Motala Sweden- June 18 1994. It's 3 AM but it is almost broad daylight I'm riding in a pack of about 70 cyclists, escorted through the streets of town by a police motorcycles. Many of the riders are dressed in team uniforms. It's almost like being in the Tour de France but there are 2 big differences.
This is the 29th annual Vättern Rundan. The biggest organized bicycle tour in the world. The fastest times are never announced, some may have there own personal races and teams often ride in pelatons together. The Swedes call it a Motionslopp which doesn't translate very well. The idea is to focus on mass participation rather than on elitism. The ride is much like a Randonnee. It is also part of the Swedish Classic Series which also includes the famous Vasalopp ski race and a 3km swim in chilly Dalälven.
The numbers are staggering: about 13000 cyclists on a 300 km ride. Sweden only has a population of 8 million so this represents about .2 % of the whole country. 15000 litres of blueberry soup are consumed (LOVE IT!) Ages run from 18 to 82. The riders start in groups of 60 or 70, the first at 2000 Fri evening, the last at about 0400 Sat. morning. Most of the riders have family with them, so the population of Motala swells for this weekend. It's quite a festival!
What am I doing here? Well,I am on a 25 day bicycle tour of Norden. My 4 day ride from Copenhagen DK had many adventures which will have wait till later. I got to town about 0800 on Friday found out where I could sign up and managed to get a much preferred starting time of 0300 ( lights aren't required after that time). Most people sign up as early as January but if the ride quota hasn't been exceeded ( it was 16000 this year) they allow late entries ( for considerable extra kronar).
While I was sitting around the registration area , stuffing myself with carbos, a reporter and photographer from the local paper ( Öst Göta Correspondant ) asked me some questions and took some pictures. Well, with 15000 cyclists here they probably were taking lots of interviews so I didn't think much of it.
Inside the registration building are many information booths. The most popular was the weather forcast booth. The video monitor displayed the forcast. Clear tonight with low near 0 C ( ouch). Sunny tommorrow until late afternoon with highs near 15 C. ( rather cool for this time of year). Winds light in morning, picking up to moderate southerly in afternoon. Hope I can make it to south end of the lake before the winds pick up.
Outside several bike shops are selling accessories, clothes etc. There is also a huge bazaar market selling all sorts of stuff. This is the big event of the year for Motala.
So I rode back to the Sports Hall where I stuffed myself some more. Then I took a walk downtown ( without my camera!) . A band was playing Swedish polkas in the park. A fair was set up in the market square ( Torget). Then I realized that the special first group was about to leave, from Torget rather than the regular starting point. Most of them were in the 70's or older and many of them couples- quite a charming sight and I didn't have my camera.
Well back to the hall to eat and try to get some sleep of the gym floor. Sleep did not come easy. When it did my watch alarm did not wake me up. YIKES ! I didn't have time for a good breakfast so I put on my lights and headed out about 0230 . The twilight is already quite bright. BRR it is cold- close to 0 C. I just follow other riders and hope they know the quickest way to the start which is about 3 km away.
I have time for another banana before I enter the start queues for my group. There are about 5 queues for the next groups. I watch 2 or 3 leave then it's our turn . 5-4-3-2-1- BEEP and we are off! The escort leads us for several kms to the edge of touwn . Then the group splits into fast and slow pelatons. A large group of Danish riders zips away. I settle into a 25 km/hr group for a while. I'm not used to tight pacelines so I stay about a bikelength back. The group also provides warmth. When I get alone it feels much colder. About 10 minutes out we pass the first fans. They have been camped out in heavy sleeping bags ( it was near freezing) along the side of the road waiting for their local heros. HEJA HEJA!
At 0350 the sun pops up - in the NORTH - a strange place. The country side is magnificent in June. Fields of various hues of green , occasional bright yellow of rapeseed. Blues of lilacs and lupines, whites of daisies. The terrain, climate and vegetation are very similar to Nova Scotia or New England. I stop often to take pictures of riders against scenic backgrounds. Every few minutes a fast pelaton passes me.
