Adventures of a Lifetime: The World’s Most Challenging Off-Road Bikepacking Races


, by Chris Case

Photography by: Maygutyak

The number of grueling multi-day off-road races has skyrocketed in recent years. We highlight some of the most adventurous, most challenging events in the world.

The world is suddenly awash with bikepacking races of all stripes. Many of the most famous are the biggest, most grueling races across countries or continents, in remote and rugged locales that demand not just physical strength but cunning to survive.

These races aren’t tame. They aren’t for the faint of heart. These are the most savage beasts on two wheels. There’s just a fixed-route and you, pitted against everything that mother nature throws your way.

While this list could easily be three times as long, we chose the following five races (plus some honorable mentions) because they possess certain qualities: length, remoteness, geographic variety, difficulty, and, of course, they are all primarily off-road (some mountain bike, some gravel bike, one fat bike).

We’ll bring you another list soon, comprising the most challenging on-road ultra-distance events. But for now, let’s get dirty.

Tour Divide

  • Location: From Banff, Canada to Antelope Wells, New Mexico

  • Distance: 2,745 miles (4,418 km)

  • Start date: June

The granddaddy of them all, Tour Divide is among the biggest challenges on two wheels. The opening line of the website sums it up quite succinctly: “Decidedly not for sprinters, this battle royale braves mountain passes and windswept valleys of the Continental Divide from hinterlands of the Canadian Rockies to the badlands of the Mexican Plateau.”

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The Tour Divide has no entry fee or prize money but does have a grand départ in June each year, where a gaggle of hearty souls—in 2023 it was around 200—gather at a YMCA hotel to begin a self-supported off-road journey through the wildernesses of Alberta, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.

This is truly a trans-continental journey of epic proportions. More than a handful of people finish each year stating, without hesitation or exaggeration, that completing the event (if they’re lucky enough to do so) changes them forever.

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Some call it the Grand Tour of mountain bikepack racing. There are few similarities, however, between Tour Divide and the Tour de France. Except that they’re both really big and really challenging.

“They’re both insanely hard!” says former professional road cyclist Alex Howes, the first person to complete both the Tour de France, which he did twice, and the Tour Divide bikepacking race. “But it’s a complete apples to oranges comparison. For context though, in my first Tour de France, I saw four grown men who’d been training their whole lives for that race bawling their eyes out because it was so difficult. At Tour Divide, there were four people, that I know of, that rode themselves to the hospital. They’re both insanely hard.”

Silk Road Mountain Race

  • Location: Kyrgyzstan

  • Distance: 1,204 miles (1,938 km)

  • Start date: August

Kyrgyzstan is a place you’ve probably heard of, but until you see it for yourself or read about a race like the Silk Road Mountain Race, it is hard to comprehend.

It is gorgeously mountainous, brutally rugged, and truly remote. Jagged peaks tower over green fields; rolling hills are perforated by frosty streams. Beyond the capital of Bishkek, population density plummets; infrastructure tends to vanish. It’s a land of nomads, and many still choose to follow a traditional way of life, tending to livestock and migrating with the seasons.

These races aren’t tame. They aren’t for the faint of heart. These are the most savage beasts on two wheels.

This tapestry of earthen hues is your course—you’ll be alone out there in the wilds, occasionally climbing above 4,000 meters on gnarled gravel and dirt roads.

It was the allure of this ancient land that led ultra-distance enthusiast Nelson Trees to create the race in 2018, traversing the land where the famous trade route once thrived. The fixed route follows gravel, double and singletrack, and the occasional old Soviet road covered in decrepit tarmac.

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The constant changes in elevation often lead to unpredictable—and grim—weather: rain, wind, and snow and vastly fluctuating temperatures call for the utmost in mental fortitude and strategic gear selection. Add to that extreme isolation and the vast distances between resupply points, and this is one of the most challenging, most adventurous races on the planet.

Your reward? Certainly not any prize. Pride? Perhaps. Undoubtedly a plethora of tales to tell. And, if you’re into it, a cold beer or two, assuming you’re fast enough to finish before the end of the closing celebration.

Of the 93 participants who started the inaugural Silk Road Mountain Race, only 30 managed to finish.

The Rhino Run

  • Location: South Africa and Namibia

  • Distance: 1,709 miles (2,750 km)

  • Start date: October

“The Rhino Run is a kaleidoscope of beautiful views, brutal climbs, epic switchbacks, and mind-numbingly straight roads that disappear into the horizon. Nowhere in the world will you experience sunsets like those in Africa.” Not a bad way to describe a race.

Of course, you will need all the beauty you can get to take the edge off the massive effort it’ll take to ride the edge of the African continent, first by exploring the Garden Route's lush coastline forests, Cederberg's raw and rugged mountain ranges, and Namibia’s towering dunes.

This is the terrain of the gravel bike. There’s everything from tar to smooth gravel, and then very rough and rocky gravel sections with ruts and uneven terrain. Farther north, there’s sand. Lots of sand, complete with endless washboards. Resupplies are few and far between. Namibia is among the least densely populated countries on the planet. Which has its pros and cons.

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Contrary to popular belief, wild animals don’t roam the streets of South Africa. Instead, you’re more likely to encounter stray dogs throughout informal settlements. Creepy-crawlies? Yeah, there could be some snakes and scorpions and a few other fiendish creatures along the course. Check your shoes in the morning!

Don’t forget though: There are those African sunsets, brilliant purple, pink, and orange skies that never end.

