“What are the best stage races to do?” It’s a question that is often asked, and can be broken down many different ways. What makes a race ‘the best’ anyway? It’s a very personal criteria. While one may rate the quality of accommodation available, others might go purely on the amount of singletrack in the race, or the entry price – or just the event t-shirt!. It is very hard to suggest what might be the ‘best’ experience. It is also worth nothing that not all stage races are created equal. Some are short, some are bit longer, some continually go point-to-point, and some will use up a lot of your annual leave. What is worth noting, is that not many stagnate – just about all good stage races innovate.
Major mountain bike stage races are mostly only attended by a handful of true ‘professionals’, save for a couple of the races. They are all geared towards catering for amateur racers, making sure they can compete in the same races as the best in the world. You just have to bring your own support team! This is a selection of stage races from around the globe, compiled from personal experience, and into some rough categories. There are no doubt other races that could fit in here – but I can speak true of these ones from first hand experience. Other well recommended races receive a mention.
Epic Mountain Bike Stage Races
These ones are huge experiences, either for the route, the challenge of the racing, or the outright difficulty of both of them. They’re often not the race you will turn up at with your wheelie suitcase.
The Crocodile Trophy
It’s been going for 20 years, and while no longer a 3 week hammering across Central Australia, it isn’t easy. The Croc now runs over 8 days, from Cairns to Port Douglas, in Tropical North Queensland, Australia. It’s worth noting that Australia isn’t flat, as many stages have over 2000m climbing. And it’s not all desert, you will spend time in the rainforest, rugged bushland, and a day or two in the outback. Plus you will take in the amazing trails of Smithfield and Atherton MTB Parks. For 2014 onwards, the ‘Croc’ has a UCI S1 status. For more information, go to the Crocodile Trophy website. New for 2016, riders can have a host and base themselves out of accommodation, making the experience a lot more comfortable, but also making it easier for family members to come along and support the rider. Best of all, you’re more likely to experience the true nature of Tropical North Queensland, by staying in some of the beautiful townships.
Mongolia Bike Challenge
If the qualifier for an ‘epic’ stage race was taking you to somewhere you wouldn’t otherwise go – Mongolia Bike Challenge would be in by default. Now settled as a 6 day stage race, you really are out in the wild, with long days in open terrain through unfamiliar surroundings.
You will hurt, you will suffer, you will make new friends – and you will learn how to pedal in the wind. You just may not take a sweet singletrack line around a tree in a forest. It’s a remote experience, and a great opportunity to try that beard you were always thinking of growing. Moving to 6 days from 7 for 2016, the Mongolia Bike Challenge has found the need to become more achievable – but that is likely to create better racing at the front, and more amateurs finishing the event as well. It is a far more achievable race for an amateur racer now than perhaps in 2012 or 2013 – that said, you’re still best to go very prepared.
For more details on the Mongolia Bike Challenge, go to their event website.
While new for 2016, The Pioneer was pretty epic, thanks to the route along the Southern Alps of New Zealand, and the fact it really kept you ‘on tour’ as the stages were still starting and finishing in pretty isolated places.
Gifted with stunning weather for pretty much the whole week in 2016, The Pioneer is a point to point race using a camp each night. While the days are long and tough, the feed zones are well stocked, the route is well marshalled, and the event crew are there to look after you when you finish. Catering trucks are in camp for some lunch options, and dinner is provided – and excellent. There’s a massage service and mechanical service on offer too – but they get busy so book early if required! As the race is yet to get ‘massive’ while it would be another event where a support crew would go a long way – you just don’t need one to have a good race and a good time.
Want more details? Check out their website.
Prestigious Stage Races
These races sit in a realm above the rest. Be it for their route, their UCI ranking, their difficulty – or a combination of all three. These races won’t be new to you, but perhaps how they work out for an amateur might be. And compared to the ‘Epic’ stage races, you will typically want for nothing – save for some respite.
ABSA Cape Epic
The Cape Epic has everything provided for the rider. You just have to complete eight days of brutal racing. Sure, it’s low on ‘singletrack’ as many of these races are. But the distances, terrain, pace and weather take a huge toll on riders. Don’t be fooled by the low percentage of singletrack for the route, it is increasing and 2016 was deemed to be the year the Cape Epic truly delivered on being a world class event in terms of mountain biking challenge.
