On a dramatically non typically beautiful sunlit evening in south Manchester around one year ago, a bunch of animated women were gathered around a dishevelled balmy lit table supping discount ales and generally remarking about how much they adored bicycles – for everything that they enabled in their overlapping worlds. Two newly met half swedes amongst the bunch progressed the conversation of overseas opportunities and wildly exchanged common ambitions to participate in their semi native country's annual mass participation bike ride – the Vatternrundan – which also happened to be a far longer distance than any of them had ridden before. A couple of enlivened hours and a sunset later a remarkable plan had been formed – we would call ourselves Moose Women Cycle Club* and in exactly one year, all seven of us would go to Sweden and ride the Vatternrundan.
As the impressive structures dominating the centre of Motala representing the magnificent start stations welcomed forward the 20:32 riders, we were helpless to discontinue the same shrieking levels of hysteria that had formed our group soundtrack for the last 48 hours since arriving in Sweden [nondescript grunting and bellowing mildly intending to represent the word m-o-o-s-e playing a large part of our dialogue]. Our identical custom made jerseys designed by one of our team made for the big event stood starkly out against the enveloping twilight – with the deliberately selected colours representing the national flag ensuring us plenty of appropriately smug levels of applause, photographs and even press attention - it was time to live up to our hype. The build up was over – the endless online Moose negotiations, logistical planning, regular Wednesday training sessions and the last 24 hours of gluttonous carbohydrate consumption was about to hopefully climax into fruition and the reassuring feeling of mounting our trusted steeds only triggered [as if it was possible] more harmonious wailing.
The big digital clock struck 20:32 and a non-descriptive roar came from the spectators which were lined up along an elongated stretch of fence past the start line – of course under close inspection we recognised that it was our own personal supporters jumping around wearing our jerseys and waving cameras around. An over-elated high-five to one of them almost had me head diving into the line of bike watchers and a few concerned Swedish expletives were passed around; but then, at last, we were on our way!
A couple of motorcycles led the way through the mile stretch or so of professional fencing – as we marvelled that this special moment was finally happening; it if hadn't been for the slow chugging vehicles we'd have probably got far too overexcited and wolloped as fast as we could out of Motala – but the impeccable organisation of the event had obviously pre-empted the inevitability of each segment amounting up to 20,000 cyclists bursting with energy at the start and contained our legs with the shear precision that could only be derived from an event that has been repeating itself for 49 years.
Our moose pack was contained and strong as we soon found ourselves into the great Swedish countryside that would more or less represent our landscape for the long night ahead. The clouds were sinister and dramatic as if ready to burst and our thighs oozed a readiness that would demand a respectable distance beyond Motala.
“This is the dream”
whimpered my fellow demi Swede and myself just before a crackling gassy wooziness hissed from her front wheel.
“Whoa whoa hold up Mooses we're pulling in”.
5KM from the start and we already had our first puncture.
The twilight was darkening beneath the stormy sky and the wind was picking up a pace; the night was coming and our eyes refocussed as we were back on the road fully fixed 12 minutes later. The brief interlude had allowed me to trigger up my mobile 'boom' box precariously strapped to my waist bag that stoically attempted to drift out some motivational beats to lubricate the power of our team. From dreamy Swedish folk, to retro Swedish pop, to rare-find Swedish reggae to contemporary Swedish psychedelia – I'd attempted to stay true to the Scandinavian theme but began running short after a couple of hours on the playlist – so as night officially fell somewhere between Odeshog and Granna therein began the rhythmic progressive beats of electronica Balkan and Cumbian timed in nicely with the introduction to the illumination of our 'disco wheels' – [cresent shaped pulsating LEDs taped to our spokes that cast rainbow flickers to break up the short lived Swedish night]
The Roadside Support
It became quickly apparent that the event of the Vatternrundan gave residents bordering the vast lake the opportunity to spend the night by the roadside. They had gathered in their many constant huddles with fires, bbqs, blankets and plenty of beer. Cheering and clapping as each swarm of cyclists plodded by. I would like to put forward the possibility that our herd were by far the most enthusiastic to receive the attention as we consistently projected animated “Hej Hej Hejs” as we zoomed past – without fail our efforts were reciprocated with flamboyant chanting and magnitudes of support noises. Out of nowhere just as the dusk had officially landed on us, came our own personal Moose parade – who had eagerly driven from the start point to cheer us on a few tens-of-k's up the road. As we heard an ominous sounding “There they are” deep pitch coming from within the blackened tree lined road, our slightly paranoid city selves felt momentarily under threat as silhouettes of waggling figures appeared out of nowhere to spur us on, if only for a few seconds [we love you].
