Under broad banana tree leaves I hid for 5 minutes, poured a bottle of water over my head and fought tears and puke
Words by the one and only Rod Fountain
As the 2012/13 cyclocross season drew to a close handing London’s parks back to the strolling Sunday public I didn’t think it unreasonable to expect the cloud to break, spring to spring and the sun to shine. I also hoped to be riding my Zesty more than my Kona Jake and was anticipating a battle with guilt for every slain bluebell which had the temerity to grow on my line somewhere in the Surrey Hills. None of these things, which mark the passing of winter, seemed to be happening quickly enough and so by way of escape I decided to trade South East London for South East Asia until the weather could sort itself out.
Five months later I’m still here and finding it increasingly difficult to tear myself away from endless sunshine, decent surf and ice cold beer. That said, my bikes were left behind because my wife and son weren’t and there’s only so much stuff you can fit in a Tuk Tuk, though it’s more than should really be possible. One thing I didn’t leave behind was the dull ache brought about by not being able to ride on demand and so a part of this trip had been a ruthless hunt for riding nourishment. Now I know how those squirrels left behind in my snowy January garden felt. I’ve had to abandon ‘mountain biking’ on this trip in order to keep the wheels, any wheels, turning. I’ve jumped on borrowed ‘mountain style’ bikes found rotting behind beach bars and which could barely make it down dusty roads let alone the epic peaks that I had to just gaze at from their decomposing saddles. I’ve done hundreds of hot miles on brakeless bikes with baskets on the front and loved every single one. There have been exercise bikes in soulless gyms that I’ve loved less. On reflection those were tough times especially compared to the ride I’ve just had on Koh Samui, an island off Thailand’s Gulf coast.
If, like thousands of Europeans, you’re heading to Koh Samui this summer then give yourself a pat on the back for choosing a good place to carve out the holiday you want. Full Moon party: check. Diving: check. Countless other islands on which to live out your ‘The Beach’ fantasy for a day: check. Yoga, meditation, spa treatments, 5 star luxury: check. The list goes on, but at some point your eyes will drift hungrily to the verdant peaks that form the spine of Thailand’s islands and your legs are going to twitch and your eyes are going to moisten as you think about what you hope’s still in your damp shed when you get home. If the last 5 months have taught me anything it’s this: there’s riding everywhere in Asia because as a way of getting about the bicycle endured here longer than in Europe and in the Internet Age it doesn’t take long before you can hook yourself up with a decent bike and someone who knows where you can ride it like you want to. If you’re bound for Thailand this summer and want to get another notch on your riding bedpost then a save yourself a load of wasted time hunting down shonky bikes and rubbish ‘tours’ by clicking onto actionsportasia.com and speaking to Dan Wallace. Action Sports Asia is a great touchstone for all sorts of stuff that will get your adrenal glands squirting as much as your arse after a bad Pad Thai. I emailed Dan when I arrived on Samui and he got back to me within the hour, telling me that whilst there isn’t a DH scene on the island there’s world class XC loops and that Joe from samuibicycletours.com was the only bloke on the island who really knew them.
An hour later I was chatting to Joe (think Valentino Rossi in his crew-cut years) about what I wanted. With his Italian passion bubbling at the surface he told me, as Dan had, that there’s no DH scene (that said, I did see a Banshee Scream with BoXXers being pushed along the road but I was in a cab and couldn’t stop) but he could take me on something he called ‘Extreme Uphill!’. Then he said ‘But, it will hurt you pretty bad, you will not be very ‘appy but the view is very beautiful if you can still focus.’ I’m not one for the middle-ground and since he didn’t offer DH this seemed like the ticket.
An hour later I was chatting to Joe (think Valentino Rossi in his crew-cut years)
Next morning in his big ol’ pick-up bouncing down a Thai dirt track Italian Joe and English me chatted like old friends about why bikes are the best thing imaginable and how riding’s an international language. Grinning, he told me he’s got a menu of regular ‘tours’ but that he loves to bolt stuff together for people like you and me. ‘So what’s on the menu today Joe?’ I asked. Whilst it didn’t seem possible, his grin got even wider as he told me he’d decide after our 10k ‘warm up’ on the road but that either way it’s not a ride he offers as standard because even in a land where Health and Safety concerns are as elusive as a British summer ‘this ride is a bit much’. Samui Bicycle Tours HQ is a swish affair with a fleet of either Trek or Specialized 29ers to either trundle or beast around the island on. Mine was on the stand, immaculately clean and fully fettled: brakes on the right way and with flats, which just made Joe smirk sympathetically. We loaded up with water, gel, bananas, tubes, sun block and grins and headed out for the 10k road slog.