The new routes add to the already immense challenge created by the terrain, and have indeed stepped up the difficulty of the race. If you can get an entry, keep your bike, yourself and your team mate together – this is a competitive MTB experience not to be missed. The UCI ranks this as HCS – the same ranking as the Tour de France.
If you want to try your luck in the lottery for a Cape Epic entry, or to learn more, head to their website.
The Perskindol Swiss Epic
Launched for 2014, the Perskindol Swiss Epic went straight to ‘HCS’ status thanks to the difficulty of the route and the riders it attracted. The six day event is based in the Valais region of Switzerland. A highly diverse region, the riding on offer varies daily, and the host towns welcome riders with open arms.
However, the route is no walk in the park. While there are two distinct races that run concurrently, the Swiss Epic and the Swiss Epic Flow – both require some happiness to pedal uphill. While the Epic runs as you would expect a stage race to, the Flow race takes out some climbing with the use of lifts or shuttles, and often to higher, more technical trails. Each day is therefore broken into a number of stages, but unlike an Enduro event if you’re on the bike and climbing – it’s timed.
However the two races mix perfectly, as the flat-brimmed capped fist-bumping Flow category understand when to make room for the visor-less lycra-clad Epic riders on parts of the course where they overlap, and of course everyone talks about the stages in the finish catering at the end of each day, or at the restaurants where you get hosted for dinner.
The trails are truly fantastic, often open just for the event from local land owners. For that reason alone, this is an experience that cannot be missed.
Where the race makes it the best for non-supported riders is by being so ‘full-service’. Massages, breakfast, dinner, feed zones, mechanical assistance, bike washing, secure bike parking… it’s all included. It’s easy to miss the small details in stage races – like finding yourself with your huge luggage bag at your hotel on race morning, wondering how you will get that, and your bike, to the transport trucks by 7am for your 8am race start… especially when it’s a few kilometres away. The only race I have been to that solves this is the Swiss Epic, as accommodation covers from the night before to the night after the race – removing that headache entirely. Your bag just gets dropped at reception. And each day, your bag is in your hotel room. No need to collect it and carry it through a vertiginous Alpine town post-stage. In terms of stage races, amateurs can feel like they’re getting treated like professionals at the Swiss Epic.
If that sounds like something you want to be part of, head to their website for details.
BC Bike Race
I haven’t raced the BC Bike Race, but it is well-regarded due to the faultless organisation, excellent event vibe – and the absolutely world-class riding. But the riding is also so unique to the area, and it is probably the biggest draw card to the event.
The BC Bike Race just celebrated its 10th anniversary, and it’s one of the major stage races that still sells out in a short time. It’s pretty much run from a camp, but the transfers on ferries, or by float plane if you’re lucky, are just part of the epic experience.
Being a North American event, things go a little differently to those in Europe. Basically there are more high fives, the rest is still riding bikes.
The BC Bike Race is likely sell out in future years as well, but head to their website if you need more information.
Classic Stage Races
While not necessarily a point to point, these classic stage races tend to trace a well worn path – and have developed quite a reputation around the world for the story they tell, and the experience they offer. They will take you on an amazing route, with great scenery and fun trails. Chances are you will experience the culture of the area, not just the habits of those you are riding and racing with.
Craft BIKE Transalp
From Southern Germany to Riva Del Garda via eight pasta parties – ok now seven. And in 2016 the route is from Imst in Austria to Arco, a little shy of Lake Garda. Even with dropping a day the Transalp takes a classic route. More easterly one year, more westerly the next. Traversing so many classic European mountain passes, you and your team mate need to negotiate about 20000m of climbing in around 650km. You can stay in the camp, or in hotels, or in a campervan. Each day starts and finishes in a lovely mountain town. The scenery, language, and climate changes as your progress. Historically it’s not been singletrack heavy, what you do ride is divine.
This has changed since 2014 though, and even if the total kilometres of singletrack don’t seem to add up to much, the routes are truly epic. The 2016 route takes some different options in and out of Livigno, and into the WW2 Fascist stronghold, and it’s likely to test many riders abilities.
