The World's Most Challenging On-Road Bikepacking Races

Volta de bicicleta

, by Chris Case

Photography by: Liz Seabrook

Bikepacking races are not just the realm of mountain and gravel bikes. There are countless all-paved ultra-distance events around the world. And just like their off-road counterparts, the most famous are monstrous, grueling on-road adventures across countries and sometimes continents.

If you think these races are tame because they stick to tarmac, think again. There are remote routes in every corner of the world, and promoters have scoured maps to find them. Furthermore, occasionally having to navigate through a city comes with its own set of challenges. And then there is the fact that roads are often made for vehicles—with no regard for prevailing winds or the puny power output of a pair of legs (relative to that of a combustion engine). Out there on the open road, cyclists are exposed to the elements, sometimes in ways not as apparent on forested trails.

While this list could be 10 races long, we chose the following races (plus some honorable mentions) because they possess certain qualities: length, remoteness, geographic variety, and difficulty.

The Transcontinental Race

  • Location: Europe (the route changes every year)

  • Distance: Approximately 2,600 miles / 4,000 km

  • Start date: July

Transcontinental Race 2023. Photography by: Charlotte Gamus

Before his untimely and tragic death, Mike Hall was a pioneer and legend of bikepacking and ultra-distance cycling. The Transcontinental Race (TCR) was his vision for the ultimate race: “Nothing that’s worth anything is ever easy,” he famously quipped.

TCR is the definitive self-supported bicycle race, each year taking a different route across Europe. At the sharp end of the event, it is a beautifully hard bicycle race. The design is simple—there is a starting point, there is a finishing point, and there are several checkpoints along the way. The Transcontinental is a single stage race in which the clock never stops.

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However, the execution is a bit more complex. Each rider must plan, research, and navigate their own course. In so doing, they can also choose when and where to rest. Each rider takes only what they can carry and consumes only what they can find. There are four mandatory control points to keep everyone honest; the controls are in locations that ensure a healthy amount of climbing to reach some of cycling’s most beautiful and historic monuments.

So, what does it take to compete (or simply complete TCR)? Gobs of self-reliance, a healthy obsession with logistics, a penchant for navigation, and a knack for good judgment. These are the burdens of the racers’ minds. Millions of pedal strokes are the problem of their physiology.

Trans-Am Bike Nonstop

  • Location: U.S.

  • Distance: 2,745 miles / 4,418 km

  • Start date: June

For nine years, there was the Trans Am Bike Race. Now, the creators of that race have decided to embrace quieter roads. Thus, Trans Am Bike Nonstop has been born. Regardless of the roads used, the Trans Am covers nearly 3,000 miles / 4828km as it traverses the entirety of the U.S., from Astoria, Oregon to the East Coast. (This year participants have a choice between a finish in Washington, D.C., and Yorktown, Virginia.)

The route has been designed from the ground up to use lower traffic roads and bike paths to cross the U.S., which the organizers admit stand in stark calmness compared to some portions of the Trans Am Bike Race. They recommend equipping your bike with slightly wider tires.

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How hard is a ride across the States? It can be peaceful, it can be brutal. It will inevitably be everything in between.

That stretch of godforsaken land and the constant 40 kph winds blowing in my face destroyed me mentally.

Veteran bikepacking and ultra-distance champion Sofiane Sehili described it thus: “You may think that the Trans Am Bike Race is pretty straightforward, given that it’s all paved, it doesn’t have much elevation gain, and there are no big gaps between resupplies. But the crosswinds I experienced in Kansas for two whole days turned out to be one of the biggest tests of my mental fortitude. After one day of riding between 15 and 18 kph (9 and 11 mph) on flat paved roads, I got in my sleeping bag and curled up in a ball for eight hours, not willing to go back to the battlefield. The idea of fighting the wind for another day was one I could not bear… That stretch of godforsaken land and the constant 40 kph winds blowing in my face destroyed me mentally.”


  • Location: Europe (the route changes every year)

  • Distance: approximately 2,485 miles / 4,000 km

  • Start date: July

This is the race whose finish line is at the end of the world (sort of). Running south to north across Europe, NorthCape4000 finishes at North Cape (Nordkapp) at the tippy top of Norway, above the Arctic Circle.

Every year, the race’s staff create a completely new route after painstaking on-the-ground research and dozens of hours of studying maps. This year, the fun begins in Rovereto, Italy, then heads north through Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and, finally, Norway. Get ready to check ferry schedules.

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Four mandatory checkpoints and a fixed route mean everyone sticks to the same quiet roads selected by the organizers. A 21-day time limit has been imposed this year for those hoping to earn official “finisher” status.

Indian Pacific Wheel Race

  • Location: Australia

  • Distance: 3,400 miles / 5,500 km

  • Start date: March

The Indian Pacific Wheel Race is a monster down under—3,417 miles / 5,500 kilometers from ocean to ocean across Australia. The course is 100 percent paved, and as hard as they come. The clock does not stop. There is no prize money. Nothing is at stake except honor.

Tragically, ultra-endurance legend, Mike Hall, was killed by a motorist while riding the Indian Pacific Wheel Race in 2017. This changed the trajectory of the race forever; it is no longer officially organized by the original team.

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The course has a number of distinct sectors with different characteristics. Riders will brave the deserted and treeless Nullarbor Plain which includes a 150-kilometer section of completely straight road. The next sector will take riders through the rolling hills of the famous Clare Valley and Barossa Valley wine districts as well as the Adelaide Hills, the setting for many Tour Down Under stages. Riders will travel the full length of the world-famous Great Ocean Road, popular with cycle tourists from all around the world. Finally, riders will have to tough it out through a mountainous 1,000-kilometer final sector through the heart of the Australian Alps.

Honorable Mention: TransAtlanticWay

  • Location: Ireland

  • Distance: 1,550 miles / 2,500 km

  • Start date: June (typically)

Ireland isn’t a particularly large country, by area. But it has a magnificently long and beautiful coastline, filled with ragged peninsulas and tiny spits of land that jut into the north Atlantic—particularly on its western shore. Many of the most scenic roads comprise the Wild Atlantic Way scenic route; and much of that route makes up the majority of the TransAtlanticWay, which starts in Derry, Northern Ireland, then meanders down every narrow lane and even a few gravel tracks to Kinsale, just outside Cork. Expect a lot of turning, a lot of climbing, and maybe—just maybe—a touch of rain.

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Honorable Mention: The Northern Way

  • Location: Belgium and the Netherlands

  • Distance: 3,400 miles / 5,500 km

  • Start date: March

This event celebrates road cycling's one-day Monuments; the route takes in the legendary roads, cobbles, and climbs that are part of professional cycling history. The ride takes in sections of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Ghent Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold Race, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, among other spring classics. There is a seven-day limit to get to the finish in Valkenburg from the start in Ghent. There is the added bonus that you could catch the pros ride Paris-Roubaix.

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