I must’ve done something right (or wrong) because after a water stop we left the road and began to climb. I’d imagined that the drag up to the 700m peak would be gradual and punctuated with small, refreshing descents. At 9am and with the temperature already over 30 I was in full-granny, stood on the pedals and virtually nutting the front tyre for the 4km unbroken climb on old concrete slabs and eventually dirt. With air-conditioned pick-up truck bravado left at sea level I was broken at the 2k mark and genuinely began to panic about the heat. Joe sat on my back wheel and insisted I stop but being a dick I refused until there was some kind of natural break in the climb that would mean I hadn’t, in my mind at least, failed. ‘It’s not coming, man, STOP!’ he said with an unfamiliar solemnity. There was a slightly flatter corner about 50m further on and it became the perfect foil to keep my fast-failing stubborn pride from disintegrating entirely.
Under broad banana tree leaves I hid for 5 minutes, poured a bottle of water over my head and fought tears and puke: not my finest hour on a bike. I can’t remember the last time I rode a bike with a granny ring let alone use one and so this was humbling. ‘You know we’ve only just started, right? We’ve got another 2 hours.’ That panic again. It got worse, much worse, before it got better but with one more fail for each of us I managed the rest of the climbs in a time that made Joe excited, a sight so marvellous as to rival the golden crescents of sand hundreds of meters below, and which motivated us to abandon all stops except for pics and put in a fair bit of out-of-saddle cranking. Inevitably the descents became more frequent and I feasted on the cooling breeze that chucking a 29er down them served up. Like the climbs they were a tyre testing mix of concrete slabs and pure dirt wide enough for a 4×4. Also like the climbs they were long and so the smell of burning pads has singed itself into my memory of them. Dropping back to the ocean below was like falling out of a ‘plane and at times it seemed to be rushing up faster than could be possible. My knowledge of Thai flora extends only to ‘Banana’, ‘Bamboo’ and ‘Palm’ but their shapes are icons of paradise so to be riding through them at warp speed is a real stop and think moment, or it would be if stopping wasn’t so dull. Seeing these trees, scorpions, snakes, huge golden Buddhas, trail-side shrines and monks ascending the peaks on pilgrimage is one thing but to see them because you love to, have to, ride bikes wherever you are gives it a different gloss; what that gloss is can only be decided by you.
Back at the shop, bikes thick in dust Joe’s wife had been out to get the fruit and so we we sat out-back eating fresh pineapple and watermelon having a de-brief. Joe tells me of his plans for the shop: a big TV to show bike films, road races and the shots his legions of happy customers send him when they return to their 9-5s. He’s Italian so there’s a coffee bar going in too. By 1pm I was back at my villa drinking a Singha beer in the pool, unable to shake off the strange mix of emotions that bounced between exhaustion, elation and that all too rare feeling of having done something genuinely new on a bike.
I was back at my villa drinking a Singha beer in the pool, unable to shake off the strange mix of emotions that bounced between exhaustion, elation and that all too rare feeling of having done something genuinely new on a bike.
Throughout my great escape from the British winter I’ve never been more than a week or so without a ride despite having father and husband duties. Sometimes it’s been a stolen hour using an old grod that some bar-owner had lying out back, others were on basket-shod hire bikes and occasionally there’s been a peach, like with Joe on Koh Samui or with King and the boys on their world class DH lines in Chiang Mai, but more about that later. I knew this trip was going to fill my passport with stamps and give me a tan but I never expected it to change the way I think about riding in the way that cyclocross did over the winter.
I’ve been lucky enough to have over 5 months to explore but a ride only takes a few hours so if you’re in Thailand in general or Koh Samui in particular cut to the chase and email either Dan (actionsportasia.com) or Joe (samuibicycletours.com).
Oh, and pack your Camelbak.