Chiang Mai is a hotspot for those who run businesses online (and, perhaps infamously, for those who’d very much like to do so).
When I was there a few weeks ago, I even met a few young people who’d skipped going to university to, instead, come to the mountainous north of Thailand, to work on projects and learn about entrepreneurship.
If you’re resourceful, and ask good questions of good people, you have the opportunity to learn directly from (and hang out with) 100’s of entrepreneurs, as well as creative and technical people from all around the world. And it won’t cost you much.
But I wasn’t in town exclusively to chat with entrepreneurial friends who’ve fallen for the small city’s well documented charms and lifestyle advantages. It turns out that Chiang Mai is just as popular with– my other tribe– cyclists.
The sport is exploding in popularity throughout the region and few places are as hospitable to road cycling as Chiang Mai.
So I decided to check it out for myself.
I rode my bike 1,847 kilometers in Chiang Mai and was impressed by so much of what I found there.
So, is Chiang Mai the Girona of the east? (Girona is one of the capitals of pro cycling in Europe).
For me, Girona has a slight edge in terms of the riding. It’s a bit easier to access a wider variety of rides and the weather is better for most of the year except for the period between November to February– conveniently, the best time of year to ride in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai has a lot of lifestyle stuff on it’s side. Affordable food, massage, and and plenty of people to ride with on a daily basis.
For those reasons and many more, Chiang Mai strikes me as a great place to organize a winter training camp for yourself, do it on a budget, and have an adventure while you’re at it.
That’s more or less how I spent my time in Chiang Mai. I ended up putting a lot of base miles in and losing well over 10 pounds while stuffing my face with amazing Thai food.
If you live in a cold place, but have early season races, Chiang Mai could be a great place to get some winter training in, all while wearing shorts.
What’s great about riding in Chiang Mai:
- Variety of rides. Flat, rolling, long training climbs, and insane “who on earth builds roads like this?” climbs. Check, check, and check.
- Great training roads. It’s easy to find roads with no junctions or lights. Ditto sustained climbs (2 x 20 minute interval going up the same hill? Sure thing). How about a 6% 10k+ climb within 5 minutes of your front door? Doi Suthep has you covered.
- Cycling culture. No matter what kind of rider you are, from professional to newbie looking to get fit, you’re likely to find a friend to struggle up the hills with. Cyclists from all over the world descend on Chiang Mai to do their training. Here are some examples of the rides you can do.
- Affordable rent. Renting a place in CM is easy and affordable. For the cost of one week in a European cycling destination, you could stay a month. You can talk to the front desk staff at any popular condominium. I just used Airbnb, worked great.
- Massage. Cycling and massage go hand in hand, and a post-ride leg massage in CM will set you back less than 10 bucks.
- Affordable healthy food. The quality of food in CM is through the roof, and the ability to customize or have it delivered to your front door is easy. There’s also plenty of places around town popular with cyclists if you’re looking to meet some friends. There’s also wonderful vegetarian food in town, Anchan and Happy Green are just two of many. Legal Nomads has some great resources on finding delicious food in town.
Things I wasn’t in love with:
- Bike shops. They were just okay. All the ones you Google about will generally be good enough for tubes, gels, CO2, etc. It’s not a great place to buy a bike (especially if you ride a big frame), and when it comes to maintenance, I’ve had some iffy repairs.
- Weather. Heat and humidity aren’t great for training or ‘epic’ rides and, for most of the year, Chiang Mai has plenty of both (and definitely don’t plan a trip during the burning season, which can be slightly variable but happens around March and April every year). So to get the best out of cycling in Chiang Mai, consider going in late October through February, when the weather is favorable for riders.
- Super steep sustained climbs. Although CM does offer a wide variety of route options, some of the more popular ones include very steep sustained climbs that last for many, many kilometers. Compact gearing is almost a necessity, and many local cyclists even add mountain bike gears to their road bikes. One hour climbs at 8+% can decimate group rides and, well frankly, your legs too.
Here’s some photos from my trip:
Before I got to CM, I was working for weeks on DCBKK (and not riding) and so, although there were so many people to see in CM, I spent most of my free time there on the bike.
Local cyclists are super friendly. You can find group rides on Facebook, or ask about them at the local bike shops. It also can’t hurt to chat up riders you see on the road. I used Strava to find routes, clubs, and connect with local riders.
That’s a damn nice bike to be sitting around without a lock! Chiang Mai is a friendly, safe place.
As is pretty well known: the coffee in Chiang Mai is legit. Way better than the average cup in Spain. I took this photo post ride, sitting fully kitted, awaiting a post ride meal of healthy food that would cost no more than 5 bucks. Restaurants where you can order large quantities of vegetables, rice, and lean meats or seafood are easy to find.
And they mean use a SUPER low gear. These grades go on for kilometers and kilometers.
After over an hour of climbing I was rewarded with a great view.
I got a chance to do some downhill mountain biking while in CM on a full suspension bike, and discovered it to be a completely different sport. It’s much more about bike and body control (and risking your life!) than fitness. I found it to be more like skiing. Certainly a great day on the bike, but not sure if I’ll be doing too much of it in the future.
This was the view from earlier in the day, right after our tour guides drove us some 13KM up the hill! The guides were knowledgeable and friendly and the trails were very technical. Thanks to Chris and Bunty from the Entrepreneur House for inviting me along!
This guy is ready to ride.
These gents were friendly and fast and went out many times every week.
Forming a pace line through the rice fields. Not too many chances for photos– these guys liked to keep it quick.
Here’s a shot of my steed for the month. Having wider 28cm tires was great as, although much of the tarmac in Thailand is glassy-smooth, when it gets bad, it gets bad quick!
If you’re thinking of doing a cycling trip in Thailand I highly recommend it!
If you already live in Chiang Mai, consider taking your bike out and exploring the gem you have right at your doorstep.
Are you already in Chiang Mai?
Here’s some of my favorite rides I did while I was there:
- Convenient training loop with a run up Doi Suthep.
- Really nice flat and rolling cruise with a view of the Dam you see above.
- A classic out and back along a quiet country road.
- Brutal and beautiful close to town.
- Up for an HC climb (that’s cycling speak for “really f-ing hard”) and some killer views? Here you go.
- Quiet flat loop, great for base miles.
- Perhaps the most famous loop in CM, the Samoeng Loop. It’s tough. Plenty of cool cafes along the way to regain your energy.
I’m definitely considering heading back next season after DCBKK. If there’s some interest from the readership perhaps we could do some training together. Also a big thanks to blog reader Miles for saying hi and helping me get the lay of the land.
Hopefully will see you on the road next time!
*UPDATE* December 2018.
Since writing this post, I’ve come back for two more winter seasons in Chiang Mai. Every year, more bike shops open and more riders come to make the pilgrimage. This year (2018), there’s a noticeable influx of more “serious” riders – even including one WT pro – as well as more events, such as Audax rides, sportives, and races, as well as a greater quantity of group rides.
It’s never been a better time to come to Chiang Mai and hit the hills! Sadly, 4 Heavens Bike shop is closing. But the good news is K Cycling Club has opened which features a robust social scene, mechanics, as well as a cafe and restaurant. Many think the bike shop scene might be overbuilt here, as many have opened since I first wrote this post… so it’s beyond the scope of this post to keep up with everything.
Importantly, I’ve updated my steed:
Here’s some other cool routes for you to explore:
- Sameong XL Loop – More interseting that the standard Sameong Loop IMO.
- Here’s a nice flat course along the Ping River.
- Visit the 4 Buddahs
- Mountain Biking is getting more popular…
Hope to see you all on the roads!