A slightly edited version of this article appeared in Cycling Plus in September 2011. I was contractually not allowed to republish it for a period…and then I forgot. And then I remembered again. So, as a Christmas treat for you all, here it is. It was my first trip back to Sweden since the Eurotandem and for once I couldn’t complain there was nothing happening.
“ I glanced at the computer and turned to my Swedish girlfriend, who was riding beside me. She didn’t know she was my Swedish girlfriend yet; we’d only met five minutes earlier when I’d ridden up alongside her and I hadn’t got as far as telling her.
“One hundred English miles done. Only eighty six to go!” I said, with as much lightness of tone as I could manage.
“Fourteen Swedish miles to go!” she said.
“So that’s how it’s done!” I thought. Today’s ride would be a mere thirty miles! For you see, in Sweden, when they speak of a mile, they mean ten kilometres. Honey, I shrunk the Vätternrund.
I’d been trying to get my head round the idea of riding three hundred kilometres in one day ever since I’d made my online application for Vätternrundan way back in September. I was so paranoid about how I was going to do it that I’d begun training right away, starting with a fifty-mile “Tour de Darlo” to mimic the mostly flat (or so I’d been led to believe) Vätternrund course. At the end I’d thought, “Well, only another two and a half times round that and that’s a Vatternrund.” That didn’t help at all. Whichever way I looked at it, it still looked like a very long ride with another very long ride bolted onto the end.
The months of training had shrunk to weeks, the weeks to days and suddenly there I was, like a kid waiting for Christmas as the day of the ride came around. Although I wasn’t due to start until midnight, I’d been pottering about since the morning, too excited to do anything useful like sleep. I’d eaten my own weight in pasta at various cafes around Motala, all busy with other riders and their friends and families. In the town square was operation HQ – a massive marquee where a team of well-drilled volunteers issued us with our start packs and answered everyone’s questions with endless reserves of patience and good cheer. Also housed within was the event shop so if you had forgotten any little items, such as your bike, you could be ready to go before you could say “Three hundred kilometres on a new saddle? Nej tack!”
When I told my brother I was going to Sweden to take part in Vätternrundan, he said, “Ah, good. Whilst you’re there you could book yourself into a clinic and have some voluntary euthanasia.”
I said, “That’s Switzerland, you idiot!” Poor Sweden, always mistaken for the home of the cuckoo clock; famous for Abba, Volvo and, er… Actually it deserves to be much more famous in cycling circles for this, the biggest cycle in a circle of them all. It all started back in 1965 when Sten-Otto Liljedahl, sometime team doctor for the Swedish football squad, was doing research into the relationship between endurance events and nutrition. He teamed up with Ewart Ridell, who ran a bike shop in Motala on Lake Vättern (Sweden’s second-biggest, fact fans), and made a tour of the lake. That first ride took them twenty-two hours. The following summer, 334 riders set off on the first official Vätternrund. This year, twenty thousand riders took part.
Try to picture it: twenty thousand riders piling into a town of thirty thousand souls, all with their bikes too. The start list alone filled sixty-five pages in the local newspaper. Twenty thousand riders being set off in groups of fifty every two minutes. It took from half past seven in the evening until seven the following morning to get everyone away – the mere mortals that is. After that, another seven hundred riders with ambitions to be back in under nine hours set out. The organisers reckon that if you take the number of people who take part, multiply by the distance ridden and then by the number of years it’s been running (2011 was the 46th edition), you rack up one hundred and thirty million kilometres. On that measure, it’s the biggest recreational bike ride in the world.
By seven o’ clock the collective psychic heat-rays from 20,000 riders had driven away the rain. It seemed the whole town was out to cheer and wave. A band played on a stage, a huge video screen on the back of a lorry showed pictures of the action and roving reporters were interviewing riders for the closed-circuit TV coverage. Among them were those in the blue numbers – survivors from that first Vätternrund, who would lead out the event. Old men now, but still fit and wily enough to complete the circuit.
It was still dusky in the northern sky when I made my way to the start pen at midnight. “Bip, bip, bip, bip bip, BEEP!” With a smile as wide as the Motala harbour bridge I was on my way, following a tandem down the starting straight and through the first right-hander. At the front were two motorbikes. The local motorcycle club, in a show of solidarity with their leg-powered cousins, had turned out in numbers to provide the service.
I made my first friend less than twenty minutes into the ride – a lanky lad with a grin as wide as my own who rolled up beside me and said “Hej! It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?” He was right; it was, as we bowled along in the bunch, a string of red lights as far as we could see ahead. That fat old moon shone like a spoon and scampered through the fields alongside us.
My friend’s name was Björn, not unreasonably, and he came from Malmö. He said it was his first Vätternrund too. He just wanted to get round and enjoy himself. He said, “I have two friends who were aiming for a nine-hour finish. They didn’t get enough training in so they didn’t come.”
I said, “In that case, next year I’m aiming for a seven hour finish but I’m not going to show up either!”
