Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Chiang Mai Adventures

That which does not kill us makes us stronger - Friedrich Nietzsche

No, it's not a track stand. I was moving....just

This is the time of year to be in Chiang Mai. The "Cool Season" describes a period stretching between mid November and late January when the normal muggy heat in Northern Thailand is replaced by cool breezes and a considerable lowering of humidity. A time for pool parties and barbeques for the locals, but for the rest of us simply the best time to visit.

This is why we decided to run our first cycling adventure into this area in late November this year. The region still doesn't have that much fame as a cycling destination, which I find hard to understand. Among pro (and serious amateur) cyclists with (relatively) easy access to Thailand it's been a favourite for a while. Orica Greenedge are reported to use Northern Thailand for their hill training, which may eventually prove a secret weapon for them: the hills are definitely some of the hardest in the world.

Where most road engineers of the world seem to try to keep gradients from staying above 10% for too long, maxing out at the occasional 15% or so, the Thais build roads that stay consistently at gradients approaching 20% for sections lasting several kilometers. 25% is a regular occurrence on paved roads around here. Compact cranksets are the order of the day!

There are a lot of hills, and a lot of roads around here too! Mostly not very busy, and surrounded by some breathtaking flora and occasional encounters with rare fauna. There are also plenty of villages and enough roadside cafes and amenities that you can usually count on finding somewhere for a snack or to fill a bottle. But not always - hence the support car.

For this trip I was accompanied by only one other rider. We'd decided that we'd stick to an out-and-back format for the rides for maximised relaxation, quality of food, and availability of massages in Chiang Mai. Clarence flew in from Hong Kong the day after I arrived and we prepared well at an excellent restaurant near where we were staying in the northwest of the city the evening before the "grand depart". Awesome vegetarian Thai dishes washed down with some good French wine. My sister Clare was driving support and was also responsible for most of the food recommendations.

The first day started the pattern of beginning rides at this incredible coffee outlet on Nimman Road called Ristr8to - 2 Brazilian lattes please :) - seriously some of the best coffee I've ever tasted! Great, friendly staff and a very welcoming ambience - with a giant coffee roaster in operation most of the time at the back of the cafe, lending the room it's rich aroma.

The morning evolved onto the road for the warm-up stage which took us up the 1400 meters of Doi Suthep, the mountain that hovers above the northwestern suburbs of Chiang Mai. A bit busy with tourists and the ubiquitous Songtao traffic, the road is wide and well paved with plenty of room for all. The tourists mostly are aiming for the temple half way up, after which it's quieter, and the gradients only start getting nasty nearer the top. From the top of the hill the road heads down some steep banks to a Hill Tribe Village that, amidst the stalls of tourist junk, provided some decent food and refreshments. The ride ended back in the city for a western lunch (smoothies and sandwiches), more coffee, and the afternoon massage.

Day 2 involved a drive out to start the riding about 47km from the summit of Doi Inthanon. At 2600 meters above sea level this is Thailand's highest peak, and since we started from about 200 meters, we ascended most of it. After the gates to the national park there is a section of a couple of kilometers which gives an introduction to the gradients to be found further up. Ouch.

At 40km from the start of the climb to the summit, this is the longest ascent - which should make it the most gradual, right? Wrong. The last thing you want when you know you have 2400 meters to ascend is to find yourself, after several kilometers of upward grinding, on a nice descent. In this case what goes down must go up again. There's a lot of flattish rolling in the middle of this with most of the really nasty bits at the end when the oxygen is also in short supply.

Not having really got our gearing right, there was rather a lot of grinding going on - fine for my low-cadence friend from Buxton who soldiered on unperturbed grinding his 39x25 (I now call it the Buxton Compact!). For me though, I'm happy at around 90-100rpm, so long sections at below 50rpm don't go down well with my lower back.

Nevertheless, all suffering ends at some point and we slowly made it to the top, though at over 3 hours our average speed was well below 15kmh - and probably more like 7kmh for the last section. The payback started at a rest area on the way down at around 5km from the summit with some great Thai sausages, spicy eggs and Som Tham (papaya salad).

The day after the Mega-Doi stage was designated as a recovery ride. After the obligatory coffee indulgence, we met up with a couple of the local riders for a spin through the flatter bits of the countryside along the Ping river. Time for socializing and allowing the legs to get a bit more of a spin going before the last stage in our festival of gradient.

By this time we'd found so many outstanding places to eat we decided to return to one of them for a repeat order on Clarence's last night in Chiang Mai. More amazing Thai delicacies washed down with German beer. The food in Chiang Mai is already reason enough to visit this place. Plus the people here have simply the most open and friendly nature and are a joy to be served a meal by.

Day 4 had us facing the Mae Rim to Samoeng loop. A 90km route, basically around the base of the Doi Suthep mountain which involves one major climb of just over 17km up to around 1100m, a super-fast descent and then a fairly brutal but shortish climb up some switchbacks that has you rising 280 meters over a distance of 2.3km, before a descent back down towards the city.

Andrew, one of our local friends with a strong knowledge of the off-road scene in the area, joined us for this ride and his local knowledge peppered the ride with interesting insights into other types of route available within riding distance from Chiang Mai. Along the way we passed the elephant camp and some strawberry farms before the road got quieter and more scenic. This is a really gorgeous route.

The day's ride ended back in the city with more smoothies and sandwiches. This was the end of the road as far as the cycling went, and though I had a couple more days of uninhibited refueling ahead of me, Clarence had a flight to catch.

It's hard to match a place like Chiang Mai for running this type of cycling break - especially at this time of year. I really don't believe there's anywhere else on the planet that ticks so many boxes on the list of ideal things for cycling bliss.

It was so much fun that we've decided to run it again in January 2014 before the end of this cool season!

Anyone interested? Chiang Mai Adventures

A great bike shop in Chiang Mai which you can rely on for spares and mechanicals

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