As the time edged towards the final moments of Friday night, the road side support cheers became fewer in between and hilariously more sluggish in their projections, as the ales must've kicked in and their parties began focussing more on each other in their bubbling hot tubs on trailers [yes, we saw three of these at different locations] than on the slightly quieter more invisible herds of cyclists – now having to concentrate three times as hard to avoid an inevitable pile up should the wheel paths venture a few inches off course.
The Cinnamon Buns, The Blueberry Soup and The Lashings and Lashings of Coffee.
We'd been anticipating all of the complimentary food we were going to be given throughout the ride almost as much as the pedalling itself. So by the time we'd reached the third official stopping point at Jonkoping 104km into the ride, we were incredibly versed at our new found diet for the next big chunk of day that was still to break. A couple of us would watch the bikes as another cluster would zoom towards the 'Drink och Matt' stations to swipe an armful of cinnamon buns, bananas cut in half, luke warm blueberry soup and strong coffee to turbo finish the feasting. This particular stop felt like a suburban American truckers festival, with booming Michael Jackson songs and a brightly lit warehouse with thousands of bulky burly looking men in it [attacking the food provisions in a similar tone to ours]. It's possible we wasted a bit of energy dancing around in darkness changing our bike lights to flickering mode thus forming lycra disco party, but it sure kept our spirits high as we refused to acknowledge a growing tiredness that was beginning to surface somewhere in our caffeinated minds. The rest of the mooses were able to warm up with some tasty looking Kottbullar as I mildly resented my depleted vegetarian equivalent of sloppy mash and a far too over zealous portion of lingonberry sauce [my fault, entirely] ~ but the feast did what we needed and before the cold winds seized our much needed muscles up, we embarked on our journey around and up on the other side of the lake.
The Night and The North Wind
We made slow progress for the next 20km as for the first time during the ride we were heading into the north wind. Icy and unforgiving in it's presence, the realisation struck that this was the only direction we'd be pedalling in for the next 150kms. The rain began presenting itself to us and my 'boombox' ran prematurely out of boom – the night ahead seemed long and a little bit relentless as the clock struck 2am.
As a team we've done plenty of shorter rides together – our 'Moose Wednesday' chain gang training sessions have surfaced many opportunities to learn how we all approach the roads and how best to communicate with each other when cycling close. Up until this point, our herd was like a steaming train; switching positions and gliding like we were a seven person tandem. Our on-the-saddle dancing to neo Swedish romanticism tunes was even in-sync. But it became coarsely apparent now that we were starting to attack the hills, the night and that damned north wind treacherously differently to each other and began separating beyond repair. It wasn't efficient group riding and we were every bit aware of how far we still had to go. The darkness and the shadows were beginning to play tricks on us; the swarms of other cyclists seemed to have cosied into each other meaning we kept losing our familiar forms of patterned legs and plastic mooses taped onto handlebars. The quietness in our team was disconcerting; up until now you could keep track of each other just by listening to outbursts of cackling. Swede and I accidentally got caught up in a huge long chain of gyrating thighs and decided it best to rejoin our team at the next stop.
Already the sky was lightening over to the east and seemingly we'd blinked, and the darkness was shifting away.
More buns, blueberry soup and coffee that was starting to instigate some sort of teeth grinding motion in my face brought us up to speed with the rest of the mooses as they arrived. It was a sad acknowledgement but a realistic one – we would approach the continuation of the ride however best we could; and so came the split in the gang. Plenty of departure cuddles all around and a last bit of manic filming of our beloved team that we would reconvene with later [“Is the red light flashing?”] - gutted, but with no alternative solution we got back on the bikes with hoards of other thighs and went about attacking the roads to find the half way point.
The Turbo Swedish Ella Power Hour
I know where she was coming from – we'd spent many hours already on the saddle as we sure did damn well have a load more ahead of us as well and with that, our own Directeur Sportif took it upon herself to stampede onwards into the approaching morning, welcoming a long chain of struggling legs to join us in the slipstream of the Swede. Whether it was the cinnamon buns, the morning calling or shear brilliant bike determination but she found an hour of the most impressive pounding of the pedals I'd ever seen. Now that we'd split from the rest of the herd, I had no choice but to ache my way forward with this new rhythm, concentrating so hard to stay on her wheel. that I didn't even get a chance to fudge around with any of my bits of recording equipment or to check over my shoulder for a second to see if we had the two extra moose who were hopefully somewhere in the long chain gang. Although we were managing to shelter behind a big chunk of the driving winds that our DS was so stoically inhaling for us, the directions of the throbbing exhalations from the north would keep changing and sweeping in from the sides as well; the grimaces must have been a sight to behold on my face and for the first time during the ride I was ignoring most of the road side support – the happy clappy chirps of pre-midnight cheer had temporarily disappeared as I whimpered;
“Ella – for gawwwwd's sake!”
