That’s the Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road in the United Arab Emirates. Jebel Hafeet means ‘empty mountain’ in the local lingo and the road up what is the UAE’s second-highest peak was built in 1980 by one of Europe’s biggest construction companies, the Austrian-based firm Strabag SE. Since then the road has not only appeared in the annual Abu Dhabi Tour every year since its inception in 2015, it has also starred in a Bollywood film called RACE. Starting in Green Mubazzarah National Park, the road weaves its way up 9.2km, to an elevation of 1,126m at an average gradient of 7%, with a maximum gradient of 11%. It’s the heat (the average annual temperature is 33°C/92°F) that makes this a challenge to climb while the 21 bends, ranging from tight hairpins to fast, sweepers, make it a thrill to descend. The desert views at the top, where you’ll also find a palace, are spellbinding.
2. Exotic rides in China
Tianmen Shan Big Gate Road (also known as the Tiananmen Winding Mountain Road and, rather more poetically, Heaven-Linking Avenue) is in Tiananmen National Park in Hunan Province in eastern China. Built over eight years from 1998 to 2006 and at the cost of £11.5 million, it is an astonishing achievement. It’s often used for local races but Red Bull also held its Sky Gate mountain bike festival there in 2015 and 2016 – check out YouTube for lots of footage of gnarly dudes grabbing sick air. Or something. Described by some as ‘the Holy Grail of cycling’, the 11km road has – get this – 99 bends, which need to be negotiated as it snakes its way up what’s an almost sheer cliff face, gaining 1,200 meters of elevation at an average gradient of 10%. The mostly traffic-free road cuts through lush green vegetation to the summit where the Tiananmen Cave awaits. Here, a naturally formed 30m-wide hole in the mountaintop allows shafts of celestial sunlight to pour into the cave – which is why the cave is also known as the Gate to Heaven.
3. Exotic rides in New Zeland
This is Milford Road in the heart of New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park at the southwestern end of the South Island. If you’re a fan of The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy you’ll know that this is where director Peter Jackson shot more than a few key scenes. As well as providing a great backdrop for Hobbit-bothering antics, this entire area is also a delight for cyclists with gravel trails and mountain bike paths aplenty. Built-in the 1930s, the Milford Road, though, is definitely the main draw for adventures of a two-wheeled disposition. It even hosts its own race, the annual Milford Mountain Classic each January which (not surprisingly) attracts riders from all over the world. The 120km ride from Te Anau to Milford Sound is real bucket-list stuff. The first 29km of the road hugs the shoreline around Lake Te Anau before entering the Eglington Valley for 33km, following the river to stunning lakes then climbing up to its highest point at the Homer Tunnel (at 945m and a 10% gradient). The road emerges at the top of the Cleddau Valley where its sweeping descents take you down to the ethereal Milford Sound.
4. Exotic rides in Morocco
This route definitely wins the title of ‘Most Exotic Name’: Morocco’s Road of One Thousand Kasbahs weaves its way up through vast desert landscapes, ancient villages, and palm groves through the Dades Valley between the Atlas and Anti Atlas Mountain Ranges. Much of it was built in the 1930s by the French, who exerted colonial control over the country up until 1956. The road from Marrakech in central southern Morocco to Merzouga on the edge of the Sahara Desert in the east adds up to over 500km of riding. Zig-zagging your way up the likes of Tizi n’Tichka – the mountain pass that links Marrakech to the city of Ouarzazate via the High Atlas mountains –sees you climbing to a high point of 2,260m altitude at an average gradient of 7%. Don’t get the idea this is easy, though. Tichka apparently means ‘it’s difficult’ in the local dialect and the route is busy with switchbacks while average temperatures in summer can peak at 37°C/99°F and drop to around freezing in the winter when a dusting of snow is a common sight near the summit.
5. Exotic rides in Romania
Looking not unlike the iconic Passo Dello Stelvio in northern Italy, the Transfagara?a Pass in Romania gets a special mention here because, well, by comparison, this remarkable road is a well-kept secret. Built-in the 1970s as a strategic response to the Soviet Union’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, it’s also known as Ceau? Esau’s Folly in ironic honor of Romania’s dastardly Cold War dictator who’d demanded its construction. You’ll find it in the southern section of the Carpathian Mountains between Romania’s highest peaks. Pro racing nerds will know it from the Sibiu Cycling Tour and the Tour of Romania. Reaching an altitude of 2,042 meters, you can expect dozens of switchbacks as well as five unlit tunnels and viaducts along this 90km route. Although the gradient maxes out at a knee-popping 23%, the average throughout is a little less daunting 7%. Starting on the outskirts of Bascov, it follows the River Area through a lush, verdant valley, before the climb takes you weaving up and over the top of the Fagaras mountains then flings you down to Cartisoara on the other side.
