The Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France are often peddled as the toughest races in the world, but others will argue that nothing compares to the Race Across America (RAAM), a brutal distance ride that’s 1,000 miles longer than the Tour de France, and done in half the time by the leading riders. But these races are also the provenance of competitors with deep resources and connections (and also, in many cases, their own support crew). Here are eight of the most badass bike races in the United States.
With that in mind, here’s a list of bike rides and races designed to challenge the hardcore and determined among the rest of us:
1. Texas Hell Week
This ride isn’t a one-shot deal, but a daily grind for more than a week. It’s notable as much for the camaraderie it offers as well as the early season physical and mental conditioning it provides. Riding a century every day for 8 days might seem like hell to some cyclists. But not the legion of fans that return over and over to THW. Oh, and did we mention it’s unsupported? Based out of Fredericksburg Texas, which lays claim to some of the best rural riding in America, the rides take place in March (and has for going on 26 years).
Hell Week attracts casual riders, racers, randonneurs, hill mongers and mileage collectors. Bikes you might see in this route include road, tandem, tour, time trial and recumbent. Routes mostly follow smooth, sunbaked, low-traffic ranch roads with state highways used as brief connectors. But Texas Hill Country also means numerous short, steep hills—with cattle guard grates at the bottom—that when taken cumulatively are predictably just as demanding as riding in the mountains.
On average, the daily century routes include 4,000 to 5,000 feet of vertical climbing. The Leakey Death century route includes over 6,000 feet of climbing and features a couple of rock-cut roads. So why would anyone want to do this? Well, part of the appeal is the ruggedness of the terrain and the remoteness nature of the routes.
Texas Hell Week Brevets coincide with Texas Hell Week. These rides are equally unsupported and include a 200K (124 miles) on Monday, a 200K/300K (186.4) on Wednesday and a 200K/300K on Friday. Riders are advised to bring adequate supplies and take advantage when water and food are available. The entry fee includes a banquet meal ticket, maps and cue sheets, and a goodie bag.
2. Tour Divide
This race has the longest and likely the most challenging mountain bike time trial on the planet. It’s easy to see why this ride ranks on the most epic bike races in the United States. This expedition style race is a challenge not only for the ultra-fit but also for the ultra-prepared. The self-supported, vertically cross-country race takes you from the Canadian Rockies to the Mexican Plateau. You’ll start in Banff, Alberta, and end in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. This totals at 2,745 miles of the Adventure Cycling Association’s Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. The route climbs nearly 200,000 vertical feet through Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. You can go either north or south.
It takes an average of three weeks in the saddle to complete with no limits on rest periods, no race officials on the course, no check-in points—the clock runs non-stop. Whoever rides the fastest and makes the fewest stops wins the course record each season. Participants can tackle this anytime during the summer, in either direction. However, there’s an informal common start date known as the “grand depart” that traditionally kicks off the season second week of June from both north and south termini.
A raft of rules lays out the logistics: No outside assistance with navigation, lodging, or resupply (including receipt of supplies from a non-commercial shipper). No friends or family may assist or visit you on the route. Perhaps, best of all, the race has no entry fee, but finishers get their name in the official record books.
3. The Alaska Ultrasport Iditarod Trail Invitational
The snow-based ride tracks closest to the now-defunct Iditabike, the original self-supported, human-powered race across Alaska. It’s the world’s longest winter ultra mountain bike rides (it can also be entered on foot or skis) and is basically two epic races in one. The largest and most competitive race is the 350-mile race that starts in Knik and ends in the village of McGrath, on the north side of the Alaska Range.
A handful of competitors who complete the 350 will continue on from McGrath to Nome, completing the full length of the Iditarod Trail, for a total of about 1,000 miles (give or take 100 miles depending on the year). Racers have to finish the 350-mile race in a previous year before they can enter the 1,100-mile race. For the first time, in 2016 a 130-mile option is also being offered.
Organizers say this race differs from others because they “allow racers to make these decisions for themselves about what to carry, when to rest and when it is safe to travel.” There is no designated or marked route. But there are mandatory checkpoints for racers. Support is limited to the amount needed to prevent the race from imposing on lodges and residents along the trail when things don’t go as planned. At times the only rescue may be a self-rescue. So this race is as much an all-out expedition as it is a race.
4. The Arrowhead 135
This point-to-point ultrabike race (you can also run or ski it) takes place in deep winter in the coldest area in the lower 48 states; average start temps are ‑30 to ‑40C/F. It follows a 135-mile course along the Arrowhead State Snowmobile Trail, paralleling Highway 53 in Minnesota from Frostbite-International Falls to Tower. On average, fewer than 50 percent of starters finish (the finish rate for new racers is even lower). The top finishing times are around 15 hours, while many competitors take up to 55 hours to complete it.
