Mountain bikers battle snow and hail in Pakistan

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The Independent Online

Rolling over rock fields and soaring past glaciers, some of the world's top mountain bikers came to Pakistan at the weekend to do battle at altitudes of up to 4,200 metres (13,800 feet).

Undeterred by travel warnings over Taliban-linked violence in the lawless northwest, national champions from around the world came to test their skills and stamina in the Himalayas International Mountain Bike Race.

Teams from Britain, Holland, Slovakia and beyond bumped along the mud flats and meadows of the lush Kaghan valley - once a popular draw for tourism until the Islamist insurgency rose up on its doorstep 10 years ago.

Though the closest militant activity is 100 kilometres (60 miles) away from the snow-capped peaks of Kaghan, foreign tourists disappeared from the area after 9/11, and all of Pakistan has been a "no-go" zone for foreign sports teams since a militant attack on the Sri Lankan cricket squad in Lahore in 2009.

But drawn by the challenging climbs and stunning views, 30 Western mountain bikers travelled to race against three Pakistani teams over the three day-long stages of the race - at times battling snow so thick they had to carry their bikes.

Starting at 2,900 metres in the northwest region's Naran valley, the cyclists pedalled along the lake-dotted Babusar pass, toiling up to 4,200 metres before descending steeply to end the first stage.

"The view is very panoramic. This is perfect place for mountain biking," said Martin Haring, 24, Slovakia's national cross country champion, who said it was the highest altitude he had ever made.

For German Stefi-Hadraschek-Jochem, the height of the Himalayan peaks was also the draw.

"I was excited because of the altitude, it is nice to ride in such conditions," she said.

The second stage of the race stretched 53 kilometres around Lake Saif-ul-maluk, sat above the treeline at 3,200 metres and surrounded by a ring of majestic snow-capped mountains.

In the final stage on Sunday the cyclists tackled steep climbs alternating with stunning plateaus dotted with tall pine trees, before a sudden hailstorm bombarded them as they reached the top.

Mel Alexander, the British current European singlespeed champion, emerged as the women's champion of the race.

"I have never been on such difficult tracks on such big mountains," she said on finishing.

Haring was the overall male champion in the race, which was held to raise funds for a school in the area run by the Kaghan Memorial Trust.

Winning each stage and finishing with an overall time of six hours, 42 minutes and 24 seconds across the 130 kilometre race, Haring easily beat the runner up, New Zealander Nathan Dahlberg, who finished in just under seven and a half hours.

Great Britain lifted the team trophy, beating teams from Slovakia, Holland, Denmark, and Pakistan, and other national and international teams.

The Kaghan valley, still a popular draw for holidaymakers within Pakistan, has seen numbers of foreign visitors dwindle to just 2,000 each year, as fears over terrorism dog the stunning region.

The sight of 30 male and female bikers from 11 countries clad in bright cycling gear caused a stir among the valley's largely traditional farming population.

"Their colourful costumes have really added to the beauty of these lakes and mountains," said Sajjad Shah, a tourist from the eastern city of Lahore.

"The authorities should do more to bring foreigners over here."

Despite foreign government warnings urging caution in travelling to the nuclear-armed South Asian nation, the intrepid cyclists didn't think twice about competing in the event, but said they had encountered visa trouble.

Britain's 24-hour solo champion Rickie Cotter said she had been forced to obtain an invitation to travel from the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after the embassy queried her mountain bike's registration.

But the competitors said they hoped travel restrictions would be eased and vowed to return if the event was held next year.

"There is terrorism in Pakistan but it is only in some places and the rest of the country is safe. And security issues are everywhere in the world," said Austrian rider Lisa Pleyer.