Iditarod Trail Invitational

  • Location: Alaska

  • Distance: 350 or 1,000 miles (563 or 1,609 km)

  • Start date: March

The Iditarod Trail Invitational is the world's longest-running winter ultra-marathon. Arguably, it’s one of the most challenging experiences on the planet. Riding fat bikes equipped with special tires and carrying extensive gear to keep warm in harsh conditions, riders brave extreme physical, environmental, and mental challenges as they travel along the historic Iditarod Trail.

This is as much a test of survival skills as it is a challenge of endurance.

The race takes anywhere from three to nine days, depending on the weather conditions. And weather has an outsized impact on just about everything you do for the entirety of the race. If there hasn't been any snow, the trail can be like riding on cement. But if it's snowing hard, then you will likely find yourself pushing your bike through hip-deep snow drifts. The trail itself can be hard to find, as it’s completely buried. This is as much a test of survival skills as it is a challenge of endurance.

Think 350 miles sounds like a short jaunt through some of Alaska’s wilds? Think again. Under ideal conditions, world-renowned endurance athlete Rebecca Rusch won the women’s division in 2019, taking three solid days to complete the route. She slept only 10 hours total. She crossed the finish blubbering, saying it was the hardest thing she’d ever done. And this from the woman known as the “Queen of Pain.”

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There are dangers everywhere at Iditarod. This is Alaska; the wildlife is dangerous. There are wolves, which you hear howling. You might see their prints, but they're elusive. But the most dangerous animals are the moose. They regularly come onto the trail, and if approached they will attack. Most years racers will have encounters big and small.

Then there’s moisture. It’s potentially deadly, so heat management is paramount. You don't want to sweat, ever, because your clothes will freeze and then you'll freeze.

But, according to Rusch, when you do (hopefully) make it to the end, it’s the best finish line in the world. That could be a result of the hallucinatory effects of extreme fatigue and extreme sensory deprivation and cold; or it could be the giant pile of eggs and pancakes and heaping helpings of camaraderie to be found there. Or maybe it’s both.

Photography by: Mattia Orru Photography

Atlas Mountain Race

  • Location: Morocco

  • Distance: 808 miles (1,300 km)

  • Start date: February

Though it may be shorter, and with less elevation change than the aforementioned monsters, the Atlas Mountain Race more than makes up for it by adding two things: a very hard-to-achieve 8-day, 6-hour time limit, and extremely unforgiving terrain.

As is standard among the other colossal challenges on this list, the fixed-route course offers little respite, few chances for resupply, and vast expanses where exposure to the elements will test every ounce of fortitude. Given when it takes place and its latitude, there’s almost as much nighttime as daytime, so for those pushing hard, night riding will be on tap in large doses.

Starting in Marrakesh, the route crosses the Moroccan Atlas before heading through the Anti-Atlas and on to Essaouira. The clock does not stop and there are no prizes. It follows gravel, single, and double track roads, as well as old colonial pistes that have long been forgotten and fallen into disrepair. There is very little tarmac. Expect to do some walking, now and again.

One of the most demanding elements of the Atlas Mountain Race is the extreme swings in temperature. While days can be searingly hot, the nights can be bone-chillingly cold. That demands a lot from the body, and makes gear and clothing choices that much more critical.

You will face sands. You will face snow. You will face wind. You will be tested by the landscape from all sides. There’s nowhere to hide.

So what’s it take to complete the Atlas Mountain Race? Since it takes place in an environment that can be as tough as it is beautiful, it requires not only the ability to ride big days back to back, but also knowledge and experience of being self-reliant in an arid mountain environment. Easy enough.

Bon voyage!

Honorable Mentions


  • Location: UK

  • Distance: 1,243 miles (2,000 km)

  • Start date: August

GBDuro isn’t located in a harsh desert or colossal mountain range. You don’t have to worry about scorpions or snakes if you wild camp at night. And you’ll never be too far from a village or resupply point.

Even still, GBDuro is an adventure as much for the route—across the length of the UK from Land’s End to John O’ Groats (or, in 2024, to Cape Wrath)—as for its “no-fly” policy. That is, you’re not allowed to use planes to get to or from the event, meaning the real adventure starts when you leave your house, wherever it may be.

Colorado Trail Race

  • Location: Colorado

  • Distance: 540 miles (869 km)

  • Start date: August

The Rocky Mountains are majestic—until they’re not. That is the adventure that awaits on the Colorado Trail Race, which features over 300 miles of singletrack (over 540 total miles) at elevations ranging from 5,500 feet to a hypoxic 13,200 feet.

The CTR is a monster, in so many ways. Brutal climbs, burly descents, and the ever-present threat of changing weather. If the monster is in a good mood, you may experience Colorado’s beautiful sunny blue skies and wildflowers blooming as far as you can see. But the CTR’s mood can change on a whim and you may just as likely find yourself getting besieged by massive hailstones and lightning bolts.

The Highland Trail 550

  • Location: Scotland

  • Distance: 550 miles (885 km)

  • Start date: Late May

Modeled after the famed Colorado Trail Race, the Highland Trail 550 traverses a world-class route on incredible trails, through the beautiful scenery of remote wilderness in Scotland’s northwest reaches. You’ll contend with the fickle Scottish weather throughout. Thankfully, in early spring, the notorious midges shouldn’t be so alarmingly annoying.

The majority of the route is on trails, but there are some wee boggy sections as well as some very technical sections. Even the best riders should expect some extended periods of hike-a-bike.

Prepare for moisture, in all its forms.

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