It is difficult to gauge just how good a route is when riding it alone. Solitary riding is always a different experience, tending to be harder, faster and more tiring. The consequence is that it's never easy to gauge how well a tour will be received when first presented to a discerning group.
Living close to the start of the Thailand Gravel tour I had plenty of time to put what we believe to be Thailand's first-ever long-distance gravel tour together. It's a concept I have harboured for some years now, and from inspecting the initial course to settling on the route for the inaugural tour took three years.
I rode the entire route several times, and inevitably each time it changed. I would wonder 'what's along that lane, what's down that path, how far does that red gravel road go', and I would look. Sometimes I would find improvements, and sometimes I would not. Sections closer to home I rode more regularly and changed more often, and the section that traces a seventy kilometres arc around my humble abode I re-rode and pondered and altered and worried over until Echo said, 'maybe you shouldn't ride it again before the tour runs', and she was, of course, right'.
Fortunately, the five gravel riders who rode out of town with me on a mid-January morning were easy going laid back folks with a mind to have fun whenever possible - and fun we had. Ten days and a thousand kilometres later we rolled into a quiet guesthouse in Ayuthaya, the former capital of Siam, sharing the opinion that the tour had been as described, a 50/50 mix of gravel roads and deserted byways, a ratio we all felt was an ideal mix of exhilarating riding, relaxed cruising, and the opportunity to see a side of Thailand rarely seen, let alone experienced by most tourists.
If you would like a unique and exhilarating gravel cycling adventure whilst experiencing Thailand in a way most foreigners never will, we have two dates for next year. A Christmas getaway, and a mid-Jan start date. Please click here for full details.
Yuletide 2019 was a splendid time for PaintedRoads. Eight jolly folks, all wishing to escape winter's gloom, joined Echo and me, Thai guide Natt and support crew P Gor and Thon, for a tropical beachside ride from Bangkok to Phuket.
PaintedRoads original tour, South Thailand was conceived as a winter escape, mixing balmy weather, quiet roads and beaches, super cycling, delicious food, and plenty of cold beers. During its eight-years, it has never failed to fulfil people's expectations, and I feel confident in saying Christmas 2019 is no exception.
Many thanks to Jo, Mike & Berta, Gill, Debbie, Last Minute Paul, and Brian & Sil for coming along and being such good fun folks. I will leave the images below to tell the tale.
Koh Yao Noi.
As with all PaintedRoads tours, South Thailand is always in a state of flux as the route evolves and improves. This year we made a change of route that has long been on my mind, a change that will become a feature of the tour - at least until the next change.
What happens when the tour leader takes a wrong turn.
Temples are always a good spot for a picnic lunch.
Friend and guide, Natt,
Visiting a Buddha cave.
The road less travelled.
Tip-top support is guaranteed from our regular driver P Gor, with back up from Thon.
PaintedRoads’ LabRat runs are fast becoming a popular tradition amongst our more adventurous guests. A new tour in an interesting and off the beaten path location, these inaugural runs contain, to one degree or another, an element of uncertainty somewhere along the way. Whereas usually, I go over a route one final time alone before running an inaugural tour, a LabRat Run involves taking a small group of laidback adventurous PR regulars along to join in the fun of the final pre-production ride.
This year's tour was through a region of China through which I have long planned to run a tour. Indeed as far back as the dawn of this century, when I travelled overland from Kathmandu to Hong Kong via Lhasa, I have been of the opinion that the Kham region of Sichuan Province was perhaps an altogether better place to experience Tibet than the Tibetan Autonomous Region. This feeling was reinforced when, in 2007 and 2008 (as far as my tatty olf memory recalls) I explored the area on a somewhat overloaded bicycle, camping and exploring and pondering running my own tours.
And so it came to be that at the tail end of May this year seven PaintedRoads regulars join me to ride the inaugural Sichuan Tour. We were supported by Echo, and our regular driver, mechanic, tour explorer, and trusted friend Lee. Additional support was provided by cycling guide Monk, and second driver Maveric.
The ride is surely beautiful and challenging. And this year the challenge was even tougher than expected with a startlingly early onset of the rain season and a two day section where the untimely demise of the main road building contractor had left the road in a state far worse than it was a year ago, quite the opposite to the situation we had been led to expect when exploring the way last June. It transpired that not only had the chap in charge of road repair operations made his way prematurely to the Happy Hunting Ground, he had also managed, rather cunningly, to spirit all of the contract’s money with him, leaving a swath of disgruntled peasants along the way eager for payment and and making sure that work didn’t continue until they received satisfaction.
