Recently, I was lucky enough to be invited by our good friends Attaquer to Thailand to sample some of the riding with their crew from Australia and friends in Chiang Mai. Here’s a little piece I wrote about day 4 of the trip, an unexpectedly brutal day on the bike that featured the biggest climb I’d ever done. This little excursion featured exclusively the climb and descent Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest peak characterised by the incredibly challenging combo of savage gradients and altitude. The result being one of the most rewarding rides I’ve ever had the pleasure of undertaking, as well as banking some serious winter training…
Doi Inthanon. Doi Inthanon is the highest mountain in Thailand, topping out at roughly 2600m, couple this with the fact the road starts near sea level and you have yourself a seriously grim 40km to reach the summit. Like all cyclists, this sounded like the right sort of type 2 fun I should be throwing myself at and an experience I’d highly recommend if you find yourself based in Chiang Mai. However, it is not as straightforward as riding out and riding up. Our guides and local friends recommended we get some buses to take us out closer to the climb as well as helping us to arrange entry to the national park to ensure we could breeze straight in, no worries of having the strava attempt ruined by an angry guard. Normally, I wouldn’t advocate getting a lift to the bottom of a climb but I feel this mountain deserved some special treatment given the profile I’d barely studied. So that was that, buses packed, the convoy left Chiang Mai just after 6am, drowsy eyes and nervous banter aplenty, we were setting off for the biggest test of the trip.
The drop off was a 7/11 servo, pretty standard in this part of the world I am informed. Bikes were quickly assembled in the car park, a couple of hiccups, as to be expected with a car park bike build. The drop off was about 10 mins from the base of the climb along big wide highways before the road pitches up past a grand golden statue and along to the national park gate. The strava segment starts at the statue just after an innocuous bridge and with that, we were climbing. Cue 2.5hrs of hell. Tristan shot off into the distance immediately, putting time into us and showing what a year riding with the pros in Girona can do for your engine, this guys a weapon, apart from glimpses we didn’t see him again until the summit. A small group of 4 of us worked together along the lower slopes before the road truly pitched up; in my opinion the terrain was still tougher than most of the Surrey hills even here on the supposedly easy part. It was at this early point in the day, it really begun to sink in just how brutal today was going to be.
An hour of rolling turns with these guys, just about keeping Tristan in sight, the terrain soon became too selective. There was no benefit to being in a group other than suffering in company. It was better now to set your own pace, ride within yourself or you weren’t going to survive. Our group of 4 soon split up, the climbers getting ahead on the steeper sections, the flatland specialists reeling them close on any brief interlude in gradient. In this company, I fit the latter category and it was a demoralising period of watching these guys dance off up the climb. I clung on to the hope I could get back to them when it flattened out, but the truth is there was not enough let up for me to even get close. I had to find my own rhythm and this would prove difficult on my 36-28 that was also lugging the unnecessary kilos of some 55mm rims and a frame pump. I settled in to an extremely lonely grind up Thailands highest peak and I hadn’t even reached 1500m elevation.
The beauty of climbing in Thailand vs a comparable hors categorie climb in Europe is the road signs are far less obvious. There was no depressing countdown of the KMs, no reminder that I’d barely covered any of the total elevation, some may see this as a negative but for me it saved me getting in my own head. You just had to chew your stem, pedal hard and occasionally relax and take in the stunning views. My lonely ascent was going ok, I’d found a sustainable pace (emphasis on sustainable), certainly not comfortable but I knew I’d be able to sit at this level and make it to the top. Every now and again you’d notice some wildlife gently encouraging you to keep going or a friendly wave from a local on his moped, acknowledging the madness of what we were up to. The KMs ticked by slowly and the rainforest opened up to the characteristic exposed landscape of any mountain reaching those sorts of altitudes. The views emerged across the spectacular mountain range, clouds now below with only the tops of other jungle covered mountains visible. Up ahead, the temple just shy of the summit was engulthed in the mid-morning sun, a majestic sight but f**k me it was still a heck of a long way up. I was pushing onto the 2000m mark now and 10km to go, I was pretty wrecked already and survival mode was kicking in.
