By Sarah Kaufmann
Two winters ago I had the opportunity to spend time mountain biking in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I had just competed in and won a three day stage race in Vietnam for the second year in a row. It seemed like a shame to just head back to the US when I was already there, on the other side of the world. So I took my prize winnings from the race and bought a plane ticket to Chiang Mai. I had decided on Chiang Mai based on recommendations for the best nearby places to ride and interesting things to see that were also considered safe for a woman traveling alone.
I had a week in Chiang Mai. The timing was nice; as I had just finished a stage race, my training volume was low and I was open to exploring and seeing the local trails, visiting the local attractions and I could keep up with my coaching work.
Chiang Mai is arranged around a large central square that was originally a military fortress. From my accomodation just outside the square, I was close enough to walk to many of the attractions I wanted to see or take a tuktuk taxi for the equivalent of a few American dollars worth of Thai baht. I walked to street markets and tasted foods I couldn’t recognize or pronounce. I walked to and through temples, though some I could not as they are closed to women. I rented a scooter and scooted 100k away to an elephant conservatory. (A task made more complicated as I could not read or understand any of the road signs)!
As I recovered from the stage race, I got back to training and found that if I got out in the morning before the heat, Chiang Mai was a great place to ride and train. The valley where the city sits is flat but, much like the Wasatch, the mountains rise just outside the city limits. In 15 minutes of pedaling (through a maze of tuktuks, street vendors, cars, trucks and pedestrians), I was at the base of a two hour climb. The road was tight and narrow but there were plenty of other cyclists and vehicle drivers were respectful. Just before halfway up the climb is a temple and major tourist destination. Fortunately for me, any tourist destination is also the location of vendors of fresh, ice cold coconut water, which was always the perfect post-interval stop to recover before the descent back into the city.
Love or hate social media but Facebook came through for me in Chiang Mai. Through some of the friends of friends who suggested I visit the area, I connected with a local riding group who showed me the Chiang Mai downhill MTB trails. The trails were mostly developed from farming/hiking cuts and were rough and raw. They varied from thick jungle trees and vegetation to dry/sandy to embedded or loose rocks.
And they were steep! I never saw switchbacks, the trails just went up or down. The riders who showed me around were fantastic guides; we may not have spoken much of the same language but it turns out the language of MTB is universal. It was an unbelievable day and I came away from it filled with gratitude and genuinely touched by an incredible experience.
My days in Chiang Mai passed quickly but generally followed the same pattern; I would wake up and walk a few blocks to the street market. The Thai people are much more laid back than we are in the west and I found it amusing that coffee shops generally opened at 7 or later – and those were the ones that catered to foreigners like me, desperately seeking coffee at that hour. As I usually wanted to ride before it got too hot, I would have a coffee and light snack while doing some work and then head out on my bike for a training ride. By the time I finished and descended back into the valley, it was already pretty steamy and I would stop for coconut water and fruit.
After a shower and late breakfast, I would spend a few hours on my coaching work. At that point, it was the middle of the night at home so I usually had plenty to catch up on while my clients all slept. Later in the afternoon, I would find a touristy activity or attraction to check out.
Though honestly there were many days, I skipped a dedicated activity and just found myself walking and wandering for hours, always catching some candid Thai moment that would never be found on the checklist. After dinner at a street market or restaurant, I would head back to do some more work and get to sleep. As I was a woman traveling alone, I didn’t check out much of the night life. A couple nights walking through street fairs and festivals but that was it.
Truly my time in both Vietnam and Thailand were such amazing experiences and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity. Bicycle riding with people of different cultures and traditions informs the way I coach. Time spent with those people changes my experience as a human being.
Sarah Kaufmann is an elite XC and CX racer and the owner of K Cycling Coaching. She is based in Salt Lake City, UT and can be reached at [email protected] or 413.522.3180.