Is the Silk Road Mountain Race Cycling’s Most Brutal Competition?

In 2021, only 55% of riders finished. It was the largest percentage yet.

The race passes through the Tian Shan mountains, through which the Silk Road Mountain Bike Race passes
The race passes through the Tian Shan mountains.
Chen Zhao, CC BY 2.0

If you’re browsing the internet for a long-distance cycling competition and the first piece of information on competing in one is to be aware of the many dangers involved — well, that’s when you know you’re in for something special (and especially challenging). The annual Silk Road Mountain Race warns would-be participants that the event “is a serious undertaking that should not be underestimated.”

In short, the bike race involves traveling over 1,100 miles across mountainous terrain in Kyrgyzstan. A recent article at Atlas Obscura gives a more comprehensive sense of what to expect: over 100,000 feet of ascent, a route that leads through uninhabited areas and a group of competitors that numbers in the dozens.The story chronicles the 2021 edition of the race; another article from Cyclist gives an account of the 2018 edition. In both cases, a substantial number of riders dropped out of the race before finishing.

In last year’s race, for instance, 95 riders began the competition, while only 52 completed it. Proportionately, this was the largest percentage of riders to ever complete the race. In 2018, 86 riders began the race while only 30 finished it, and in 2019 135 started and 68 finished. (There was no 2020 edition of the race, for obvious reasons.)

The prize that these riders are competing for? As Yam G-Jun writes at Atlas Obscura, 2021 winner Sofiane Sehili received “an Ak-kalpak — a traditional Kyrgyz hat of embroidered white felt — and a few cans of beer.”

On one hand, this is a race that includes a wide array of physically challenging terrain. On the other, it also involves some of the most scenic landscapes on the planet. This year’s edition kicks off on August 12.

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