Matt Backhouse blogs about his experience cycling from Bangkok to Chiang Mai

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Musings from Matt

Mon 16th Jan 2017

Matt Backhouse and Colin McDermott have recently completed an epic bike challenge, cycling from Bangkok to Chiang Mai (where our dog shelter is located) a distance of 900km in order to raise money for WVS' dog shelter. Here is Matt's story:

It’s now 3 days since Colin and I finished our Bangkok to Chiang Mai bike ride, and I wanted to write a short summary of my thoughts, feelings and experiences from the trip. Our original intention was to write a daily blog, but our usual afternoon evening ended up looking like this: Arrive, shower, eat, pass out. Not a lot of blog time in there!

I’d had a pretty hectic month on the run up to this event, as I had been consulting at a large dog shelter in Khon Kaen, on behalf of the Soi Dog Foundation. I spent Christmas at home with my wife Lindsay, but 5-22 Dec, and 27-31st Dec were spent in Khon Kaen. I flew back on the afternoon of the 31st, spent the evening at home and then flew to Bangkok on the evening of the 1st.

During this time there’d been some issues with my bike – the original plan was for Colin to bring my road bike (which was in storage with my Dad in the UK) when he flew over. We got the bike to Scotland, but sadly due to unforeseen airline costs, at the last minute it just wasn’t possible to bring my bike over. After posting on Facebook I was really lucky to be loaned a bike from Fatfreebikes in Chiang Rai and Chumpoo, the owner, very kindly arranged for the bike to be sent to Chiang Mai. Ian (who works at the WVS dog shelter) picked it up for me and took it with him to Bangkok (as he was driving our support truck, along with the awesome Khun Tree). The only downside, no pedals on the bike, and no chance for me to see the bike, never mind test ride, until the morning that we set off! Oh well, at least I had a bike!

I arrived at about 10pm to the hotel, met the guys, thankfully managed to fit some pedals to the bike, change the flat tyre, and get to bed by about 11.30pm.

Next morning we left at 7.00am, after a decent breakfast and plenty of photos! We were all feeling pretty nervous, as there was so much unknown to come – it was pretty weird cycling through Nana in the early hours, as the aftermath of New Year was still evident, but it made me feel good to know that we were starting the year doing something cool and worthwhile. Colin was still nursing a hangover from New Year, so good on him for getting on the bike!

As we cycled through the eerily quiet streets of Bangkok (it was a public holiday) we chit chatted a little, as we both got used to the feel of our bikes. I had to stop and make a few adjustments, as the size wasn’t quite right. Within the first hour, I got a puncture, so we stopped to change the tube. As soon as that one went in, it popped! Second change, not the best start to the trip! I also narrowly missed taking a spill, as my tyre clipped a curb and I slid rather ungracefully onto my arse. Nothing injured, just my pride! Here I am, the experienced cyclist, with two punctures and on my arse already, less than 3 hours in.!

We got out of the city, but my front tyre kept losing air. About 11am we stopped at a Tesco on the outskirts of town, as Colin was really suffering with the heat, and my tyre was still seeping air. Got that sorted out, and then we hit the road again.

I was really worrying about Colin, as the heat was seriously hurting him. We followed the highways for the first few days, with the guys in the truck driving behind us to push traffic. There were a few flyover bridges, big junctions and intersections as we left Bangkok that was a little dodgy to navigate. I’ve cycled extensively in Bangkok, but for Colin it was all brand new. A few car drivers came a bit too close for comfort, and as the day wore on I was glad to leave the city behind.

It was really hot and as we ground out the kilometres, I remembering thinking that I wasn’t sure Colin would even make the trip. I’d come into this trip pretty fit, having run an ultra marathon in November and cycling a lot, so felt quite confident about my fitness. However, Colin and I had messaged a lot, but had never met, so the dynamic of being thrown into a high stress situation with 3 strangers was something I couldn’t really plan for, but I knew he hadn’t trained anywhere near as much as he’d hoped. The first day was hard for all of us, Colin especially, and when we arrived into Ayutthaya in the afternoon, it was a great feeling. After getting cleaned up, Colin and Ian went for massages and I had a coffee and called Lindsay. I told her I was worried about what would happen, but felt good about my fitness. That evening Colin crashed pretty early, so I sat and chatted with Ian. We got on really well, with lots in common, and that really helped me relax. Khun Tree, who is the handyman at the shelter, was also lovely and as I speak Thai we got to have a good chat. It felt like the ice was breaking and as we started into the second day, it became more apparent that my expectations, or preconceptions of what this trip would be like, were not accurate.

