Expedition Biking

Hell on Wheels

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Biking from Kazakhstan to Pakistan
OUTFITTER: KE Adventure Travel; 800-497-9675; www.keadventure.com
COST: $3,345
DATES: July 28-August 19
MILEAGE: 590

As you pick your way through the landslides, washouts, yaks, and myriad other obstacles on the torturous climb to 15,525-foot Khunjerab Pass on the Karakoram Highway, you will ponder a dismount. And as you curse and crank through this, the 16th day of your 590-mile slog from Kazakhstan to Pakistan, it won't be the first time you've wavered. Don't succumb. Keep pedaling and think about all that you've accomplished so far. You have biked a total of 35,000 vertical feet through the five major mountain ranges of Central Asia (including three other 10,000-foot-plus passes), all of them on eroded jeep roads and knife-carved singletrack.

You began by breaking in your jet-lagged legs with a relaxed 40-mile ride through the narrow Oyzhaylau Gorge out of Almaty in the foothills of the Tien Shen Range. On day three, facing a 3,500-foot climb to the top of Kazakhstan's Zhambas Pass, you glanced longingly at your six-wheel-drive Russian support vehicle, so bleary-eyed that you almost missed the background views of the 7,000-meter peaks of the Kungay Alatau Range. You survived the ballistic descent from the Mingtur Pass into Kyrgyzstan, clinging to steep, rice-terraced, and scree-sloped canyons. You cycled against fierce headwinds toward Kashgar, China, along an old Soviet-era double electric fence with nothing but a high desert of shocking brown to distract you. And in the half-day's rest allotted for the trip, you gathered strength for a side climb to the 14,000-foot base camp of Mustagh Atah and canvassed the Kashgar markets of a trading oasis that's seen traffic as a Silk Road cloverleaf for more than two millennia.

Now focus again on the Karakoram Highway below your tires—a road that took more than 20 years to build, claiming at least 500 Pakistani and Chinese lives prior to its official opening in 1986. It's widely considered to be one of the largest engineering feats since the construction of the Egyptian pyramids. Still not inspired? Picture the 7,000-foot descent from the top of Khunjerab Pass down through apricot orchards and poplar stands into Pakistan's lush, glacier-carved Hunza Valley. That should do the trick.

OR, DO IT YOURSELF...

The Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail
WHEN TO GO: May-September
MILEAGE: 2,468

"It's the first time I've had to walk my bike in 20 years," says Brian Martindale, tour director of the Adventure Cycling Association, a Missoula-based bicycle-touring group, about his 74-day, 2,468-mile Great Divide Trail mountain-bike journey last summer. The ride, through public lands over dirt roads from Port of Roosville, on the Montana-Canada border, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, is a challenge, to say the least, and not just because of the climbing (more than 3,000 feet per day) or the constant repairs (chains, spokes, and drivetrains don't fare well on the rutted roads). More taxing, it turned out for Martindale, were the surprises involved in a prolonged, remote cross-country epic: "In New Mexico,"he says, "we hit summer monsoons that left us pushing our bikes through a foot of mud for two days when it was supposed to be warm and dry."

The ACA offers a guided tour, but the Great Divide is ideal for experienced bike tourers who covet self-contained adventure. Detailed maps with geographical information and a directory of grocery stores, bike shops, and post offices to ship bike parts in advance along the route are available from the ACA for $56. And this year's book, Cycling the Great Divide, by Michael McCoy, provides information on suggested riding distances, campsites, and natural history. "But when the monsoons hit," says Martindale, "you're on your own for mud flaps." For more information, contact the Adventure Cycling Association at 800-755-2453 or www.adv-cycling.org. 

 

CYCLING THE KARAKORAM: HAVE YOU GOT WHAT IT TAKES?

Strength/endurance: "This trip is much more demanding physically than it is technically. It's for people who love their bikes, and spend the bulk of their free time riding," says Dan Hudson, a 1998 veteran of the journey. Two months prior to the trip, try to fit in two high-intensity, short rides and one 40- to 50-mile ride each week.

Mental Fitness: "The catalog description alone does half of our client screening," says Mark Van Alstine, a guide on the 23-day trip. "Then we make sure those interested are as prepared mentally as they are physically." Clients should be adaptable to harsh conditions: washouts, mud slides, closed passes, and 30-mile-per-hour headwinds.

Environmental Challenges:
The trip runs in midsummer, but at 10,000 feet, a wide range of conditions is possible, from Death Valley heat to full-on blizzards.

Skills: Ability to balance on two wheels required.

EXPEDITION BIKERS' READING LIST:

For Inspiration: Bicycling Across Siberia, by Mark Jenkins. The whirlwind account of four Russians' and three Americans' 7,000-mile, five-month ride from the Sea of Japan to Leningrad.

For Practical Know-How: Bicycle Touring: How to Prepare for Long Rides, by Steve Butterman. A concise tutorial that answers all your burning questions in 88 pages. Pound-for-pound, it's the best book on the subject.

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