Earlier this year Sophie Gateau joined the DUE SOUTH adventure from Nice to Mallorca as the ‘stagiaire’ of a long distance trio. Two months later, as if to prove her qualification as a fully accomplished Audax rider, she decided to take on one of the longest events in Europe – the Northcape 4000.
It all started with a story of mutts. A fear of the stray dogs of the Balkans, those same ones who bite the calves of cyclists who dare pass in front of their muzzle, made my decision to register for the Northcape 4000 and not the TCR. A self-sufficient adventure of 4500 kilometers connecting Torino in Italy to North Cape in Norway following a fixed route. By choosing this event, my ferocious beasts will be reindeers not wild canines.
July 27, 08.00, Torino. We are 141 cyclists ready to rumble, a motley mix of long distance experts and newbies like me and my friend Myriam. An untimely puncture 100 meters after the start and we will hardly see anyone again. The leaders of the race will ride nearly 400 kilometers per day. We on the other hand will stick to a more modest 200. Our humble goal is merely to reach the end.
The first 2000 kilometers are quietly conquered, spread out between Italy and Denmark with two mandatory checkpoints : Strasbourg in France and Bastogne in Belgium. The highlight of these festivities : an epic arrival at the top of the Great St. Bernard Pass by having to walk the last 20 meters because the wind is too strong to stay on the bike; the subsequent descent into the clouds; the crossing of the Jura mountains by a pass so busy that it deserves to be forgotten ; and the rugged and beautiful course of the classic Ardennes Liège-Bastogne-Liège, also known as 'The Green Hell'. Adding a Classic as a short interlude in the whole parcours helps give a sense of perspective of this challenge. It’s longer than most.
Landscapes change quickly. The hills disappear, leaving the flat fields open to the advances of the West wind. Dutch brick houses, their flower gardens, their lawns mowed with precision, then to the endless German and Danish agricultural plains where wild animals frolic. In Denmark, villages stuck between fields of Christmas trees and low lands of cereal crops, are fewer and fewer and smaller and smaller, with a constant: there is often nowhere to get food, but always a hairdresser. It’s all about priorities.
The routine of the ride is now firmly installed. To ride, to find a coffee, to ride, to find something to eat, to ride, to look for a place to sleep. Simple. The big winner for a night’s sleep is the sandbox under the pirate ship in a children's playground: a four star ranking in the guide to the best roadside bivouac locations. This routine is set to repeat. 10 days in a row.
August 7, 18:30, Oslo. Crossing the Skagerrak Strait allows us to rest for 9 hours. Myriam decided to stop there, whilstI continue solo. More than half of the participants have already scratched. Buck up old chum! I hit the road right away becauseI know that if I spend the night in the city, the departure will be harder. Here is my adventure! I do not know what to expect except the certainty that the weather will deteriorate and the distances between the villages will drastically lengthen. To ride alone does not frighten me, rather the opposite. The time, distance and fatigue will be now be managed in my own way.
The unknown. Scandinavia is a new playground whose rules I do not yet know. Having not taken a tent, but only a bivvy bag, places to camp become difficult to find. With the cold and humidity that has settled, this is another strategy to set. An attempt to sleep on the side of a Swedish lake infested with mosquitos proves quite catastrophic. On the positive side, it provided the nicest and improbable meeting with Marine, a Parisian hiker on vacation who took pity on my forlorn soaked state and fed me a warm meal. And she promised to follow my journey to the end by dot-watching on the tracking site. Motivation levels were reset to 1000!
After a quick traverse across Norway(such is the length of this event), I enter Sweden, which is a different story entirely. The crossing of the country is nearly 900 kilometres long. Wild nature, fir and birch forests, colourful wooden houses and pink, mauve, white and yellow flowers that grow randomly along the road ... I got the impression I was riding through the set of a film by Ingmar Bergman. I meet my first reindeer. They don’t bite.
Villages are a scarce commodity. No more on-the-road improvisation. I must now plan from one day to another where to find food and sleep because the food supplies are sometimes spaced more than 100 km from each other (options vary from gas stations, coffee shops, a hot dog stand and liquorice candy supplier, a fishing tackle merchant). The region is full of campsites, most often cute little wooden cabins with all the modern comforts, that is to say, a heater which is immediately transformed into a dryer for rain soaked kit, and a kettle. They will be my godsend. It takes little to be happy.
Back in Norway, the beauty of the landscape, the respect of the drivers towards the cyclists and the many messages of encouragement that my buddies send me re-motivate me. Too much euphoria, and my first mistake of the day. I aim for a long day and a sleepless night to catch the first ferry 300 kilometres away, in the early morning. But it's been 17 days on the road. At 23:00, exhausted, I stopped and settle in a bus shelter. To avoid getting out all the bivouac equipment, I give it a try with only my bivvy bag and a survival blanket despite the cold night. Spoiler alert: it does not work at all. I leave at 3 o'clock in the morning, it is already daylight. I have hardly slept, but I tell myself that the boat will give me the opportunity.
Second mistake, I failed to study the map properly. Yes, there are only a hundred kilometres left, but with a mountain in the middle. An icy rain comes in a deluge during the ascent, there is no shelter. In the middle of this misery, a magic moment, an elk emerges from the fog in front of me. Even so, I start falling asleep on my bike. Although I wear all the clothes I have, I'm frozen and my feet and hands are soaked. Desperate times call for desperate measures, I take a nap of 10 minutes in the rain that turned into Norwegian drizzle and then wrap my survival blanket under my waterproof jacket for the remaining kilometres. A silver, gold and yellow armour that will get me to Bodø harbour. I arrive at my destination around 13:00, book a hotel and go directly to bed. The boat can wait half a day.
The next morning I land on the Lofoten Islands, just before the start of the Artic Race of Norway, the UCI Continental race for pros. Roads are blocked, except for bikes, and roadside supporters are wondering what I'm doing there, two hours before the peloton. The landscapes are breathtaking, the vegetation is luxuriant, the fishing villages are traditional, the sun is back and all seems promising for the last 1000 kilometres that lay ahead.
I pass through the Troms area, even more majestic than the Lofoten, with its spectacular fjords surrounded by snow-capped peaks. Reindeers are more and more numerous, gray wagtails swirl in front of my wheel, the roads are empty, the pleasure of riding a bike is concentrated in these few moments.
The end of the adventure approaches, I enter the austere region of Finnmark and its arid tundra of stones, moss and small crooked trees. The only people I meet are the employees of the few gas stations and some cyclo-tourists: our roads all converge on the North Cape, a symbolic magnet.
The last of the countless tunnels crossed is in front of me, this one is out of the ordinary : 7 kilometres dug under the sea, in the obscurity, with a descent followed by a 9% climb out to reach the island of Magerøya. I feel as if I am entering the darkness. The temperature dropped by 15 degrees Celsius in 5 minutes and the water flowing on the interior walls is frozen. Let's get out of there as soon as possible.
After a short night in Honningsvåg, the northernmost city in the world, I leave at dawn to enjoy the last 30 kilometres alone. The journey is crazy, the harsh landscape is hilly, the wind is icy and clouds rise along the cliffs. Emotion grips me as I see the North Cape building in the distance. It's August 21st, the sun is rising, and I just reached the end of Europe.
Torino - North Cape : 4631 km / 40754 D+ / D24 H22 M42