The second day was another hard one, as we pushed onto Singburi. Only a 70km day, but the after effects of the first day were already having an effect on Colin. Although riding along the highways was a little boring, it meant that there were regular salas (the small, yellow roof huts / bus stop at the road side), along with many petrol stations (nearly all of which have toilets, coffee shops and minimarts). As the days wore on, the salas became regular rest spots and we visited numerous petrol stations for pit stops! During the course of the second day, it became clear that the team (Ian, Tree and myself) needed to focus their attention on getting Colin through this journey. Without arrogance, I was feeling fit and strong and we openly discussed the fact that we needed to adapt to Colin’s needs (although I was a little jealous of all the special massages Colin got from Tree haha).

By day 3, we’d got into the rhythm that would remain fairly constant for the duration – breaking the days into 5 mile sections, then stopping to rest and checking on Colin, giving him cold towels for his neck (to mitigate the effects of the sun), making sure he was eating and drinking well and then repeat until the day was over. Those first few days were very tough for him and more and more, I found myself riding alongside just talking, about all sorts, to keep attention away from how tired he felt. There were lots of times where we just rode in silence and I knew he was going through it.

The third day was the longest yet -100km and it was pretty full on. Colin had a sleep midday, just for 20 minutes, but it was still a long time in the saddle. We met Rory, an American cyclist, late afternoon and he guided us in to the hotel. We went for pizza at his restaurant that evening, but didn’t stay too long. During the whole trip Colin had a bad cough and cold, so once the day was done, he just wanted to crash. We were trying to make sure he ate, but when you feel rough sometimes the last thing you want is food – but that’s a dangerous circle to get in, as your body just can’t handle that much exertion without refuelling.

Day 4 - 130km. We all knew this would be a beast, and it didn’t disappoint. Colin started the day puking, but as ever, he got on his bike anyway. The heatstroke from the first day was still taking a toll and by the time we arrived into Phitsanulok,11 and a half hours after setting off, he was wiped. We checked into the hotel, went and got some food, but conversation was minimal. I think everyone was feeling the effects of 4 days on the road, whilst still knowing we had 5 more to go.

I think it’s a good point to mention that although we were going through an intense, unique experience, we all joked and messed around with each other for most of the trip. Maybe it’s a British thing (Tree is an honorary member!) but we all supported each other in that truly unique way, by taking the piss fairly constantly. For the non-Brit readers, that phrase means teasing, winding up, mocking and abusing, but all with love. These three guys that I’d met just days before, now were like close friends / family. A little too close sometimes, as every bodily function was talked about, laughed about, and generally endured while sharing rooms. We turned into functional, cycling creatures, where talking about bums, poops and everything in-between became standard! It seems a gross thing to write about, but it would be remiss not to mention. This is what endurance sport is about!

We plugged on, and the next couple of days were hard, hot and long. The trip to Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) was a real beacon for all of us, but getting there still took a hard toll. As we left Sukothai, we got talking with some lovely Thai people who were interested in what we were doing. Turns out they were part of the Lions group and one of their party was a TV star! They were so lovely, gave us 2000 baht in donation and posed for plenty of photos! It was a great boost, and really cheered us up as we started the ride to BLES. It was lovely arriving to a warm welcome from Katherine, David and all the family, and we spent a fantastic afternoon walking into the forest with the elephants, followed by dinner with everyone and then an early night. It was my second trip to BLES, and I’ve known Katherine for a while, so it was great to be there and catch up.

Next morning I helped David clear out a monkey enclosure, then breakfast and another walk out into the woods. We had a great time, playing with the dogs, watching the eles have their morning wander and then an impromptu running race with Hope and Noah! Team Hope and Matt won, oh yeah! The time flew by, and sadly we had to head back out onto the road. I’d caught the bug that had been around, so was a feeling a little off for the first time.

We re-routed a little and headed from BLES to a town called Wiang Chin. We rode about 60km that afternoon, and as it began to get dark, we put the bikes in the truck and headed to the hotel. I was feeling a bit grim, but after a good sleep and some food woke up feeling better. We drove back to where we’d left off, and got back on the road. There’d been a few small hills the day before, but today was the big one. We were hitting the mountain on the way to Lampang and it was a day Colin had been dreading. It didn’t disappoint and after about 40km we met the hills, Colin had been feeling good for the first 20km but then something changed and he really felt rough. We stopped a few times, and once we got to the hill, he told me that I should ride ahead if I felt good and he would take his time. I rode ahead, waited for a bit until he caught up, laughed at him a bit (sorry buddy! but the video evidence is there!), but it was clear that he was struggling. He made the decision to walk up and as I knew Tree and Ian would keep him safe and keep him company, I rode up. It was challenging, but I really enjoyed pushing myself up the climb.

