Ultra-distance cycling is a growing trend among cyclists as more and more amateurs look to emulate the pros by going further and harder than ever before. Throw in the growing gravel and adventure bike market and people are now crossing continents against the clock with just their bike and some essentials in tow.
Not all events are created equal though, so we’ve rounded up the toughest in the world. Whether it’s a 300km-plus one-day epic around Wales or a battle against terrible terrain in Kyrgyzstan, you should only sign up to these races if you dare.
Listen to this podcast to find out how Mark Beaumont broke an around-the-world cycling record:
When: March 16-26, 2023
South Africa’s Cape Epic is the only MTB stage race classed as 'hors categorie' (beyond category) by the UCI, and upon looking at the eight days of riding, it’s easy to see why. The 16th edition takes in 624km of trails, single track and mountains over eight days, with the iconic climbs of Table Mountain’s National Park included in 16,650m of elevation gain.
The course is tackled by 650 pairs of riders, with professionals and aspiring amateurs competing side-by-side on technically challenging terrain. The race is fully serviced, but that’s not to say it’s any easier than any of the others on this list.
When: April 29, 2023
The Balearic island of Mallorca has become a mecca for road cyclists thanks to its favourable conditions, silky smooth asphalt and long, challenging ascents. The Mallorca 312 sportive allows entrants to experience everything that’s great about cycling on the island in a closed-roads, sunrise-to-sunset ride.
The 2019 edition includes ascents of the Coll de Femenia and Coll Puig Major, but participants will be pleased to hear there aren’t any stings in the tail, with the majority of the 5,050m of climbing completed by the halfway point of the 312km ride. And for those that want to get a taste for Mallorca’s roads but can’t quite stomach the distance, there are slightly shorter 225km and 167km options on offer too.
Unbound Gravel (Dirty Kanza XL)
When: June 3, 2023
The Americans are renowned for going big and the Dirty Kanza XL is no exception. The invitation-only race is a 350-mile (563km) gravel grinder set in the deepest depths of Flint Hills, Kansas. Participants have just 36 hours to finish the self-supported ride, which includes more than 4,500m of elevation. Those not lucky enough to receive an invite are still able to take on the slightly shorter but just as tough Dirty Kanza 200 – a 200-mile (321km) loop around the dusty gravel tracks of Kansas prairie land.
When: June 18, 2023
This one-day sportive in Wales puts others to shame, pitting entrants against almost 320km of riding that includes mountains, fatigue and the unpredictable nature of the elements. Setting off from Port Talbot on the south coast, the route takes riders up into the lumpy lanes of the Brecon Beacons before continuing on to the mountains of mid-Wales.
The ominously named Devil’s Staircase is the toughest climb of the bunch, but the Black Mountain, Devil’s Elbow and 10km-long Rhigos aren’t the easiest either on a route that features almost 5,000m of climbing. There are also three shorter (and less hilly) distances on offer if the Devil sounds like your idea of hell.
Race Across America
When: June 13 & 17, 2023
Race Across America began in 1982 when four (slightly mad) cyclists decided to race from Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles to New York’s Empire State Building, and has become a firm fixture in the ultracyclist’s calendar. The route now runs from the pier of Oceanside, LA, to City Dock in Annapolis, Maryland, covering 4,800km, 53,000m of climbing (more than six Mount Everests) and 12 states between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
It’s possible to take part time-trial style in teams of up to eight people, but there's also a solo challenge for the purists that has a blisteringly fast record of seven days, 15 hours and 56 minutes set by Christoph Strasser in 2014.
When: June 23, 2023
Now in its seventh year, the Transcontinental Race pits participants against a self-supported ride across Europe. Riders are given the start and finish locations, as well as four checkpoints they have to pass through along the way, and the rest is up to them.
The distance is roughly 4,000km – depending on how good you are at map reading – and the latest edition will see competitors navigate their way from the Black Sea in Bulgaria to Brest in France, via mountain passes in Bulgaria, Serbia, Italy and France. The climbs would be tough enough on their own without having to lug two weeks' worth of equipment up them too.
Silk Road Mountain Race
When: August 12-26, 2023
The Silk Road was a key trading route for hundreds of years, connecting the entire Asian continent with the southern corridor of Europe. Now, the gravel tracks and Soviet-era roads of its Kyrgyzstan segment lie forgotten and in disrepair. The organisers of the Silk Road Mountain Race saw the terrain and thought it would make a perfect spot to hold a bike race, with competitors challenged to ride unsupported for more than 1,600km on roads where tarmac is a scarcity and the prize at the end is simply finishing.
The race sets off from Bishkek and riders have until the end of the event’s after party in Cholpon Ata just 14 days later to be considered a finisher. And if the race isn't brutal enough, there’s a mere 26,000m of climbing to do before reaching the finish line.
Haute Route Alps
When: Events from June to October 2023
Dreamed of taking part in the Tour de France, but held back because of the lack of support from a big budget team, top of the line bike and, well, your ability? Fear not – the Haute Route series gives you the opportunity to live the life of a professional, without all of those pesky barriers to entry.
The Alpine edition (memorably featured in the Oscar-winning documentary Icarus) is now in its ninth year, and features 800km of racing over seven adrenaline-fuelled days. The peloton also tackles the small matter of 20,000m of climbing, and this year’s route gives you a chance to emulate Geraint Thomas with a summit finish atop the iconic Alpe d’Huez.
When: March 27, 2023
Whether it’s the sadistic enjoyment of lactic acid burning in the legs, or just the knowledge that they’ll get a speedy journey on the way down, some road cyclists actually enjoy the challenge of cycling uphill. The Taiwan KOM is easily one of the toughest (and longest) hill climbs to enter, taking participants from sea level to an altitude of 3,275m over 105km of grinding ascents.
A 5km section of downhill about three quarters of the way in provides a slight bit of respite, but the toughest section is reserved for the final 10km, where gradients peak at a nosebleed-inducing 27.3 percent. Ouch.