The only thing I’d gleamed from the previous day’s conversation was the last 10kms were disgusting and by my estimation I was just about enter this disgusting phase. How hard could it be?! Well given I was already suffering like a dog and with an estimated hour of hell left… Really bloody hard. The average gradient for this last 10km is around 10% with pitches of 20% and definite extended periods of well in excess of 10%, couple this with altitude and my poorly selected 36-28, this became the slowest 10km I’ve ever done on a bike (I averaged 10kph). As soon as the road pitched up at this altitude you could barely turn the pedals, my heart rate was rocketing, I started to see stars, my vision was awash with a purple haze, how the hell was I going to do this 10km? Could I pull out now? Invent a mechanical? Maybe I’m dying? We have support vehicles… Why not use them?! My inner monologue was in overdrive, the voices in my head insisting I end this torture, the burning lungs and mangled legs agreeing. I have never suffered like this on a bike before and I am barely 5 minutes into this last hour. I don’t know I will ever suffer like that again on a bike either, the only way I could attempt would be to do this climb again and aim to beat my time.
Wrestling the inner demons, I pressed on, the temple I glanced earlier now in full view, less than 500m ahead of me, still bathed in sunlight albeit a slightly more intense midday sunlight. The temple was getting closer at an alarmingly slow rate. This hotspot was awash with tourist and traffic, the diesel fumes of cars struggling up the gradient perhaps the only negative of this mountain pass. The crowds gathered to take in this stunning piece of architecture were equally supportive of our endeavours, cheering me past, clapping and wooping. I eeked out all the energy from this encouragement I could, briefly feeling like I was back in my favourite mid-season town centre crit. I pushed on, depressingly slowly, dishearteningly short of breath. This kind of suffering certainly helps you plumb deeper into reserves than just your usual training ride, the grandeur of a mountain like this humbles and inspires you, you find that extra percent you need. The demons get shoved forcefully into the valley below and you reach new potential you didn’t realise existed in both your physical and mental being. Climbing mountains, the freshness of air at altitude, the purity of the atmosphere is addictive, whether it be Thailand, Europe or the Americas, the feeling is distinctive and nourishing.
This new found strength was coursing through my veins, call it a second wind, breaking down the wall. I was there and feeling more spiritual and optimistic by the minute. Maybe it was oxygen starvation, maybe pure fatigue, I was under the spell of this equal parts stunning, intimidating beast. Slowly ticking the metres off, weaving at points just to relieve the legs and lungs burning from trying to push slightly inappropriate gearing and any excess off season insulation up the final KMs. By now the heat was so intense, nevertheless my delirium was numbing all the negatives. The finish was metaphorically in sight, single figure distance to the observatory that dominates the peak, the temple was now behind me, I had begun spiralling upwards on roads crammed onto the hillside, it felt endless, the tree lined road obscuring any scenic distraction. Was that a crest I could see up ahead?! Surely not. It was! I rolled over it grateful for the relief, but still a little way to go. Rolling downwards and along a false flat, I perhaps enjoyed the relief a bit too much, coasting into the next (and last) ramp. My momentum was quickly written off; at this altitude you don’t escape the suffering for long. My heart rate shot back up and I was grinding again, not for long though, rounding a corner to finally discover a small car park and crowds of tourist, I must be close now. I rounded another corner, emerging from the cutaway road and out into the open, I caught my first glance of the boys who’d shot off ahead of me so long ago now waiting in front of the observatory. Waving me in, I was overwhelmed by triumph and winning my own mammoth battle, it was fist bumps all round. Furthermore, metal bikes had their own little victory, my titanium Curve Belgic Disc rolling in for 3rd on the day (not just a gravel grinder or endurance racing beast but also seemingly a pure climbing weapon) behind two other metal (steel) bikes. Who needs carbon ay… My time was good enough for 60th out of well over 4000 attempts on strava, another awesome takeaway from the day. At the top, I came up with a pretty good summary of the day in my head as I scoffed bars and downed coke, think the infamous Barhatch for 40km and then chuck on some altitude at the end… That’s Doi Inthanon. Congratulations to all were in order as they rolled into the car park, we cheered and celebrated. Photos were gathered to mark the occasion, strava times discussed. Tristan, the fastest from our group, took 13th overall on strava. A truly awesome achievement, in the company of world tour pros! Now from the slowest 40km of my life to the fastest, we descended back to the buses. What an epic day!!
Check out my Strava file from the day here and below is a select few shots me and Tristan managed to snap.
The G!RO custom painted Curve Belgie Disc at the summit of Doi Inthanon.