Get on your bike and ride: Top 5 ultra-cycling races for amateurs – from mountains of Kyrgyzstan to wilds of South Africa

The Silk Road Mountain Race takes riders on a 1,900km journey.
PHOTO: Silk Road Mountain Race

In recent years ultra-cycling races of all kinds have thrived around the world, although they are still few and far between in Asia.

Comparatively new to the traditional world of competitive cycling, the ultra version has no set definition in terms of format or duration, making for some great and diverse options that are open to everyone.

From the remote gravel roads of Kyrgyzstan to the high-rise trails of the Rockies and the classic road climbs of the Alps, here are five of the biggest ultra cycling races to aim for.

Trans Continental Race (Europe)

Trans Continental Race (Europe).
PHOTO: Trans Continental Race (Europe)

Last weekend, the Tour de France finished on the cobbles of the Champs Elysees in Paris. After covering some 3,328km during its 21 daily stages the race lived up to its reputation as one of the toughest races on Earth.

At the same time, just a few hours northwest in the small Belgian town of Geraardsbergen, home of the Tour of Flanders race, some 200 amateurs hit the cobbles and started the eighth edition of the Trans Continental Race (TCR), the mother of all ultra road-cycling races.

The route varies each year and covers up to 4,000km as the riders make their way across Europe, with this year’s event finishing in Sarafovo, Bulgaria. Apart from a few key sectors and checkpoints, riders are free to choose their route and are tracked by GPS.

There is no outside help allowed, and as with all of these events the clock does not stop. The fastest rider is expected to finish the race in between eight and 10 days, with others crawling in for several days after that.

Entry applications for next year’s race open in November, and places sell out quickly.

Distance: Around 4,000km with between 30,000-45,000 meters of climbing, depending on the route.


Silk Road Mountain Race (Kyrgyzstan)

Silk Road Mountain Race (Kyrgyzstan).
PHOTO: Silk Road Mountain Race (Kyrgyzstan)

The annual SRMR, which was first held in 2018, may well be something of a new kid on the ultra racing block, but it has quickly become one of the major players.

The course varies each year and is on a fixed route, which this year takes riders on a 1,900km journey between Osh and Bishkek.

Along the way competitors must be self-sufficient and travel mostly on gravel roads through mountains renowned for harsh and diverse weather.

Around 100 riders are expected to take part, with more than half usually making it to the finish, with the fastest normally completing the race in between eight and nine days.

Distance: Mostly gravel roads covering 1,900km with 34,579m of climbing in 2022.


The Munga (South Africa)

The Munga.
PHOTO: The Munga

Despite being short in ultra-cycling terms the Munga is considered by many who have survived it to be the toughest off-road ultra.

Starting from the small town of Bloemfontein, the riders head through hot and harsh landscapes of the Karoo to Wellington in the Cape Winelands.

The field is limited to 150 racers, none of whom are allowed outside support, and the cut-off time is five days. The leading riders are expected to finish in half that time.

Distance: 1,000km with around 6,500m of climbing.


Tour Divide (North America)

Tour Divide (North America).
PHOTO: Tour Divide (North America)

Following the high-altitude continental divide line of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail from the Canadian Rockies along the spine of the United States to the Mexican border, the Tour Divide is considered the ultimate long-distance challenge for many endurance racers.

The annual race first took place in 2008, the next is scheduled for June 2023, and currently around 200 riders line up for the challenge, with the winner usually finishing in 14 days or so, and with other riders doubling this time.

Distance: 4,418km with around 6,1265 meters of climbing.


Trans Am Bike Race (United States)

Trans Am Bike Race (United States).
PHOTO: Trans Am Bike Race (United States)

Not to be confused with the supported and high-profile Race Across America, the Trans Am is one of the longest road-cycling ultras.

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Largely following the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail from coast to coast, the event has been run in both directions annually since 2014.

This is a non-stop and fast moving race that is highly prized among ultra races.

The winner is expected to take around 18 days to complete the distance.

The 2021 race had 42 entries and just 19 finishers.

Distance: 6,920km with about 51,300m of total climbing.


This article was first published in South China Morning Post.