Review: Crank Adventures – Chiang Mai, Thailand

Posted by Ted on Apr 22, 2011 in Activities, Biking, Outdoors, Reviews, Travel

It all started with a dog named Lucy.

On an evening in early December, Liz and I had been celebrating the Shan New Year with our “Team Chiang Mai” friends at the Thai Freedom House. Arriving separately, I biked back to our guesthouse, and Liz’s walk home took her past a man and his dog grabbing some dinner at a streetside noodle stall. Liz was friends with Lucy by the time she found out that her owner was an adventure sport and tour leading expert. After a quick flurry of late night emails, it was settled — I’d be picked up early in the morning to join Crank Adventures for a 2-day mountain biking tour.

Blearily waking up at 7:40a, I took a quick shower and grabbed breakfast to go from the nearest 7-11. I ate my pork bao, yogurt, and pandan cake as the van carried us north into hills, an hour past Mae Rim. I spent the time getting to know the owner. Damian is a jovial and knowledgeable Australian, fluent in Thai and familiar with just about every trail in Northern Thailand. Finally we were deposited on a hilltop where we unloaded the bikes, donned our gear, took the requisite ‘before’ photos, and charged down the mostly paved hill.

The valley scenery was stunning. We rode past rice paddies and hill tribe villages, and up and down a number of small hills, of which I walked up many of the climbs, out of breath but determined. On or off-road, bicycling is one of the best ways to see a country. Senses of sight and smell are heightened, and you attain an intimate connection with your environment. A rutted dirt track took us through a field, thick smoke rising from slash-and-burn farming. We crossed the Mae Taeng at the river village of Ban Sop Kai, where we stopped for lunch at a noodle shop and were accosted by Hmong women selling cheap bracelets, smiling with betel-blackened teeth.

Back on our bikes, we headed downstream, taking our leave from the road to explore the hills. This was my first time, so I was unaware that the holy grails of mountain biking are “single track” trails, and Damian’s passion is seeking them out. Whereas such trails at home might be created ad-hoc by bikers, these paths were clearly used for inter-village travel – for some villages, a small trail might be the only way in or out. Many of the villages are sustained by the King’s Royal Project to turn opium fields into rice, teak, lychee, longan, corn, banana, cabbage, and passionfruit. Lulled into the peaceful scenery, I was unprepared for the grueling mid-afternoon climb, wherein I pushed the bike and my backpack up a rock-strewn rutted mountain trail.

Bikes and bikers strewn across the forested hilltop, we enjoyed a short rest. Then, as if we were getting off a ski lift, it was time to launch ourselves nearly straight down the mountain. Exhilarating doesn’t begin to describe the feeling of barreling downhill, on track that was maybe 9 inches wide, with a precipitous dropoff to the side. I quickly learned new skills of gauging paths, speed, and break control. Sliding on dirt and rubble is not only unavoidable, it’s part of the skillset.

We finally arrived at a village along the Mae Taeng, used by several tour groups as an overnight stop. A bouncy bamboo bridge spanned the river next to a much bigger, yet broken, concrete one. The first thing I did was strip down to my underwear and jump in the river, letting the fast-flowing cool water carry the day’s sweat away. After rinsing my clothes just as the locals do, I wandered up the hill to relax on the deck with a beer before dinner – green curry with chicken and pumpkin. A long day behind us, and another ahead of us, it was early to bed. We slept dorm-style, in a big multi-room building, and I was unlucky enough to be between snorers, earplugs useless against the reverberating of floorboards throughout the night.

In the morning, after a breakfast of leftovers, we loaded bikes onto the roof of a truck, and took an e-ticket ride up the mountain, bouncing around the back of the truck. After what felt like forever, we reached the top, where we once again unloaded the bikes, and took off down a twisty mountain road. We went through a gate into a nature park of completely overgrown forest, often with no visible trail. We crossed little streams on foot, or over “bridges” of lumber.

We rejoined civilization next to the rapids of the Mae Taeng, riding past white water rafting outfits and negotiating around elephants. I waved to a man making a thatched roof, and passed by a woman doing laundry. The dirt road led to the place we’d had lunch the day before, and the same Hmong women were peddling trinkets. Across the river again and down the other side, up a long hill, then we shot off towards Lisu Lodge, biking down same road I last went down on ox-cart seven months earlier.

Looking back, it was a blur of concentration – extremely technical riding, but thru scenic valley vistas and rice fields, forests, and past villages where kids waved and laughed as we passed by. A decade of serious road cycling was barely adequate training for the sorts of skills that one must quickly learn in mountain biking. Our adventure ended at Wat Tung Luang. We stopped in Mae Rim for lunch, and I savored my last khao soi. Finally back home, I enjoyed a 2 hour massage for 240 Baht ($8).

I still haven’t met Lucy, but I look forward to thanking her when we return to Chiang Mai.

Crank Adventures
3/2 Ratchapakinai Rd, Tambon Suthep
Amphur Muang Chiang Mai 50200 Thailand
Phone: +66 (0) 819527699
Email: info@crankadventures.com
Web: http://www.crankadventures.com


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Oakland, California

Posted by Ted on Jul 9, 2010 in Biking, Events, Politics

Today’s bike ride took me up to a new area of my hometown. The destination was the North Oakland Pharmacy, a community pharmacy.North Oakland

As readers might recall, I was out in gold rush country last weekend. On Wednesday morning, I noticed a suspicious “bulls eye rash” on my left leg. Needless to say, I wanted to get it checked out as soon as possible. Unfortunately, being underemployed, we don’t enjoy subsidized health insurance. Thankfully, there are services in the East Bay that serve the many financially challenged people in the city.

