simon James

Caption: mango sticky rice, you can never have too much of it. Available on every street corner and consumed at a minimum of 2 times a day. Essential.

Mango sticky rice, you can never have too much of it. Available on every street corner and consumed at a minimum of 2 times a day. Essential. Photo: Tristan Cardew

Day 6 - The final chapter

82km, 1,400m vertical

The legendary 17 kilometre climb to Mon Cham: Who would survive? Who would walk?

Double espresso’s all round at Ristr8to followed by a swift trip up highway 121 told me everyone was on good form after Wednesday’s epic and yesterday’s recovery, and when we hit the first ramp - 700 meters at 16% - the speed at which the Snek’s took off with "The Dad’s" in tow confirmed this.

Up, up, and more up. 14k’s to go, Garmin reading 12%, 13k’s to go, Garmin still reading 12%. 10k’s to go and finally the road levelled for a much needed breather and regroup, before more double-digit gradients punctuated by longer and longer gaps in the trees revealed a stunning, rice paddy-laden valley to the left. The kind of scenery the hashtag #wanderlust was created for, and as we passed a glamp-site that advertised “secluded bungalows and free Wifi”.

I began to wonder if we’d stepped into every Insta-travellers daydream. A thought quickly put aside as the next wall of road approached; one last push to the 1,300 meter summit for a view our iPhone cameras simply couldn’t do justice.

The Thai King. Photo: Simon James

Walking with baby. Photo: Simon James

up to the village

Up to the village. Photo: Simon James

still a fair way till the summit

Still a fair way till the summit. Photo: Simon James

Once everybody was up and with only one mid-climb abandon (name redacted), we brew-stopped and reflected on the week’s adventures; testing and rewarding gradients on day 1, amazing coffee stops on day 2, an unexpected and epic farm-track road on day 3, day 4’s monster climb, the peace of a quiet recovery ride on day 5, and today’s unparalleled views...I don’t know what everybody else had in mind when they thought of riding bikes in Thailand, but it had certainly taken me by surprise. Chiang Mai’s cycling tourism is growing at a rapid rate, and it's for good reason the place is now becoming home to some of Asia, and the world’s best cyclists.

MVP

MVP. Photo: Simon James

Sexy summit poses. Photo: Simon James

Mon Cham 360 cafe

Mon Cham 360 Cafe. Photo: Andrew Walsh

Mon Cham village. Photo: Simon James

Moto kid. Photo: Simon James

Coffee everywhere you go. Photo: Simon James

Before we farewelled the place though, it was time for one last downhill blast as we saddled up and hit the -10% slopes to Mae Rim. We chopped off back to town (Jamie finally getting his wish of a full-gas highway effort with everybody in tow), then we packed up the bikes, hit Zoe’s for mojito buckets and a swift raid of the dance floor before 3 hours of sleep and a 7am flight back to Barcelona.

4 days notice for 6 days of riding in a place I’d never considered visiting before, and boy am I glad that whirlwind of a trip came up. I’m now back in Girona with a bunch of great memories, and a WhatsApp group of Aussies sending Thailand-related photos to each other to keep the vibes up until the next holiday is planned. Thank you to Attaquer and Union 71 for organising and hosting such an amazing week, and to Jordan Addison for helping me get there and back.

PS It wasn't just about the bike...as this final montage will attest...

Oos oos

Oos oos. Photo: Simon James

Hotel haircuts. I have no regrets.

Hotel haircuts. Zero regrets. Photo: Andrew Walsh

Holiday tattoos...

Holiday tattoos... Photo: Simon James

Tuk Tuk hangs

Tuk Tuk Hangs. Photo: Simon James

Buckets

Buckets'n'bowlcuts. Photo: Mark Clinton

Cutting it up


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