At around 0500 I reach the first depot at Hästholmen. The most popular refreshment is blueberry soup which I have taken a liking to. (It is also a symbol of the Vassalopp ski race). Another favourite was salt gurka, a pickle which is too salty for my tastes.
The ride so far is fairly flat along the east side of the lake. The winds are light in the early morning. I hope I can make it to to south end of the lake before the winds pick up. Around the second depot at Gyllene Uttern there are some bigger hills as the route leaves the lake shore. Then we descent there is a long descent along the shore to Jönköping, the largest city on the route at the south end of the lake. It is 0830 and I've already gone 115 km !
At this depot there is a more substational meal. I have some mashed potato as well as some bananas and blueberry soup and bread rolls.
As predicted the winds have picked up from the south so we have an easy ride for the next 140 km up the west side of the lake. It has become warmer so I strip down to shorts. However the high temp was only about 15 C which is quite cool for this time of year.
There is some more climbing to the next depot at Fagerhult ( 144 km) Then we decend back to the lake at Hjo (182 km) where there is some media coverage. As I pass the announcer says 'Nummer 15831-- från Kanada' 'HEJA HEJA' from the fans. There is another bigger meal here, but I am reluctant to eat anything heavy so I just have some bananas, rolls and of course, blueberry soup. I reporter for the Boras Daily interviews me. Then he says ' Only 12 miles left'. American cyclists beware! In Scandinavia a mile means 10 km !
On to the next depot at Karlsborg ( 216 km) we stop near a large castle , this is also the outlet for the Göta Canal. At the next depots I start drinking coffee for an extra boost. Then we reach the north end of the lake which means headwinds. The sky has become overcast but there's only 40 km to go. There are some steep hills here and many people start walking but my 30 x 34 gear handles the hills easily.
Then at Medevi ( 282 km) I take a short break to ready for the final push. I seem to be getting some extra strength as I am passing more riders. I can see the big radio towers of the old Radio Sweden site. Then we enter the Motala city limits. I pick up speed to about 30 km/hr. Down a marked lane. The crowds bigger- HEJA HEJA- 'seks hundra meter' Along the lakeshore park and across the finish line, medal around my neck, tears in my eyes. The time is 2000. It's been a long day!
Just behind me a finisher, probably in his 60's, has a garland of flowers placed around his neck by his grandchildren. I just wander around in bliss for some time before going back to the Sports Hall for to shower and eat and try to sleep.
I talk to the young attendant, who speaks very good English.
' How was it?'
' Just great! Oh, do you have today's newspaper?'
' Yes, here it is. There are many articles about the ride'
GASP! My picture is on the front page! in color! There is another
picture and article in the second section! I ask him to save it for me.
Next morning I cut them out and mail it to my mother.
Article with pictures from regional newspaper
After the longest ride in my life I felt no pains. I managed to get some sleep that night but I woke up early as I was so excited. I had to write a letter to my mother before some of the memories faded.
I had intended to rest the next day ( Sunday) and just take in the sights of the town, but the town was empty ! The Radio Sweden museum was closed. I did manage to see a boat go through the locks on the Göta Canal. The tourist bureau was open and next to it the VR souvenir and results office was just about to close up. I picked up some light weight souvenirs and checked out my results on their computer. They also showed some statistics. There were only about 200 or so of the 13000 starters who didn't finish.
My elapsed time was 17 hrs while my average riding speed was 24 km/hr. That's still under the 20 hr pace for a 300 km brevet. I rode this as a tour, taking lots of pictures . The total climb was only 1300 m so it's not a hilly course. ( 12 days later I will climb 1400m in 20 km!).
After only 5 days of riding I've already experienced the biggest adventures of my life. New adventures await me as I head north to Mora in Dalarna and then Norway.
PS- They are planning a big festival for 1995 which will be the 30 th running of the VR. The VR has a permanent office next to the train station The address is : Box 48, S-591 21 Motala. Phone +46 141 547 90. FAX +46 141 112 88
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