IT HAS been dubbed the world’s toughest cycling event.

The annual Race Across America (RAAM) is a gruelling 3,000-mile contest which begins at Oceanside in California and finishes a week later at Annapolis in Maryland.

Cyclists taking part in the exhausting endurance test pedal their way across 12 states, ascending a total of 170,000 feet during the journey.

The overall winner of this year’s race was Austrian rider Christoph Strasser but a group of super-fit athletes from Hampshire are also celebrating.

Team New Forest triumphed in the fiercely-contested four-man under-50 category, taking six days, three hours and 56 minutes to cross America.

Nick Buis, Ian Patterson, John Sibley and Lee Spoor, who are all have so far raised about £8,500, including Gift Aid, for Cancer Research UK.

Ian, a 52-year-old businessman, lost his sister Juliet to cancer three years ago.

John lost his mum two years ago while Lee and Nick have also been touched by the loss of many close relatives.

Ian, from Totton, said: “We had to cope with violent thunderstorms and 40-degree heat but at the end of the race we were elated more than tired.”

Ian’s brother Andrew, of Portsmouth, was in charge of the support crew.

He said: “It was pretty hot in the Arizona dessert and the Appalachians were suffering the tail-end of a hurricane, which meant more than 30 hours of high winds and driving rain.

“The cyclists also had to contend with brutal climbs - 12 per cent gradients that went on for five miles.”

Nick, 38, of Lyndhurst, said he and his fellow riders felt a mixture of exhaustion, excitement and pride as they crossed the finishing line.

He added: “It was a fantastic experience.”

About 2,000 cyclists and support crew took part in the marathon race.

RAAM is 30 per cent longer than the Tour de France but entrants have to complete the distance in roughly half the time - with no rest days.

The event began 1982, when four cyclists raced from Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles to the Empire State Building in New York in a contest that caught the public’s imagination.

Relay teams were introduced in 1992, quickly becoming the most popular and fastest growing segment of the race.

Team racers have a maximum of nine days to complete the route but most finish in about seven and a half with the fastest in just over five days.Solo racers have a maximum of 12 days to complete the race, most finishing in 11 days with the fastest finishing in under eitht days.A spokesman said: “RAAM is seen as a pinnacle of athletic achievement not only in cycling circles but the greater sporting community as well.

“Team racers have a maximum of nine days but most finish in about seven and a half, with the fastest in just over five days.

“RAAM is the true test of speed, endurance, strength and camaraderie - the ideal combination of work and play.”

He added that most solo racers complete the race in 11 days with the fastest finishing in under eight days.