6. Exotic rides in Vietnam
The Col de Mã Pí Lèng is a mountain pass that twists its way up the side of a gigantic canyon connecting Dong Van and Cao Bang in northern Vietnam, not far from the Chinese border. The road was built between 1959- 1965 and was so difficult and dangerous to construct that when the local builders finished it, they dubbed it Hanh Phuc (stop giggling at the back) or ‘happiness road’. With an elevation of 1,500 meters and gradients often in excess of 10%, the 200km route between Dong Van and Cao Bang has been variously described as ‘mind-blowing’, ‘overwhelming’ and ‘like riding through a fairytale’. Although fairy tales can, of course, sometimes be scary and the 20km climb of Mã Pí Lèng Pass sometimes delivers on that score, with dizzying twists and blind bends accompanied by sudden, gulp-inducing drops. It’s all worth it for the views, however. This is a corner of the world barely bothered by human life. Here, with its giant limestone peaks, fertile forests and glistening rivers, nature reigns in all its spectacular glory.
7. Exotic rides in Argentina
La Ruta 40 is a remarkable strip of road that stretches from Santa Cruz Province in Southern Argentina to Jujuy Province right the way up in the north of the country, just south of the Bolivian border. Construction of this epic route began in 1935 and – not surprisingly given its size – is still ongoing, with the southernmost part still yet to be properly completed. At its most southern end, near its start in Río Gallegos, La Ruta 40 is adventure bike or MTB territory only, as it’s largely unpaved. As it heads north, however, into more populated areas, it evolves into a modern, well-maintained highway. At 5,000km long it’s one of the longest roads in the world and rises to 5,000 meters at its highest point. It winds through 27 passes as it climbs through the Andes, crosses 18 major rivers and traverses 20 national parks before reaching its end in the small northern city of La Quiaca.
8. Exotic rides in Norway
The Atlantic Ocean Road runs between the villages of Kårvåg on Averøy and Vevang in Møre or Romsdal on the mid-west Norwegian coast. Building began in 1983 but construction was hampered by 12 separate European Windstorms (a type of cyclone, apparently) the road wasn’t finished until 1989. And at the cost of a staggering £11.3 million. Money that was eventually recovered within 10 years through trolls. Sorry tolls. The 8.3km road is built on several small islands, rocky outcrops called skerries which are connected together by numerous viaducts and causeways, as well as eight bridges. As the road’s built close to sea level, it never climbs higher than 15m although its gradient does reach 8% in a few places as it takes you hovering over the water, across moorlands, and via rugged bays. The road also comes around a third of the way into the 200kmlong National Bicycle Route 1 which runs from Kristiansund in the north to Ålesund in the south. A route, incidentally, that’s thought of as Norway’s finest road cycling experience.
9. Exotic rides in Hawaii
Say ‘aloha’ to the Hana Highway which connects Kahului and Hana on the north coast of the Hawaiian island of Maui. Its origins date back to the 16th century when Maui’s then king Pi’ilani ordered the building of a road 4ft 6in wide and paved with lava rocks. Modernization of that ancient highway began in the 1870s, with the road as Hawaiians know it today officially opening in 1926. It may be in the middle of the Pacific but Hawaii is obviously a US State and as with any road made in ’Merica, it’s smooth, signposted and well maintained. That said, don’t expect the riding to be easy. Its 64-kilometer-long route includes 617 hairpin bends, 59 single-lane bridges, and numerous blind spots. Along the way, it passes steaming waterfalls and cuts through lush tropical rainforests, as well as offering staggering coastal rides. At its highest, the road climbs to 1,418m, although for the most part, the roads are rolling with an average gradient of just 2.5%. That said, there are a couple of stinging climbs where that jumps up to 11% plus.
10. Exotic rides in Ethiopia
Cycling perhaps doesn’t get any more exotic than riding in the heart of Africa, and the Tigray road from Adigrat to Axum in Ethiopia is one of the finest places to sample that continent’s delights. And what a road! Part of Ethiopian Highway 2 which was built in the late 1990s as part of a nationwide building program which saw the government invest £26 billion in road infrastructure projects in a bid to lift the country out of poverty. Today, there are over 100,000 kilometers of tarmacked roads in Ethiopia, which has experienced an economic upturn as a result. At 130km, this is a ride that is as challenging as it is stunning. Starting with a 12km climb out of the town of Adigrat at a gradient that shifts between 5 and 10%, the road leads up the nearby Atebe mountain to the summit at Mugulat, 2,821 meters up. It then repays the effort with a 20km thrill ride down the other side into Bizet, followed by more undulating terrain through wide open plains and past the jagged Adwa mountains, whose sandstone slopes have been carved by the wind. The final 25km into Axum present one last 5km climb at an average gradient of 10%.