No support crews of any kind are allowed. There’s no pacing or rides/tows allowed except in emergencies. If you take a ride, you are disqualified, but, as the organizers say, hopefully still alive. Buddy support is encouraged among racers, but no assistance may be rendered at any time from outside visitors. No one can greet you when you rest, and no snowmobiles may follow you, meet you, or break trail for you. Racers are required to carry/tow all required gear on the course. Water is provided at all the checkpoints, but food at only one.
You must finish with one extra day or food and fuel. Yeah, it’s a brutal self-supported bike race through the snow. Now heading into its 12th year, the race has grown from 10 starters in 2005 to 150 in 2014 (84 cyclists this past year), featuring some of the top winter ultra-athletes in the world.
5. The Silver State 508 (also known as the Furnace Creek 508, or the 508 for short)
This race was founded by cycling legend John Marino in 1983 but is now owned and run by ultra impresario Chris Kostman. The 508 is without a doubt the most intense and challenging 48-hour ultra cycling race in the world. Which is also why it’s a qualifier for RAAM. While many hardcore distance road racers would agree that it’s extremely hard, they also say it’s the most gratifying of the ultrabike races. What do competitors who tackle this grueling ride love?
The epic mountain climbs, the stark desert scenery, the desolate roads, the sunrises, and the sunsets. The race commences from Reno and crosses northern Nevada Highway 50, considered by many “the loneliest highway in America.”
Racing divisions include solo, 2‑person relay, and 4‑person relay, and they’re offered with a field limit of approximately 250 riders (approximately 70 soloists and 70 relay teams). Beginning in 2015, there’s also a self-supported solo randonneur Division (no support crew allowed). Categories include men’s and women’s and tandem, subdivision include relay, fixed gear, classic bike, and recumbent / HPV categories.
6. Death Ride: Tour of the California Alps
Death ride? Well maybe not, but it probably feels that way when you’re tackling 129 miles with 15,000 feet of climbing. Riders take on five significant pass climbs, including both sides of Monitor Pass (8,314 miles), both sides of Ebbetts Pass (8,730), and a final climb up the east side of Carson Pass (8,580).
The grueling two-sided pass climbs and the killer support bot set this ride apart. It includes before and during mechanical support, nine full rest stops (food and drink) plus three additional water stops at key locations on the course. There’s also local and state law enforcement, and ambulances on hand (there’s a real clue for you, right?). You also get a full lunch during the ride, a finish line dinner and a message. The ride starts and finishes at Turtle Rock Park, two miles north of Markleeville, CA.
7. Leadville 100 MTB
This famous “Race Across the Sky” out-and-back course, in the Colorado Rockies, starts in Leadville at 10,152 feet and climbs to 12,424 feet over 40–50 miles. Most of it is on gravel-pocked mountain roads, some forest trails, and even some pavement. Total elevation gain is approximately 11,000 feet. The views, if you can enjoy them, are a knockout. The biggest problem for anyone who lives below 5,000 feet is acclimating to the high elevation if you are on tight time squeeze. It’s also difficult to get a slot in the race. In addition to a lottery, you also must complete qualifiers to gain entry.
It’s pretty widely accepted by former participants that this is not a race you do for fun. Aid stations are well spaced throughout, but there’s also rigorous cutoff times. Miss the 12-hour cut-off time to be an “official finisher.” All finishers under the 12-hour mark get a belt buckle, (women get a pendant in addition to the buckle), and a sweatshirt with the rider’s name and finish time on the sleeve. But not to worry, if you roll in somewhere inside a 13-hour window, you still get a finisher’s medal signifying completion. If you’re still on the trail after the 13-hour mark, you’ll get a swift escort off the course.
On average 37% of riders miss the 12-hour cutoff.
8. Vapor Trail 125
Pack a lung indeed! This ride, limited to just 80 riders, tackles some 20,000 feet of elevation gain/loss over 125 miles of single track in the mountains outside Salida, Colorado. It starts at 10 PM on a bridge over the Arkansas River at 7,000 feet elevation. The weather is a crapshoot. Held in mid-September each year; it rains, it snows. It’s often windy and cold.
The course careens around numerous mountains with summits of 12,000 feet and beyond. Actually, this area encompasses more 14ers than anywhere in America. Riders tackle six long sustained climbs that each can take 2 hours or more. Some ride through the night and many through the following day, only dropping back below 9,000 feet during the last 8 miles. Unlike most 24-hour races, there’s no place to re-supply, take shelter, or bailout. Not only that, you’re always 10 or more miles from anywhere—although there is four aid stations over the entire route.
During the initial 8 hours of darkness, there’s only one, and medical assistance is hours away. “It gets very cold in that portion of the course, and you’ll need to be carrying any clothing changes you might need.” It’s for reasons like these that riders have to submit a “ride resume” prior to being allowed to register. Of the epic bike races in the United States, this one is badass indeed.