Rider on Doi Inthanon
After a long overnight flight, Ian picks me up at the airport. Ian is a retired Englishman who coached the British track team before he emigrated. “Flat or climbing?” he asks, as I place my bike in the back of his pick-up. Ian is the kind of guy who can make friends with anyone, so long as the conversation revolves around cycling and takes place on the bike. An hour later, we’re riding through the rice fields, with a clear blue sky above us, temperatures over 30 degrees, and not a breath of wind stirring the air. This is Thailand. Everything is easier here.
I have a couple of weeks of preparation ahead of me. I’ll ride a few criteriums, train on the velodrome, and ride through the vast landscape of North Thailand. Chiang Mai is Asia’s equivalent to Girona, a cycling mecca with little traffic, perfect roads, beautiful scenery, and ideal weather, which lasts from October to March. Professional teams from all over Asia come here for their training camps. But I’m here with one event in mind — the Conquer Doi Inthanon Challenge. The numbers speak for themselves — 38.4 km, 2,226 m of elevation gain, and an average gradient of 6%.
At 2,565 metres, Doi Inthanon is the highest mountain in Thailand. Its ascent amounts to two times up Alpe d’Huez. The first 20 kilometres rise at an average of 4%. Then, the road turns up at an average gradient of 8% for the second half of the climb. But the road was designed in the Thai style, so averages don’t mean much. You can bet that there are sections that exceed 20%. I considered putting a 32 on, but mounting a compact had already put such a dent in my ego that I decided to stick with a 28. The Alps, Pyrenees, and Dolomites are all wonderful, but there are only a few places in the world that offer roads that truly stretch the limits of what’s climbable. This is one of them.
Cycling is booming in Thailand and Chiang Mai is its epicentre. Every year, the number of cyclists, races, events, and hip cafés doubles. Here, looks are at least as important as strength. Specialized and Rapha are in vogue. Everyone, racers and tourists alike, is decked out in his best kit. Conquer Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s most important event and is always sold-out well in advance. But don’t be misled by the 10,000 starters; in front, it’s a race. If you can take the KOM on Doi Inthanon, you’ll be considered a hero and known by every cycling enthusiast in Asia.
The start is early, and mornings here are crisp. My Soitan teammates joke around at the start, but the tension is palpable. I go and get a bit more sweet rice and place it in my pockets. I’ll take arm warmers and a vest, a bit of sweet rice, and three gels with me. I have a plan for when I’ll strip down and what I will eat. There are ten kilometres to the bottom of climb, where I will eat the rice and make room for my vest. After that, there are 38 kilometres of climbing, and I want to carry as little as possible with me. When the heat sets in, our team director will come up with the car, so I can give him my extra clothing. I’m not a climber and am not going for the win. I’m only racing myself, which is a comforting thought.
The starter’s shot explodes. Peter Pouly’s Singha team takes to the front. The two-time French national mountain bike champion is the number one favourite. After a bit of bother about doping and a yearlong suspension, he moved to Thailand. In Asia, the Frenchman is a living legend and has been tearing up the roads. He’s the type of guy you either love or hate. In 2014, during a short visit to France, he won the Marmotte.
The first kilometres of the Doi go well, but its venom is in its tail. The leading group is slowly dwindling when I decide to let it go. ‘Decide to let it go’ — it’s nice how in cycling you can always justify yourself. You’re never dropped because you’re bad; you’re dropped because you are racing intelligently. The mercury hovers around 30 degrees. Open your shirt, keep drinking, breath easily — that’s the name of the game. I’ve been on the bike for an hour and a half and am halfway up the climb. Those are my numbers in the face of the mountain’s — 3 hours of climbing.
I look down again. I really am in the 28. I’m going 7 kilometres per hour. This is 20%. This has nothing to do with cycling. My cadence is 49. To distract myself, I try to estimate it, but I don’t get far. The climb exhausts all my strength — my legs, my arms, my head. Stomp and ride a straight line. A 32, I’m begging for a 32. I pass the temple. This is the most beautiful and most difficult section. What a view. Five more kilometres. I look down. A drop of sweat explodes on my top tube.
I saved too much. Not even a minute after the finish, my legs tell me I could have gone harder. They do that every time, and I always fall for it. A few teammates are waiting for me. We set our bikes in the bed of the pick-up and drive down a bit. Five kilometres from the top, we stop to hand drinks to the riders who are still climbing. We give out bottles of water and cans of Coke, until we reach the layer of beers in the bottom of the gigantic cooler. A spontaneous party breaks out on the side of the mountain. This is Thailand too.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 16 where it was first printed.