Saturday, 18 June 2011

The Highlands by bike

Day 1: Chiang Mai to Pai.

My guide Marcus is going to take me around northern Thailand's challenging cycling loop, which should act as good sharpening for the forthcoming Etape in the Alps.

Apparently day one is one of the easy days, but it's still really tough.
Partly from the hot humid weather (bit of a shock after Melbourne winter)
the distances and elevation gains, but mostly from the pretty savage gradient changes that the roads here throw up constantly. There are very few flat sections, and more than a few 10-15% climbs in the first, easy, day.
What's the rest of it going to be like?! Though having driven this way on a moped before, I really don’t have any excuses.
Marcus took a couple of detours from the main road to avoid some of the traffic, and to throw in a little more rural scenery, which really made the trip.
Apart from one steep climb when the sun was beating down, I felt pretty good and arrived in Pai just nicely tired, and ready for a cold beer, some food and a massage.

Day 2 - Pai to Mae Hong Son.

Not long out of Pai began a long, long climb with several more savage sections.
Yesterday the rain held off mostly till the last 30 mins, but today we got a little soaking in the first 30.
When we made it to the top of the climb all we could see were clouds, and the rain was getting pretty heavy, so we considered putting the bikes in the van for the descent. Luckily the weather changed and we got a lovely view from the top, followed by a long and challenging technical descent with more than a few hairpins. Definitely not somewhere to let the brakes off.
Apart from the main climb, there were many, many smaller ones, mostly with the usual steep gradients to test the legs and lungs. My neck was pretty stiff from all the concentration on the descents, so I got the Masseur to concentrate on it, but she was a little over eager and I think it's far more sore now from the bruising than before.

Day 3 - Mae Hong Son - Mae Sariang.

Today is the 'flat' day, if you can call it that - still over 2000 meters climbing, and 165k to boot. I guess undulating might be a better word, but it's certainly full of lovely, varied scenery, and the relative flatness allowed us to let off the brakes a fair bit on the descents, with some pretty fun sections. We also passed some more cute local villages, and at one place where we stopped to refill water, were invited in to share some Tea and cooked banana breakfast, which was cool.
After 6 and a half hours in the saddle, I was pretty much spent that evening, and only had enough energy to wash the bike and eat, before hitting the sack.

Day 4 - Mae Sariang - Chom Thong

Clothes cleaned and dry-ish, we headed out of town and began climbing for almost 20k. It wasnt actually that steep, and normally I reckon it would have been an easy enough day, but I was absolutely knackered. Three long tough days had taken their toll, and my body was starting to rebel. I think Marcus was only slighly better off, and I didn't argue when he suggested going really slowly. About 2/3 of the way up, we hit a section of mud covered road,
reminiscent of the scenes in the Giro thought the Strada Biancha. We had to stop several times as the mud was caking up under the forks and stopping the wheels turning. After the climb, we had another 50k of undulating road - though thankfully not as steep as previous days.

Still, I really struggled to get going, my heart rate refusing to go much above 150. At this point we stopped at a little village for lunch, and we met up with two guys that were joining for part of the trip. thankfully from there we enjoyed a fantastic long fun descent which seemed to energise me a bit, and help me make it to Chom Thong.

Day 5 - Chom Thong to Doi Inthanon

After four hard days, today is the really hard one! A tough climb up to Thailand’s highest mountain, at 2565 meters. Not only is it long, but it’s really steep. Marcus has us forewarned that the last 10k are particularly brutal, 5k at 15% gradient and the last 5k only easing in parts. We rolled out of town at a leisurely pace, and the first part of the climb wasn’t too bad – though I was struggling to keep up with the others a bit. After a short break with 16k to go to refill water and take on a little fuel, the really painful stuff started. I think having done the other days prepared me somewhat, so I wasn’t shocked by the steepness. On the other hand, I was also pretty tired. At one stage I turned a corner into the wind and the gradient ramped up even more – I think maybe 20%, and I was very close to getting off the bike. But I managed to trundle on (at one stage at 4kph – walking speed, just!) and somehow made it to the top, which was shrouded in mist. Probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done!

Definitely earned a beer or three tonight to celebrate.
Despite the pain, the tour was great - Marcus and co are super friendly and run a very professional operation. I might check out one of the easier itineraries next time though. I reckon after this, myself, Ben and Jarrod (who are also doing the Etape) will find the alps easy!

Monday, 13 June 2011

On the road again

After almost two years of no overseas travel - something of a record - I've left Australias's shores for a few weeks of cycling and catchup with the family. Normally when I travel, I travel as light as possible. So it's something of a shock to be laboured with the Elephant (Jean's name for my Evoc bike bag, with my Cervelo inside).

It's actually pretty good, and fairly manouverable, but it does definitely change my travel style just a bit. I arrived in Bangkok on time, and was pleased to see the Elephant arrive safetly to the oversize baggage section.

After only a minor amount of confusion and waiting I found my Hotel guy and was whisked away to my pad for the night, The Kriss residence.
It's ok, basic, slightly souleless but clean, 10 mins drive from the airport and they have internet.
They also seem a bit obsessed with guests stealing/breaking the room contents.

I was met off the mornings short flight to Chiang Mai by Marcus from
Crouching Tiger cycling tours, my guides for the Thai highland tour.
It's a pretty challenging looking tour looping anti clockwise from Chiang Mai
through Pai, Mae Hong Son and several smaller Thai towns, before finishing with a climb up Thailand's highest mountain.
My diggs in Chiang Mai are really nice, and I was relieved to open up the Elephant and find all my bike parts intact. A few minutes later, and with the help of a local guy, who spotted me trying to put the pedals on the wrong way, the Cervelo was ready to roll. Nothing left but to sample some of the traditional local cuisine.