Let’s get something straight: not all heroes wear capes.
No, I’m not talking about Superman.
For 11 days, while we cycled 561 kilometers awe-struck from Manali to Leh, I tried to find a way to describe the sheer determination that I saw on the faces of my team members. No luck.
Nothing seemed to be accurate. These team members of mine pulled themselves from the comforts of society, subjected themselves to relentless, breathless cycling at altitudes that threatened AMS, faced sub-zero temperatures, rain, hail, slept on the ground every night- the list goes on.
And yet every morning they woke up, a little puffy-eyed maybe, but with big goofy grins, thrilled for the beautifully painful day that lay before us. The physical challenges of the expedition from Manali to Leh will no doubt test your limits, but on this adventure of a lifetime I learned something- the human body can go as far as your mind will let it.
And then I realized something else- you become your own superhero on this journey, pushing yourself harder than you ever thought you could. You discover that your legs, lungs, and mind itself are the greatest superpowers you could possess.
So let’s count down the mightiest challenges of the Manali-Leh cycling adventure, the times you need your inner superhero most, all the way down to number one (and what you can do to help yourself take it on).
Manali - Leh Cycling Challenges:
6. Rohtang Pass
Day three begins at Marhi, your previous night’s camp, and promptly sends you off and, well, up the 18-kilometer ascent to snowy Rohtang Pass perched 3,980 meters above sea level. Switchback after switchback aside, the beginning portion is particularly difficult because this is your second day of cycling, which means your behind is going to be feeling the burn after yesterday- at least for a little while.
Never fear though, because you’ve got more control over this situation than you may think…
To ease that pain in your bum, there is one very important, very simple thing you can do- stretch. Your trek leader will lead your crew through a stretch session after your ride each day, but it never hurts to get rid of a little extra lactic acid (the stuff that makes you sore) on your own. Got a trouble spot? Give it a little extra attention. In the morning before breakfast, give yourself an extra 10 minutes to work some stretches for your glutes into the equation- trust me, you’ll thank yourself. And it never hurts to buy an add-on cushion for your bike seat (you’ll be best friends by the end).
Of course, while you navigate the switchbacks for an hour or two, I don’t think it ever hurts to remind yourself what rewards wait for you at the top. A beautiful temple, snow fight and a much-earned (and gorgeous) descent down the other side await you- so pedal away!
5. The First Day
Manali to Marhi. With just under 2,000 meters of elevation gain in 34 kilometers, it’s no walk in the park but is for certain a good introduction of what is to come. It will take you through the Himalayan formations overlooking Manali as you leave it below, lush green forests, panoramic valley, and gorge views as you rise along the final 13-kilometer switchback stretch to Marhi- but make no mistake, every centimeter is earned, not given.
Best advice? Get some really good rest the night before. If you traveled to Manali by bus as we did, you will feel the similar exhaustion of a long (long) day’s journey. Give your body the strength it needs to start off your adventure with energy!
Another way to make sure your body is ready is training- give it a chance to build stamina and strength at home so you can spend more time taking in one of the world’s most gorgeous cycling routes.
Want to get started? Check out our training advice.
4. Baralacha La Pass
Don’t underestimate this beauty. She’s nestled at just over 5,000 meters, with two high-altitude, glimmering lakes to meet you on your way to the top. The 20-kilometer climb is undeniably a workout regardless, but the unpredictable weather can be the real test of your courage. During our climb to Baralacha La, we met head-on (literally) with rain, fog and hail- a very grueling combo, one that threatened frostbite for those of us without gloves.
Of course, the next batch of our Manali-Leh adventurers cycled to the top of Baralacha La with sunny, clear-blue skies- but the moral of this story is that preparation of gear will make all the difference. You’ll be carrying a daypack with you as you cycle, and if those clouds turn a scary color, you’ll know you’ve got yourself covered.
Riding gloves are a must to keep your fingers warm enough to use the brakes and layers for your torso (riding shirt, insulation long sleeve, fleece, and rainproof outer layer).
Want to check out the complete packing list? Check it out here.
3. Gata Loops
These are infamous on the Manali-Leh road. The twenty-two switchbacks wind up and up...and up on your way to your campsite at Pang, but first bring you to the spectacular views of Nakila and Lachulung La Passes.
This is where I will bring up the importance of bike maintenance- it’s true that an artisan should never blame his tools, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have them in their best shape, can it?
Your bike is your best friend- you two are going to be spending a lot of time together, make sure you take care of it, and it will take care of you too! Each morning before you ride, make sure your bike is clean and oiled, check your gears are movin’ and groovin’ the way they ought to, test both of your brakes (you might need those!), and give it a little test ride around the campsite to make sure everything's the way it should be.
Your body went through a lot the day before, but so did your bike! A lot of times overnight the tires can lose pressure and become a little soft- trust me, not fun. A quick top-off of sir before each day’s ride will do ya good!
2. Tanglang La Pass
It’s the world’s second-highest motorable pass, so naturally, it’s second on this countdown (betchya can’t guess what number one is). At 5,360 meters on day nine, you’re fighting the culminated fatigue of your adventurous week so far, not to mention some serious altitude.
Tanglang La can be a little sneaky- you see the pass from far down below, but it always seems to shy away around the next corner of the mountain range as you round each bend. She might toy with you, but your mental superhero is too strong for that.
Keep your eye on that prize, that steaming cup of chai at the peak, that blinding view of the Stok range emerging amidst the fluttering prayer flags of the summit’s temple and of course, that sense of self-accomplishment unlike anything you’ve felt before.
1. Khardung La Pass
Surprise! Okay, you kind of expect the world’s highest motorable pass to be number one on this list- and, well, it should be.
Because you cycle vertical 45 kilometers because you ascend 2,000 meters in about seven hours because you reached 5,602 meters- because you are on Day 11 and just finished traveling about 480 kilometers across the Himalayas of northern India.
On a freaking bicycle.
That’s impressive (not to mention you’ve seen some of the most stunning terrains on the planet). But you’ve got unfinished business.
First off, the elevation gain.
While you should be relatively acclimatized by now, AMS symptoms can still hit you unexpectedly at times if you’re not careful (umm, no thank you), so make sure you are hydrating like there’s no tomorrow. Five liters of water a day should be your goal- yes, I did say five. Keep your hat off your ears so they can be out in the open and adjusting. I know you’re tired after your long days of pedaling, but fight that urge to nap or huddle in your tent when you arrive at your camp- your body can’t acclimatize as well at rest.
Second, you’ve already made it to Leh and slept in a cozy hotel for the night- you’ve returned to the world of comfort and real beds and your beloved Whatsapp- and now you’ve got to leave it again??
This is your grand finale- tell yourself that. You have brought yourself this far, and you will get to the top, dangit. This is my parting advice for you: learn the art of the self-pep talk. If you can remind yourself how strong you are, your body will step up to the task- and before you know it, you’re sitting (quite literally) on top of the world.
Congratulations, you are a real-life superhero.
No cape necessary.