300km Vätterrundan, Motala, Sweden: we survived!

You know a race is seriously long when your Garmin‘s battery runs out, the sunrise snack was something called “Köttbullar och Potatismos” – meatballs, mash and warm sweet red berries at the 104km mark – and you’re clocking 200 km by 08:00 in the morning.

The truly spectacular Vätternrundan is the largest recreational bike ride in the world, consisting of various distances with the 300 km challenge being the longest and most popular,  attracting more than 20000 riders. We were lucky to get an entry, so I flew from Cape Town via Amsterdam to Linköping,  where my brother and sister picked me up. Like most riders we stayed at one of the many campsites, close to the Vättern lake. There was even a beach on our doorstep.

Our starting time was at 22:36, just before sunset and it was bitterly cold and windy. Standing on the market square in the tiny town of Motala felt unreal – I had flown in the day before and was seriously attempting the longest bike ride I had ever even considered. We had checked our gear for the umpteenth time, our energy drink was in our cycling shirt pockets, we were dressed with arm and leg warmers hoping it would be sufficient protection against the chilly winds. It barely was: the first 104 km lead us to the southernmost tip of lake Vättern, to the town of Jönköping. We rode this against the wind, and by the time we had covered this, the temperature had dropped to an achingly fresh 7 degrees. The clever organizers of this race had prepared: the food stop here was in a giant factory building, which was heated! We were served Swedish specialities like meatballs, warm blueberry soup and salty gherkins, which at that point was still surprising, but towards the end of the race I was looking forward to a healthy portion of gherkins at each watering point (of which there were plenty). After sunrise the route around the shores of the lake was truly spectacular: little villages with cobbled roads (rattling a couple of bike lights into pieces), endless pine tree forests and picturesque views over the lake just kept us going. It got warmer the minute the sun peeked over the misty horizon and cycling in this breathtaking scenery was just a dream come true. The second half definitely feels more challenging, mostly because of the countless rolling hills, and the lack of sleep at that point. Once we hit the 200km mark, adrenalin kicked in and I knew that I would finish this race – we hit it hard at that point and averaged above 33 km/h in a crazy 4 man mini-race within a race.  It felt like we were flying through the Swedish landscape. Well, we came to our senses and slowed down eventually but by then we only had something like 40 km to ride. For some reason I didn’t want it to end yet, mostly because we had planned this trip for the better part of a year and it would soon come to an end. But this is what we came here for, completing the Vätternrundan. The final 10 km lead us down to the lake and along the promenade to the finish.

Our plan was to ride fast but to make use of the catering stations as much as possible – so we managed a 28 km/h average, but had to add about two hours to our total ride time, bringing us back to Motala after 13 hours in the saddle. It took me a few hours afterwards to realize that we had actually done it.  We had completed the longest race of our lives so far!

The organization of this race is incredible:  the entire town of Motala is taken over by cyclists – registration, exhibition, start and catering all happens on the main market square. This creates a great vibe around the start/ finish all the way through the night.  The food and drink stops along the route are so perfectly run that 20 000 riders all receive a warm meal and endless bread rolls, gherkins, warm berry juice, coffee, teas and energy drinks without having to stand in a queue.  I couldn’t believe the number of volunteers who assist in making roads safe or serve food all night long, only for a bunch of crazy cyclists to have the time of their lives. I couldn’t believe the “veterans” cycling the route on 50 year-old single speed bikes with shopping baskets in the front or the guy doing it on a 30 kg military bike. There was a 70-year-old riding his 40th Vätternrundan, having completed the 300km ride every year since it started. Our campsite neighbour never trained, “but uses her bicycle to go shopping” – and completed the 300 km in about 20 hours. The support by locals was something special too: seeing a family sit in front of their house by a fire, at 3:00 AM during a bitterly cold and windy night and cheering excitedly is something I won’t forget. Their little boy screaming a supportive “hey hey hey” at the top of his voice will stay with me forever.

Thanks to the Vätternrundan organizers (Twitter: @Vatternrundan)  for a truly unforgettable event. If I can, I will be back some time.