Crickets, cold brew, and climbing 5k in a day: Tales from the 2019 VeloClub Summit

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Had we made the VeloClub Summit in Northern Thailand too tough?

I looked at the profile again. There was certainly a bit of saw-toothing on the itinerary, however we’d been pretty careful to lay out the trip as similarly as possible to our well-received 2018 VC Summit in Japan. That course seemed to exist in the hazy region just between accessible and difficult – the type of trip that would bring the team together each night to recount their own day on the bike, that would be fun and enjoyable, and that, importantly, would create lasting memories.

It was as we were preparing for this trip that one of our VC members sent me this note:

“Trust that the uncertainty of not knowing will push you into a primal state, counterintuitive to your comfort zone, and will guide you to the purpose of being human. And experience life in its purest form. Our mind might have alternative motives that are not in our best interest. It loves certainty and tries to promote that at all cost. Uncertainty makes you alive.”

The note really resonated with me, and I felt it summed up the pre-trip jitters that sat somewhere between nervousness for the unknown, and the thrill of new adventures. It would be fair to say that in our pre-ride communication it was certainly The Big Day, a 190km ride from Chiang Mai into the (mountainous) heart of the Golden Triangle – whilst racking up 5,000m in elevation – that was the talking point, and the hot topic at the dinner table when we landed.

As is often the case, swinging a leg over the bike is the best way to settle the nerves.

The first half of our week in Thailand was a great chance to get to know each other, get a feel for the group dynamics, and get a sense of what Chiang Mai had to offer (clue: plenty of hills and a surprisingly excellent cafe culture – and some of the best coffee I’ve tasted … anywhere).

By the time it came to The Big Day, we were all feeling settled in, and ready for a challenge. So ready in fact, that not one rider accepted the offer of a shortened route. We were all going to give this ride a red hot crack and break it or be broken.

To say that response left an impression on me is an understatement. The one thing I’m always asking of my two daughters is to simply give things a go. It’s not necessarily about the end result, but the trying. Like a proud parent I was impressed by the crew’s attitude, and it helped ease my own tension about the ride. After all, it’s just riding bikes (with a three-van support crew, incredible ‘real food’ nutrition, easy bail-out option, pro photographer, and 2:1 rider-to-guide ratio …!). It didn’t feel like we were taking this challenge on alone – we’d be tackling it as a group.

Despite having to check if I’d actually stopped when being passed on the climb out of Chiang Mai by wafer-thin Jumbo-Visma pro Antwan Tolhoek, the early kilometres ticked over easily enough. We soon fell into the routine of chatting together on the flats, riding to our own pace on the climbs, and regrouping at the rest stops. Usually I’m happy enough skipping the majority of stops, but when the food is as amazing, varied, real, and plentiful as we were offered it’s hard to turn down.

There was always a variety of locally-sourced fresh fruit – from bananas and mango through to dragonfruit, rambutan, and pineapple. On ice were coke, juice, and cold coffees (similar to Japan’s ‘Boss’ coffee-in-a-can), and in plentiful supply were banana leaf wrapped rice and fruit portables, and bamboo stuffed with red bean sticky rice – which you had to peel like a wooden banana to access. A small local supplier had produced handmade chia bars with flavours like mango, cinnamon, peanut – and even cricket (the original protein bar). As endurance cyclist Jesse Carlson once put it “Big days on the bike are essentially eating competitions” and if that was true, then we were all going for gold.

Our lunch stop came 100km into the ride, with 3,000m in the bag (yep – that’s some efficient climbing!) After a local dish of chicken and rice with lashings of pungent fish oil and lip-tingling chilli we were off again. While there was still a big ride ahead of us, we felt like we’d broken its back somewhat. Legs were heavy, but spirits were soaring.

The captivating thing about our journey towards the Burmese border was the incredibly diverse scenery. We’d be climbing through thick and steamy jungle forest, descending through heavily scented pine thickets, and then coasting through rice paddies baking in the sun – all whilst being accompanied by tropical birdsong, the dull clank of bells belonging to lazily grazing cattle, and the secret presence of elephants, whose frequent wombat-sized scat provided a constant reminder of their proximity.

Admittedly when looking at the jagged ride profile towards the end of the day I had assumed the erratic zig-zagging was a product of bad Garmin data. As it transpired, it was actually the result of a road-building approach, common to the area. Our guide Aum explained that “instead of throwing in switchbacks to reduce the gradient, most of the time on the smaller hills the road simply takes the shortest route”. Good for keeping the kilometre count down, but late in the day each new steep ramp was met with a strained smile and a groan.

The kicker? In the final throes of the ride we were presented with a 1km segment to a lookout … with a big slab over 20%. It should have crushed us, but at that point of the day we all knew we had the ride in the bag and nothing this course could throw at us could stop us now.

Cheers, high-fives, hugs, and ice-cold cans of Leo Lager met us as we rolled in with the sun starting to set. Dinner was far from the quiet affair breakfast had been, as we swapped stories, embellished tales, and patted ourselves and each other on the back. For the majority of the riders (including our guides!) there had been some new PR set – whether it was time in the saddle, metres gained, or distance (and sometimes all three). Tackling a challenge like this with a crew of like-minded cyclists turns what could be a soul-destroying ride, into a shared experience. One that we’ll all take with us forever.

VeloClub founding member Jase de Puit summed up the VeloClub Summit perfectly:

“I discovered so many things; a new city, new roads, new limits, new expectations, new highs, new lows, new mates, new food … I went in knowing that it would be challenging, but discovering what those actual challenges were and then working around or through them was truly rewarding.”

Speculation and suggestions about the location of the 2020 VC Summit have already kicked off amongst the VeloClub community. Regardless of where in the world we end up, we hope to see you there!

Special thanks to Spice Roads for their incredible hospitality and Sakon Chaophraeknoi for the stunning pics.

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