Cycling culture in Chiang Mai (and beyond)
When you think of great cycling cities around the world Thailand’s Chiang Mai probably doesn’t spring to mind. But, as local resident Steve Thomas writes, Chiang Mai has become something of an eastern cycling epicenter in recent years. Steve rides behind the bamboo curtain to show us why, sharing some of his favourite photos of Chiang Mai’s cycling culture along the way.
Compared to western cities Chiang Mai is quite small, although it is fast expanding. With a population of roughly 150,000 Chiang Mai is the largest and most culturally significant city in Northern Thailand. It was once the capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom of northern Thailand and the city earned the nickname the “Rose of the North” from its beautiful surroundings and cooler climate (compared to Bangkok at least).
The city lies in a long, flat valley which has jungle-lined mountains on either side. These mountains actually top out at more that 2,500 meters in places, something visitors don’t often anticipate, as Thailand is seen as a beach and island destination. What’s more, these mountains have sweet and twisty roads dangled all over them — perfect for epic bike rides.
During the past few years Chiang Mai has developed a thriving cycling culture, with the emergence of numerous local clubs, teams and several homegrown events. It’s got its fair share of ex-pat riders too.
The region’s great riding, mostly favourable climate and relatively cheap living costs have also made it a popular training destination for teams from all over Asia. Champion System, Baku, Giant Asia, RTS, Seoul Cycling, OCBC and the Malaysian national team all spend good chunks of their pre- and mid-season training time based here. Between November and February there will almost certainly be one or two Continental teams, and possibly even a national team (usually the Malaysian) training out of Chiang Mai.
Earlier this year Orica-GreenEDGE pro Christian Meier did a stint of training around town and was amazed at how tough the climbing was and just how big the local scene is.
“I stayed in Asia after the Japan Cup, and rode in the Philippines and places before getting here. I was really surprised at the strength of the local scene – I was not expecting to see bunches of young guys riding on top-end Cervelos.”
After scoring some local road rash on a ride to Pai Meier also paid respects to the regional climbs. “The roads are tough, and unpredictable in places – I definitely wish I’d had a compact setup. I had a 26-tooth sprocket, but it just wasn’t enough.”
Without a doubt Chiang Mai has become the Asian equivalent of Girona, Nice, or Lucca, only with weather that’s generally better. The local road scene may be fairly new, but it’s certainly thriving. A British ex-pat who’s now living in Chiang Mai told me:
“When I came here a few years back it was quite a small local scene, but it’s really grown. There are lots of junior groups out on the road being coached every day, and a whole bunch of ex-pats too – there are 2-3 group rides each day.”
Thailand has a strong and vibrant cycling culture, and the north is definitely the heartland of road riding and racing. Chiang Mai has the largest cycling population, but nearby Chiang Rai and Phayao also have smaller but thriving cycling scenes. Most of Thailand’s top riders come from this northern region, including Puchong Sai-Udomsin and Prajak Mahawong.
There are several local races throughout the year and a couple of small stage races too, although these often have a new name and new format each year due, in part, to stifling regional bureaucracy.
Each year there are several mass start hill climb races which attract hundreds of locals and foreign riders who are training in the region. The climb to Doi Inthanon (February) is the biggest, with the Doi Suthep climb and Doi Tung (near Chiang Rai) running close behind. There are also regular King’s Cup national series races in the area.
But it’s not just road riding that’s popular here. Seemingly the whole of Chiang Mai has gone fixie crazy during the past few years. You’ll see groups of one-geared riders all around town at night, especially around Thapae Gate, where they strut their stuff along with the local trials riders and BMX bandits.
Every Saturday night mass fixie rides head out from the Three Kings Monument, and there are also regular weekend rides and events around town. Many of the local bike shops have now started focusing mainly on high-end fixie bikes. There is also an outdoor velodrome on the edge of town, but it’s hardly used, so isn’t in the best state of repair, and track meetings rarely happen.
There are some awesome MTB trails straight out of town too, particularly around Doi Suthep, a hill 15km northwest of Chiang Mai, which shadows the city. The summit trail tops out at just over 1,600m of altitude and from there you’ll find many trail options. It’s around 30km back to town and there are super-technical man-made downhill trails, dirt roads, and sweet singletrack routes everywhere. A few months back UK downhill MTB racer Steve Peat even came to race in town.
There are a number of particularly popular road rides in and around Chiang Mai and, as you might have guessed, they all involve a fair bit of climbing. Here’s a selection:
Samoeng Loop – 98km
This is perhaps the most popular local day ride in Chiang Mai, for riders that like climbing anyway. It’s a ride that features plenty of great scenery and there’s very little traffic once you get out of town. It’s a tough loop with almost no flat riding at all. Most of the climbing is steady and long, although there are a couple of very steep sections near Samoeng which comes roughly halfway through the ride.
Doi Suthep, out and back – 38km
You start climbing to Doi Suthep even before you’ve left the streets of Chiang Mai’s western fringe. This route features around 19km of climbing in all, along an alpine-like twisted road.
Check out this blog post for more information about the Doi Suthep climb.
Doi Inthanon – 47km
Around 50km Southwest of Chiang Mai is the Doi Inthanon National Park, which is home to the highest mountain and road in Thailand. There are three approaches to the summit including the south-eastern approach which is a 38.5km climb at 5.8%, an eastern approach and a western approach.
Chiang Mai to Pai – 130km
The ride from Chiang Mai to Pai is an absolute killer with almost no flat sections for the last 100km. This is one of the most scenic roads in Thailand and it’s tree clad most of the way. Along the way there are a series of alpine-like switchback climbs (up to 1,600m high). Most locals make an overnight out-and-back ride of this.
There is some great and hilly riding north of town – towards Phrao, as well as some more big climbs east from San Khampeng to Mae On. For flatter riding stick to the valley routes – there are small and quiet roads both south and north of town.
Chiang Mai mightn’t yet be mentioned in the same breath as Monaco, Girona or Ghent when it comes to the world’s most famous cycling cities, but that mightn’t be the case for long. Chiang Mai has all the right ingredients for a great cycling city and if current trends are anything to go by, it will only continue to grow in popularity as a cycling destination.