The route was nothing if not eclectic. Road surfaces ranged from pristine tarmac, to wet and muddy, to gravel, to rural concrete byways. Climbing was an ongoing theme of the tour, with some of the longest ascents and consequent descents imaginable. Climbs of over 40 kilometres were all but a daily occurrence, and the downhills that followed, with the often shallow gradients that such a long climb often ensures, were laid back relaxing affairs through exquisite mountain scenery. Not all hills are surfaced equally in Sichuan though, and those seeking a more exciting pass to cross were not left wanting, as on occasion we ascend and descend on loose and exciting byways - shredding dude!
The highest pass of the tour was 4700 metres, with roads above 4000 metres cropping up on a leg shatteringly regular basis. However with sleeping elevations considerably lower than our highest point each day altitude-related health issues never cropped up, save of course for the inevitable breathlessness while crossing an oxygen-depleted pass. What was interesting to all was the difference a few hundred extra meters in altitude could have on a fellow or lass. When 4000 metres seemed OK, an extra 500 metres could take the wind from even the largest lungs. The passes were not only metaphorically breathtaking but also quite literally.
I feel that I have rambled on quite long enough, now I should leave the pictures to tell the story.
Before signing off though, I would like to thank David, Kreg, Marko, Dianne, JP, and Allison very much for not only their participation and good humour but also their enthusiasm for an adventure through a beautiful and challenging wilderness.
Ladies of the Yi minority group
The first major climb, 45 KMS of ascent from Daju village
Mani stones - the mantras of Tibetan Buddism carved in stone are a regular feature
One of many pristine road surfaces...
and one of many gravel roads
Local ladies at Bao Shan village
Leaving Bao Shan by boat
The beginning of two days of less than pristine byway
Two day's of unexpected road works left us all a tad tired
Lunch at 4500 metres
Descending from 4500 metres we loose 2000 metres on one wonderful descent
A Buddhist monastery
Another 40-kilometre descent
Many thanks to Echo, seen here at 4400 metres, for her endless hard work running the tour, always with a cheery smile
Later in the tour, the Tibetan homes are treated to a coat of white paint.
This chap offered us yak butter tea as we crossed the tour's highest pass
Cooking up lunch
Visiting a monastery
We were not always the only two-wheeled adventurers
The final high pass
Descending towards the fabled Shangri-La on the final day
Cycling guide Monk
The group - JP, Dianne, Allison, Kreg, David, Keith, Marko, and at the back Monk
Wooden houses, rice terraces, rivers, valleys and rural lanes. Long climbs and lovely descents sweeping through terraces of rice and past traditional dressed minority ladies in working the fields.
A small group is never a bad thing with an inaugural tour as it allows some flexibility to iron out any creases. It also gives the opportunity to assess the tour in a real-world situation, with guests on board. And so when Pat & Keith got in touch to say they would like to join this year's South China tour we jumped at the chance to run the tour with a couple of good fun good riding regulars. And so, with Echo taking the role of lead guide we all set off with our regular driver and ace mechanic Lee at the wheel of our support vehicle.
What followed was two splendid weeks of bicycle exploration along the byways of China’s Guiyang Province and Guanxi Autonomous Region. Ancient wind & rain bridges, villages of wooden houses, intricate terraces of rice, bamboo forests, challenging climbs and winding descents, the cycling was as beautiful and enjoyable as the food was fine and the company a pleasure.
Thanks Pat & Keith, looking forward to seeing you both again, hopefully before too much time passes.
Echo takes care of most of the organisation of the China tours, and South China was her first time as the local guide - a task she carried off with aplomb.
Keith takes a rest by the Li River
Pat on one of the many extended downhill sections
Long Ji Rive Terrace, the dragon's back - it's a fine challenging climb to reach our guest house with a view by noon. The afternoon can be spent relaxing or wandering through the beautiful hills, crafted by hand.
Pat & Echo.
Referred to by some regulars as "David routes" PaintedRoads tours are just not right without some gravel excursions.
It's China, some construction is inevitable.
Not as lost as she looks, or felt, it's always great to explore the countryside at close range.
PaintedRoads' tours always take post ride rehydration very seriously.
The back streets of Da Xu old town.
