Cyclists take part in the Tour de Khunjerab near the Pakistan-China Khunjerab border. AFP
Finishing nearly 5,000 metres above the 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 more famous French counterpart, which began on Saturday — is still many years away from being another Big Loop, but with a solid claim to being the highest cycling 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 two teams from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka as well as solo participants from Spain and Switzerland, took part in its second edition.
Less than half completed it within the allotted time.
"On each mountain, each town, there were welcome signs. A race like this is not in any other place. In Europe, Mont Blanc — you cannot ride it by bike.
The final day of this year's event sums up the challenge.
The cyclists' tyres swallow up the asphalt of the Karakoram Highway, one of the highest paved roads in the world.
Named after the Karakoram Mountain range — just one of the ranges 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 are common.
"There is no place in the world that offers all these things," 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 of the Pakistan cycling Federation.
"The most difficult part of the race is the final stage where cyclists face shortage of oxygen and there is risk of heart issues... At such an altitude a person falls down (faints) after running for 200 metres, but our cyclists travelled for almost 59 kilometres," he said.
Pakistani and international cyclists take part in the Tour de Khunjerab, cycling competitions. Aamir Qureshi/AFP
The winner of the event, Najeeb Ullah — a Pakistani from a hilltop village in the southwestern province of Balochistan who won three of the four stages — said that breathing was a "problem" for him in the final climb.
"I had to face a lot of difficulties while reaching the finishing line," located at the Khunjerab Pass, the border between Pakistan and China, he said.
"On each mountain, each town, there were welcome signs," said Ramon Antelo, a Spanish diplomat based in Pakistan, who called the race his "best cycling experience" and now hopes to pull together a team to compete next year.
He added: "A race like this is not in any other place. In Europe, Mont Blanc — you cannot ride it by bike."
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