• Hard going at the Doi Inthanon Challenge (Steve Thomas)Source: Steve Thomas
More than 5,600 riders lined up to battle with the road to the highest point in Thailand, Doi Inthanon. Steve Thomas was on hand to capture the experience which ended cruelly for one of the riders.
Steve Thomas

Cycling Central
4 Mar 2017 - 11:25 AM  UPDATED 6 Mar 2017 - 1:08 PM

Some 5.600 blurry eyed cyclists from all over Thailand, and way beyond too, eagerly hunted down pre-dawn treats and carbs from roadside stalls. 

They were preparing to take on the 47km Doi Inthanon Challenge, an uphill race from the small northern Thai town of Chom Tong to the summit of Doi Inthanon, which at 2.595 meters tall is the highest point in all of Thailand. The road goes to just a couple of metres beneath the very top. 

The race record belongs to Peter Pouly, the Thai-based former French MTB pro, who managed a shimmering one hour and 59 minutes. This year he and other notables are absent due to a race date clash.

This annual event is now in its 10th year, and while just under half the distance of the illustrious Taiwan KOM (103km), it attracts nearly 10 times as many entrants. 

The Doi Inthanon has a far more relaxed feel to it – apart from when you’re on the climb. 

As the sun rose behind it, one of the biggest pelotons in Asia set off for the challenge of lifetime, a huge range of abilities and aspirations strung out along the road. From small wheelers to fat bikes to leading regional racers; the mix was huge, and for the majority the challenge of reaching the summit would prove just about attainable.

The climb starts off gently enough, but with a couple of short ramps early on things soon shatter in the field, leaving only the serious contenders at the head of affairs. Much of the route is tree shaded and runs through a canyon, which is part of the designated Doi Inthanon National Park, and this makes for a scenic sufferfest.

Given the distance and altitude gain, it's easy to assume the gradient stays steady and friendly. But that's not entirely accurate as a couple of short downhills are thrown in, and numerous steep stretches too.

As with so many big climbs the best, or worse, is saved for last, in the form of a killer few kilometres at grades touching 23 per cent. These pitches are positively brutal, especially at such a late stage of the ride, and at over 2,000 metres altitude.

For much of the time, roads are semi-closed, giving the front-runners a clear ride to the top, but it's a different story for the second half of the field, as traffic stacks up.

From the first steep section, two lead groups of around a dozen riders each formed. They stayed ahead and fairly intact until the final third of the race.

By the time riders hit the steeper grade towards the summit one rider had built a clear lead and a few minutes later Brit expat, Adrian Pringle, crossed the line in second place, having made his way from somewhere around 1,000 riders back at the start.

“I rode the race two years ago, with a 39x25 gearing set up. It was almost impossible, so this year I came with a 34x32, which was much easier," he said.

A cruel end

Pringle was retrospectively declared the race winner on time (2 hours, 18 minutes and 52 seconds) as the actual result is decided from when the riders timing chip passes the start and finish lines, not on who crossed the line first.

Much further down the mountain, the masses of riders pushed and battled their way through the midday heat. Once achieving summit honours they were greeted with the option of a whopping great downhill ride, just deserts for conquering the highest mountain in Thailand.

The event takes place mid February each year, around 60km to the south of Chiang Mai, so be sure to add this one to your bucket list.