July 2012. Doi Ang Khang, Northern Thailand. I fear this mountain road which crests at about 2,000 meters. My goal is to ride up Doi Ang Khang, without stopping, using my Trek 6900 mountain bike. The road is so steep that it actually scares me, especially on the descent. The route is from downtown Fang on route 107 to a right turn on route 1249, riding up to the highest point on the road. This point is just farther than where you reach a three-way intersection, at which the Thai-police checkpoint is located. The elevation gain is about 1,750 meters or around 5,700 feet.
In 2012, I quested to find and ride up the steepest, hardest climb that I could find in Thailand ... without stopping. I had been to many of the big mountains, including Thailand's highest point (Doi Intannon at about 2,750 meters), but nothing I had found yet compared to Doi Ang Khang. (Since then, I have found a few super hard climbs in Thailand, including the backroads up Phu Chi Fah, Wiang Hang to Bpai on a fireroad wit grades to 28%, Doi Chang, and others.) This was my fourth attempt. Granted earlier attempts had seen me riding in extreme heat (40+C), riding after several big mountain days, or riding with food poisioning (vomiting and with diarrhea). But, there were no excuses this time. This ride would be my last attempt in 2012 and perhaps ever. (Note that since then, I did a double ascent/descent of Doi Ang Khang in one day!)
To get to Fang from Chiang Mai, I ride up route 107 from downtown. The ride is 100 miles or 161 kilometers. On that particular day, I felt so strong that I did the ride in 5 hours and 55 minutes on my mountain bike. I tried to hold back to save myself for Doi Ang Khang, but I felt it, and went with it. The ride was my fastest century on the mountain bike to date. This ride does include a few climbs about 5K in length too, and there are some rolling hills. In any case, I knew my legs would not be fresh for Doi Ang Khang.
I woke up about 9am and ate a couple of ham sandwiches for breakfast. It was raining, and I wanted to see if the rain would let up. I feared that my tires would lose traction on the steep road, ending with falling over, while clipped in to my pedals. Trust me, with tires slipping, at about six kph, it's extremely difficult to unclip. I got underway a bit later than usual, and I stopped at 7-11 to fill up my three water bottles with gatorade. I also drank a bottle of gatorade. Then, I headed down route 107. I did not ride fast. I was stretching on the bike and trying to get my legs loosened up a little. After 15 kms, I turned onto route 1249. Initially, the road goes up very gradually, if at all. But, before too long, there is an absolutely lung busting 1 km. The road is very steep, and one wonders why anyone would build a road that steep. Yes, I was using my granny gear, a 23-36. Yes, I said, a 23-36. The gear is so tiny, but a must for this climb. I had forgotten just how steep this early section was, but I quickly remembered. I was going so slowly, and the bike was nearly wobbling side-to-side, but I rode up. When I would reach any flatter section, say anything less than 12%, I would "take it as easy as possible."
I continued onward and upward. I was not riding as fast as I could, but just making steady progress. I was trying to save myself. Of course, riding more slowly means more time on the climb, but I wanted to get up this climb at least once in my lifetime without stopping. (Since then, I've done this climb numerous times successfully, including my non-stop double ascent mentioned earlier.) I felt pretty good.
The crux of the climb is the last 5 kms. This part of the climb is very steep. How steep? I don't actually know. It is steeper than any paved road which I have seen anywhere in the world. (Since then, I've found steeper paved roads even within Thailand.) It is steeper than any road that I have ever seen used in the Tour de France, Vuelta a Espana, or Giro d'Italia, and occasionally, these races include some climbs touching 23%. So, my guess is, the road goes up to about 25% in places. (For example, it is much steeper than the Mount Washingon auto-road in New Hampshire, USA.) In any case, the road is damn steep, frighteningly steep, dangerously steep.
I was grinding things out in my granny gear. Yes, I said grinding. How does one grind in a 23-36 gear? One rides up Doi Ang Khang. On any normal climb, you would be spinning in such a ridiculous gear, but not on Doi Ang Khang. I felt confident that this would be my day, and I would make it up the mountain. I was breathing hard, but my legs were doing okay. Then, I hit an absurdly steep section. Yes, I was spitting to save weight, and using any other trick, that I could think of, but the road was hellishly steep. When a motorbike passed me going about 10 kph, his engine was whining so loudly, I knew Doi Ang Khang was even making motorized vehicles cry ...
