Pakistan Hosts The 'toughest Cycling Race in The World'

Finishing almost 5,000 meters above sea level after hundreds of kilometers that meander between blackened glaciers and snowy peaks: a new Pakistani race presents a world-class challenge for cyclists: to climb to the "Roof of the World".

The Khunjerab Tour - its name is a tribute to its most famous French counterpart, which started on Saturday - is still many years away from being another Big Loop, but with the strength of being the highest cycling race in the world, it has a lot to Offer to a certain type of athlete.
In the last week of June, some 88 cyclists, including two teams from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, as well as solo participants from Spain and Switzerland, participated in its second edition.
Less than half completed it within the allotted time.
The four stages, three 68 to 94 kilometers (42 to 58 miles) plus a shorter time trial, are much shorter than many other cycling events.
But there is a fundamental difference: the Tour in Pakistan starts at 1,500 meters above sea level and never stops climbing.
The last day of this year's event summarizes the challenge.
Starting at 2,800 meters, higher than the Iseran pass, the top of the Tour de France ends at 4,700 meters, just over 100 meters from Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe.
The Khunjerab Tour must become "an attraction ... for the boldest and most adventurous cyclists in the world," said Usman Ahmed, the chief official in the northern region of Gilgit, where some of the highest peaks on the planet are located and where the race is done. It was held.

Cyclists' tires swallow the asphalt of the Karakoram highway, one of the highest paved roads in the world.

Named for the Karakoram mountain range, just one of the mountain ranges in Gilgit, the road passes through an extraordinary landscape.

The high and irregular peaks contrast with vertiginous ravines, glaciers that drive a cold wind and aquamarine rivers. Landslides are common.

The handrails are a weak suggestion of protection against abrupt falls of hundreds of feet.

"There is no place in the world that offers all these things," Ahmed said.

"There is no doubt that it is the toughest cycling race in the world, our goal is to make it our brand," said Haroon General, president of the Pakistan Cycling Federation.

"The most difficult part of the race is the final stage where cyclists face oxygen shortage and there is a risk of heart problems ... At such altitude, a person falls (faints) after running 200 meters, but our cyclists traveled for almost 59 kilometers, "he said.

Five ambulances were on standby in case of emergencies in the final stage, he said, adding: "Most of the cyclists did it, but the support staff needed ambulances."


The winner of the event, Najeeb Ullah, a Pakistani from a hilltop village in the southwestern province of Balochistan who won three of the four stages, told AFP that breathing was a "problem" for him in the final climb .

"I had to face many difficulties when I reached the finish line," which is in the Khunjerab pass, on the Pakistan-China border, he said.

Especially since the altitude was not the only obstacle: on the last day, the fierce winds pushed the snowflakes towards the faces of the cyclists, forcing some who were already struggling to catch their breath.

"All our training is reduced to nothing when we reach the final stage," lamented Abdullah Aslam, a participant who could not finish the race.

"I could barely pedal and I felt out of breath," he admitted.

Aslam, a runner from Islamabad, had already had to dismount and walk to the finish line on the second day.

"The road was so steep that most cyclists had to abandon their cycles because even a normal vehicle (double traction) faces problems," he recalled.

The organizers said that in some sections the competitors faced a gradient of 20 percent, an angle that is rarely seen in this type of competitions around the world.

At each stage, the organizers wearing construction helmets surveyed the surrounding mountains, carefully observing any sign of the rocks that regularly crashed into the road, a potential danger to the cyclists below.

The threat of danger was in stark contrast to the cheery welcome that cyclists received in the villages along the route, with residents playing traditional instruments to cheer them on.

"On every mountain, in every city, there were welcome signs," said Ramón Antelo, a Spanish diplomat based in Pakistan, who called the race his "best cycling experience" and now hopes to assemble a team to compete next year. .

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