Sweden is one of those places where, on the face of it, there doesn’t appear to be all that much going on. It would become immediately cool if ABBA were to announce a 125 date world reunion tour but since Benny and Bjorn are pretty much the same age as my Father, I doubt that’s really a very good idea. It’s also an eye wateringly expensive place to visit. You can re-mortgage your house and buy a round of beers with the proceeds (though not two) or you can sell your liver and have enough money to buy a bottle of Aquavit. That isn’t as bad a deal as it sounds, because once you’ve drunk the Aquavit you’ll have destroyed your liver anyway. And really, apart from these indisputable high points, Sweden seems to pretty much consist of Stockholm City Centre (which is very nice by the way), 100 million hectares of forest and lake, and about a quarter of a billion elk.
So it may come as a surprise that a country with the world’s highest per capita concentration of bearded men called Sven and Bjorn can also count, amongst their other claims to fame, the world’s largest recreational bike race. It’s called the Vatternrundan 300 and it is, frankly, a bit of a monster.
The Vatternrundan is a 300 km circumnavigation of Lake Vattern in Southern Sweden and was founded in 1966 by one Sten-Otto Liljedahl and his pal Ewert Rydell. Liljedahl was a Doctor and a lecturer in surgery who had a particular interest and specialism in sports science. He was also a polymath who found time as well as being a Doctor and Surgeon, to be the Chairman of the Swedish Sports Medicine Association and from 1957 to 1970 one of the Team Doctors of the Swedish Football Team. Rydell on the other hand was a bike dealer and both he and Liljedahl came from Motala, a town on the Eastern shore of Lake Vattern.
Liljedahl was also overweight, unhealthy and smoked like a chimney by all accounts and at some point in his life clearly decided to do something about it. The idea of a ride around Lake Vattern was felt to be the perfect solution to both his and the wider public health challenge in Sweden as the vast majority of riders would need to train (and train hard) in the months leading up to the race to get around it. Presumably Rydell had one eye on the odd bike sale as well so after a couple of test rides with Rydell in 1964 and 1965, Liljedahl launched the first official Vatternrundan in June 1966.
334 riders competed in that first race in 1966. Fast forward to 2018 and 19,709 started with a remarkable 19,002 finishing, hence the belief that this is the world’s largest recreational bike ride. Perhaps more unusually in this day and age, the organisers don’t do anything to deter participants treating the Vatternrundan as a race, despite referring to it in publicity material as a recreational bike ride. Indeed, on the day of the race itself, there were plenty of clubs and groups of riders clearly taking things very seriously. Road captains with whistles, barking orders at toned and fit team members, are a commonplace sight.
But we are getting far too ahead of ourselves; how on earth did we come to even be at the Vatternrundan in 2018 at all? Well, the story begins in the unlikely environs of England’s Peak District…..
The happiest days of our lives
S.Anselm’s Preparatory School in Bakewell, Derbyshire, is an award winning prep school in one of the prettiest of the Peak District towns. It recently shot to national fame courtesy of having launched a Bakewell Pudding into space, strapped to a high altitude weather balloon. Nothing unusual in that you are no doubt thinking but in doing so, the pioneering pupils drew admiring tweets from the likes of Stephen Fry and Tim Peake no less. The school also has an active cycling group for parents and therefore being an educational establishment clearly used to unusual adventures and deeds of derring-do, the leader of the group, Head of Science Jon Watt, successfully completed the Vatternrundan in 2017. So enjoyable did he find the whole experience, that in the autumn of 2017, he managed to convince a much larger group of parents (and friends of parents) to attempt the circumnavigation in 2018. He then subsequently pulled out of the attempt citing an especially troublesome Achilles. It was the first point at which the rest of group began to wonder what they had let themselves in for.
Still, by the time Thursday 14th June 2018 arrived, it was much too late to pull out and with stacks of training miles in everyone’s legs (allegedly) the team arrived at Manchester Airport with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
Welcome to Sweden
The team that arrived at the Hotel close to Stockholm Arlanda airport that Thursday evening comprised 7 riders (Rik, Mark, Tim, Martin, Andrew, Shaun and Madeline) and 1 support crew (Richard). The chatter in the bar over that most vital of pre-race hydration rituals (a pint of lager) turned inevitably to tactics. “I think it would be great to ride round in a group” [Shaun]. “I think it would be great if I get round at all” [Madeline]. “I’m feeling quietly confident but I’m not going to go mad” said Martin, a man with a BMI far closer to Peter Sagan than anyone else in the group. “I’m really not sure what to expect”, said Mark, which in truth was pretty much what everyone was really thinking, even if they weren’t saying it.
Let’s face it, 300km is a long, long way however good you are. Weather, mechanicals or even worse occurrences, all amount to external factors over which it is impossible to have any real control. Sensibly though, the team stopped at just one pint of pre-race hydration liquid and hit the sack. There was a good reason to get a decent night’s sleep. The team’s randomly allocated start time was 22h46 the next evening. There was going to be no sleep on Friday at all – they would be riding through the night.