Once Colin got to the top, we cheered and sat a bit then we got to launch downhill. Now that was fun! We made it to Lampang, and a true team effort got us through the day. Only one more day to go! My voice was trashed, but I could whisper. Although we were all loving the adventure, the sense of being so close to home was clear. Everyone was excited to be back, but the excitement was tinged with sadness at the journey drawing to a close.

Last day – of course, it rained hard all night and I’d left my gear in the truck. Oops! Started the day damp and as we pushed on the weather stayed cool but dry. We had one more big climb, Doi Khun Tan and this one was another challenge! Same deal as before, I rode ahead, but Colin ground it out and rode up the whole thing! Good lad! I think his cheer at the top could be heard in Chiang Mai. Another high speed downhill, and the rolling flat back home. About 50km to go and the heavens opened, and we got soaked. Who cares though, nearly home!

Two punctures for Colin, oh well. Nearly home! This mantra kept us going, kept the pedals turning even though the fatigue was high. We were joined by Tree’s wife, Khun Ti, in Lamphun. She’d ridden from Chiang Mai to join us and rode back with us! Her energy and smiling face was a lovely addition and the last few kilometres flew by. We were a little ahead of schedule, so had to stall on the outskirts of Hang Dong. This gave us a little time to let it all sink in and prepare to be greeted at the shelter. The emotion was so much for Colin, and although Ian and I were giggling and pratting about, you could see how much this had affected Colin. He’d done it, despite everything. We rode the last couple of km’s just chatting, feeling good, and arrived to a wonderful welcome at the dog shelter. All the staff, volunteers, my gorgeous wife Lindsay, my friend Delphine all lined up cheering us home. It was incredible. Cake appeared, beer appeared, and then my friend Fon came out with bunches of flowers for us both. It was such a heart-warming welcome and is something I’ll never forget.

It was all a bit surreal though. After the photos, the congratulations, it was time to go home. Saying bye to these guys I’d spent ten intense days with seemed wrong somehow, and so we hugged and said our farewells, but honestly it felt bizarre. Reality just didn’t seem real. A couple days passed, and I’ve been finding it strange. Don’t get me wrong, being home is wonderful, not cycling is also lovely, but the routine of wake up, eat, bike, repeat was very quickly hardwired.

Like I said early on, I started into this with some ideas. I’d challenge my body, do some good for charity, and meet a couple of new people. What actually happened was so much more – sure it wasn’t easy, but physically it wasn’t that hard for me. I feel tired now, but still got out on my bike yesterday. What really struck me, again and again on this trip, was just how determined and driven Colin was. That guy suffered, and we all watched him be miserable, knackered and fed up for a lot of the ride. He was sick, he had heatstroke, you name it. He didn’t quit though, not once. He’d say I’m done, that’s it and then he’d get straight back on the bike. Sure we were all there for him, but he kept going. It made me realise that physical conditioning of course plays a huge part in succeeding at these kinds of events, but it’s your brain that will see you through.

We talked about some deeply personal issues; we share stories that only a few people know, but that intense connection and shared experience made it seem appropriate. You’re exposed out there, there’s nowhere to hide. If you’re suffering, we all see it. That kind of experience is not something that everyone will get to appreciate, but I would urge everyone to put yourself in a place of discomfort, either alone or with others, because it’s there that you truly see what you’re made of. I’d like to think that my weird humour, calmness and support were a factor in Colin’s success. What I thought was a journey for myself, became a journey for someone else. We were there for Colin, we wanted him to succeed, and he did. In doing so, I had a truly unique experience, one totally different from what I expected and in the end, much more rewarding. It’s not all about fast times and PRs. Sometimes going slow, helping a friend, and enjoying the adventure, is worth so much more.

One final special mention has to go to Ian and Tree – they followed behind us in the truck for the entire journey, and every time we stopped they sprang into action, with cold drinks, ice towels for Colin, massages (not for me though, boo) and general silly behaviour and big smiles. Ian took all the videos, and all of this with only one cd to listen to (damn you, Country Road!). They were amazing, the unsung heroes of an epic team adventure! Thanks guys, we couldn’t have done it without you.