I couldn't and wouldn't stop. I rode up that unforgiving section. I thought, you're going to do this "thing." And, "thing" is the right word, for this ride is undescribable. There were few, if any reprieves, and I had somehow forgotten some of the steepest sections ... had I blacked out before? I kept going, confident. But, then, nooo. There was a headwind coming down the mountain ... a strong headwind. My confidence ebbed. My legs were numb. My lungs were bursting. My heart popping out of my chest. Can a 50-year old have a heartattack? At that point, I was going to keep riding or fall over sideways. I was committed to the mountain.
On a nasty switchback, I needed to cross the road to continue. Since I was only riding at walking speed, I sure hoped no vechile was coming down the mountain at that time. The road at the corner point was definitely too steep for me to ride up, and I wondered if anyone could ride up something that steep. I figured the bike might just flip over ... I was leaning as far forward as possible. This was hard! Another kilometer, a couple of small turns, and then, I saw the checkpoint. I rode passed the two army police. They starede. I kept going until the road crested. I was smiling and overcome with emotion. I was very happy. I had ridden up Doi Ang Khang on route 1249 non-stop. For me, this accomplishment was huge. The wind was blowing, and it was raining. When I turned the bike around, I decided this descent would be too dangerous, so I opted to go to Aruno Thai, a different route down the mountain. I figured that I would now enjoy a long and well deserved, but very dangerous descent. Hopefully, less dangerous than the road that I had come up. I had been to Aruno Thai before, but I had never been on this next stretch of road, and I doubt many cyclists have.
To my shock after descending about 1 kilometer, I was heading up again. And, the climb was steep, very steep. I went over about 20 more up and downs. I didn't actually count them, but there were many. The descents were very steep, one perhaps even steeper than anything that I had ridden up that day, and the climbs just as steep. Most of the climbs were 100-200 meters in height, but I wanted to be done climbing. The mountains along this deserted stretch of road were beautiful. There was nothing there, and I wondered if I was in a safe area. I knew that on the other side of Doi Ang Khang, where I was told I couldn't ride, was an opium-growing area. I directed myself to keep riding. If I didn't get off the bike going up Doi Ang Khang, I wasn't getting off on one of these smaller climbs.
Evetually, I was on the real descent to Aruno Thai. And, then I realized that I had actually ridden partway up this side before ... there too the road was extremely steep. On my previous ride there, a group of about ten Thai workers had clapped for me after I made it up one super steep section. I had been out of gatorade near the top of Doi Ang Khang, but I did find one re-fueling station on the near empty mountain stretch between Doi Ang Khang and Aruno Thai, so by the time I got to Aruno Thai, I wasn't completely depleted. When I reached Aruno Thai, I think that I had only ridden about 50 km. My average speed was a mere 12 kph and that included a rippingly fast descent off the mountain. The rain didn't help.
The roads in this area have a lot of dirt almost like red Georgia clay, and in the rain I was filthy. But, my main concern was how far I needed to ride back to Fang, not hygiene. What I thought would be about 75 kms turned out to be 135 kms, including many climbs. I needed to get riding. At one point, as I approached route 107 again, I was so bonked that I ate six baloney sandwiches a la Pete Solomon. I drank as much coke, gatorade, water, and Sponsor as possible, and continued on ... For those who have ridden a full day in the rain in the mountains, you can imagine what certain body parts were saying to me.
I reached Fang about 8pm, having to ride the last hour in darkness ... not good on these roads. It was a 185 kms day, absurdly steep roads and a ludicrous amount of climbing. I was so glad that I had finished this ride. Will I ever attempt this ride again without stopping on the way up Doi Ang Khang? I don't know. Maybe. (Since then, I have repeated this ride several times.) But, I'm told the third road up Doi Ang Khang is even steeper. It's not possible to go all the way up to the summit of the mountain on this road, due to the aforementioned opium trade, but the next time I'm in Fang, I would like to ride up that road as high as I can, and as high as is safe. I'm in denial that there is a road steeper than route 1249, but I will find out next time.
The next morning, I got up and rode the century back to Chiang Mai in a major downpour. Both the bike and I were exhausted, and I added one hour to my time of two days earlier ... By the way, if you complete the ride up Doi Ang Khang on a bicycle non-stop, I would like to hear about it. And, if you do the loop described here by bicycle, I would really like to hear about it, especially a solo effort, like mine. Happy riding!
Footnote: I've since done an (unthinkable) double Doi Ang Khang non-stop, the Mae Hong Song loop many time, the Adirondack 540, Chiang Rai to Phu Chi Fah and back using the most difficult route up the mountain, a 7,500-kilometer ride solo around Thailand, the TAT across the USA on a mountain bike, the Race Across America twice, and many other hard rides. As of this update, July 24, 2021, I'm still pedaling.