Featured Event: Khardung La 5359

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Featured Event: Khardung La 5359- by Gary Willis

Editor’s Note: The RidingGravel.com calendar is chock full of great gravel events from which to chose from. The choices have grown to include several varieties of events and number over 400 as of this writing. That’s a far cry from the small handful of events I first listed in 2008! With so many events listed we wanted to help put the spotlight on a few upcoming events we think are unique and interesting. This time we are featuring one event in a series being run by a couple of fellows named Liam and Gary. They want to bring their flavor for an event to the North American shores. Here then is a look at one of their more exotic events, Khardung La 5359.

Rhotang was our first major climb and took us from the green Manali valley into the dry and arid high country

Okay, introductions first. I’m Gary and along with my business partner Liam we have made the plunge of starting our own race series based out of our love of riding bikes and seeing the world. We wanted a series of events that drew inspirations from off road rally racing such as Dakar and the Baja 1000. Last month we launched our Rallye du Velo series for 2017and have been busy planning the 2017 series events and also opportunities to bring the series to the US in 2018. More on that later…..

Rallye du Velo is a series of mixed surface events where just being able to complete them is a challenge in itself, never mind being able to complete in the fastest time you can. Each Rallye has its own flavor from tarmac and cobbles to rock and desert. But the one that probably draws the most interest in this first year is our Rallye with the flavor of thin, rarefied air……. Khardung La 5359.

The descent off of Rhotang was another tough descent with some traffic, cows, tourists and road workers meaning a dusty, epic descent for 20km

I had seen this road a few years ago on a you-tube video of some guys riding their classic Nortons to the highest motor-able road in the world. The narration was pretty cheesy but I watched watched it with the mute on and the seed started to sew. It was just some of the most amazing landscapes with a dry, arid and remote feeling images I had ever seen.

More investigation found that rather than just the one pass there was in fact a number of passes along the Leh highway that touched nose bleeding and headache inducing heights. I had never been this high and its rare in life that we do find things that we are not 100% sure we can do with a bit of grit and determination. Would I be able to handle the altitude? Would I have to rush back down to the thick air? With each pass (La) we were going into the unknown. Every day hitting a bit higher and seeing how our bodies coped with the thinning air was tough but the route did lend itself to this with progressively higher passes allowing our bodies to adapt.  Some of the passes we rode included:

  •  Rohtang Pass – 3,978m
  • Baralacha Pass – 4,890m
  • Lachulung Pass – 5,059m
  • Taglang Pass – 5,328m
  • Khardung La – 5,359m Preparing for the ride we focused a lot on altitude and trying to acclimatize so that we could at least survive at altitude, let alone ride our bikes. I was lucky enough to already live at 1000m in Chamonix and with regular visits to the Aguile du Midi (3800m) so I was confident I would be ok up to a point. Liam however would be in London for the 6 weeks leading up to the ride so would struggle to get above sea level so the unknown element for him was greater.
The climb up Gata Loops was an amazing 21 hairpin gravel road version of Alpe d’Huez. Indian engineering at its best.

As soon as we touched down in Manali I realized that I had been super focused on altitude. That is all we had talked about… altitude this, altitude that. What I hadn’t really given a thought about was the amazing sights, smells and people of India. Every corner turned was a smash in the face to your senses and watching what people got up to could be a sport in itself. We had some trouble with our bikes not arriving that meant we had to spend a few extra days in Minali trying to find where bikes may have been. They ended up coming two days later and just in time for us to meet our schedule for the ride. This was maybe a blessing in disguise as it meant an extra two nights sleeping at 2050m

Our ride took six days to ride and each day had at least one large pass to get over. The road surfaces ranged from pretty nice tarmac to rutted gravel road with water crossings up in the mountains making the going tougher at times.

Apart from the first day at 28km each day’s riding was around 75-100km. Doesn’t sound much but when over 50% of the ride could be uphill at altitudes nudging 5000m we felt we were hitting the right amount of time on the saddle each day.

Our ride in to Leh on the penultimate day’s riding was a sense of excitement and trepidation for what was to come. I couldn’t wait to get started the following day and see if I could make it up to Khardung La. But at the same time, even after crossing so many passes would the extra 300m of Khardung La taking us up to 5359m be the final straw?

The climb up to Khardung La starts in the town of Leh at 3500m and the first half of the 37km climb is on a half decent tarmac surface. As soon as you hit the army checkpoint at halfway the road turns to gravel and then the higher you get the more the surface deteriorates. Going past the previous “highest I have been height” it was a simple head down, focus on breathing and try not to look too far ahead as the kms ticked down.

Prayer flags at the top of Khardung La

From the solitude of climbing it was another India smack to the face of senses to see so many people at the top. We were minor celebrities for a few minutes while Indians with aviator sunglasses and selfie sticks (the selfie stick has truly arrived in India) asked, and sometimes didn’t ask to have their photo taken with us. Some soup and a chai in the small shack at the top and we were rolling back down to Leh. Is there anything sweeter than achieving a challenge you have set and then being rewarded with a 37km descent looking out across the Himalayas? Well yes there  is…. Hitting the tarmac on the afore-mentioned descent. Turns out rough washboard gravel road and a splitting headache don’t make for a great combo. Would I have changed it for the world though? No way……

We rode the route as a test run for our Rallye du Velo series we have launched for 2017. The series is all about finding the best all surface roads in the world and riding them with a group of like-minded individuals. The rides are self sufficient while on the road but there is a support vehicle bringing up the rear if the worst does happen. What these are definitely not though, are “wipe your bum for you” tours…

Gary at the top trying to play it cool but suffering inside with altitude headache

We would love to hear from you guys and girls in the US for top roads or passes that would match with our series. Its all about the ride, the people you meet on the road and the chance to see new and remote place. You can get in touch through our social media pages or email us on info@rallyeduvelo.com and we would love to chat more about potential route. Have a great 2017 riding your bike and we hope you meet you on the road or trail at some point.

Gary and his business partner Liam run the Rallye du Velo series which is a multi surface Rallye series for bikes that takes in the best roads we can find in the world.

The video for the Rallye du Velo series featuring  their Indian ride can be found here https://vimeo.com/191522339

The first year’s events in the series can be found at www.rallyeduvelo.com If you want to find out more visit the website

visit the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/rallyeduvelo/

Or follow them on instagram https://www.instagram.com/rallyeduvelo/

NOTE: All images were provided by Rallye du Velo and may not be reproduced or shared without prior consent.

Discuss and share your questions or thoughts about gravel bikes, gear, events and anything else on the Riding Gravel Forum.


Author: Guitar Ted

Guitar Ted hails from Iowa. Home of over 70,000 miles of gravel and back roads. An inaugural member of the Gravel Cycling Hall of Fame and Co-creator of Trans Iowa in late 2004- Guitar Ted has been at the forefront of the growth of gravel events and riding since then. Creator of Gravel Grinder News in 2008, he produced the premier calendar of gravel and back road events. GT joined forces with Riding Gravel in late 2014.

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