I. Den Store Styrkeproven
A hundred kilometers south of Trondheim I turn into a quiet country lane near a typical Norwegian red farm house. It is Saturday morning, a quarter to nine and three hours after departure. I brake and get off my bike.
Silence. Just a breather for a comfort break and to catch my breath. Despite my shoe covers, leg warmers and winter jacket I feel drenched after the rain this morning. I’m shivering. It is 10 degrees which is cold even by Norwegian standards, it is the coldest 18th June since the early sixties a local meteorologist finds out the day after. I feel stiff when I get on my bike again after a few minutes. I must go on. Alone. Only 440 kilometers to go….
That morning at a quarter to six we took up the challenge of ´Den Store Styrkeproven´ as a trio from the Maserati Cycling team. The fiftieth ‘Great test of strength’ from Trondheim to Oslo, covering 540 kilometers.
Five-hundred-and-forty-kilometers… We expected a large peloton of around a hundred riders but we find that, apart from a few cycling teams that started half an hour earlier for their team time trials, we are the first group “Turpulje #1” to start. Around twenty other groups will depart every ten minutes, in order of expected ride times. Our group consists of less than twenty riders, perhaps many did take the warning on the website to heart: “Turpulje #1′ is for very strong, competitive riders”. And the race “is much more demanding if you choose to start in a group that’s too fast for you”.
Almost unnoticed the race is on with just a bleep of the electronic starting line. Trondheim is still asleep, the streets are deserted. A large Norwegian rider waves his hand in the air almost immediately after we started, “Oh my, this is the real thing”. Before I even have time to panic, the riders in our group begin to turn counterclockwise, uneasily I slide along. Teammate Keir shares, in this short moment of passing, just a fraction of his broad knowledge of bike racing (“Just follow, and when in front, go left to get in line”). He knows I’ve got zero experience with this.
Before I know it I’m at the front of the group, almost immediately the next rider overtakes me and steers in front of me, just inches away from my front wheel, he is followed by the next one, and the next one. At speeds of over 35 kilometers per hour, I try not to feel trapped and keep focused on the rear wheel of the rider in front of me whilst on my right, one after another, each rider is passing by, frighteningly close. I concentrate on my position and try to ride tight and regular. I have never ridden in a really fast group and the only thing I do know is that unexpected moves, steering errors or fooling around will not be appreciated.
In the front of the group someone shouts something unintelligible, the flow appears to stop for a few moments and then we have changed direction.
Instead of being overtaken, my line is overtaking the one next to us, I shift one gear up and before I know it, I’m riding in the lead again. The man behind me overtakes me and drifts sharply to the right. Afraid of touching his rear wheel I move to the very edge of the road, I translate the shout behind me as sign of rejection, but it’s going too fast for me to look back and quietly explain what I did and why I did it.
Slowly I fall in the group again. One by one I inspect the passing riders.
Or to be more precise, I look at their bikes because I don’t dare to look up too much. A brand-new S-Works Venge slides along. A classic Cervelo Soloist in the red-black colors of the CSC-team passes by. A red Canyon Aeroad. A Merida Reacto. Hey, a Neilpryde, that’s rare. And what a huge frame size. A matt black Canyon Ultimate … Ah, teammate Marten! I look up for a moment and see a smiling face.
A rider in a white rain jacket passes me and says something in Norwegian, I glance to the left and think about what I might have done wrong. In my mind I am riding perfectly straight and tranquilly, at the right pace, my hands on the bars … Then I notice that nobody is overtaking me…. Damn, I’m the last rider of the group!! I push and sprint back to catch the rider in front of me. After the next round the Norwegian rider tells me when he overtakes in clear English: ‘You’re the last one’, when he passes by I put my thumb up.
He smiles with a hint of compassion and disbelief, now he knows he has a rookie in front of him.
When he is in the lead, he drifts off to the right and I push through to overtake him. For the second time I try to get safely on the right side, at the same moment he shouts, his signal to make clear I am clear. He coaches me through the first hour of my unexpected debut in a race and with each round of the group my confidence grows. Teammates Keir and Marten know what racing is, the first few times they ride by they look at me with a worried look in their eyes, but pretty soon I make it clear to them I’m getting the hang of it.
And I start to enjoy it, I hadn’t thought long and hard about it, but the simple plan to complete this ride has fallen completely into the background. Before this morning, I planned to have a quiet start, save energy for the first 200 or maybe even 300 kilometers, trying to enjoy the Norwegian scenery… There’s nothing left of that. The pace exceeds 40 kmph regularly on the flat, an unprecedented speed for me, but the other riders don’t seem to suffer at all.
We ride along in a rolling landscape and only on the short climbs does the machine falters. The rest of the time we take our turns as smooth as the Norwegian tarmac, nineteen individuals disappear in a human string that runs as a lubricated bicycle chain around two invisible chain rings. The landscape flashes by while riders pass each other with minimal difference in speed. It is the perception of slow motion in a fast moving train overtaking another train, speed is relative. The lazy cadence of their legs contradicts the speed of the wet asphalt which flashes by with six meters for each revolution.
I ignore the first raindrops, I am completely absorbed by my attempt to vindicate my position as a rookie in this group but soon the gentle drops become real rain showers and I can’t ignore them anymore. Above all it’s the spray of the rear tyre in front of me that soaks me, only vague images remain through my studded glasses which I don’t dare to take off because I want to keep my hands on the handlebars in these slippery conditions.
On the first slopes I can easily follow, but as the climbs get longer and steeper, I start to reach the end of my breath. Although this is an official race, the organizers agreed upon a mandatory stop after 105 kilometers. Ninety kilometers into the race, it seems an achievable goal to stay with the group until that stop and not get left alone. As in the Tour de France, Oslo seems like Paris to me, it is still a long way to go, a very long way…
After 95 kilometers I have to let the group go on a short climb, I manage to come back in the descent, but I know I’ve reached my limit. I try to skip a turn and hang on to the tail of the group, but a large Norwegian hand pushes me back in the line…. For the last time I take my turn, but I have to let go after that. The group slowly disappears out of my sight around the bend while I search for a lighter gear.
Afterwards we joke that I did contribute to the race of my teammate Keir. With my early surrender the Norwegians will have given little for the chances of the other guys in the red Maserati jackets. They couldn’t make a greater error of judgment, I check my phone after 270 kilometers at the pit stop in Kvam, a friend from the Netherlands, who can follow the race live via the app, tells me that Keir is in the lead and has been for some time already. And at eight o’clock in the evening he’ll finish second, less than a bike length behind the winner.
II. Angels exist
I gently ride along after my rural pit stop to the first feeding station in Oppdal. There they serve coffee and bread. They have bananas. There’s soup.
The group I left ten kilometers ago have gone already. A lonely bike is parked against a tree. The ladies at the food station can’t wait to tell me the good news: “Your teammate is waiting inside!” Marten sustained the pace for a bit longer, but it seemed sensible for him too to let the fastest guys go. We’re both very glad we don’t have to ride alone from now on.
In preparation of this journey I often wondered whether it is feasible to complete this monster ride. Trondheim-Oslo is about the same distance as Amsterdam-Paris. Or up and down to Maastricht. My average training ride is 60 to 80 kilometers. Eight to nine rides like that in succession, it sounds like far too long…
My longest ride until 2016 was a ride of 180 kilometers, which I accomplished more dead than alive. Several weeks before the Styrkeproven I tested myself on a free Wednesday to feel what it takes to be on the bike for longer periods of time. I get home after 185 kilometers I’m certainly not exhausted, but I realize that this is only a third of what I have to ride in Norway. A second test is the Frisian Elfstedentocht, a traditional ride in the north of the Netherlands, it takes me ten hours in total to cover the full 235 kilometers. I start to believe it can be done, at this pace I can get to Oslo just within the 24-hour deadline.
The sheer length is also apparent if you look at what I ate and drank all day. At each of the nine stops I make sure I eat something and get my bottles filled. Afterwards I estimate I ate at least ten bananas, fifteen or more sandwiches, five cups of soup, three energy bars and four pieces of gingerbread. I drank twenty bottles, of which at least ten with energy drink. A protesting stomach in the last hours is the logical but unpleasant result of that. The price for not bonking.
The inevitable mental dip hits me after 350 kilometers. Having to let the fastest group go, Marten and I steadily climb after the stop to the highest point at 1000 meters. The plateau that follows is the only place where the northwesterly wind is not helping us that day. It blows stronger on the mountain and for more than an hour we struggle against the unexpected headwind. Fortunately a group of about 30 riders catches up with us and we can hide in that little bunch until the descent to Dombas. Much closer to sea level it’s warmer and morale rises with the temperature. After a short break another mental boost follows when the tailwind helps us for the next 75 kilometers. Marten and I ride together to Kvam and the road runs slightly downhill along the Gudbrandsdalslågen river which has cut a little valley in the Norwegian rock.