To me, the beauty of Transalp is departing and arriving into real towns, with proper amenities, pizzerias, cafes and bars ready to feed you. Best of all, it normally runs at the same time as the Tour de France. So get your bike cleaned up and safely in the bike park, have a shower and head to the bar to watch the last hour with your friends.
If you’re interested in following in the footsteps, or pedal strokes, of many who have traversed the alps by foot, horse, elephant, or bike – you can sign up here. And if the stories of the Transalp Camp put you off, don’t worry. There’s a full hotel service available now in either 3 or 4 star options.
Sudety MTB Challenge
Another race to take you somewhere you might not otherwise venture. This race has a huge mix of nationalities (typically over 30) who travel to the Sudety mountains for the race. With a prologue and 5 stages of racing, it might seem ‘easier’ than other week long races. But it is no walk in the park.
There is very little ‘schotter strasse’ that you might be familiar with from other European stage races, but lots of climbing, with many changes in gradient. Always starting and finishing in towns, you can stay in hotels or in the empty school rooms. The mood is great, the organisation helpful, and the racing is flat out.
From a travel experience, this race will likely take you to places you otherwise wouldn’t, and perhaps wouldn’t know existed. There are optional mechanical and massage services, and the organisers are happy to help if you’re a foreigner and feeling a bit out of depth.
For more details, check out the Sudety MTB Challenge website.
Compact Stage Races
Want a race that doesn’t have the hassle of transfers, or uncertainty of changing accommodation, meal times, hand washing your kit and wifi connectivity? I’ve loved all of these compact stage races, for those very reasons.
Any excuse to visit Alice Springs to ride your mountain bike is good, and The Redback is a very good one. Running in August, it’s a great time to escape a colder climate and go and race in the desert. There’s about 400km of hand built singletrack around the town, and this 4 day, 6 stage mountain bike race takes in just a sample of it. You can book a hotel room, an apartment, or room on your mates couch. There’s every service you need in town and the race looks after all logistics. Nothing is too long, and it is a great introduction to a MTB Stage Race – without the hassle of packing a bag for pickup every day.
Colorado does singletrack really well. And it does altitude too. This stage race combines both, with 6 days of epic mountain biking based out of Breckenridge. Rider numbers are limited, but the climbing isn’t. You start each day at about 2700m and just go up. The views are killer, the trails seem endless, and the weather is brutal when a storm hits. But, you can roll back to your condo, get a burrito, email some friends back home and pick your kit up from the laundromat to do it all again the next day.
The Breck Epic runs in August, and also has a 3 day option. And actually, an option for just about everyone to have their own category!
Beskidy MTB Trophy
Back to Poland for this one, it’s the younger, more precocious brother of the Sudety MTB Challenge. Four days, about 10 000m of climbing, and in an area that isn’t shy of rainfall. The Beskidy Trophy attracts a strong field of riders, and plenty of amateurs chasing a rugged MTB experience. Near the ski town of Wisla, it’s not hard, or expensive, so get some great accommodation to rejuvinate in after each stage. Don’t underestimate how hard four days can be, and the amount of different places this race can take you.
FInd out more about the Beskidy MTB Trophy on their website.
Engadin Bike Giro
Another race where you can stay in one spot easily, the Engadin Bike Giro was new for 2016, based out of Silvaplana and St Moritz in Switzerland’s Graubuenden region. With a hill climb time trial on Friday afternoon from the lake in St Moritz right up to a ski station, the marathon distances follow on Saturday and Sunday.
Starting and finishing in Silvaplana, the race village also has food options, camping options, and mechanical service. So bring a campervan, or find a hotel or apartment with optional packages in the race. The terrain is amazing, with a mix of dual use paths in the forest, tight singletrack, high alpine trails and the purpose built Corviglia flow trails.
Head to their website if you need details for 2017.
There are so many more than fall into this category, like the Hellfire Cup, Easter in the Alice, Alpentour Trophy, Port to Port Transylvania Epic, Roc d’Ardenne… it’s almost an endless list of ‘thumbs up’ recommendations from friends who have ventured to these events and can give them their tick of approval.