Cycling Saudi Arabia’s Asir Mountains
Summary by PJAMM founder John Johnson.
I’ve cycled all throughout the world documenting epic, scenic, and challenging bike climbs. Without a doubt, my Asir Mountain trip was the greatest adventure of my life.
The Asir Mountains of Saudi Arabia are hands down home to the greatest concentration of HC and top 100 bike climbs in the world. An astounding five Top 25 climbs and 12 Top 100 are found in these mountains. Further distancing itself from my other cycling trips and adventures were: (a) the uniform welcoming, encouraging, and gracious attitudes of those we encountered on our climbs and, (b) the Asir Mountains are completely unknown, undocumented, and undiscovered by the cycling world.
I know I’m beating the same drum over and over in my summaries of the 12 Asir Mountain Top 100 Bike Climbs, but they are without exception epic, stunning, and off-the-charts steep and hard. As proof that these climbs are unknown, only one of the 12 Top 100 World Bike Climbs there had a Strava segment.
If you ever have the chance to travel to and ride your bike in these mountains, do not pass up that unparalleled opportunity - you will regret it. I know because several friends and riding partners of mine refused to travel to Saudi Arabia due to unfounded fear for their safety, primarily the result of what I experienced as inaccurate information on the US State Department website (more on that below).
John, Adnan (amazing guide) and Matt
THE BIG 3
Although each of the 12 top 100 climbs are extraordinary in their own right, these three are in a league of their own:
- Al Jaadah: World #2 at 7.7 miles, averaging 14.5% average grade (with a quarter-mile 24%, and one mile at 19.5%).
- Baniamr Aquabah: World #4 at 5.9 miles, with an average grade of 16.3% and home to the steepest 5 km (20.6%), and 10 km (15.7%).
- Rdom: 6.3 miles averaging 17.6%, and the world’s steepest mile at 26%.
The links to all top Asir Mountain climbs are accessed above via the List, Climb Cards, or Map.
THE ASIR MOUNTAINS
According to the World Wildlife Foundation, the Asir Mountains are composed largely of sedimentary rocks, including limestones, sandstones, and shales, dating from the Jurassic, Cretaceous, and lower Tertiary periods. These visible rock compositions lie atop a complex of Pre-Cambrian granitic igneous rocks. This interesting geographical makeup is the cause for the distinctive rock formations visible in this highest land area of the Arabian Peninsula, and the reason we are able to see unique geographical occurrences (such as the “X” visible in the photos on the Almdan Pass climb page).
There is surprisingly abundant water in the Asir Mountains for a couple of reasons. They get a fair amount of rain (including hail which we experienced one evening), and any water that they don’t get naturally is pumped in from desalination plants.
Saudi Arabia is a first world country and you will have no difficulty finding most items you need. At different times I needed an Apple iPhone cord, coconut water, and various other things that I wouldn’t have guessed would be available in these mountains, but that was my mistake based on misinformation available to me before my trip.
Cell coverage via my ATT international plan was superb (see ATT coverage map).
We stayed in Baljurashi (northern section) for three days at the National Park Hotel (excellent), Danat Layalina Aparthotel in Al Nimas during the middle section of our trip for four days (a bit rough, but manageable and cheap - $60 per night), and finally Abha Palace Hotel (southern section) for four days (an exceptional hotel).
Be sure to visit Rijal Alma Village (about 60 kilometers north of Abha and near the Mt. Souda climb) famous for its gingerbread house style architecture of ancient stone and mortar just a few miles south of the start of the Mt. Souda climb. The village is 900 years old and as of November, 2021 is on the UNESCO tentative World Heritage list.
“Rijal village located in the Assir Region, and is the capital of the Rijal Almaa Province. The village was a natural corridor linking those coming from Yemen and the Levant to Makkah and Madinah which makes it an important regional commercial center. The village consists of about 60 palaces built from natural stone, clay and wood, and the palaces consists of several floors. The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities has adopted a rehabilitation project for the village with the participation of partners from the public and private sectors. The village contains a heritage museum established by the efforts of the local inhabitants in order to save their regional heritage, and they have turned one of the forts into the museum headquarters since 1985. The Village of Rijal Almaa is located 45 km west of the city of Abha, a mountainous area bordered to the east by Al-Souda Center, and from the North Mahayel Asir province, and from the South Al-Darb province, on the west by the Red Sea” (Read more here).