First job on Friday morning was picking up the team transport for the drive to Motala – a VW Transporter Minibus and a truly enormous VW Crafter van for the bikes. The drive to Motala was easy but fairly monotonous. Sweden is an attractive landscape in the south with farms, meadows and a rolling landscape, but it lacks the drama of the Norwegian fjords and the mountainous regions of North Scandinavia. I did start playing a private game of “spot the Volvo” on the motorway but lost interest once I reached 5,000 so was grateful when we finally arrived in downtown Motala, the location of the start and finish line.
The town centre itself could hardly be described as an architectural gem but it sure was busy with all things Vatternrundan. There was a real ‘buzz’ about everything and we were incredibly lucky to find three town centre car parking spots, only 100 yards or so from the start; one for the minibus and two for what we now realised was the world’s largest van.
The weather was stunning and set fair for the ride. It was remarkable to see how much that had calmed pre race nerves. That was understandable really as there’s little that dampens the spirit more prior to the start of a 300 km race through the night than the thought that everything else about you is also going to get very damp. But there was no chance of that once we arrived in Motala and having registered for the race and received bib / helmet / bike numbers, thoughts turned to building bikes. An appropriately large area of ground was commandeered for the purpose and an hour or so later, seven bikes were built, fettled and ready for the off.
It really is hard to overstate just how well organised the Vatternrundan is as an event. Consider the stats; 20,000 riders leave the start line in groups of around 60 every 2 minutes. Each group is given a motorcycle escort out of town to make sure that group gets away safely and the whole process is run with almost frightening military precision. A clever triple pen system means that two starting pens are already preloaded with 60 riders when the designated pen departs so it keeps the whole thing organised and moving. Even so, simple maths dictates that an average of 60 riders every 2 minutes means about 1,800 an hour. And since 20,000 have to be dispatched, that means 11 hours. In fact, the first riders set off at 19h30 and the last were away around 06h00 the following morning and at no point did the process ever fail; the volunteers (and I presume it wasn’t the same group all night) never wavered, never faltered. A truly stunning exercise in precision dispatch.
“Who fancies something to eat” announced team leader Rik in the persuasive style of someone used to being very polite when making the kind of announcement that is more a direction than a question. It was a very sensible idea though and within 15 minutes, 8 people were getting stuck into unfeasibly large volumes of pasta with extra pasta. “I’m not nervous now” said Tim, “I’m just desperate to get going.” Immediately there were plenty of pasta muffled murmurs of agreement. We’ve all been there; that point in proceedings when you just want to get cracking and we all realised that point had arrived. So final preparations were made with water bottles filled, electrolytes added, food and energy gels stuffed into bags as well as lights and bells carefully checked.
I’m not sure I’d ever seen anything quite like the start of the Vatternrundan. The market square in Motala was absolutely teeming with cyclists and their bikes and the whole thing appeared utterly chaotic, a riot of colour and noise and no sense that an organised bike race was about to begin. And yet, as each 2 minute slot ticked over, as if by magic, a group of around 60 riders moved effortlessly forward and joined the correct pen, ready for the specified departure time. And soon, with the clock hitting 22h40, our team’s start time was called and they headed into their pen.
It’s 22h45 and yet still curiously light this being Scandinavia of course. But it is a little chilly as well and I wonder how long before our team decide to stop and add further layers. But there’s no time to put the question to them as 22h46 clicks over and they’re off. Down the hill and behind their motorcycle escort and I realise that it’s likely to be 9 – 10 hours before I see anything of them again.
I have to be brutally honest and admit that waiting in Motala through the night for the first of our team to return will not go down in history as the most exciting 9 hours I have ever spent. The volunteers were great fun though and it was interesting to spend an of hour or so with the starting line group as we watched wave after wave leave Motala. I had managed to secure press accreditation and this entitled me to use the staff restaurant where complimentary food and drink was served through the night. At around 00h30, I paid my first visit where the choice was a little limited being Frankfurters, mashed potato and mustard. “Yum” I said to the lady behind the counter. “No, hot dog” she replied. I had forgotten just how literal the Swedes tended to be. “Do you always serve the same food” I asked? “Yes.” she said. This was proving a little challenging but I thought it might be interesting to try and extend the conversation a bit. “Don’t you ever fancy trying something different?” I ask. “Maybe meatballs?” I suggest rather helpfully. “No. We do hot dogs. And potato.” she said politely but firmly, which I took to be the end of that particular line of questioning. Still, it was warm and filling and I was grateful for it.
Remarkably, I did manage a few hours of kip in the minibus and other than waking at 03h00 and walking to the start line to see if they were still at it (they were), the night passed uneventfully. The organisers of the race provide a jolly impressive app that means you can track your team and so it was with some surprise that at 07h00, I realised the first of our intrepid riders was due back shortly after 08h00. I rushed to the Press Room, grabbed a lovely meal of Hot Dog, Potato and mustard, and downed a coffee so strong I swear my heart rate hit 200 bpm momentarily before heading for the finish line. Typically, I managed to get caught by the only rain any of us experienced in the entire time we were in Sweden but it was warm enough that it soon dried. I settled down to watch the riders return.
