I headed to Chiang Mai recently to take part in the Rapha Gentleman’s race, an unsanctioned and unofficial race organised by the team at Rapha. The course was a brutal 135km with +3000m of elevation including some really tough climbs such as Pong Krai, Samoeng, 7 Spires, and culminating in a 10.8km slog up Doi Suthep.
Riding for Team BMC BlackHawk was myself, Mike Hooper, James Clark and a ringer called Robert Rychter (who Mr Hooper proceeded to call Richard until we finally corrected him).
We kicked off from the start line at 7:18am as the 10th team of 14 chasing down our sister team Chili Dumpling who had managed to lose one of their team members at the airport. A side note to all the kids out there – when flying around in Asia, just book direct with the airline to avoid disappointment.
The initial 22km was flat and fast with our ringer taking up the early front time. As we turned off the main road we hit some gorgeous flat countryside before starting the first initial climb, which saw us go past a number of teams, including Chili Dumpling. Naturally we were all climbing in the big ring at this point, and we powered past Chili D screaming OUUUTTTT much to our own amusement. The Chili D team looked strong at this point, but things would quickly start to unravel for the ladies in pink.
As the road flattened out briefly we then turned off onto a side road and began the most brutal climb of the day up Pong Krai. In total it’s around 4km with an average gradient of 5% but there were some seriously steep sections, including a 2km stretch at 11%. I remember riding up here thinking ‘Chili is not going to like this’ but I was also not particularly enjoying it myself.
Myself and Robert finished the climb together (Robert amazingly piling up in a standard crank 11-26 combination, whilst I was maxed out on a compact 11-28 almost the entire time – I am probably half his weight). James and Mr Poops followed closely behind as we checked off at the first check point and began the first descent of the day.
Thus began a rather interesting off road descent which tested your arm muscles more than your legs. Again our ringer showed his quality, descending like a maniac whilst I spent the entire time dodging huge pot holes, swerving around the road trying to brake and miss on coming trucks and generally trying to protect my balls from serious damage. It was a lot of fun, but I would later regret having such a stiff frame when I went for a toilet break!
Next up was the 7 Spires climb, so named as a result of the 7 switchbacks. As we started to climb I personally felt pretty dead, the lack of recent riding really starting to catch up with me. Robert powered off into the distance, whilst James was closely following my rear wheel, looking strong. With Mr Poops bringing up the rear I eventually decided enough was enough and hopped off my bike for a few minutes as James disappeared off into the distance.
Eventually I crawled up to the top with Mr Poops in close proximity having got stuck in a pretty unreasonable gear choice for such a long climb. This was merely the start of his Di2 issues however as he eventually got stuck in an incredibly easy gear, which would have been ok had we not been on the flat at this point.
Poor Poops then spent the next 40 minutes looking like a circus clown, pedalling like a crazy person but barely moving. Despite some emergency calls into the now dismantled Chili Dumpling team, we were unable to resolve the problem and losing some serious time to our main rivals. If truth be told I was pretty delighted at Mr Poops’ misfortune. I was knackered, and this slow pace was giving me some time to recharge the batteries for the last climb. Also I couldn’t help but chuckle every time Poops went by.
It was around about this time that we heard about the demise of Chili Dumpling. His rear derailleur having snapped after just 32km (not sure how many times he kicked it to get that effect). Later on we would hear of the demise of John Boladian (World Virtual Riding Champion 2008,9,10,11,and 12 and Runner Up 2013). It was left to the impressive Sarah Clark to complete the course solo, and so she did, smashing my time up Doi Suthep with ease (Kudos!!).
In the meantime we took a brief pit stop and somehow Poops was able to perform emergency Di2 surgery and get it all working again. Damn – rest period over!! Robert then proceeded to put the hammer down and pull us the whole way to Doi Suthep. I thought I saw him throw the elbow a few times on the way to the last climb, but I tactically pretended I was riding behind Alen and it was just a nervous twitch.
As we started the final 11km climb up Doi Suthep I immediately started cramping and both James and Robert took off into the distance passing on wishes of good luck and ‘see you at the top’. Mr Hooper (in his Obi One Kenobi fatherly style) briefly came up alongside me and provided some words of wisdom ‘just take it nice and easy – see you at the top’ before disappearing off into the distance. #Bastard #Abandonment
At this point I was in total survival mode – I knew this was a long climb, but didn’t know what the gradient was like. I was pretty nervous about even reaching the top, but didn’t want to let the team down. Thus began the slowest, most depressing climb of my middle aged life.
Thankfully (in typical Thai fashion) most of the road signs along the way were complete bollocks, and despite regularly suggesting a considerable number of KM’s left it wasn’t long before I hit the 3km to go mark (this was about 1km after the sign that suggested I had 9km to go!), followed closely by 1km.
As I rounded one of the last corners though my right leg seized up completely….I grimaced and kept chugging away, thinking just 1 more km, just 1 more km. My heart sank as I turned the last corner and realised the gradient was about to go up significantly (not good when your legs are already cramping, your gears are maxed out and you can’t get out the saddle!). I swung round the corner and gambled on no traffic coming the other way, taking a wide berth and trying to negate the gradient a little. The gamble paid off and I crawled to a slightly flatter section without cramping up.
With just 400m left to go (I could see the guys waiting for me) I was so ruined I had to pull into the car park, massage my legs for 30 seconds and then make the final push to the top. All in all it took me a full hour to climb Doi Suthep (truly pathetic!) but I was just delighted to actually make it and the guys were incredibly supportive even though I’d held them up for at least 15 minutes.
With a quick stamp at the final check point and with a podium still in sight we started the long descent to the finish line. It was a great descent with good quality roads and we soon crossed the finish line to capture 3rd position overall.
Ultimately we were beaten by the Rapha Continental team and another Semi Pro bunch of riders which included Peter Pouley. Out of all the amateur club based teams the BMC BlackHawks came in 1st position – a huge achievement given the route and our struggle to find hills to climb in Singapore.
It was a fantastic route that offered some great challenges along the way. Be it the long, hard climbs or the pot hole filled gravel descents I would rush back to Chiang Mai to ride again for sure. I really enjoyed riding with the team and a huge thank you to Robert for stepping in and being our ringer.
See you again soon Chiang Mai – first stop is going to be Doi Suthep!