After having had to cancel my “Ha Giang Loop by Bicycle” adventure I had planned with Justin (he did the planning whereas I tried my best to throw rocks at his plans…I remember him saying “you REALLY want to do nothing but cycling??”), I wanted to get at least one epic multi-day ride in during my 3-months stay in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I had put conquering Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand and arguably the “hardest climb in the world” on the back burner, partly because I simply don’t think I’m quite the “Doi Inthanon” category of rider yet, partly because of the temperature at the peak of the mountain at this time of the year. Also, going up Inthanon would have required changing my cassette (currently a 30/11) to a more mountain friendly configuration like 40-some/something.
But I had heard many things, good and bad, about the 762 curves on the road to Pai (pronounced like the 2nd word in “American Pie”)…tons of hairpin-curves….yeah, bring them on! And Pai? Mostly hippies and backpackers…oh well! Initially I had considered the Pai – Mae Hong Son Loop, which is very popular among motor-bicyclists, but that’s a 500-some km, 10,000-some meter of climbing kind of monster which would disrupt my Ironman training, which is in the hot phase right now, too much. So just a 2-day trip to Pai and back. 130 km one way and more than 2000 m of climbing….quite a beast!
A buddy of mine at Vanilla Residence had done the trip a few weeks ago, so I couldn’t wait to pay him a beer to pick his brain….very, very tough was his assessment. Better get a 36 cassette and a smaller chain ring…climbs up to 18% and lots of them….here we go again! He gave me two very good tips, though: One: DON’T GO ON THE WEEKEND! You’ll have to share a road with 762 super-tight curves with Porsche clubs, motorcycle clubs, ….whoever-thinks-they-like-curves-too clubs,… I moved my trip from Saturday/Sunday to Monday/Tuesday in no-time! Two: start early and get enough mileage under your belt before you stop! OK…so no early coffee stops…makes sense! But here was another caveat: a cold-spill was announced for exactly my Mon/Tue! For Chiang Mai, 11 C and for Pai 7 C! That means an early start would also be a VERY cold start! Robert-wants-to-have-a-relaxed-ride-without-time-pressure and Robert-wants-to-not-freeze-his-you-know-what-off had a short discussion, some arm wrangling and they settled for 7 AM. Robert-wants-to-not-freeze-his-you-know-what-off headed out and got some arm- and leg warmers, though.
The RideWithGPS route for the return from Pai to Chiang Mai revealed that there were indeed some stretches with 20, 22 and 17% climbs….ouch! Like in OUCH! I can do up to 20%….but more than that and I fall over…my knees are my witnesses! I checked with Fred from Bicycle-Addict and he told me that there are no 36-teeth cassettes for Shimano…only 40-some for mountain bikes…which can be used when also putting in some kind of extension for the rear derailleur so that the chain can move to the large cog. Mountain bikes…I had heard enough…won’t happen for my Cervelo S3! Maybe for Doi Inthanon, but not for this route!
The beer I had paid for my buddy at Vanilla paid off handsomely when he told me that I could send my luggage by bus….sweet…especially considering the cold weather expected in Pai! I love multi-day tours but I HATE hauling around luggage on steep climbs! I packed a small suitcase and took a Grab to Bus Terminal 2 (on the other side of the freeway from Central Festival Mall). After some miscommunication (I think the gal thought that I wanted to send a bicycle), I bought a ticket for my suitcase for 60 Baht ($2). Remember that you will need your PASSPORT to send your luggage AND TO PICK IT UP AGAIN!
I set my alarm for 6 AM on Monday…got up, had a coffee, then another coffee, jeez was it still cold…another coffee might help…still cold! 14 C cold! Bought some Danish for breakfast and finally got on my way…at 8:00 AM…for me, not bad at all! I was wearing the leg- and arm warmers, a long-sleeved jersey on top of my short sleeved jersey and a rain jacket against the wind…did I mention that I don’t like riding in the cold? 3 years of riding in 38 C+ in Vietnam do this to you!
Doing this ride in the middle of my Ironman training means that I could only afford one day of recovery before the tour and still had quite some fatigue in my legs. No problem, I wasn’t going to establish new PRs (Personal Records) today. The ride to Pai starts with a 50 km section that is essentially flat, with some rolling hills here and there. By the end of the flat section I had gotten a bit steamy under my rain jacket and shed the rain jacket and the arm- and leg warmers, getting ready for the first big climb. 13 km long, 600 m of elevation at 4.7% average. Of the 3 climbs on the way to Pai, this actually has the steepest sections, up to 13%. I made good progress and was surprised how quickly I reached the peak of that climb. I really enjoyed the Climb Pro feature of my brand new Garmin Edge 1030…it gives you great visibility into what’s coming up and you can pace yourself accordingly. My Garmin Vector S3 power meter was cutting in and out as usual, though. Garmin can’t seem to do frigging battery compartments!
