I’ve cycled less than 500 metres from the hostel (thanks Nan!) when I notice a huge lens being pointed in my direction. I wave and grin at the photographer on my way past – he’s not the first. My day’s ride has no particular destination; I will ride until I tire and hopefully make some good distance.
But the photographer flags me down and asks me where I’m from. Within seconds I’m off my bike again, having been offered a coffee. It’s rather soon for a break to say the least, but I accept, wondering where this is going to lead.
My new acquaintance, Anders, strolls casually behind the coffee-shop counter and tells the waitress to get me a latte. It turns out that his friend runs the place. It’s a small town and the community atmosphere is obvious and pleasant.
The young lady serving the coffee clearly thinks I’m insane and is unsure what questions to ask and in what order, but she concludes the conversation by offering me something to eat (“sponsorship”, I’m told). I ask her for whatever’s her favourite, which turns out to be a warm chocolate brownie with vanilla ice-cream.
The previous night I’d eaten two pork chops with red peppercorn sauce and half a kilo of oven chips (the great benefit of being allowed to use the hostel kitchen), and I’ve just eaten the other half-kilo of chips for breakfast (with cheese), but somehow I find space for this mid-morning calorie overdose.
Meanwhile, Anders tells me about his photography and we get talking about winter camping. It turns out he’s also a mountain guide and knows a thing or two about sleeping out in the snow. I complain that my tent is crap and mention the useless bag of pegs I’m still lugging around with me. Next thing I know we’re at his flat and he’s given me a full set of snow stakes made by Hilleberg, who are a Swedish company who make the kind of high-tech tents that adventurous types dream feverishly about owning.
Now he’s on the phone to people along my proposed route north through Sweden. In an instant, as a result simply of having got up at that particular hour, and spent that amount of time dithering in the bread section of the supermarket, and cycled past the coffee shop at that precise moment, my plans and my journey take on an entirely new twist.
About 100km distant, he tells me, he’s found me a bed for the night. I am overwhelmed by his helpfulness. Tonight or tomorrow? It’s the perfect excuse to push myself and get in a proper day’s riding, so I opt for tonight.
A hundred kilometres at -14°C on a slow and heavy bicycle is not something that slips past easily. I know I’m gonna be a-hurtin’ by the time I arrive, and that I’m going to be cycling into the dark for several hours. It’s already 10:30. I guess at a 9pm arrival.
A stream of music to set the pace, then snow begins to fall and I opt for silence so I can hear the double-length logging trucks creeping up behind me. The overcast sky betrays little about the time of day. Endless spruce and occasional stands of birch. Several large snow-covered bodies of water and rivers into which I might under different circumstances be tempted to jump. A mis-judged snack stop just before a downhill and a bout of shivering and frantic pedalling to restore bodily warmth.
To amuse myself I think up phrases to describe the state of my nose today. After much deliberation I settle for “a grisly font of eternal slime”. A coffee and a realisation that it’s been getting dark for a while already. Emerging into the gloom of late dusk, I know there are still several hours of riding to go.
Now, the massive floodlights of trucks give away their position long before I can see or hear the vehicles. In some ways I feel safer, despite the absurdity of cycling alone through the empty forests of a Swedish winter at night. My pathetic headtorch splashes a measly puddle of light on the road, but snow and moonlight fuse together to give the landscape a deathly grey glow.
And finally, five kilometres from the small skiing village I’ve spent the day targeting, the beginning of a steep, relentless, snow-clad climb. I’m in first gear, cranking the pedals, front wheel losing traction, growing cold and heavy with sweat-ridden clothes. I cannot believe that I’ll voluntarily get up tomorrow and do this all over again. My thighs are throbbing and I cannot think about the misery lest the inertia of the day’s endless ride fizzle out at this critical time.
Then a car pulls alongside. “Hey Tom!” It’s my host, and he’s driven down to watch me in the final stages of anguish. We exchange greetings through the window.
Then comes the line that makes the whole thing worthwhile.
“I’ve put the sauna on!”