I counted them all out, I counted them all back
First back was Martin in a remarkably quick time of 9h09m. He was understandably buzzing. “Wow, that was incredible.” “It was brilliant.” “I can’t believe you were at the finish to see me arrive – thanks!” (I didn’t have the heart to point out I was unlikely to have been double booked at that particular moment) “Did you see the rain?” “The whole thing was great.” “The last 20km were tough.” “Wow.” “I need to eat something.” And so on and so on. The stream of consciousness lasted pretty much a full 5 minutes and it was clear that this had been a ride of fairly epic proportions, even for a rider as accomplished as Martin.
We headed off to get him something to eat. The organisers had that sorted as well with a meal claiming to be cubes of chicken for every finisher. I suspect it was just a device for getting the maximum amount of salt back into the rider as there appeared to be very little about it that had ever been near a chicken. But after 300km, no-one much cared, Martin certainly didn’t. After finishing the “not convinced it’s chicken” we popped into the tented village to grab a coffee from a lovely chap called Luigi who clearly knew his stuff judging by my dangerously raised heart rate for the second time in an hour, and then settled down to await the rest of the group.
Andrew arrived next followed by Shaun and then the four strong group of Rik, Tim, Mark and Madeline came through by 11h30am, which, when one stripped out stops, meant every single member of the team had achieved a riding time of well under 12 hours, a seriously impressive effort. Understandably, there was some exhaustion. “I know where my endurance limit is now” observed Madeline. “It’s about 10km back down that sodding road”. “I was genuinely concerned over those last 10km that I couldn’t grip the bars for much longer so I was very, very pleased to see that finish line.”
As all 7 of the team gathered together at the finish I was suddenly aware of being an outsider. I hadn’t been through the fire that they all had, and as they stood together for the essential “group patting of backs and high fives”, I witnessed that wonderful camaraderie that comes from being part of a band of brothers who have achieved something perhaps slightly against the odds.
Stories and anecdotes were swapped from around the lake. “I really enjoyed the Swedish meatballs and mashed potato at 2 am.” recalled Madeline, which was not something I ever expected to hear. “The Lasagne was pretty good at the next food stop as well” said Mark. Indeed, food was clearly one of the many impressive features of the race, as were the efforts of the volunteers and marshals. “It’s extraordinary” said Andrew, “that at every decision point on the entire 300 km course, there was always someone there to ensure you knew what to do”. Indeed, 4,000 volunteers are required to make the Vatternrundan work every year and they do a magnificent job.
What was also clear though was that a bit of muscle cramping was starting to kick in, so we headed back to the van to disassemble and pack the bikes away (“Permanently” according to Andrew). Remarkably, we managed to get it done in relatively short order and were soon on our way back to Linkoping and our hotel for the night. The organisers of the Vatternrundan are sticklers for safety and no-one is allowed to drive for 6 hours after they finish. The police apparently do random checks on the roads around Motala. However, such had been Martin’s outstanding time that it had already been 6 hours since he crossed the finish when we set off back to the hotel. Probably just as well too, because within minutes, everyone in the minibus (other than the driver I am pleased to report) were soon snoring gently.
Celebration and reflection
The hotel in Linkoping (indeed, the town itself) proved to be a fitting end to the trip. Curiously, the hotel turned out to be the place where Benny and Bjorn had got together all those years ago and decided to form a band. Our meeting was perhaps not quite so globally momentous, but everyone agreed they felt just as fulfilled. A thoroughly enjoyable celebratory meal was had in the spectacular setting of the town square and everyone reflected on the previous 24 hours.
“Would you do it again?” I asked. “No” said Madeline. “Great fun and I’m glad I did it, but that box is firmly ticked.” “I would love to do another challenge though” said Shaun. “This has been fun and the preparation for it so rewarding. What shall we do next?”. This led to much scratching of heads and suggestions. “I’ve heard about a really good event in Austria that involves about a million metres of climbing” offered Rik. “Er, right. Good luck” said pretty much everyone else.
But the ideas kept coming and I had little doubt by the end of the evening that there would be another event in due course. One of the great things about doing events such as the Vatternrundan as a team is that they engender a real spirit of togetherness and shared achievement, something that isn’t possible when you do rides on your own.
Back at the airport the following afternoon, we were stood in line to go through Customs having dropped off the bike boxes. The guy in front of us had also dropped off a bike box and it was pretty clear where he had just been. Inevitably a conversation started and since this particular chap explained he had done the Vatternrundan with a group of club friends (and they had done it as a time trial), the discussion soon got around to times. “How quick did you do it?”, I asked. “7 hours and 23 minutes” came back the answer and almost immediately I heard the collective sound of multiple jaws hitting the floor behind me.
I turned to look at Martin who looked ever so slightly non-plussed.
“Might have to do it again after all”……….
The 2019 Edition of the Vatternrundan 300 takes place on 14th / 15th June 2019. Registration opens on September 5th 2018. For further details check out this Link – Vatternundan 300 – 2019