To avoid the absolute chaos I went through on my trip from Nha Trang to Dalat, I had done some more Justin-style planning. I had even put POIs (Point of Interests) on my map with hour markers, selected coffee places, restaurants for lunch. Just the fancy spreadsheet with all the info has to wait until next time. I had also created POIs where the steepest climbs were. I was hoping they would pop up nicely on my Garmin Edge 1030 during the ride….but they didn’t.
I had scheduled my first break for the top of the first climb…after 65 km. The Coffee Bar (real name…I guess they didn’t have any other ideas) came in handy…nothing to write home about, but it did the job. I had planned to have lunch right before the 2nd climb, at 77 km. That was actually too early, not enough time/distance between coffee stop and lunch. Anyway, the place I picked for lunch was cozy and not overrun by people that take one of the many minivans. On top of the 1 h start delay I had run up a delay of about an hour, but nothing dramatic. I finished the climbs faster than expected, but lost more time on the flats. In any case, I had plenty of margin on the back end this time…very untypical for me (see the trip back)!
Talking about the minivans: Even though I was doing the tour on a Monday, there was still substantial traffic on 1095…mostly the same minivans that were bringing my luggage…all the same company, Aviabooking or Prempracha. There is plenty of space on the shoulder in this direction, so the traffic doesn’t bother you too much. I didn’t miss the Porsche club coming through, though.
After lunch it was time to tackle the 2nd climb: 7 km and 400 m of elevation…no big deal! After a short descent the 3rd and last climb for today: 12 km long gaining 540 m. Nothing very steep, it felt a lot like Doi Suthep. Not much as far as views are concerned, since the road is mostly in the forest. The occasional views we had didn’t look that great because of substantial smog due to the Burning Season already rearing it’s ugly head.
Then the giant descent into the valley of Pai…quite a different animal compared to the sweet and benign roads I had just climbed! Some wicked twists and in some places the road had shifted or was otherwise deformed. Also a lot of rough patches to watch out for! Not the descent to max out your speed, even though I did go as fast as 65 km/h.
Then I finally reached the valley of Pai! It was about 4 pm in the afternoon, sweet light everywhere! I briefly stopped at a resort (something with Treehouse) a few kilometers from Pai…interesting architecture, but appalling coffee! Easily the 2nd worst coffee during my 3 months in Thailand (the worst was some Amazon chain-coffee….).
My arrival in Pai was unspectacular…found my hotel easily. I had booked Pai in Town with Agoda…great location, comfy, clean rooms for $20/night. Just a few steps from the Walking Street, but not in the middle of lots of partying Hippies….
The bus terminal for Aviabooking was just a few blocks from the hotel, so I walked there to pick up my suitcase. Even though I was in what’s supposed to be a Hippie town, I got some looks for walking the streets naked….noooo…just in lycra…maybe they thought that’s the New Look now. At least I had left my red bicycle shoes in the hotel and used the bathroom slippers.
After picking up my suitcase I had a long shower, washed my clothes and threw them into the dryer of a nearby Laundromat. At least it will just be cold next morning…not stinking cold!
A brief and cheap meal in the restaurant right next to the laundry place, then a snack here and there and then I headed for the Walking Street…kind of as expected…imagine a huge Thai night market with lots of backpackers…didn’t see many hippies, though. The atmosphere was very friendly and relaxed.
At a bar I listened to an older Thai guy who was singing an Elvis Presley classic. Listening to the beautiful music, a Thai gal started talking to me. We chatted a bit while she was waiting for her friends who were still in the bar. Once they came out the girl invited me to join them…”why not?” I thought and we headed off together. “Why not?” is the most important attitude when traveling solo!
We ended up at a bar and started playing a game where you pull bricks out of a little tower until the tower collapses….trying to drink the bar our of their Mojito supplies…not successfully! I saw the chances for me getting up early next morning dwindling! Eventually one of the girls got too cold and the three of them wanted to go to their hotel. We called it a night, not without agreeing to meet for breakfast at 8:00 AM next morning. Later I saw that the place we had chosen for breakfast doesn’t even open until 9 AM…there goes my early start! Almost forgot to pick up my clothes from the dryer I found myself in bed at 12…not bad for having met some ladies, lots of drinks and games…turns out that this trip has it all!
