These posts are getting longer and longer!
Anyway, the final third of my journey around Norway was in many ways the toughest. It may not have had the ferocity of the earlier mountain sections, but I had my demons to contend with.
The graveyard bivvy
I’d now mastered the bus stop bivvy, but on day 6 I was caught short. With such a mountainous parcours, the day had taken much longer than expected (still no good at reading elevation profiles) and I wasn’t going to make the prescribed 350 km by bed time. At 22:15 and with 35 km still to go, I was facing a 500 m climb that had somehow looked pretty small next to the rest of the day’s climbs. It was beginning to rain when I found myself in Myklebostad, a small fjord-side village that didn’t seem to put much value in people staying dry while waiting for the bus.
What it lacked in bus shelters, though, it made up with a picturesque church equipped with a conveniently porched outbuilding across the graveyard. With the rain getting heavier, I decided enough was enough and set up camp. I felt a little sacrilegious and half expected the church warden to come marching over to lambast me and send me on my way, but of course no one was any the wiser.
I tucked myself into my sleeping bag, immediately warm and comfortable, and caught a few hours’ sleep to the gentle pitter-patter of rain on the porch roof. By the time I woke up at 03:00, the rain had stopped and I was back on my way.
This went so well that the next day – day 7 – I repeated the experience at another church.
Arriving at a small village called Rennebu close to midnight, I found that I’d miscalculated the distance to the bus stop I’d picked out. I really couldn’t be bothered to continue down the road for another 10 km to reach it, but thankfully, here too was a convenient church. This one didn’t seem to have any such covered area to sleep under, but the weather was so nice that night that I didn’t need it.
I balanced my sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and pillow atop the graveyard wall as the light slowly faded from the sky. My favourite sleeping spot of the whole ride.
Day 7: the Atlantic Ocean Road… and turning around
But let’s talk about the rest of day 7. I had a clear goal: I wanted to see the Atlantic Ocean Road. It was one of the highlights of the route for me, and I was super motivated to get there. I’d take a lot of photos, gaze out across the ocean, breath in the Atlantic air. The kind of thing you’d see in a promotional video on visitnorway.no. But it also turned out to be a turning point for me in the ride in terms of drive and motivation.
It was a pretty flat route for most of the day. There was the small matter of a 500 m climb to be tackled straight out of bed, and another 1,200 m of climbing right at the end of the day. But otherwise flat-ish – hilly, but not mountainous.
So I set off into the pre-dawn darkness in anticipation of the day to come.
That morning I finally got the fruit fix I’d been hankering for since Hadangerfjord.
My feeding strategy had stabilised by now on 2-3 stops per day. I’d try to finish the day with as much food as possible still in my pockets, knowing that I’d have a good, healthy appetite before going to bed, and an even gooder, healthier appetite when I woke up in the morning. There’d be nothing open until 07:00 at the earliest, maybe 08:00, and in the evenings most shops would close at around 20:00. That meant I’d have to carry enough food to last me 12 hours.
In practice, that usually ended up being ⅓ bolle bread, ⅓ nuts, and ⅓ savoury sandwiches/wraps – as much as I could fit in my pockets and bags. Obviously I had to make my “dinner” stop provisions last overnight until the “breakfast” stop the next morning, but I tried in the beginning to make the converse work as well: no food stops during the day; just try to make it last.
That didn’t really work, and usually I needed to stock up once more during the day, generally around lunch time.
But I digress. Day 7’s breakfast provisioning stop happened at a Kiwi supermarket. They had boxes of fresh raspberries. My mind went back to Hardangerfjord… I wasn’t sure how long ago that was, but the memory was still as fresh as the fruit had been and I had to have one.
I picked up a box, wondering vaguely what I was going to do with it. Well, future me could figure that out in 5 minutes’ time, so I went to the checkout. Fast forward 5 minutes and I’d managed to lash the box to my aero bars using the tape that I’d luckily been given by the organiser at the start line for the purpose of securing my GPS tracker. The result was ridiculous but effective.
I thus had the luxury of snacking on fresh raspberries for the next 50 km (I didn’t know Norway grew such delicious fruit), and after that I had an empty tray left on my handlebars. It was surprisingly useful, and for the next 3 days I used it as a nut receptacle for snacking, for holding my phone while reading the route (or texting someone), and just as a general place to put stuff when I needed to free my hands up. I only ditched it when it finally started raining on day 9, and I’m now wondering whether I can actually make something more permanent for my next event – it was that useful.
I was now well on my way to the Atlantic coast. I’d visited this part of Norway a couple of years before with Miranda, when we’d spent a few idyllic days in Ålesund, just a short hop down the coast, at the end of our first visit to Norway. So coming out of the mountainous interior to this serene and (sort of) familiar coastal area felt strangely like I was coming home.
I think this was when my sense of “race urgency” started to decline. I’d already been completely alone for some time now, but with this feeling of ease, there didn’t seem to be much remaining incentive to push myself. I had no one to chase and no one chasing me. I had my own finish time to think about… but how much was that really worth to me? I knew by now that I was almost certainly going to beat the 10 days I’d set out to beat (sorry Sam), and I wasn’t really thinking about targeting 9 days instead.
So I got to the Atlantic Ocean Road, which was as beautiful as I’d hoped, and spent plenty of time taking photos, as expected. I turned round and carried on my way, not really knowing what was ahead of me, other than a lot of tarmac. My focus was diminishing and I started trying to distract myself from the cycling by texting people while on the bike.
When you’re doing an event like this competitively (competing either with yourself or with others) you keep yourself under pressure. You have a mental clock that keeps on ticking, counting every second that you’re not moving, pushing that power output up just a few watts to the limit of what’s sustainable.
This pressure becomes in its own way a kind of motivation – it represents whatever goal you’ve set yourself and frames the effort you’re putting in. So when you give up on that pressure, what’s left? What’s the goal? Just to get home, however that happens.
It turned into a sort of battle with myself, a mental back-and-forth.
“I must go faster!”
“No, I can’t be bothered.”
“But why? What am I trying to achieve? Is it worth pushing myself through such discomfort just to finish a few hours earlier?”
“Whatever man, it’s your life.”
This sort of tiresome inner squabbling was the background noise for the rest of the ride back to Oslo.
The end of day 7 had me climb – yet again – over 1,000 m in order to reach my graveyard bedroom for the night. Thankfully it wasn’t steep, but it was looooong, and knowing this was coming put a downer on the second half of the day. Half way up the climb I happened to see a WhatsApp message from a friend saying that I was “some kind of biking star now”.
He’d sent me a screenshot of a couple of comments on the pre-race video on YouTube (which I myself had watched earlier that day while on the bike) from people who’d been following my progress and commenting on how well I was doing. One of them had said how he expected me to come in under 9 days. I privately dismissed this as unrealistic, but just seeing people’s interest and confidence in me gave me fresh motivation to keep pushing. My power output rose and I pushed on up the climb and into the waning light with renewed energy. It didn’t last long, of course, but it served to remind me, again, that I’m not alone – people are watching me, and people do care.
I crested the climb and began the long descent back to the lowlands where I’d sleep, getting uncomfortably cold in the process and wishing I could just teleport into my sleeping bag. By midnight I was sleeping contentedly on top of the graveyard wall at Rennebu Kirke.
Day 8: it huuuurts
Today’s feature was Trondheim – a town I didn’t know much about – and after that I would finally be going truly south.
The saddle sores that had thus far left me alone decided that now was the moment to strike with a vengeance. I’d been fine up until this point – 7 days of comfortable sitting – but all of a sudden I was struggling to concentrate on turning the pedals, such was the pain. Every bump and crack in the tarmac (and Norway has a lot of those) re-ignited the saddle sores and jolted me out of my just-about-comfortable pedalling rhythm.
Most of the 100 km route to Trondheim was downhill, which was just as well, because I was barely able to make any kind of effort. When I stopped at a Kiwi for breakfast provisions, I pottered around in the shop for much longer than I should’ve done, just trying to give myself some respite before continuing the punishment. When I eventually staggered back out, my bike had fallen over in a show of solidarity.
The night before – in the graveyard – I’d for the first time a) decided to sleep in my bib shorts rather than changing into my sleeping gear and b) forgotten to put fresh chammy cream on when I got up. I have no idea whether these were the reasons for the sudden flare-up, but I was kicking myself for my negligence. I won’t be taking such chances next time.
Against this background of semi-manageable saddle sore pain, I trundled into Trondheim. After a quick tour of the city, visiting Nidarosdomen and Gamle Bybro, I was on my way out again, through the many golden wheat fields, and into the unknown. In a screaming headwind.
The rest of the route from here until the last day becomes a bit hazy for me, thanks to a dearth of landmarks. The route went down the eastern side of Norway, close (ish) to the Swedish border.
Eastern Norway is booooring. Sorry to anyone who lives there, but… mountains are better than trees. There were still plenty of climbs in this part of the country, many of them over 500 m, but they didn’t feel the same. You’d start the climb on a road surrounded by trees, and the road would pitch upwards, into the trees. You’d climb for a long time through the trees, finally getting to the top, where you would have first-class views of the trees surrounding the road. The descent would take you down a long, fast road, back into the trees.
Did I mention trees? Eastern Norway has a lot of them. Apparently it has more in common with Sweden/Finland than the bits of Norway I’d been in up until then, and that doesn’t make me want to visit Sweden/Finland.
Trees or no trees, I’m quite happy to do a big climb when there’s a purpose to it – some interesting terrain or views to be seen at the top, something to put it on the map. But when it offers no reward, well, no thanks. I’d rather stay on the flat.
But even the flat is a challenge when it’s as featureless as this. With no stimulus from the world around you, nothing to look at and nothing to look forward to you’re stuck in your own head. It becomes difficult to take the journey day-by-day, moment-by-moment, when each moment feels the same.
OK, I’m being a bit unfair on this part of Norway. It’s not like the entire route here was a completely homogeneous, amorphous forest of monotony. There was stuff going on in the countryside around me: lakes, towns, churches passed me by, there were views out over bleak tundras, and I even saw my first reindeer, a mother and fawn crossing the road ahead of me (sadly, was not quick enough to get a photo). But it was still a comedown after the excitement of the last week. I’d entered Around Norway specifically because of the romantic ideas I’d had about Norway’s vast mountain landscapes, and I missed them.
What I remember most about this part of the race is more what was going through my head than the places I was going through. My thoughts stretched out from the short, manageable 1-2 day horizon I’d had earlier in the race and I started to dwell on the finish line in Oslo.
All these anonymous, tree-covered climbs weren’t only getting repetitive, but also painful. Along with the saddles sores – which are worse when going uphill, thanks to the tipped-back position on the saddle – my knees started registering their own complaints.
I’ve had knee problems before, sometimes utterly crippling, so I’m always wary when something starts to feel wrong. From experience, though, I also know what this “bad” knee pain feels like, and this wasn’t it. I knew that I needed to keep an eye on it, in case it developed into something more serious, but for now it was just a hindrance rather than a show-stopper.
Nonetheless, the combination of coming-and-going knee pain and always-there saddle sores were a constant weight on my mood that made it that much harder to keep my spirits up and myself in a competitive mindset.
Day 9: why am I here?
After what had seemed like an eternity of birch trees, day 8 was drawing to a close somewhere near the town of Røros with the clouds thickening and raindrops starting to fall. The route took an unexpected turn onto a long gravel road of some 7 km with more than its fair share of potholes, which my saddle sores did not appreciate.
With all of my insecurities and misgivings bouncing around in my head, I was trying to decide what to do about the final 2 days on the bike. I was thinking again about the YouTube comment about finishing in 9 days, but after some quick mental calculations – 2 hours’ sleep now, back on the bike at 02:30, 675 km to cover in ca. 35 hours – decided again that it would be such a long shot that it wasn’t worth trying. And it was raining properly now. To hell with 9 days, I thought, so I holed up in a bus shelter that looked like it had been knocked together in someone’s shed with a corrugated metal roof, set my alarm for 4 hours’ sleep, and slept.
At 03:00 on day 9 it was 7°C and still raining heavily. I was warm and comfortable in my sleeping bag and it was oh so very hard to unzip it, face the cold air, and start the miserable process of packing my stuff and preparing to get totally drenched in the early morning darkness. I’m embarrassed to say I even snoozed my alarm a couple of times, trying in vain to avoid the inevitable.
But eventually I was moving again, this time aiming for Valdresflye – a great mountain plateau reaching 1,398 m above sea level, the second highest pass in Norway after the Sognefjellsvegen that I’d traversed on day 6. It was the last real landmark on the route, and the last place I’d really been looking forward to visiting. Before I got there I had plenty more climbing-in-trees to do (which is too boring to write about) and plenty more opportunity to reflect on my predicament (which I hope isn’t).
I’d calculated that with 340 km between me and Valdresflye, I was probably going to go get there at nightfall. This gave me two options: a) ride through the night and get to Oslo as quickly as possible, missing the views on Valdresflye, or b) get some sleep and see the views, conceding maybe 4-5 hours.
Just like on day 1, more than a week ago, and after many hours of inner struggle, I chose the latter. I’d arrived at a petrol station in Ringebu, the last stop before the climb up to Valdresflye, 230 km from where I’d started that day. My morale was again at a nadir, and I was wondering what point there was in punishing myself with a miserable all-nighter just to get into Oslo a few hours earlier. After all, the scenery was the very reason I’d signed up for this. Wouldn’t it be stupid to miss out on one of the best bits?
This showed me the contradiction of what I was doing. I do want to get a fast time, and I even feel a kind of compulsion to push myself to do the best I can. But at the same time I need something more than that – it has to be an adventure. 3,400 km around a velodrome would not do it for me, but nor would 3,400 km around, say, the Netherlands, without excitement or challenge. And if I’m signing up for something exciting and challenging, then of course I want to enjoy it properly. I want to take photos and see things, which is inherently at odds with the goal of finishing as quickly as possible.
I’d been spending so much time taking photos – often more than 30 minutes per day – that the ride at times felt more like a tour than a race. And yet, if the route’s not worth taking photos of, I don’t think it’s really worth doing.
So after nearly an hour in the petrol station at Ringebu, including stocking up on boller and water, eating as much calzone and hot dog as possible, and chatting to a scouser who’d just returned from an ultra-marathon in Oslo, I got on my way with my plan to overnight at the Gjendesheim bus station up on the mountain.
The road climbed and climbed, first through farmland, then forest, the terrain eventually opening out into a wide open, seemingly empty space. In the dying light I could just discern a great lake surrounded by the dark, hulking forms of mountains, their outlines barely visible against the descending night. The roads were empty, but I passed the occasional camper van by the side of the road, some of them with the lights on and signs of life inside. I longed for the warmth and comfort that these lucky people didn’t even realise they had.
As for myself, I hadn’t really thought that much about the practicalities of bivvying 1,000 m up a mountain. I rocked up at the bus station, such as it was, at 23:00 ish and set about trying to make myself comfortable. It had the luxury of a toilet with running water, but otherwise no walls for shelter. It was, of course, rather cold.
I had the stupid idea that I could make myself more time-efficient by skipping certain creature comforts like using my sleeping pad, taking my shoes off, and zipping up my sleeping bag properly. Of course, this didn’t work at all.
At 2°C you don’t really want to compromise on warmth, and unsurprisingly I didn’t sleep very well that night. I woke up so many times from the cold and general discomfort of sleeping on a hard wooden bench that I probably would’ve been better off not sleeping at all and just saving the time. Lesson learned. If you’re going to spend time trying to get some sleep, make it count.
I was still doubtful about whether I should’ve stopped that night, rather than pushing on and trying for a faster time, but seeing the Valdresflye plateau slowly materialise out of the darkness around me, as night conceded to dawn, was very special indeed.