We rode side by side, chatting about this and that, until Björn said, “Forty Kilometres. Two hours” I did a quick calculation in my head. “20km an hour; ten hours for 200km – that’s fifteen hours to finish. Nooooo!” I’d been secretly hoping for a sub-10, you see. We agreed that rather than yakking, we could help each other fight the persistent headwind by taking turns at the front, and by this means we latched onto the back of a group which towed us along at a good pace – too good, as it turned out. After 20 minutes Björn said he needed to go a bit slower, and we did – until the next group whisked us up. The productivity gains were just too tempting. Eventually Björn said he would have to drop back, “But you go ahead! Good luck!” and I never saw my new friend any more. I did think of looking him up in the results but there were dozens of Björns. You know what they say in Sweden – there’s one Björn every minute.
Under the cloak of night, and with the pack spreading out as we got further from Motala, I found myself in solitude with my thoughts. Even riders in groups with their friends became quiet as the first pangs of suffering began to bite. But we were not alone. All along the roadside, in villages and lay-bys, groups of people stood to cheer and wave as each bunch came through. “Heja! Heja!” they cried – a kind of Swedish “Allez!” Some had lit fires or barbeques. The kids were allowed to stay up late and it was funny to think that even when they got up in the morning, the riders would still be streaming through.
From advice I’d gleaned from places like the BikeRadar forum, I could expect to by whisked along in a thousand-strong peloton. I probably wouldn’t have to pedal at all. And it would be flat. But I wasn’t, and I did. And it wasn’t. OK, 1,300 metres isn’t the Tourmalet but Sweden specialises in long, draggy climbs – often little more than false flats. They sapped speed which was already at a premium thanks to the headwind that persisted all the way to the southern tip of the lake. The course rose and fell through the forests that looked like the kinds of places where Inspector Wallander would stumble across a decomposing body. The views, though, when gaps appeared in the forest, were lovely across a lake as big as a sea. We sped through the pretty wooden town of Gränna in the first rays of the morning sun (it was still only 3.45). This even had a decent stretch of pavé, by the way; the only variation from Sweden’s silky tarmac. Water bottles started pinging off in all directions. Paris-Roubaix? Pah – a mere 260km.
I’d skipped the first rest station so I was more than ready to stop at the second. Hundreds were there before me but an army of volunteers kept the tea, coffee and hot blueberry juice flowing. Food amounted to bananas, thousands of sweet, dry buns and, curiously, pickled gherkins which I just couldn’t face at four in the morning. It was the same fare at all the other rest stops. By the end I had buns coming out of my ears but I had to keep eating them – gels and energy drink are not enough on a ride of this length.
The refreshment factor was remarkable and soon after setting off again I was passed by a group of about a dozen club riders, not going much faster than me. Sensing my chance I jumped on the back. Then another rider jumped on my wheel, and some more on his and pretty soon we had us a convoy.
This was how I met my Swedish Girlfriend. She told me that she was doing the ride as part of the Swedish Classic – four events in one year, taking in gruelling swims, cross-country skiing, running and of course Vätternrundan. “This is my weakest event, though,” she said, “I haven’t ridden my bike in months.”
“Well, you’re doing quite well,” I said, as I tried to keep up.
I could have ridden like this all day. I even got down on the drops for a while – after all, this is Cycling Plus. But the next rest stop came up, the bunch swung in and I never saw any of them again. Not even my Swedish Girlfriend.
Lukewarm lasagne at breakfast was a new experience for me; but when I looked down at my plate it had gone so I must have eaten it. I left the canteen and headed to the massage tent. These were stationed at every stop and once I realised I wasn’t going to set a new course record I’d figured I would have time for this. Actually, I was mainly interested in a chance to lie down. The beefy masseuse soon located the knot in my neck that had been troubling me for weeks and showed no mercy. Cruel, but effective. Afterwards I lay on the grass, listening to a thousand people talking about bikes in Swedish and soon became aware of a soft snoring sound. Some corner of my brain told me it was coming from me and I woke with a start, leapt up and got back on the bike before I could succumb again.
The pace had been much higher since the turn north but the draggy climbs kept coming. Although I passed plenty of people on these, plenty more were passing me. Riders with start numbers of 17,000 or more were coming through – people who had set off four hours or more later than I had. It was also a blow to my cycling-god image to see the kinds of machinery I was struggling to pass. Sure, there was lots of high-end technology out there but also a remarkable number of people on mountain bikes or even old shoppers. One old boy’s kickstand pointed back at me like an accusing finger. I spent five minutes reeling in a guy in sandals, riding flat pedals on a green mountain bike. When I finally passed him I saw that this was built by that well-known manufacturer of lightweight machinery – John Deere.
But I found a powerful psychological weapon. Whilst the miles on the bike computer had been piling up painfully slowly, if I tried clock-watching instead, my ten-hour target came round like a condemned man’s last moments. In fact it had long since receded into history when a sign by the side of the road told me, “Free chocolates for every rider”. Sure enough, in the next layby a kind old lady was dishing out great big chocolate truffle balls. She must have liked my face because she gave me two. “Only four miles to go now!” she said. Swedish miles, of course, but I knew now I was going to make it and that harbour-bridge smile was back.”