The city of Abha at the southern end of our trip is by far the most vibrant and fun city along the cycling route. This city was so much fun - it has the highest concentration of restaurants I have ever encountered, and there are just so many things to do here while experiencing traditional Saudi Arabian culture. If I did this trip again, I’d cut out the northernmost climbs, fly into and out of Abha, and stay only in Abha and Al Nimas.
Some of the sites and a great meal in Abha.
CYCLING WITH THE FIRST AND REIGNING
SAUDI WOMAN’S NATIONAL CYCLING CHAMPION
Mount Souda (from left: John, Ahlam Zaid (first Saudi women’s cycling champion,
Christiaan Beyers and Steven Oyler).
For two climbs and dinner in Abha, I had the great fortune of visiting and riding with the first (2020) and reigning (2021) Kingdom of Saudi Arabia woman’s cycling champion, Ahlam Zaid.
WHO DO YOU ENCOUNTER IN THE MOUNTAINS?
After the pure challenge of the climbs themselves, my next favorite part of the trip was the people we encountered in the mountains. We had absolutely no problems or close calls with vehicles or people on any of my 11 climbs in 11 days. Traffic was minimal to mild on all but the Mt. Souda climb, and at least half of the motorists passing us either honked or shouted encouragement, stopped to ask if we needed water, or stopped to chat as they were astounded we were riding bicycles up these mountain roads. Several people that stopped invited us to their village for meals and I was interviewed several times by youngsters with cell phones. This was the first time I have ever been a “celebrity,” and it was kinda fun. 😊
Our trip was in November of 2021. November to February are decent times to ride in the Asir Mountains. It was between 90-100°F at the start of our climbs, but it would always begin to cool and approach or enter the 80s after 2,000 feet of climbing. The top was always in the 80s and was essentially perfect cycling weather.
Proper gearing is absolutely imperative - I struggled on the Big 3 on the 20+% grades. I used a 34 chainring with a 42t rear cassette. Others on the trip had rear cassettes ranging from 40 to 50t. I would not attempt any Asir Mountain climb without at least a 34t chainring and 42t rear cassette.
One member of our group for Mount Souda came prepared . . . 👍👍
Baboons are native to the Sarawat region of southwestern Arabia. The Asir Mountains are part of the Sarawat Mountains and we can attest there are a lot of baboons in these mountains.
GETTING IN AND OUT
WHERE TO STAY AND WHO’S YOUR GUIDE
I flew into Jeddah and chose a 7.5 layover in Doha, Qatar versus 1:20 layover - good thing, too, because I would have missed the flight if I had only just over an hour to make the connection. The flight out was fine. However, flying from Abha to Riyadh (and then to Doha and then SFO) was tough. I flew into the Riyadh domestic terminal and had to get my bags, hop a bus, and check into my flight at the international terminal three kilometers away. The biggest of a few problems at the Riyadh airport was that they did not have an oversized baggage pickup in the baggage area - you have to go out of the terminal to a distant kiosk or get lucky at the Baggage Information desk and have your bag brought to you - very stressful process for so many reasons there. If I had it to do over, I’d fly to Jeddah from Abha versus Riyadh.
My guide, Adnan, was simply exceptional on all counts. Adnan speaks excellent English and knows these mountains and their history, as well as Saudi culture and history, extremely well. It was a pleasure, honor, and education traveling with Adnan for 11 days. If you are interested in cycling in, or just visiting, the Asir Mountains, I can contact Adnan for you, or you can contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via WhatsApp at 966-55-399-4853.
DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ ON THE US STATE DEPT WEBSITE
None of my usual cycling adventure partners were willing to accompany me on my Saudi trip. The state department in 2021 had what I consider (at least in November when I traveled to Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) an inaccurate and unfair severe travel warning for Saudi -
Via Travel.State.Gov - Saudi Arabia.
Look, I’m not with Homeland Security of the State Department, but I was in the Asir Mountains for 11 days in November 2021 and the biggest problem I had was wonderful and hospitable Saudis stopping me on steep grades to give me water or chat. I never had any trouble or threats while riding or traveling in the Asir Mountains, nor did I hear of any from anyone before or after my trip.