The road flattens. Another group of Norwegians picks us up. We decide to ride with them, their pace is doable and it saves lots of energy. To our left the river has widened. Norway is beautiful, green and full of forests.
Slowly but surely it is getting boring, the ‘river’ happens to be the largest lake in Norway, and we ride along it for the next 120 kilometers.
Halfway, at Lillehammer, I see the ski jumps on the other side of the lake, as a concrete memory of the Olympic winter games that were held here in the nineties. Later on Marten told me we passed the bobsleigh track as well, but I can’t remember, with less than 200 kilometers to go, I’m not that fresh anymore and the suffering starts to kick in.
I had to check the map of Norway afterwards to figure out where I rode all day. Fatigue narrows your perception and all unnecessary information no longer enters a brain that’s set to continuing and completing the ride. I see people waving at the roadside in the villages until late in the evening, but it doesn’t do a lot for me. Occasionally I see the sun through the clouds, but I don’t really feel the warmth. I ride in a group but I feel lonely during long periods. A little voice in my head says: continue, continue, continue…
At Totenvika, with less than 100 kilometers to go, Marten decides to follow the Norwegians we’ve been riding along with for the past hours. I have to take a longer break and watch him leave in admiration. For some time already he’s been leading the group and drags a ribbon of thirty people along the road and he still has some strength to go on. When I sit down, dear M. calls me from London. She is on a short holiday, but follows me closely all day on the internet, I tell her I’m struggling. She says I sound fit and fresh to her.
Just the idea she thinking of me helps a lot. Angels exist.
III. Foreign Legion
I join a Foreign Legion. The owner of a Dutch cycling café has been underway since Friday evening, allowing her to finish the ride in 36 hours at the price of starting the ride in the night. The German rides a folding bike, if only because of his height this is a strange sight in combination with his small wheeled bicycle. Lucky Luke on a pony. The Norwegian is the non plus ultra of ‘look pro go slow’. His Cannondale in the colors of the final year of Liquigas, just like his complete outfit. He complains about pain in his knee while he changes to a heavier gear on a small climb. I’m too tired to give him tips.
The Norwegian night isn’t pitch black, the Styrkeproven is specially held in the midst of summer. Although the route runs too southerly to have the famous Scandinavian daylite nights, the sun still sets very late at this time of the year. Around midnight, it’s very dim at best, and the full moon shines a silver light over us.
With less than a hundred kilometers to go, the end seems in sight. For the first time I find myself calculating an end time. The pace dropped during the day and I’m averaging 25 kph now, by my best estimate it’s still 3 to 4 hours till the end. My Garmin beeps, the battery is about to die so I switch it off to make sure I won’t lose the data of the first part of the ride. From now on I have no clue about time, speed and distance anymore, let alone my heart rate. The latter has been steady for the last hours, around 135 beats per minute. Along with my legs, arms, back and neck, this muscle has reached its limits too.
After the last stop it’s only 36 kilometers to Oslo, just a small step after the giant leap I already took. I drink a cup of coffee, eat another sandwich although my stomach won’t welcome food anymore, I have to yawn, and I feel cold despite the three layers of clothing. Giving up is not an option now, but during the last kilometers fatigue strikes hard.
It’s too easy to call this ‘The longest day’ as if I’m in a war. I refuse to see this as a victory over myself, It is simply madness, and it may not be healthy either. I can’t remember why I wanted this but it was an adventure.
And It is already truly unforgettable, I’ve made it, almost… I’m tired. My clothes stink. The four of us get on our bikes and we ride off for the last stage in silence, wordlessly grateful for the fact we still ride as a group into the night, and not alone.
The last kilometers we ride are on the motorway around Oslo where they reserved one lane for Styrkeproven-riders. There is hardly any traffic, and then,after a last climb, we take the exit into the city. It’s two o’clock in the morning and dead quiet on the streets of Oslo, except for the sound of four cyclists letting their freewheels rattle when they roll down to the end.
Three times left, once right and then it’s over. I ride into the brightly lit tennis hall. The announcer calls our names. I feel my phone buzzing, messages to congratulate me. A blond girl gives me a medal. In a corner dozens of bike bags and suitcases stand in a row. Teammate Marten arrived a short hour earlier and lies exhausted on the ground. It is 02:18, 20 hours and 33 minutes after I left Trondheim.
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Words: Martijn Pols Photos: Stian Solum Lysberg, Styrkeproven, Ole Morken