by Gennie Gebhart
Wheels, pedals, handlebars, gears - a bike is a bike no matter where you ride it. But the roads, drivers and cyclists in Chiang Mai are distinctly of this city. Even a quick spin is an exercise in dodging tuk tuks and songteaw. The crosswalk stoplights on Suthep and Huay Keaw, which unexpectedly turn from green to red to allow pedestrians to cross, require sudden stops among a sea of anxious motorbikes. Around the moat, speedy one-way traffic complicates crowded rush hours. In contrast, during calmer morning hours, early bird riders may share the roadside with monks coming and going for alms.
I moved to Chiang Mai last year expecting to find great riding. Chiang Mai is, after all, hailed in cycling circles as "the cycling capital of Southeast Asia." It didn't take long for me to understand why.
First, I learned about the velodrome, or bicycle-racing track, in the 700 Year sports complex north of the city. Velodromes are rare even in bike-crazy parts of North America and Europe, and visitors are often surprised to find such a high-quality one in northern Thailand. Local rider Ian Franklin leads open sessions here weekly. "This is without a doubt one of the best velodromes in Thailand," he said.
Franklin and the Chiang Mai Track Cycling Club regularly welcome new riders to the track, from those just learning to ride a track bike to competitive teams from Singapore. Franklin is also behind Chiang Mai's recent time trial series. The 16-kilometre out-and-back course on Canal Road pitted riders against the clock in Chiang Mai's first-ever organised time trials, and 30 to 40 riders came out for the weekend events earlier this year.
In addition to time trials, Chiang Mai gives road cyclists unique opportunities to ride, train, and race throughout the year. Last January, I stumbled on the Thailand Cycling Alliance's 24-hour endurance race at Huay Tung Tao. For a full 24 hours, individuals and teams committed to keeping wheels on the 3.5-kilometre loop around the reservoir at all times. The individual or team to complete the most laps in 24 hours won.
Chiang Mai also hosts a four-day stage race each fall for riders 30 years and older, the Masters Tour of Chiang Mai. Participants complete different races each day, including road races (think the Tour de France), circuit races (multiple laps of a short course) and time trials. At the end of the four days, the rider with the fastest combined time wins. Last year's race was the first to add a category, pointing to increasing female participation in the sport.
During the cool, dry season between November and February, you can even spot professional cyclists sharing the roads with locals. Professional teams RTS, Baku, Giant Asia, Seoul Cycling, and the Lao and Malaysian national teams all devote much of their pre-season training to Chiang Mai's hilly terrain.
The mountainous region around Chiang Mai also hosts several hill-climb events. Last February's race up Doi Inthanon, the highest point in Thailand, attracted nearly 2,200 riders. This was more than double the 1,000 participants in the 2013 race.
"Double the turn-out should indicate the direction cycling is going here," said Doi Inthanon hill-climb rider Chris Pye.
With iconic mountain ranges so close to the city, it comes as no surprise that Chiang Mai is a goldmine of mountain biking trails. You can hire a red songtaew or a local tour group like Mountain Biking Chiang Mai or X-Biking to drive you and your bikes to Doi Pui before descending down Suthep. In addition to the trails throughout Doi Suthep, you can venture further to the downhill and single-track trails at Mae Taeng Valley, Doi Saket, and Chiang Dao.
More important than the velodrome, the road races, or the trails, however, is Chiang Mai's close-knit riding community. I got my first taste of this community just days after arriving in Chiang Mai, when I walked into a new bike shop for the first time. To my surprise, the mechanic recognised me. He explained that we had passed each other riding up and down Doi Suthep, and he happily introduced me to the rest of the shop staff. They have been my go-to source for bike advice ever since.
In addition to bike shops, several local coffee shops and restaurants offer specials and discounts to cyclists, including Mixology on the west side of the moat and 8 Days A Week on Nimmanhaemin.
Chiang Mai also welcomes seasonal and international riders. As a well-known base for long-term cycling trips, the city is a common stop for cyclists touring through Southeast Asia. Popular long-distance cyclists and bloggers Jana Halloun and Alex Gabriel recently passed through Chiang Mai after nearly two years of riding overland from Germany through Europe and Asia.
Meanwhile, Thailand-based company Spice Roads Asia has capitalised on cycling tourism by offering tour packages throughout Northern Thailand, as well as city tours for those who don't have the legs for the countryside. They are now well-established and have offices worldwide, with teams of tour guides providing rides that are as much a form of exercise as they are lessons on Thai culture.
A wide sense of community is especially important for regular, year-round riders. I have a hard time getting myself to ride in the rain or the heat unless I know I have someone to ride with. Fellow cyclists are also the ones who taught me how to prepare for Chiang Mai's extreme weather. Friends lent me a plastic poncho to get me home dry in a sudden downpour, and were the first to tip me off to flavoured electrolyte drink powder (available at pharmacies or 7-Eleven) for staying hydrated in the heat and humidity.