Next morning I decided to be at the breakfast place, which was right at my hotel anyway, at 8:00 am to see whether the ladies would show up. Indeed…at 8 they called me telling me that they were on their way. They picked me up in their car and we tried to find an open breakfast place that also serves coffee…that’s another thing my beer buddy in Vanilla had told me: Pai does not wake up early! We eventually found a Thai-style place…great, Thai food, but only instant coffee…but in pleasant company!
Once I had said good bye to the ladies I packed my bundle and brought my suitcase to the bus station. By now it was almost 10 AM and it had gotten quite warm, so I decided to put the arm- and leg warmers, the rain jacket and the small backpack I had with me on the bike yesterday into the suitcase. The incentive of a late start!
I still needed a decent coffee, so I went to some bio breakfast place. The waiter spoke great English, but had a bit of a used car salesman attitude. He told me that they’re reserving the tables for people who also have breakfast….I was already on my way out when I thought “heck…I can have a second breakfast, no problem!”. So I ordered a muffin and some scone with my Cappuccino and was awarded a table and a seat. The stuff was delicious, but a bit expensive: 320 Baht (~$10).
At 10:40 AM I was finally on my way….early start….right!
I was surprised how strong my legs felt…no tiredness or soreness from the day before, great! After 10 km I was ready to face the main climb of the journey, and what a bear of climb it was: 18 km long, 1000 m of elevation gain! And the three segments with 20, 22 and 17% somewhere in there! Oh well, let’s go! On this climb, Garmin’s Climb Pro proved to be a real game changer! Nothing is more useful than knowing what’s after the next switch-back! Is it 8%, is it 12% or is it 20%? And for how long? And what’s after that? The Climb Pro display has a lot of useful information that helps to pace yourself such that you don’t run out of steam. That feature alone justifies the significant expense of $600 for the device!
This climb might have 20% as predicted by RideWithGPS, but it might be in the inside the switchback and only for a few meters. I saw 15% for longer distances a couple of times on my display, but nothing undoable. On some of the steeper switchbacks, I went to the very right of my lane (keep in mind that people drive on the left side of the road in Thailand, so I went to the middle of the road). The drivers behind me saw what was going on and passed me on my left (normally very dangerous, but it was okay). No need for new cassettes or other nonsense like that! This climb can just be done like all the others: with careful pacing. I didn’t even have to stop once. The 1000 m took me 2h.
Then downhill…lots of downhill and lots and lots and lots of curves…762 of them! The road is flawless, but the drivers are not! The motorcycles are fine, they don’t bother you, they probably understand us better than anyone. But the professional minivan drivers sometimes tried to pass me. In one case, 4 or 5 minivans in a row passed me very tightly when I was going at 65 km/h. The wind coming from them almost threw me off balance. Also, many drivers in the opposite direction take over part of the opposite lane. So don’t just assume that you have your lane for yourself! You might find yourself on the windshield of a car!
I had a short water break at the top of the first, big climb and then I stopped for a late lunch at the same place where I had lunch the day before. Four hours into the ride, it was already 3 pm! The price for a late start! I was almost done with my lunch when I started to chat with this guy Ollie and we really hit it off! A lunch break scheduled to take 30 min morphed into 1 h! I thought I had already done 65 km, but when I checked the map, I realized that I had only done about 50 km….80 km still ahead of me…and only about 2.5 hours of light! Oh dear! I better get to haul some serious ass now! I quickly said goodbye to Ollie and jumped on the bike. I knew that I could not afford any further breaks from now on…80 km without my beloved coffee breaks!
I still had some climbing to do, but nothing too drastic. Then a wonderful, windy descent! The stretch after the last descent is still slightly downhill and I could enjoy it in the most beautiful late afternoon sunlight. I love this stretch from Pa Pae to Mae Rim. I had done some math in my mind and expected to do at least one hour, maybe two in total darkness. I have very good front and rear lights and it wouldn’t have been a problem. But I made good progress, forewent going to the bathroom or having coffee. At the end, my water bottle had gotten stuck in the bottle cage. The sweet isotonic drink they sell in Thailand (called Sponsor) must have leaked out and glued the bottle to the bottle cage, so I did the last 20 km or so without water! By then it also dawned on me that buying bib shorts for $10 is not the wisest idea if you want to go on two subsequent 130km rides. My shoulders also burned, but my legs still felt strong.
I don’t know how, but I actually made it home to Chiang Mai when there was still some natural light, at 6:30 PM after 6 h in the saddle (8 h including rest stops). Definitely a trip to remember and I can’t wait to do the Chiang Mai – Pai – Mae Hong Son Loop!
Here is the elevation profile for this ride:
Here are some links of interest:
If you have a Garmin Edge (e.g. 530, 830 or 1030) and you load the
routes below into the device, you can use the ClimbPro feature:
My Strava activities for this ride: