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 rec...
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