I started off up the final 400 m of climbing just as the sky was beginning to lighten. As I got higher, the landscape broadened around me and began to reveal itself – first the silhouettes of the mountains against the sky, and then the detail and shapes of the intervening middle ground.
By the time I reached the top – I think it was around 05:00 – the plateau was illuminated in the gentle blues and pinks that come before sunrise, and everything was beautifully still. The road stretched out ahead of me and I felt very lucky to be where I was at that moment.
Of course, I indulged my inner photographer and spent far too much time stopping to take photos, stomping up and down the side of the road to find the right angle, sometimes going off-piste to get that nice rock formation where I wanted it in the foreground. By this point I was more concerned with savouring the experience than saving time.
As I started the long descent off the plateau, the sun crept up over the horizon and dawn turned into day. The fells softened as I descended, turning gradually into countryside as the altitude dropped. But I found it difficult to appreciate.
The 1,000 m descent was a very drawn out affair, lasting almost 40 km. Normally this would be perfect – travelling very fast for a very long time, perfect payback for a long climb. But with the temperature at 2°C as I started the descent, the fun didn’t last long. Despite wearing everything I had, after 45 minutes of descending I was starting to get worried about my body temperature. It was almost a relief when the road levelled out and then started climbing again.
The whole route back to Oslo went by in a bit of a blur. Perhaps the night’s awful sleep had taken its toll, or perhaps I was just finally running out of steam after 9 days on the bike. Either way, I could feel myself getting slower and slower. I started to suffer a sense of humour failure, with every turn of the route that wasn’t taking me directly towards Oslo seeming like a direct personal insult. When the route veered off a perfectly good, flat tarmac road and onto a winding, undulating gravel track, I was furious and started searching around for someone to blame for being in this absurd situation other than myself. And failing, of course, which only made me more fed up.
After 9 days of sleep deprivation staying awake on the bike had become something of a challenge. This had started to affect me around Trondheim, and the usual pattern was that some time around late morning I’d start to get drowsy. I noticed that my head was drooping, that I couldn’t focus on things so easily, that I just wanted to close my eyes… while on the bike. Not good. But I remembered something I’d tried on an earlier ride. So on day 8 I pulled over to a spot by the side of the busy main road toward Trondheim and lay down for a nap, with an alarm set on my phone for 5 minutes.
Being so tired, I was spark out in less than 30 seconds, and just 4½ minutes later I was back on the bike. And amazingly, it worked. Sure, I was still tired and yawning, but my eyes weren’t so heavy any more and I could keep my head up. This repeated itself pretty much every day after this, and every time the 5-minute power nap fixed the problem.
It’s all over
It’s a cliché, but the final stretch into Oslo seemed to last forever. As I closed in on my goal, I got a lot of encouraging messages from friends, family, and people I’d never met before, supporting me and pushing me forward – but I couldn’t wait for it to be over.
The never-ending road from Gjøvik southwards to Oslo in the last light of my final day on the bike delivered me to Lillestrøm. From here on, it was winding cycle paths and conurbation all the way home. I was in zombie-mode at this point and thinking of nothing but the bed that waited for me at the end of the day, and the prospect of going to sleep with no alarm.
I had one final food stop at a fuel station 5 km from Oslo’s centre, realising that it would be pretty hard to find food when I got there. I ate my final hot dog while coasting downhill into downtown Oslo, my legs barely functioning.
I arrived at the Opera House just before 23:00. There to greet me were Michael Wacker, the organiser, and Erik Arentz-Hansen – a dot-watching enthusiast who’d come down to say hi. Matthew Norway turned up shortly afterwards with his camera, and we hung around chatting for a bit until the last of my energy had left me.
I headed for the hotel, and it was all over.
I’ll publish a kit list and some (more) reflections on what I took away from this crazy thing in the coming days. In the meantime, watch Matthew’s excellent videos about it! And yes, I was apparently so frazzled at the finish line that I thought I was in Munich.