The Vatternrundan is a 300km race around the second largest lake in Sweden, on or near the longest day of the year. Riders go off in groups of about 60 at a time, in 2 minute intervals and this year nearly 23,000 rolled up to the start line between 8pm to 8am to follow the midnight sun.
The Swedes do make something of a thing of midsummer. They celebrate it as a national holiday and general excuse to eat herring and drink lots of Akvavit (Scandinavian spirit).
300km of Swedish Madness.
They say that the subconscious brain has as a galvanising effect when trying to solve a problem or make sense of a confusing day. “Sleep on it” often being the term we use when not sure what to do next. So instead of rushing to write down my immediate thoughts on the day that had unfolded, I slept.
It wasn’t that it was a confusing or in any way difficult day in the saddle, it was on the whole most enjoyable, if a little longer than I had anticipated. It was just a day with SO MUCH in it I didn’t quite know where or how to start.
I used to get really nervous before a race but since I have put my competitive racing days behind me to focus on riding for the fun of it I was quite surprised at just how nervous I was the night before and subsequently didn’t sleep at all.
My nerves weren’t helped by the fact I knew I was doing something I always make a point to avoid. “Never do something new on race day”
Even down to not wearing a new pair of socks or any component that hadn’t been ‘road tested’ before hand. It was a bog no-no for me. I was just so excited to have them I decided to throw caution to the wind and do it anyway. I was running on my new Hunt 30Carbon Aero Disc wheels and running tubeless on a road bike for the first time. Neither of those two things should hold cause for concern you might think. Except I didn’t carry a tube, pump or spare latex. AND the front wheel axel was well and truly jammed into the hub and if I had a front puncture it was game over and home in the sag wagon. What could possibly go wrong!?
I was a little nervous setting myself up for all of those potential known risks, not to mention the unknown ones like Elk and crazy Swedes with flowers in their hair and drunk on Akvavit.
I can confirm the day went off without hitch... at least it did for me. My riding companion went home in the sag wagon after bonking spectacularly at 230km. To be fair to him, he was pretty awesome getting that far. In the pre-event text banter he proudly informed me he had “only ridden 150km this year” which I took to mean that his longest training ride had been 150km. Not that he had in fact only ridden 150km in total all year! Crazy to have started, even if it is flat.
At our allocated start time of 0324 we rolled up to the starting chute with the overhead gantry counting down our launch. We were escorted out of town by a neutral motorbike to keep us in check and then once clear of the urban area, he peeled off leaving us to the dawn mist rolling over fields to the faint whiff of manure, actually it was quite a strong whiff in places. My colleague, Per, who had ‘invited’ me to Sweden to participate in this event several years ago gave me a running commentary on the places we were going through and we discussed a race plan for the first time. He had done the event several times before and was keen that we didn’t hook onto any of the trains passing us by as he didn’t want to ride that fast and was concerned over the bike handling skills of some of the ‘hangers on’. It seemed a fair observation to me even though I did twitch slightly each time one went past us and felt the tug to chase on and take a free ride. So we mostly road as a two up, occasionally picking up some people on our wheels who wanted to have an easy day and see some of the scenery we were riding through.
Sportives in the UK go to great pains not be called a ‘race’, usually because of insurance and public liability. The event organisers for the Vatternrundan absolutely bill their event as a race, which, not surprisingly attracts a large race contingent. My ride was mostly punctuated by large barreling chain gangs headed by vocal road captains with whistles waving all ahead out of the way and chivying their riders through the food stops. It can be a bit intimidating as a train of over 100+ riders charge past you at high-speed millimeters from your bars on open roads and we did see the aftermath of several crashes so I was glad I had listened to Per. The first part of the trains were a well drilled clubs riding to hit a time but the last 80% were chancers hanging on as long as they could to keep contact and these were where we saw the worst examples of bike handling and etiquette. We rode through one village where a Pompier was holding up a blanket to hide from us the sight of her colleague attending to a downed rider, we could hear her screaming as we rode past. Not nice. Calm down.
The event itself has been running since 1966 and now bills itself as the world’s largest recreational bike ride. Certainly getting an entry was on par with getting Glastonbury tickets but thankfully less than half the price! On the whole it was a super slick operation. The feed stops were something to behold, I was eating a veggie burger and mash potato at 8am while Per tucked into Swedish meatballs and lingonberry jam!.... quite a surreal breakfast but just the job after 5 hours in the saddle.
The route itself leaves Motala which is on the north eastern shore of lake Vattern, and heads clockwise around the lake, mostly on open roads. The locals know well in advance the event is on and so mostly avoid trying to go anywhere by car that day, in fact most of them seem to have pulled a deck chair to the road side, cracked open a beer and heckled. There was a group of veteran riders who set off a bit before the main field and I was told that there was one rider who had done every year since 1966… I think he might have been the gentleman I spotted with a gold bib number ‘1’ on it. There was also a group who were going for ‘The Classic’ which involves having to do complete 4 endurance events in one 12 month period. This ‘quadathlon of stupid’ consists of specific organised events, a 90km ski, 300km bike ride, 3km swim and a 30km run. They all have to be certified and then you can buy the classic medal.
Your view of the course sort of depends on what time you start so I am glad that we rode totally in daylight as it was stunningly beautiful countryside and hugely varied for a terrain that is largely flat. Per kept trying to tell me there were hills and I ribbed him so much about calling a 3% gradient a hill we settled on ‘slopes’, of which there were quite a few, he was quite right.
The low lying early morning mist was with us for a good few hours making the occasional view of a snaking line of disemboweled riders floating across the hills ahead of us quite eerie but we were glad of the cool air. Per was telling me that the previous year he had ridden the first 6 hours in torrential rain and how lucky we were. He was so confident in the weather that he had even set out without a rain jacket. Something that a British rider like me could never bring herself to do.
Although the route doesn’t follow the shoreline as such and you often can’t even see the lake, it does take you through everything from open farm land, crops and livestock, dense forests and the occasional motorway, with what little traffic there is ushered onto the other carriageway for us to file through. The only caveat to all this open empty expanse is that when soft warm bodies do appear, you are only one thing, food. Our first camping spot on the drive up Sweden had been by a lake and were we met the Mygga. The violently persistent breed of Swedish mosquito. We renamed them ‘Kritterfuckers’ after our first evening virtually sitting in the smoke of our fire to try to avoid them. I have never had so many bites, I had bites on top of bites! I was dreading the forested parts of the ride as I had imagined inhaling vast numbers of them whilst trying to out ride the rest. Thankfully the Kritterfucker population seemed to be at their summer house by that particular lake of our first night and not around lake Vattern. I’d go with the roll on repellant if you do the event, just buy the Swedish variant ‘Mygga’, the kritterfuckers seem to be highly resistant to ‘Skin so Soft’. The lovely Aussie bike mechanic who helped me fit my wheels with his large hammer gave us a good tip for dealing with them, it involved a can of lynx and a lighter.
Don’t try that at home kids.