Finishing nearly 5,000 metres above sea level after hundreds of kilometres winding past blackened glaciers and snow-capped peaks: a new Pakistani race presents a world-class challenge for cyclists — climbing towards the "Roof of the World".
The Tour de Khunjerab — its name a homage to its morefamous French counterpart, which began on Saturday — is still many years awayfrom being another Big Loop, but with a solid claim to being the highestcycling race in the world, it has a lot to offer a certain type of athlete.
In the last week of June, some 88 cyclists, including twoteams from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka as well as solo participants from Spainand Switzerland, took part in its second edition.
Less than half completed it within the allotted time.
The four stages — three ranging from 68 to 94 kilometres(42 to 58 miles) plus a shorter time trial — are much shorter than many othercycling events.
But there is one fundamental difference: the Pakistani Tourstarts at 1,500 metres above sea level, and never stops climbing.
The final day of this year's event sums up the challenge.
Starting at 2,800 metres — higher than the Iseran Pass, thesummit of the Tour de France — it ends at 4,700 metres, just over 100 metresshort of Mont Blanc, Europe's highest mountain.
The Khunjerab Tour must become "an attraction… Forthe most daring and adventurous cyclists in the world", said Usman Ahmed,the top official for the northern Gilgit region, home to some of the planet'stallest peaks and where the race was held.
The cyclists' tyres swallow up the asphalt of the KarakoramHighway, one of the highest paved roads in the world.
Named after the Karakoram mountain range — just one of theranges in Gilgit — the road passes through an extraordinary landscape.
Soaring, jagged peaks contrast with vertiginous ravines,glaciers driving a chill wind, and tumbling aquamarine rivers. Landslides arecommon.
Guardrails are a flimsy suggestion of protection from steepfalls of hundreds of feet.
"There is no place in the world that offers all thesethings," said Ahmed.
"No doubt it is the toughest cycle race in the world.We are aiming to make it our trademark," said Haroon General, president ofthe Pakistan Cycling Federation.
"The most difficult part of the race is the final stagewhere cyclists face shortage of oxygen and there is risk of heart issues… Atsuch an altitude a person falls down (faints) after running for 200 metres, butour cyclists travelled for almost 59 kilometres," he said.
Five ambulances were on standby in case of emergencies inthe final stage, he said, adding: "A majority of the cyclists made it butthe support staff needed ambulances."
The winner of the event, Najeeb Ullah — a Pakistani from ahilltop village in the southwestern province of Balochistan who won three ofthe four stages — told AFP that breathing was a "problem" for him inthe final climb.
"I had to face a lot of difficulties while reaching thefinishing line," located at the Khunjerab Pass, the border betweenPakistan and China, he said.
Especially since altitude was not the only obstacle: On thefinal day, fierce winds drove snowflakes into the cyclists' faces, forcing somealready struggling to catch their breath to dismount.
"Our entire training is reduced to nothing when wereach the final stage," lamented Abdullah Aslam, a participant who couldnot finish the race.
"I could barely pedal and was feeling breathless,"he admitted. Aslam, a runner from Islamabad, had already had to dismount andwalk to the finish on the second day.
"The road was so steep that a majority of the cyclistshad to get off their cycles because even a normal vehicle (two-wheel drive)faces issues," he recalled.
Organisers said in some sections the competitors faced agradient of 20 percent, an angle rarely seen in such competitions in around theworld.
At each stage organisers wearing construction helmetsscrutinised the surrounding mountains, peering closely for any sign of therockfalls that periodically smash on to the road — a potential peril to thecyclists below.
The threat of danger was in stark contrast with the joyfulwelcome the cyclists received in villages along the route, with residentsplaying traditional instruments to cheer them on.
"On each mountain, each town, there were welcomesigns," said Ramon Antelo, a Spanish diplomat based in Pakistan, whocalled the race his "best cycling experience" and now hopes to pulltogether a team to compete next year.He added: "A race like this is not in anyother place. In Europe, Mont Blanc — you cannot ride it by bike."