22.12.2011 - 04.01.2012
Although this is somewhat belated (we've been busy finding the middle of nowhere), I thought I should bring you right up to date on our most recent cycling endeavours.
We spent the festive period in Chiang Mai province in the cooler North West of Thailand, and after Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and three days of non-stop eating, I was itching to get back in the saddle. So, on the 22nd December, while Chris went to talk to the animals [see blog Chris goes to the zoo (again)] I booked myself onto Route 6X: The Eliminator Route. This was described by Chiang Mai Mountain Biking as
The ultimate cross country challenge, for only the strongest and most fit XC riders.*
At 40km long, the route promised to circumnavigate the entire Doi Suthep National Park along the mountain range crest, and crucially, included uphills. Perfect, I thought. What better way to work off the countless thai green curries? The following day at the morning briefing, I was instructed to don elbow pads, knee pads, cycling gloves, a helmet, and carry at least three litres of water and a couple of cereal bars...an ominous sign? At this juncture, I should point out that I was now slightly anxious about my choice of route, but still hopeful that many a weekend spent attempting to stay on down "technical" descents in the Peak District would work in my favour. I figured that the absence of beach material on the single track would also be an enormous advantage. I then prayed to Buddha that I wouldn't be found out.
We, and several other groups on the intermediate and beginner rides, were deposted at the top of the Doi Suthep mountain by jeeps. I was joined in the hard core group by three other victims: Laurent, Steve and John as well as our guide for the day: Jay. Now Jay was something else entirely. Jay was pint-sized, but on a bike, larger than life. It woudn't have surprised me to learn that he also slept on his bicycle from the way he rode. He disappeared off down the track into the jungle on one wheel (his front wheel being surplus to requirements of course). He reminded me of our ski instructor, Remy, in La Plagne: every fallen tree / mound of earth / major drop / boulder was seen as an opportunity to gain air time. Fortunately, the same wasn't expected of us.
- *They may as well have called it The Yorkie Route (It's not for girls)
The riding was fabulous. We rode straight through the jungle on single track, and the descents were not so technical as to find me out. It turned out that the knee pads were also useful for bushwhacking, so overgrown were some of the sections of track we "cycled". The tough part of the route was a half hour ascent, which included walking (Jay even got off his bike here) and a poisonous snake spotting, and landed us right at the top of the mountain ridge from where we had magnificent views. These were masked only by the sweat pouring into my eyes!
The rest of the ride was predominantly downhill through jungle, past plantations of tomatoes along tracks lined with banana trees. We cycled well through lunchtime and out the other side, eventually stopping at a farm, where a toddler handed us some much needed local sustenance: bananas. Her father watched on in sandles fashioned from tree trunks. We were well off the beaten track.
Our day ended at Huay Jung Thao Lake with beers and curry. All four of us arrived, fortunately uneliminated and unscathed, about an hour behind all of the other groups. They were suspiciously clean. We were caked in mud, sweat, and dust with the odd tree branch here and there: a fine day out!
A route perhaps better described as The Eliminator Route is the Samoeng Loop. This 100km loop to the west of Chiang Mai up the Mae Sa Valley to Samoeng is usually aimed at "bikers" rather than "cyclists", however, Chris and I were not to be deterred. We hired two Trek mountain bikes from an affable Aussie called Damien (and his slobbery golden retriever Lucy) at Spice Roads in Chiang Mai, and packed our bags for a two-day adventure.
We must have been suffering some kind of withdrawal symptoms from "undulations" (there weren't any in Cambodia) for the mere words "Coffee House" and "Hmong Lodge" enticed us off into the Mae Raem Valley around a 38km extension to the usual route. The coffee house and Hmong Lodge turned out to be a wild goose chase (closed in high season), but we were rewarded with a 1,000 metre "climb"** up to Hmong Nong Hoi village at 1,400m. We soon realised the pitfalls of Thailand, an infinitely more developed nation than our previous destinations: the roads were so steep that we spent most of the day in granny gear, unlike in Vietnam and Laos where the local vehicles simply woudn't have made it. The wild goose chase made lunch finding difficult. However, our stomachs were unconcerned - we were powered by cheese cake and tiramisu from Wawee Coffee in Mae Sa (yum).
- **A "climb" (as distinct from an "undulation") was variously defined by our Redspokes group as an undulation of 4km or more; any hill that required the use of granny gear; any hill that Phong was not cycling - see blog Sunburnt, squiffy and saddlesore
We ended the day sipping beers and noshing on an excellent thai take out at the Forest Guest House, taking in a fabulous view across the Samoeng Valley, and a less fabulous serenade by some particularly bad karioke wafting up from a nearby thai wedding party.
The following day was a comparatively lazy day. Abandoned were the plans for 60km off-road before lunch: our legs had had enough and our stomachs hadn't. We breakfasted slowly on eggs, and put off the ascent out of Samoeng (500 metres up in 6km) a little longer by testing out the local strawberry juice (much sweeter than the strawberries were). We still had some serious work to do to get ourselves out of the mountains and back to Chiang Mai, including two major climbs totalling another 800 metres. Only another cake stop at Bon Banana would see us through! In a continuing theme we ended the day with the spare Chang beer from the night before, which tasted all the better for having been carried all the way from Samoeng. The only minor improvement would have been a trade-up to Beer Lao.
As I write this, we have now finally tested out the local "bikes". Apparently they haven't heard of bicycles in Koh Lanta, so we hired a moped and sped off round the island for a day. Fortunately I didn't have to ride up the 1 in 2 out of our hotel on my first ever moped outing. This was not a suitable challenge for a novice rider, and one of the hotel staff took pity on us. Mopeds don't inspire quite the same thirst as a bicycle, but they do make you lazy, especially when the sun is ablaze. You can tell by the well-fed look of the locals here (by comparison with Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) that this is a place powered on petrol and curry.