It’s a sweltering hot morning, with temperatures set to rise still further. And since it’s a weekend, most people are thinking of relaxing, just pottering about and not keen to take on anything that sounds like it’s going to be an effort. Basking in the loamy heat seems to be the only rational way to deal with the day ahead, but not for Natalie Panyawan. Instead, she’s out mountain biking at breakneck speeds along steep, stony and unnerving tracks that wind through wild hillsides. And she’s definitely fast. She has to be as she’s permanently in training for a never-ending series of races that will, she hopes, culminate in her being chosen for the Olympics.
Natalie Panyawan is certainly a force to be reckoned with: she’s already carried off numerous prizes for cycling, and her dedication to the sport is inspiring. At the level she’s reached, eating, sleeping and training are already on a level that’s different to most people’s regimes, even if they class themselves as sporty. However, as with many of us, she faces not just competition with others, but also with her other commitments, notably the fact that she’s still at school and has to devote just as much time to that as any other student. She attends a local school here on Samui, and is serious about her studies. Though both her parents are Thai, she’s fluent in English, which is another asset when it comes to cycling – she already competes abroad, and life is much easier since she doesn’t have to worry about communication problems.
She rides a Canondale SSI (1) bike. That may not mean much to most of us, but suffice to say that this model provides as much efficiency as is mechanically possible. For a start, it’s extraordinarily light for such a chunky-looking bike. You can lift it with a finger; it’s no heavier than picking up a bag filled with supermarket shopping. But riding it isn’t about being hip and trendy; it’s about having perhaps a few seconds advantage over someone using a heavier bike. The difference between carbon and aluminium can mean the difference between winning and losing a race. The Canondale isn’t Natalie’s only bike, and her family has a section of their garage dedicated to storing and maintaining bicycles. They are their own mechanics, and need to maintain the bikes and keep them in good condition; riding through the hills puts an enormous strain on the machinery.
Cycling as a competitive sport calls not just for fearlessness, but also for robust finances. The bikes are prohibitively expensive. “A pair of top-notch bikes,” says her father, Khun Sa-ard Panyawan, “costs about the same as a car. It’s an enormous outlay, but you have to just accept that if you’re going to be competitive.” Simply getting to the competitions themselves is also quite costly. Most are held in distant parts of mainland Thailand, and Natalie Panyawan needs to be able to travel frequently. Samui isn’t ideal as a setting, she admits, as there’s always a boat journey before she can even really begin her journey to the race destination.
Most of her training is done on right here on her home turf, of course. Since she lives in Bangrak, she’s close to some popular trails. There are whole spider-webs of them across Samui, providing all the practice she’ll ever need when it comes to hills. However, she says, it’s impossible just to train on hills. “You need to have flat land too,” she says. “To get in better shape you need to train on the road, too, and do this quite often.” Samui isn’t so good when it comes to this aspect. The ring-road is far too dangerous for cycling on. She can use a few of the quieter roads, however, like the one that goes across the hills from Soi 1 in Maenam.
To be in top condition, Natalie cannot simply cycle and do nothing else; she has to do body weight training and stretching exercises too, and make sure every part of her body gets a physical workout. In addition, her cardio exercises also include running and swimming, and not just on a casual level either. She’s completed a triathlon to this end. Not many people can say they’ve succeeded at that, and even fewer can claim to have done so at such a young age. Natalie says, “90% of winning at championships is down to training. The other 10% is luck, so naturally to have the best chance, I really need to keep on practising all the time.”
It was Natalie’s parents who got their daughter into cycling in the first place. “She started cycling when she was much younger,” recalls her mother, Khun Darunee Panyawan. “Both my husband and I cycle lots, and we used to get Natalie to come with us. At first she wasn’t really smitten by it, but as time went by we realized she was becoming more and more serious. Now she’s unstoppable when it comes to practice.” Her parents are certainly her biggest fans and frequently ride with her when she’s training.
Meanwhile, she continues to go from strength to strength. She has an impressively long list of wins in various championships throughout the country, and to give just a scant couple of examples, in late 2016 she won the Singha Mountain Bike #4, Chiang Khan, Loei, in the junior category and then went on to win the UCI Asian Junior Series, held in Sarawak, Malaysia.
Natalie Panyawan certainly has a bright future ahead of her. She loves what she does, and savouring the joys of freedom that’s only possible on two wheels has given her an appetite for more of the sport. The road ahead though is a tough one and she knows it. “Obviously the higher up you go in any field of sport,” she says, “the harder the competition will be.” Daunting as Olympic competition is bound to be, she wants to get to that level of competence. With Natalie’s focus and determination to date, many people are wagering that she’ll certainly make the grade.