Today, the Chiang Mai cycling community that so generously welcomed me and other new riders is quickly growing beyond the "traditional" styles of track, road, and mountain bike riding. An alternative scene, with a Thai style all its own, has also taken hold in Chiang Mai. Groups of riders with candy-bright, colour-coordinated fixed-gear bicycles are a common sight, especially on weekend nights near Tha Pae Gate. As Chiang Mai's number of recreational and alternative riders grows, so does the demand for new rides and races.
In December of last year, local high school senior Kan Kyi Curwen organised the Stampede Underground, Chiang Mai's first alleycat race, an informal, urban bike races that require cyclists to make their way through the city to a number of checkpoints. The first rider to reach all the checkpoints and return to a predetermined finish location wins.
Racers can hit the checkpoints in any order they want, as long as they visit them all. This allows them to strategise and ride alone, rather than racing in one large group. "The races zig-zag and stretch from one end of the city to the other," Curwen said, "ensuring that racers are tested on their endurance and strength."
With the next race in the works at the beginning of this month, the Stampede Underground seems poised to continue growing.
Following the success of Stampede Underground, Curwen has also been instrumental in organising Critical Mass rides in Chiang Mai. Critical Mass is best described as an international urban bicycling phenomenon. In major cities from San Francisco to Johannesburg to Bangalore, cyclists get together on the last Friday of every month to tour through the city in a large group.
Large groups of cyclists on the streets during congested evening hours, however, is bound to be controversial. Motorists and even other cyclists have complained that the event is disruptive to traffic, and that some Critical Mass riders disregard safety precautions such as wearing helmets and using hand signals.
And yet the cyclists ride on. Chiang Mai's first two Critical Mass rides, in March and April, attracted nearly 50 riders, from high schoolers on slick race bikes to backpackers on rented bicycles to parents and children on tandems. After gathering at Tha Pae Gate, the group follows a leader on a predetermined route through the city, generally including the Old City, Suthep neighbourhood, and the Night Bazaar area.
Complaints about cyclists are not exclusive to Critical Mass. An increasing traffic load on Chiang Mai's roads has led to heightened tensions among motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. In addition to motorists' concerns, many riders also experience unsafe conditions. My own first lessons in Chiang Mai cycling safety came from a few close calls with songteaw, which are notorious for stopping and swerving without warning. Of course, songteaw are not the only unpredictable vehicles on the road. "Drivers here become indecisive at intersections or turns," said local rider Tanapat Dangmeon.
Cyclists also have trouble finding safe places to ride. Chiang Mai's extensive networks of bike lanes have gone unmaintained for years, and road markings are scarcely visible to drivers and riders. As a result, bike lanes are routinely ignored. "The motorway has pretty much dominated the bike lane," said local rider Julian Hobday. "To me it does kind of bring up the question of where should cyclists be on the road if there isn't a bicycle lane to cycle on?"
Upcoming off-the-bike community events may bring opportunities to increase awareness. Documentary Arts Asia is planning a bicycle film festival (and welcomes film suggestions!), with dates and details to be announced. Looking further ahead, the Chiang Mai University Art Centre will host the Chiang Mai Bike Festival, a celebration of all things cycling, from 5th to 7th December, 2014.
Beyond community events, more formal forums are necessary. Motorists, cyclists, pedestrians, and local officials all need opportunities to weigh in on the changing composition of two- and four-wheeled vehicles on Chiang Mai's roads. Questions about the future of Chiang Mai cycling are inevitable as the city grapples with larger issues of public transportation, urban walkability, and tourism.
The cycling community in Chiang Mai has everything it needs, however, to continue growing. Local and expat riders will continue to look to Chiang Mai for its natural cycling playground of varying terrain, agreeable weather, and well-maintained roads and trails. What will keep them here are the organisers, shop owners and other leaders within the cycling community. With their dedication and energy turning the pedals, the Chiang Mai cycling scene shows no signs of slowing down.
Resources for New Cyclists
Finding the right bike, reliable gear, people to ride with, and places to ride can all be daunting tasks, especially as an expat in a new city. These shops, groups, and websites are good places to start.
- Jacky Bike in Nimmanhaemin is a well-stocked favourite and the primary local Trek dealer.
- Song on the northwest corner of the moat is great for commuters or those looking for a cheap first bike.
- Top Gear on Chang Moi Road also occasionally stocks affordable used bikes.
- For serious riders and road cyclists, TCA in Santitham and ARM Bike on Huay Kaew offer excellent services.
- Velocity on Huay Kaew sells and services a range of bicycles, and is best-known for fixed-gear work.
- A little farther from the old city, Cherry Bike in in San Sai District has bikes, parts, and service for BMX, mountain, and road bikers.
- The Chiang Mai Bicycle Sightseeing Club Facebook group is a great starting point for finding riding buddies. The group organises regular informal rides, ranging from relaxed cruises around town to longer rides outside the city.
- The Chiang Mai Sunday Bicycle Club (www.cmcycling.org) meets at Tha Pae Gate on Sunday mornings for short, relaxed rides.
- For more serious riders, the Road Rider Chiang Mai Yahoo group organises long, fast rides most days of the week.
- Bicycle Thailand:
- Chiang Mai Bicycling:
- Cycle Chiang Mai: