Biking Doi Suthep
It’s my second ride in the six weeks since I left Canberra, Australia, since that first ride was only yesterday it’s hard not to be daunted.
The lack of fitness is not what has me concerned, well, yes, actually it does, very much so, but it’s more the fact that as I approach the bottom of the hill, sorry, mountain, atop which my destination sits I have to crane my neck to see said destination as it is above my eye line. Well above my eye line.
The point where I realised I made a mistake, commonly referred to as the start.
Maybe it’s better that I can see Wat Phra Doi Suthep sitting all the way up there, (‘all the way up there’ equates, in mathematical terms, to 616m above my current point), at least I know it’s whereabouts, a lot of climbs don’t state their intentions so honestly. So that, I guess, is something. Although it’s hard to figure out how exactly how I’m going to get from where I am now - just passing Chiang Mai University on Huay Keaw Road - to the temple without a painfully steep grouping of kilometres being involved.
These musings are shoved aside as the climb begins just past the Chiang Mai Zoo. I’m out of the saddle pretty much immediately as I go under the arch, it’s a kick but a manageable one; a change from the flats of Chiang Mai to the more vertical lower slopes of Doi Suthep. Being a Sunday the side of the road is busy with monks and people looking for blessings, having to be aware of what’s going on gives me something to focus on until it the gradient eases off, which it does after 300m or so.
The first thing that strikes me is the two lanes given to ascending traffic. Chiang Mai drivers already give cyclists plenty of room, due, this presumptuous farang suspects, to the prevalent scooter use, this ensures that you can just worry about how much you are hurting and not what drivers approaching from behind are doing. (In researching the climb it was suggested that you start the before 8.30 to avoid traffic, subsequent rides having proven this true as traffic jams form at the bottom that are hard to negotiate.)
Also impressive is the quality of the road; once past the tourist attractions at the bottom the surface is smooth and well built. This combined with the comfortable gradient eases some of my being unfit concerns, reminding myself to keep it at a tap I settle into a rhythm.
Not that I know it at this point but the first two kilometres pretty much sum up the climb: an average gradient of about 6 per cent that kicks for short pinches, particularly through the corners, before easing off. There’s even some downhill, but the type of downhill you don’t realise is downhill until you have to go up it on the way down. My bike has a 52/39 on the front and 12-25 on the back, for the most I use the 39-21 and pretty much stay on top of it throughout.
The first real jolt comes about 2.5km in and it isn’t provided by the climb but by a sign telling me – unasked I should mention – that there is 9km to the temple. There are few things more soul crushing on a climb than signs counting down the distance till your pain is to end, I am already aware of how slow I am going - I don’t need it pointed out by some uppity sign.
The offending sign.
Leaving the sign with a pointed glance over my shoulder that it’s not likely to soon forget, I settle back into a rhythm, helping is the amazing scenery: around one corner is a waterfall, around the next Chiang Mai is seen through a gap in the trees from an increasing height. The climb is humid but what heat there is - not a lot since it’s early and it has rained over night - is relieved by the forest that keeps the road in a deep shade for a large part of the climb. All things considered it’s pleasant. Unless of course those things considered include how your legs/lungs feel.
A waterfall, one of many, all as tranquil as my legs are not.
The middle section goes by reasonably quickly; thoughts of ‘OH GOD WHEN WILL THIS END’ are intermittently interrupted by waving and smiling at passengers in the back of song taews and trying to figure out how much further I have to go. About a kilometre past what should be the halfway point – math isn’t my best skill at the best of times - I pass the scenic lookout and manage the accompanying gradient increase in a fashion that has me thinking, ‘this isn’t too bad, THIS ISN’T TOO BAD!’ Admittedly not exactly a screaming vote of confidence but I take it and ‘power’ on.
The scenic lookout just past halfway. And subsequent gradient increase.
A vista of Chaing Mai, if you’re into that sort of thing, which I very much am.
