Words: Jonathan Kang | Photography: Christopher Chen | Date:
“I feel real sorry for you flatlanders,” says Jeff, our teammate. He’s not the only one feeling sorry. We’re only 23 kilometres into the Rapha Gentlemen’s Race, Chiang Mai and the road has just kicked up a 15% gradient, the first of many such climbs to come. Compared to this, Singapore is as flat as a pancake.
Turn back the clock twelve hours, and we’re sitting with our feet up at Beer Republic, just off the main Nimmanhaeminda strip, dividing our attention between planning the next day’s route and the extensive menu of brews for sale. There’s much talk of what will come, but little trepidation for the day ahead. It’s easy to take it easy in Chiang Mai. It’s got everything we ‘city slickers’ look for in a weekend escape: great weather, good food, wonderful views and friendly people.
It’s also a Mecca for cyclists in the region, and Rapha’s decision to hold a Gentlemen’s Race here has brought an assortment of international faces to the start line, with riders flying in from Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore. The host country is well represented too, with two (very strong) local teams from Chiang Mai, and two more form Bangkok and Chiang Rai.
The conditions on race day couldn’t have been better – cool, clear and dry. The first few kilometres of racing are spent taking photographs and trading banter as we ride along the main road that takes us out of the city past quiet gardens, stables, and small rustic towns. We spin past the Mae Sa Elephant Camp as Jeff expounds on the best rides in Chiang Mai and the merits of buying property on the outskirts of town.
But things quickly turn serious as a sharp right turn takes us up a steep gradient for the day’s first out-of-saddle effort. It’s four and a half kilometres long, just enough to bring our repartee to an abrupt halt. We grunt on the way up, picking our way around concrete slabs, while the film crew and a few photographers set up on the roadside. I feel like a lab rat; there must be a certain perverse and voyeuristic pleasure that comes from documenting hardship, especially when it’s riding past you at all of seven kilometres per hour.
Thankfully, we eventually crest the hill and are greeted by our first checkpoint, the Flying Squirrel adventure park. Cards stamped, we head downhill, flying through a gravel descent as steep as the previous climb, but far sketchier. I turn my attention from the legs, which just moments previously had been burning with exertion, to my arms and hands as I hold on to my bike for dear life. I skitter over loose gravel and shale, the brakes threatening to lock-up and lose all traction. We descend on the ragged road through villages and past old temples, but spend too much time staring at our front wheels to appreciate the view.
Some reprieve follows as we head south, spinning in silence over lumpy terrain that takes us to the village of Samoeng. A quick dash for refreshments at a local store, then we climb back on our bikes as the road starts pitching up again. Thankfully the surface is much better than the first climb, and we’re rewarded with an amazing descent on smooth blacktop. We hunker down on the drops and carve our way down the valley, computers telling us that we topped out at 75kph.
We’re then confronted with what is known locally as the Seven Steps of Samoeng, a series of brutally steep switchbacks, which I swear will be my undoing. I dread every turn, having to heave my protesting body off the saddle in order to make it up the steep inside curve. Repeat six more times, before a final stretch at 15%, taking us off the main road and in to the tree-canopied tranquillity of the Lotus Pond, our second checkpoint. Surreally, somebody hands me a boiling coffee as my card is stamped, despite the sweltering heat and my obvious sheen of perspiration.
It’s easy rolling from here as we re-join the main road back towards town, taking advantage of the constant downward slope to big-ring it back to Chiang Mai. One more checkpoint remains, and we hang a left on the outskirts of town for the 15km climb up Doi Suthep.
By now my bike is caked in red dust. The front derailleur, soggy with dirt, refuses to throw the chain to the small ring. I manually push it, and leave it there – I know I’m unlikely to get out of the biggest three cogs, let alone the inner ring. The first three kilometres take me almost 30 minutes as I make stop after cramp-induced stop. I tell the guys to go ahead, and that’ll I’ll try to make up the time on the descent. The next 40 minutes go by in a blur of pain, cramp, doubt and anger – anger at being this unfit, this slow, this complacent, but most of all, anger at being the ‘weak link’ in our chain.
A kilometre from the top, the temple of Doi Suthep comes into view, and the road takes one last upward surge, as if determined to break every riders’ will. I almost oblige, until I see teammates coming back down the hill to ride up with me. I am pushed, cajoled, yelled at and lied to until, by some miracle, I find myself collecting the final checkpoint stamp. I almost fall off my bike. Somebody hands me a soda. I fumble with the ring pull and put it to my parched lips.
It dawns on me that all we have to do is make it back down the mountain in one piece. We hurtle down switchbacks at speeds in excess of 60kph, passing vehicles through the bends. We see groups still coming up and exchange nods – ours in acknowledgement of their present suffering, theirs in acknowledgement of our recent accomplishment.
It is then an easy pootle into town and the finish at the Nimman Gallery Hotel: We sit on the steps, bleary-eyed and sore-legged, applauding each team that comes in, swapping war stories and backslaps. Later in the evening, the teams converge at Little Lanna restaurant, where a ‘rider’s menu’ has been put together for us.
We make new friends as the post-ride hindsight and sense of accomplishment starts to kick in. The top three teams are announced to much applause, and dinner is served. The pork larb gai is wonderful – flavourful, spicy, but with a restraint that one is hard-pressed to find in Singapore. I shovel the contents of the plate in to my mouth, consume an irresponsible amount of Singha, and stagger back to the hotel to collapse onto my bed.
The next morning we meet up for a coffee before an easy spin to a noodle house. I want to do it all over again.