Guide on parade. Wooden houses are typical architecture in the villages of Guiyang Province.
With the building of new highways, such as can be seen top right of this image, the old roads are left quiet, ideal for rural riding.
heading out of town following our rest day.
Ancient (or at least a little bit old) storage huts with corn cobs drying outside.
Winding a path along the Li River.
Posing for a snapshot a kilometre before tour's end.
Our driver, mechanic, and tea brake provider Lee.
Apparently, the largest urban area on earth, the Pearl River Delta may not be the first place to pop into a cyclists mind when looking for a rural ride. The nine largest cities in the area have a population pretty much the same as the UK, so solitude is not something that one expects to find in ample abundance. However, the Perl River Delta is where Echo and I are to be found between our recent exploration of Sichuan Province and our forthcoming Mongolia Lat Rat Run, and so, with the desire for a ride, we set of one recent sunny morning for the 155-kilometre ride from Zhuhai to Chiken.
Chiken is little more than a village but is reasonably well known for its rather novel architecture. The nearby county town of Kaiping was home to an adventurous bunch of Chinese who early last century made their way overseas in search of wealth, something that had enough success in to be able to spawn a small building revolution of more European type dwellings, and fortified towers deemed necessary to protect themselves from marauding bandits intend on relieving these nouveau rich travellers from their hard earned wealth.
With the mercury showing in excess of 35º I was nothing short of impressed with Echo’s performance on her first ever 150 kilometres cycling day. I was also rather happy with the majority of the route we managed to find, courtesy of some fine fellow’s route on Strava mixed with some walking routes courtesy of Google’s algorithms. Even navigating out of Zhuhai was a painless affair, with small riverside paths and some leafy shaded streets more reminiscent of Hanoi than a typical contemporary Chinese city.
Out in the countryside, we found the sort of landscape one may expect of a huge river delta, with lots or riverside paths, bridges and fish farms that put us in mind of PaintedRoads’ Mekong Delta Tour. And the lovely quiet streets of Chiken, where we enjoyed an evening of street dining and cold beers in a cooling breeze, was a fine destination in which to relax after a fine day on the bikes.
The image most hold in their mind’s eye when Chinese cities are mentioned is of densely populated high-rise sprawls, a mass of humanity, blaring horns and pollution. And whilst not always a huge distance from accuracy, there is so much more than this to twenty-first century Sino urban living.
Our friends and colleagues Cathy and Lee live in Yunnan Province’s capital, Kunming. With its location just north of the Tropic of Cancer and an elevation of around 1800 metres, the town boasts a wonderful year-round climate giving it the rightfully deserved moniker of the Eternal Spring City.
Amongst the surprises to greet the visitor to this city of six million inhabitants is the dry warm and mild atmosphere, the relative lack of pollution, and the proliferation of the gas guzzling Porsche Cayenne. But for the cyclist lucky enough to have a chum with local knowledge the greatest surprise of all is the quality of the cycling.
From Lee’s abode on the western side of the city, a quick nip through narrow winding lanes of small shops, market stalls, and street hawkers takes us to the edge of West Mountain. The initial climb is on bitumen where heart pumping and lungs searching for some extra oxygen at this slightly depleted altitude we quickly gain 500 metres.
The scenery up here at 2300 metres is absolutely beautiful - jagged grey rock, pine trees, meadows of flowers, are all negotiated on fantastic red dirt tracks. The views vary dramatically as we circumnavigate the hills - here wilderness as far the eye can see, there a city landscape sprawling to the distance, at times countryside with rural hamlets, all pastoral and romantic looking in the classic sense, and elsewhere modern communities of high rise apartments sprout amongst the trees adorning the hills and valleys.
Lee and his cycling chums have led me on numerous accessions through the environs of his home city, the rides are always different, on occasion we stick to rural byways of tarmac, but mostly our rides take us on a variety of surfaces, gravel, concrete, dirt and tar, which my ever accompanying titanium gravel machine tackles with graceful aplomb, and not once has the cycling been anything less than wonderful.
Think you have an idea of a Chinese megacity? Bring a bike, have a look, and think again.
Just above Kunming are meadows...
and grassy trails
Great trails in the hills above Cathy and Lee's home
The hills north of Kunming have some interesting brick roads
Lee and Lao Fu
Closed trail, never mind, plenty of alternative routes
More brick roads...
and dirt trails
Lee in a mulberry bush
Heading back down to town