At the turn off to the Chiang Mai University Observatory I get to another sign, this one, somewhat more conciliatory, tells me there is 3km to go, which produces a feeling that is in the vicinity of cockahoop: whatever signs I now pass will tell me that I have less to ride than I have ridden, there’s even some down hill for which I click up gears. This is all, however, false hope; whether it’s the lack of fitness or having my climbing rhythm broken by the downhill section I have no idea, but when the road next rises my legs, matter of factly, announce that they are done. The gradient, which isn’t much steeper than the rest of the climb, puts an end to the comfortable spinning of only minutes ago and now it’s all a bit of a slog, but I tell myself, ‘It’s less than 3km,’ to which, for some reason, I respond, ‘That’s more than Black Mountain back home.’ The internal monologue deteriorates into name calling from there.
A welcome sight.
It is roughly around this point when the temple reappears, which causes me to hang my head – it’s still a ways up for a 2km climb (later I will learn that the finish point is not actually the temple, one has to walk 300 steps to get there from where the ride ‘finishes.’ I am still roughly 2.7km from benefiting from the comfort of this knowledge though). The feeling of unease grows when just after the final kilometre I am confronted with that dreaded sign warning trucks to use low gears – nothing good ever comes after that sign. About 600m later I get to the final switchback for which the road kicks, but unlike previous corners it doesn’t relent immediately, instead it keeps going. To make the last 400m that much more unbearable I go to click down and realise I have no more gears because of course I don’t.
An even more welcome sight.
The translation wasn’t really necessary as this is the universal symbol to expect pain very shortly.
The end is in sight, though the time taken to get there is, as Paul Sherwin would say, interminable, well, as interminable as 200m can be. Every necessary part of my body is screaming that this present situation is all my fault, accusations, which on the balance of available evidence, seems fairly accurate. Eventually, with my lungs and legs on the cusp of mutiny, I make it! Cheers all around. In order to avoid any more uphill I pull a u-turn and dive across to the shoulder for a rest where I ungracefully unclip and, forgetting to take into account the steep gradient, clumsily fall over the handlebars. You’re welcome for the levity, gawping tourists.
After a short rest, ok, a long one, it’s time for the descent, which, given the overnight rain and abundant shade, makes for pretty hairy conditions, so I take it easy. Things are made more interesting, which I don’t feel they need to be, with some pretty bad surface damage in the first 3km. Once past the initial section the roads are smooth, but apart from some exposed areas the road is still wet so I can’t have a proper go. For a confident descender in good conditions the descent would be a blast, long sweeping corners that don’t call for heavy breaking and smooth roads for the majority. Again, the scenery is gorgeous and I sometimes find myself losing concentration to take it in, seeing a couple on a scooter eat it in front of me reminds of the merits of focus and staying vertical. As I continue to the bottom I spare a thought for the driver who now not only has to put up with some road rash but so too an extremely miffed girlfriend and her hissed recriminations in his ear for the entirety of what remains of their journey.
The descent’s final kilometres are a time to further ease off, adding to the wet are now damaged, in some parts severely, roads as well as increased traffic. My caution is rewarded as a car, clearly having seen me, jumps across two lanes to cut me off. My subsequent rides around Chiang Mai have taught me that if you think it’s not going to happen it’s going to happen, so in that respect it’s like back home. Seconds after this fright I’m at the bottom in basically the same state as when I started.
As a no-longer-gung-ho cyclist and one that has also had a six-week layoff, I was really worried about doing Doi Suthep, I needn’t have been. The climb is great for basically any level of regular cyclist (regular being anywhere from a weekend lycra enthusiast to a full blown lycra lout), research also shows that those who prefer to spend decidedly less of their time in lycra can, with just a bit of gumption and a free morning, do it (one such person said it took them three hours to get up, if that is the case pack plenty of food and drink and break the ride up). In my state it’s great as a fitness builder, more serious cyclists can, during less busy times, do repeats using the slopes for endurance, interval and strength training.
Doi Suthep: A profile
The cycling around Chiang Mai played a major part in my decision to move here and after spending a lot of a 2012 visit to the city looking at Doi Suthep through a cyclists’ eyes I’m glad it was the first climb I tackled. If you’re thinking about having a go, do, it’s a great way to see a more bucolic side of Chiang Mai, that is when you’re not staring the handle bars in pain.