The ‘Tour de France’ of Hand Cycling: Challenge Alaska

While everyone here on the East coast is sweating out this heatwave, there are 20 hand cyclists on the other side of the country sweating it out in a very different climate.

It’s been called the “Tour de France” of hand cycling, and for good reason. Challenge Alaska, a 7 day race from Fairbanks to Anchorage, Alaska, is the longest hand cycling race in the world. Not only that, but it’s also the hand cycling competition anywhere that follows a timed, staged race format – thus the Tour de France nickname. This year’s race began on Monday, and today the competitors enter Stage 2.

Photo from Anchorage Daily News

Photo from Anchorage Daily News

And like the Tour, Challenge Alaska is open only to some of the world’s top athletes. This year’s competitors include 2 Paralympic Gold Medalists from the London Games (Walter Ablinger, Austria and Rafal Wilk, Poland) as well as 9 military veterans. Weekend warriors need not apply. And if the length, format and high-level competitors aren’t enough to pique your interest, maybe the prize money is – $24,000 is at stake, making it the largest purse for a hand cycling race in the world.

So let’s say you’re an elite athlete. You have been accepted to the race and are ready to go home with that prize money. What can you expect? Well, let’s just say you shouldn’t let Alaska’s beautiful landscapes fool you. Not only is this race long, it is GRUELING. Here’s what this year’s hand cyclists have been through already – and what’s to come.

Stage 1: Monday, July 15
The distance is manageable – the pace, not so much. Day 1 consists of a 9 mile time trial. This is fiercely competitive with all the competitors vying for their place.

Stage 2: Wednesday, July 17
Today is pretty hard. Okay, REALLY hard. The ride is 46 miles out of Fairbanks, which, shockingly, is not a flat road. This run has some seriously steep hills. At the end of the day, the gaps between competitors will really start to widen.

Stage 3: Thursday, July 18
Tomorrow’s ride is a whopping 51 miles on a constant incline. Yeah, that’s right. 51 miles UP hill. And, according to the race site, it is “very unusual for winds to be calm during this stage.” Elevation, winds, distance – if you aren’t truly one of the world’s top hand cyclists, this won’t be a great day for you.

Stages 4 & 5: Friday, July 19
Not one, but 2 stages today. AWESOME. The first is a 10 mile time trial through Denali Park. A beautiful scene, if you can get past all the sweat in your eyes. In the afternoon, it’s a quick 28 miles downhill. This is a very fast race, and a chance for the non-climbers of the group to make some serious strides.

Stage 6: Saturday, July 20
Almost there. Today is 50 miles of high elevation and tough terrain. But the competitors can’t wear themselves out today – tomorrow, the real fun begins.

Stage 7: Sunday, July 21
Last. Day. But it’s not easy. In fact, it’s the hardest stage yet. It finishes on the very ominously named Hatcher Pass Climb. More than 3,500 feet of elevation to glory!

You can follow along with the race on and on Twitter at @akzen. Interested in hand cycling but not ready for the Alaska Challenge? Check out Magee’s opportunities for hand cycling! No gold medals necessary.

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