10 Questions & Answers On Surviving The Scandinavian Arctic On A Bike

Timely or what? The Norwegian Cyclists Association have been in touch about my trip last year to Scandinavia, in which I rode a thousand miles from Oslo through Sweden and Lapland and across the Arctic Circle to Bodø. The following post is an edited version of the interview I did for their magazine På sykkel. It might help us here in London, as we struggle to cope with ten centimetres of wet slush…

Snow road into the mountains

1. First, could you please give us a few facts about yourself; age, location, what kind of work you were doing until you started cycling, and a few of the countries you have visited by bike?

I’m 28 years old, originally from a small village in the English Midlands. I began travelling by bicycle in 2007, two years after finishing university. I had no career at that time, so leaving home to travel was quite easy, as I had very little to lose. Since then, I’ve crossed nearly 40 countries by bicycle, going as far afield as Sudan, Ethiopia, Yemen, UAE, Mongolia, and of course the Scandinavian Arctic.

I’m currently living in London, where I’ve spent the last year writing a book about my travels. A documentary film has also been produced, and we hope to release it to the public this year. I have two major trips planned for 2012.

2. What was the turning point that made your transition from ‘normal’ to ‘hardcore’ cyclist, and what is your main motivation for cycling today?

I don’t think of myself as a ‘hardcore’ cyclist, although I can see why it looks that way! I guess the transition was in 2007, when I began my first long trip. I had no previous experience of cycle journeys at that time — I just used a cheap bike to get around, and occasionally go mountain-biking in the countryside near my home.

On all of my journeys, the bicycle has always been a tool to do a job. I see cycling as one of the few truly independent and self-sufficient ways of exploring a country. With a bicycle, I can travel at my own pace, cover 2 or 20 or 200km in a day, go where buses and trains can’t reach, and stop whenever I like. I can sleep almost anywhere. And the image of a lone cyclist brings out the best in people along the way. It’s humble and non-threatening, so it also gives me access to the society and culture of a place in a way that other forms of transport rarely can.

3. There are many places with a comfortable climate for cycle-tours – why did you choose to ride through some of the coldest and most desolate parts of Norway during the dark mid-winter?

There are a few reasons for this. The first was that after nearly 20,000km of bicycle travel, I wanted to experiment with how far I could push what I was already doing. I wanted to disprove the assumption that darkness, cold, snow and ice were reasons not to travel by bicycle, and the only way to do so was to give it a try. A handful of other people had already done such journeys, in even more difficult conditions, but I wanted to find out for myself. Scandinavia was close enough to the UK that I could get there quickly and cheaply by bus for the month that I wanted to spend on the trip.

The locals seem to think I'm crazy

4. What was the highlight of this tour? 

The incredible juxtaposition of beauty and hostility that defines such a place in the mid-winter. If you’re outside 24 hours a day and active, you’re fighting a constant battle with nature to stay warm, dry and functional. But you’re doing so in this staggering, inspirational, otherworldy environment. It’s a very unique set of conditions to find yourself in.

The other highlights were, of course, those moments of hospitality from the people I met along the way. Settlements were pretty sparse, and people were quite reserved, which made the encounters all the more memorable.

5. When temperature drops just a few degrees below zero, most cyclists start feeling cold and numb in fingers and toes after 60–75 minutes, and after 90 minutes it gets painful. Yet you manage to go on for four to six hours, day after day. What is your secret – how do you dress?

It’s difficult to say — I pedalled hard enough to generate plenty of body heat, since that’s the only available source of warmth, and the circulation kept my hands warm. I wore big skiing mitts when it was really cold, and when I was getting going in the morning, and a pair of fleece gloves once I had warmed up. However, despite wearing huge boots, I often had problems with cold toes. I found the best thing for that was to get off the bike and jog with it for a few minutes.

6. Most of your days ended in a small cold tent. How did you manage avoiding the discomfort of sweating on the bike, and then almost immediately start freezing when you stopped riding for the day?

I avoided sweating as much as I could. I paid a lot of attention to getting the balance of clothing and exertion right. Because the temperature fluctuated a lot — between ‑33°C and 0°C — I could never forget about it entirely. I wore a skiing jacket which had lots of vents and closures for expelling heat and moisture, and I wore merino wool baselayers underneath, which is a great material for keeping warm while exercising and drawing moisture away from the body and allowing it to evaporate through the jacket’s vents.

Snow coated bike

When I stopped in the evening, the first thing I would do would be to take off the ski jacket and put on a down jacket. This kept in the warmth I’d generated whilst riding.

7. How did you dry your damp/sweaty clothing inside a tent?

I couldn’t! Any sweaty clothing I took off at night would have frozen solid. So avoiding sweat was a top priority. My neckwarmer, for example, was constantly made wet by my breath, so it would always be as stiff as a board in the mornings. Luckily it still did it’s job of keeping the cold air off my face and out of my lungs, even if it was mainly composed of ice for most of the trip!

8. Your blog has lots of good photos. How did you manage to keep the batteries for your camera and computer going for four weeks in the cold?

I charged them whenever I could — in cafes, petrol stations, people’s homes. By day I kept the camera battery in an inside pocket of my tights, against my skin. It was annoying to retrieve it every time I wanted to take a picture, but I suppose it made me more selective with the shots I took. Whether that improved the quality of the pictures I don’t know!

The laptop battery would need to be warmed up before I could use it. Naturally, at the end of a long day and while lying in my sleeping bag, the warmest place was down my pants!

9. Apart for the temperatures and snow, what are the biggest differences bike touring in England versus Norway?

I have very little experience of touring in England. But I’d say what makes Norway special is the amount of wild land and the way in which it is respected, used and enjoyed. In England, the population is far more dense, and every inch of land is owned and used for something, so it’s impossible (at least, it looks impossible) just to wander off into the countryside. Even in national parks, camping is forbidden, and it’s discouraged to stray from marked trails.

The result is that we as a nation are fairly illiterate when it comes to outdoorsmanship, and our concepts of nature and wilderness are narrow and highly institutionalised. I really admire the approach that is taken to the natural landscape in Scandinavia, encouraging responsible enjoyment and stewardship of the countryside.

10. Where are you heading for your next bike trip?

I have two journeys planned this year. The second is still at the ‘ideas’ stage, but the first will be a two-month journey through the Western US, from Canada to Mexico (or thereabouts). It begins in April, and I’ll be telling the story on my website.

Comments (skip to respond)

4 responses to “10 Questions & Answers On Surviving The Scandinavian Arctic On A Bike”

  1. Any ZE2 avatar
    Any ZE2

    Densely populated, not the population is dense!!

  2. […] al cercle polar àrtic. En aquest petit vídeo teniu un tastet de la seva aventura, mentre que en el seu blog en podeu llegir els detalls del […]

  3. patrick avatar

    Tom, inspirational trips and great documentation. Trailer looks great! Wish you many more successful trips.

  4. I love ‘Letter from Lapland’ 🙂

    Interesting interview too — very useful for potential travellers

Something to add?