Three hundred kilometres isn’t much tougher than 200. Over a certain distance, it’s all about keeping the pedals turning. What 300km does allow is bin-liner wearing, blueberry-soup eating, sheltering from storms, and seeing the sun rise. The Vätternrundan was genuinely epic.
It was our first trip to Sweden, and the national football team was playing, so we decided to go to bed early. We’d be attempting a distance we’d never ridden, so we wanted to be fresh.
Another ‘first’ was starting at 2.16am – and this was considered a good start pen! The race had started at 7.30pm the night before, and many of the 23,348 entrants ride through the night to make the distance around the lake. Being the fifth biggest sportive in Europe is an attraction in itself for many of the participants, who flock to Sweden from 46 nations, and this year included 220 from Britain.
Trying to force down breakfast at 1am felt unnatural, but needs must. Toast went in; coffee was reserved as a kick-start option for later, if needed.
The start, in the historic Motala harbour, had a great vibe. Once released from our pen, we rode until the sun came up, bright orange, at 3am. Solar lights illuminated the country lanes, and only the click of gear changes broke the eerie silence. No one spoke, engulfed in the night.
We stopped at every feed station, all nine of them, strategically set at intervals: 40km apart for the first third, then 30km, then 20km. This well thought out set-up reflects the organisers’ 47 years of experience in running the event. Indeed, it’s the oldest mass-participation cycling event in the world.
The stations offered blueberry soup and gherkins, which I’d been looking forward to since signing up. I wasn’t disappointed. The sweet soup was fantastic with the salty gherkins. Every second station had sweet buns and bananas, plus warm tea and coffee, which was a delight to wrap our hands around.
It started to drizzle, so we sheltered in the mechanics’ tent: an amazing level of support with a full shop at each stop to cater for any mechanical dilemmas. Once we thought it had cleared, we rode on and down a huge descent.
All of a sudden, God was throwing buckets of water on us! It poured down from 60 to 100km – so bad I feared aquaplaning over the puddles as my front wheel was repeatedly caught by gusts of wind. I had flashbacks to the Etape du Tour in 2011, where we were all pulled from the course.
We had to stop at the next feed station in Jonkoping for the meatball and porridge stop, which we had fantasised about for weeks. We were cold, though, so it had to be quick. At the huge warehouse, massive queues were forming, with riders opting to catch the bus home.
We subsequently found out that this year’s DNF rate was the highest in the event’s history. Nearly 3,000 withdrew because of the weather. The organisers had to call in emergency school buses to cope with the demand.
By the time we had eaten and my friend had wrestled her bibshorts in the Portaloo, I was shaking uncontrollably and searching bins for the cleanest-looking bin liner to put on. We wore bin liners and food-hygiene gloves in an attempt to keep warm for the next 200km.
Even so, heading to the door, I was still frozen. I’d been feeling achy the day before, so I decided to be cautious and bought a new full-length base layer and balaclava from the makeshift shop at the feed station.
So with a new, dry base layer on, bin liner under rain cape and gilet, plus latex gloves under gloves, we pushed off. The sun came out at the 200km mark and I parted with my beloved plastic kit at the next major feed station in Hjo, where we ate muesli, lasagna and salad.
Having never ridden through the night, I didn’t know what to expect. I got the sleep monsters from about 8am to midnight, almost falling asleep on the bike – struggling to keep my eyes open. Once I decided it was time to hit the coffee, everything was OK.
My riding partner went through low times too, so we worked together. Heading back around the top of the lake, with great views over secluded beaches, we mused on how great the finish would be, which must have jinxed us – we got a mechanical 10km from the finish. As the fast pelotons with lead motorbikes whizzed past, we managed to wrench the chain out from the frame and limp in to the finish line.
It was a carnival on the shores in Motala as everyone celebrated a gigantic achievement. Forty-six diehards had ridden the event 25 times. We had averaged 28kph over 11 hours of riding. Having stopped at all the feed stations and for photos at especially pretty vistas, our total time was 15 hours. Our first Swedish cycling adventure, and first 300km ride, was a fantastic and epic
What does it take to feed 23,000 riders over 300km?
10 tons of bananas
170,000 energy bars 15,000litres of blueberry soup
3,000 kilos of gherkins
30,000 litres of sports drink
7,600 litres of mineral water
1,300 kilos of coffee
7,000 litres of beer
Lives: Stockholm, Sweden
Vatternrundan is a great bike event. It’s long, but that makes it a great challenge. To bike around the big lake is beautiful, and especially if you start in the night and watch the sunrise while biking. You can go really fast, or at your own pace. It is a great race with which to challenge yourself – get better times as you progress. This is what I did; I started at 13-21 my first race, and
have ridden it in 8-49, my fastest time. I did the solo ride this year in 10-20.
Lives: London, England
I still can’t believe we cycled 300km, through the beautiful sunrise, driving rain (wearing bin bags and latex gloves) and sunshine, up the hills and the drags, through stunning scenery, blueberry-soup highs and pre-caffeine lows, and a mechanical 10km from the finish! An epic, unforgettable and utterly amazing day. This medal was earned!