The 171k mark at the Hijo rest stop arrived with such splendid delight that my brain and legs starting pulsating with a shear euphoric adrenalin. Never too intoxicated on muscle spasms however to gorge on buns and coffee and instigate a daft photograph of the lot of us in front of the dreamy boat harbour. The skies were fully light now but we'd yet to experience any sunbeams so it wasn't technically sunrise just yet – but in any case, there was enough visibility to realise that all of our eyes had suddenly simultaneously jumped into a crumpled crimson version of their former selves and the words that were spilling on our gyrating mouths were [even more] jumbled up than usual.
Welcome, O delirious O clock, for we expect you'll be here for some time to come yet!
We were robbed of the iridescent fluorescent sunset that midsummer Sweden can often provide so handsomely due to the turbulent nature of the dark grey clouds that dominated the sky throughout the night, so you can imagine our delight when the photogenic tufts of light and dark up above us began to shift and a blatant band of thick orange started penetrating the horizon. It was only a matter of time before we'd get some thick soothing sunrise beams on our increasingly transparent faces; and this very thought alone surfaced a re-energised couple of hours riding – a much reduced chugging pace to contrast nicely with the Ella Power Hour. We located a couple of clusters of burly men with as wide shoulders as they had calves – yes, these would provide a nice sail for the continuation of this strip of the west side of the lake. The winds were getting stronger, but as soon as we hit 200k, it was as if we doubled in strength as well. From now on we were only in tens-of-Kms to go, rather than hundreds and all of a sudden we were on the homeward stretch.
Soon we were drenched in a fresh golden virtuous sun that pounded it's way through the thick forest lined roads. It cast the most unbelievable projections into the dense space that surrounded us; idyllic house settlements, little farms, rolling fields and endless depths of forest all of a sudden appeared in misty mounted high definition. After adjusting to the deep twilight and momentary darkness of the night that was now over, it felt as if our widened pupils were drinking in the amber glow of the woodland floors and the azure ocean of the ever bluing sky. Quaint Swedish flags were bellowing in the wind as if urging us along the way. Red and white houses appeared to be smiling at us and a new wave audience of morning roadside support must have finished their breakfasts of coffee and open sandwiches to come and cheer us on. At the top of one of the hills a man had even set up a couple of speakers and was wishing everyone an amplified good morning. It was wonderful to be able to see each other again and also to be able to gaze at all the swarms of cyclists – that in their varying concoctions had provided biking company with us for every metre of the way. Our raspy voices had discovered once again that they could wail above the winds & we projected desperate “god morons” back to the man with the big orange speakers – a couple of us even managing a stretched out high-five.
The Sprint Finish
A couple more delirious rest stops with hysterical raucous stumbling behaviour later and a few more stretches of increasingly turbulent north winds finally took our ludicrously bright Moose Women jerseys around the slow grinding tip of the north of the lake. Our progress situation was suddenly looking handsome, it was time to reign this Vatternrundan existence in. Out of loyalty to our new best friends – of the cinnamon buns and blueberry soup variety, it was only fair that we shovel a few extra helpings in out of respect, at the final and most charming rest stop at Nykyrke. A quaint Swedish teenage folk band were dressed in national costumes – all I can remember is fiddles and accordians. The day was now sweltering and our faces were beginning to resemble a similar shade of crimson Yes, these would accompany the can of Relentless that had been burning a hole in my fanny pack for the last fourteen hours just perfectly. The tepid coffee would no longer cut it, it was time to go chemical. The sweet acidic fizz rushed my limp veins and we indulged in a confused sweaty group hug.
Then came the markers – 40k, 30k, 20k and then... it was every damn moose for herself as we found that extra hidden charge of energy [Relentless] hammering down onto the loyal pedals that had taken us so far and not once yelped out in any mechanical pain. The forest turned into suburbs and we were once again greeted by the same event fencing that had led us out of Motala yesterday.
“Go Go Go Go Go Go Go do NOT stop pounding. Go some more”
Best ride ever.