The World's Toughest Bicycle Race? The Tour of the Dragon
March 23, 2015
Published on Mar 23, 2015
One day. 268 kilometers. Four Himalayan mountain passes. These are the obstacles the cyclists must face, and this is why The Tour of the Dragon is the world's most difficult mountain biking race.
Jeremy La Zelle of Backpacker Films was appointed by His Royal Highness Prince Jigyel U. Wangchuck and the Bhutan Olympic Committee to document the race. Below we talk to him about the challenges of filming such a difficult race, working in the Himalayas, and what exactly this grueling race is all about.
T+L: What makes this race particularly difficult aside from grueling mountains and elevation changes?
From a competitor's standpoint there are many dangers and challenges. Yes, Bhutan's Himalayan Mountains are some of the tallest in the world, and mostly unexplored. What's really difficult, however, is that the race is unsupported. Athletes must carefully select which items to bring along for the ride including proper nutrients, liquids, and at least some minimal survival gear in case they become stranded in the mountains (which does happen).
At higher elevations riders face sub-zero temperatures, rain, snow, and potentially hypothermia. At the lower elevations extreme heat persists with unbearable humidity.
Most of Bhutan's roads are unpaved, bumpy and extremely hazardous. Riders must navigate along foggy exposed mountainsides with thousands of meters of vertical drop around every corner.
From a logistical point of view, Bhutan is simply challenging to get to. There are only two airlines in Bhutan, each providing two flights a day. The airport located in Paro is at an elevation of 2,500 meters and enclosed by Himalayan peaks as high as 5,500 meters. The airport is among the most dangerous in the world, which keeps many travelers from risking the trip.
T+L: Why is Bhutan the ultimate destination for bicycle enthusiasts?
After interviewing and filming the cyclists, many echo similar sentiments regarding how the Kingdom of Bhutan is the ultimate destination for bicycle enthusiasts. The TOD is more than just a race. It's an opportunity for competitors to immerse themselves into a culture that is largely intact and like it was hundreds of years ago. The overall experience becomes an adventure. Bhutan's environment is otherworldly and vastly unexplored. It might be a small nation, but to ride from one end to the other provides cyclists with a completely immersive experience in one of the world's most stunning and untouched environments. It's a unique opportunity to be a part of a nation that cherishes its peaceful existence and the love of sport. It's interesting, as I filmed competitors preparing for the race, and as they crossed the finish line, I noticed the same familiar glee, which basically spoke volumes to what they were thinking - They are doing something so few have done before and are experiencing a race that cannot be duplicated anywhere else in the world. They are creating stories to last a lifetime. I do believe the Kingdom of Bhutan is on a path to become the world's premiere cycling destination.
T+L: How are His Royal Highness Prince Jigyel U. Wangchuck and the Bhutan Olympic Committee bringing the event to the world? How is it promoted?
Though The Tour of the Dragon is going into the fifth year, the event is still in its infancy and the world is just starting to learn of its existence. His Royal Highness Prince Jigyel U. Wangchuck and the Bhutan Olympic Committee are both hoping to continually attract the world's best competitors, but there remains a challenge with funding and balancing the needs and wants of a nation who is just starting to open its doors to the western world. Backpacker Films was fortunate enough to be the first production company to film the race in its entirety. Of course for Bhutan this was a giant leap of faith for them to have the confidence and trust in me to film their environment, their people, and their cherished event for the world to see. I feel very privileged to have this opportunity. Everywhere we went villagers would arrive to meet us in the hundreds to show us their beautiful nation and excitedly take part in filming. Properly promoting the race will take time. Again it's a balancing act for the Kingdom of Bhutan to maintain their incredible culture while opening their doors to the western world. They are taking giant steps forward with an event like the Tour of the Dragon. We are looking forward to helping them again in the future.