You may have heard Oakland being mentioned lately in a different context – the verdict for the BART Police shooting of Oscar Grant was handed down yesterday. If you were here, this caused quite a stir. Last night I was sitting in the waiting room of the Save A Life Wellness Center, hoping that the rash on my leg wasn’t Lyme Disease. The city advised businesses to close, and many did. When I called the Wellness Center to find out if they would be open, their simple response was “We serve the people sir, we don’t close.” They did have a TV tuned to the live coverage of the court building area, which showed typical newsroom sensationalism, overblowing the scene. Do I agree with the verdict of involuntary manslaugher? I lean towards not. I personally couldn’t see not knowing the difference between a taser and a pistol. However, the key phrase is always “beyond a reasonable doubt“, and presumably there was.

Oakland gets a bad rap a lot of the time, and things like this tend to reaffirm that. However, having lived here for over a year, I can say that I love Oakland. It’s unimaginably diverse, in culture and geography. It has great food, beautiful parks, and is convenient to San Francisco and tends to cost less. The city government frustrates me often. But there are times when I have been proud, such as Oakland being a leader in decriminalizing pot by passing a landmark marijuana tax, or having services that will see me, for free, to diagnose Lyme Disease (or not) and prescribe, and fill, an antibiotic for the cellulitis that I do seem to have.

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America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride

Posted by Ted on Jun 8, 2010 in Biking

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe

While branding anything ‘most‘ is certainly marketing hyperbole, last weekend’s supported ride around Lake Tahoe was spectacular. Organized by bikethewest.com, this was the 19th annual event with over 3300 riders, over half of which were part of Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training, including a friend of mine.

Last year I rode alone. This year, I convinced my friend Dan to join me. We rented a cabin for the weekend, less than a mile from the start/finish line, and spent Saturday relaxing with our partners and friends. The weather could not have been better. Unlike last year which started out in a foggy mist and became only mostly cloudy, this year was sunny and beautiful. The temperature was around 70 degrees, and the view all around the lake to the snow-capped peaks beyond was awe inspiring.

We woke up at 6:15a, and were out the door by 6:45. We’d made the first major climb of the day by 8:21. By 10:15a, we were headed north from the lake up the Truckee River bikepath, which is one of the best parts of the ride. At 1p we stopped for lunch at King’s Beach, 70 miles in – both Dan and I thought that lunch should have been a bit closer to the midpoint, at say Tahoe City, 10 miles earlier. By 2:30p we were starting the final climb up to Spooner Junction, and just before 5:30p, we were one of the last few across the finish line.

Readying myself for this ride was much easier than last year. Knowing that you’ve done it once goes a long way towards being able to do it again. That and the Oakland Hills are great for training. I had no doubts that I would finish the ride this year.

It’s hard to say if there was a favorite moment of the day. The beauty was constant. The thrill of the several downhill runs was palpable. Riding as I enjoy doing, without hands, always brings me a sense of peace, of flying, of riding on the back of a horse. In fact, as I passed some support staff early in the ride, Dan informed me that they had been surprised and excited by my riding technique. I have always wondered if such conversations might be had behind my speeding back, but I could never know, so it was great to finally get that confirmation.

All-in-all, I can see why this ride is so popular and deserving of its ‘Most Beautiful‘ moniker. I will certainly do this ride again. But now, I will enjoy shorter and easier rides for a few weeks.



A roundabout way to the gym

Posted by Ted on May 22, 2010 in Biking

In two weeks I’ll be biking a century around Lake Tahoe again, this time with a partner in crime and a support crew of a number of our friends.


(Click image for full route map)

Having only done 45 miles during training thusfar, I was determined yesterday to up that number and so I combined not only the Tunnel/Skyline/Pinehurst and San Leandro Bay loops, but I added on a new spur out along the Lafayette-Moraga Regional Trail, coming in at just over 55 miles for the day. Predictably, the Oakland side of the hills were mostly cloudy, while the Moraga side was mostly sunny. While short, the trail wound through rolling hills and people’s backyards, birds flew overhead, and squirrels ran across the path.

The day before we’d had a hard workout at the gym and my legs were already sore when I headed out, but still I managed the 55 miles and could have done 20 more. On a better day, as I hope two weeks from now to be, I’m sure that the 100 miles will be hard but surmountable. When I reached the gym via my roundabout way, the hot tub was a much welcome reward, as the hot tub at our weekend vacation rental will surely be.

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Iron Horse Trail

Posted by Ted on May 2, 2010 in Biking
Iron Horse Trail

Iron Horse Trail

I bagged another rail trail on Friday, this time opting for an inland route.  The Iron Horse Regional Trail follows a Southern Pacific Railroad right-of-way established in 1891 and abandoned in 1977. I first rode down to Fruitvale BART station, grabbed a couple of tacos, and then took it to the end of the line, to Dublin/Pleasanton BART. Never having ridden that section of the system, it was prettier than I expected going through Castro Valley and the hills between Hayward and Dublin.

Then I hopped on the trail, and took it all the way to the Pleasant Hills BART – the only way to get between the two stations without changing trains. The trail extended another mile or two beyond, but I turned around and headed back to Dublin. It’s a very easy 40 miles, flat and largely devoid of traffic. To the west were the Oakland hills, to the east was Mt. Diablo, and it passes along a small creek, a string of electrical towers, over a couple of bridges, and through some more urban areas. It also passed right behind a high school just as it was letting out for the day, which proved to be quite distracting.

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