1 MANALI TO LEH (INDIA)
Let’s start at the top. Literally. This cog-busting ride across the Himalayas scales four mountain passes above 4000 metres in altitude, with the option to cycle to the top of the road claimed as the highest in the world – 5600 metres above sea level – as an encore.
The 500-kilometre ride begins in the green foothills of the Himalayas at Manali in northwestern India and crosses to the high desert of Ladakh. It’s breathtaking in every sense, with barrenly beautiful Himalayan peaks crowding the quiet highway, which is usually open for about three months of the year (July to September).
2 CAPE YORK (AUSTRALIA)
With a fearsome reputation even among 4WDers, Cape York’s challenges and rewards come in equal measures.
From Cairns it’s a 1200-kilometre ride to Australia’s northern tip if you shun the main drag for the more pleasurable Bloomfield Track and Old Telegraph Track – the latter mixes tough sections of sand with the ride’s best moments between a succession of waterfalls.
When I cycled this route, the journey took three weeks and a great toll on my bike, but it remains fixed in my mind as one of the finest bike rides I’ve undertaken. Save your legs by returning from the tip aboard the Trinity Bay cargo ship.
3 SOUTH POLE (ANTARCTICA)
Cycling to the South Pole sounds improbable and likely impossible, but this December the first commercial cycling tour group will set out for the world’s icy southern apex.
Riding on fat bikes (mountain bikes with extra-wide tyres), the expedition will fly in from Punta Arenas (Chile) to Union Glacier Camp and then to the 89th parallel, from where they will cycle for nine days to cover the final 110 kilometres to the South Pole.
World firsts don’t come cheap – it costs US$70,000 to join the expedition, but you get to keep the fat bike.
4 RAID PYRENEEN (FRANCE)
One of the world’s most difficult road mountain cycling challenges, the Raid Pyreneen has been shredding thighs since the 1950s. It requires you to ride the length of the Pyrenees, but you must do so in 10 days, pedalling 800 kilometres and climbing around 16,000 metres over 28 mountain passes.
The challenge is the brainchild of the Cyclo Club Bearnais and, if you succeed, the club awards you a Raid medallion. If somehow that all sounds too easy, you can always step up a gear to the randonneur version: 720 kilometres, 18 passes and 11,000 metres of ascent in just 100 hours. It’s exhausting just writing that.
Register your attempt online at least two weeks before you begin.
5 PARIS-BREST-PARIS (FRANCE)
The pinnacle of non-competitive long-distance riding, Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) is one of the world’s oldest cycling events.
It was first run in 1891, 12 years before the Tour de France began, and is held every four years. The task is simple, even if the effort is not – pedal 1200 kilometres from Paris to Brest, by the western tip of Brittany, and back inside 90 hours. To ride, you must qualify through a series of other events up to 600 kilometres in length.
The next PBP will be held in 2019.
6 ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT (NEPAL)
Once the most popular trekking trail in Nepal, the Annapurna Circuit has fallen into the clutches of mountain bikers. Realistically, the classic 300-kilometre circuit from Besi Sahar to Beni will take cyclists at least eight days (compared to about 15 on foot).
You’ll cycle as high as you may ever get in life – 5416 metres above sea level on Thorung La pass – and pedal through the deepest gorge on earth, beneath two of the world’s 10 highest mountains.
You won’t be pedalling it all – on the climb to Thorung La, for instance, you’ll probably be carrying your bike for up to five hours at a lung-destroying altitude.
7 NULLARBOR (AUSTRALIA)
Motorists might more commonly know it as the “Nulla-bored”, but there’s surprising diversity to Australia’s most notorious road when seen from bike speed.
The 1200-kilometre ride from Ceduna to Norseman comes with road trains and caravans for company, but traffic is typically light enough that they present few problems.
The longest stretch between the 10 roadhouses is around 190 kilometres, so expect at least a couple of nights camped out in the middle of nowhere. The section of true Nullarbor plain is short, pinched between rolling mallee scrub and some of Australia’s most impressive cliffs tipping into the Great Australian Bight.
8 CARRETERA AUSTRAL (CHILE)
Every cycle tourer knows that wind is your enemy – do tailwinds even exist? – and this mostly unsealed Patagonian road between Puerto Montt and Villa O’Higgins is a journey into a true wind tunnel.
Despite that, the 1200-kilometre road, built only in the 1980s, sees a steady stream of cyclists, drawn here by the challenge and the postcard perfection of the fiords, snow-capped Andean peaks and glaciers. To get the best of the inevitable Patagonian winds, pedal it from north to south.
9 GREAT DIVIDE MOUNTAIN BIKE ROUTE (US)
The world’s longest set mountain-bike route doesn’t just traverse the entire US, it continues on through the Canadian Rockies into Banff.
All up, it’s a 4400-kilometre ride from the Mexican border at Antelope Wells to Banff, zigzagging across North America’s Great Divide at least 30 times. All those zigs sure add up, with the GDMBR climbing more than 60,000 metres, about the equivalent of cycling up and down Everest twice (the only time you won’t be climbing or descending is through Wyoming’s Great Basin).
The route is remote and committing, and you’ll need to be carrying provisions at least through the New Mexico section.
10 TOUR D’AFRIQUE
Cycle the length of Africa, or just a really big chunk of it … it’s your call on the annual Tour d’Afrique.
The ride begins each January in Cairo, ending four months and 11,500 kilometres later in Africa’s other bookend, Cape Town.
If you have the time (and US$17,000) you can ride the whole thing (which includes 29 rest days); otherwise the event is broken into eight distinct sections – Cairo to Khartoum, or Victoria Falls to Windhoek, for instance. It’s no dawdle, with daily distances averaging around 130 kilometres.
Read more here.