Posted by: Ian | June 14, 2013

My 500 mile bike ride in Sweden

Now that I’m back home I can add some final thoughts to my recent posts re my week of cycling in Sweden.

Travelling by bike

Here, approximately, is my total route:

Sweden Route

As the title indicates, this ended up at almost exactly 500 miles, although that included a few imprecisions and diversions not shown on this route map.

I was extremely lucky with the weather: I rode under sun and blue skies virtually all week. I was lucky with the bike too: I had no punctures or mechanical problems. Having said that, if it rained and I’d had punctures every day I would still have enjoyed it. It’s such a wonderful experience to be out and about, smelling the pines and the hot sappy forests and feeling the wind in my face or, better still, at my back.

I can’t think of any other way of seeing a chunk of Sweden that would have been as satisfying. My brief journeys at the end of my trip between Arlanda and Stockholm, which I did twice, were comparable to travelling by train between, say, Coventry and Birmingham. I love train travel but except on very long journeys it dilutes the sense of place.

A few people warned me before I left that their experiences of travelling across Sweden by car had been very boring. Having seen the roads that you’d take to do such a journey, I can see why. Embarking on such a car trip and then complaining of the monotony is akin to going to MacDonald’s and lamenting the lack of fine cuisine. You do it, presumably, because it’s efficient and transactional rather than for any quality of richness.

Walking across the country might be a fun alternative but you couldn’t cover anything like the same ground in the time. I loved the differing townscapes, discovering the lakes and, perhaps especially, the magical quality of the area around Vattern: they say there are trolls in the mountains! In a way – though more of a psychological than a topographical one – it reminds me of my own area of Somerset and Devon.

If I had to explore Sweden without cycling I’d try a journey from Gothenberg to Stockholm on the Gota canal. I think it takes around four days.

Accommodation

For all but the two nights I spent in Motala I stayed in hotels. They were all truly excellent; here’s the one in Vasteras:

Elite hotel

However, if I were planning a similar trip again I’d stay in guesthouses on at least half of my nights for the chance of a more authentic and personal experience. I certainly enjoyed this in Motala.

Food

I hope and believe I was probably around calorie-neutral for the trip. According to my Garmin, I burned about 13,000 cals. If I didn’t compensate for that with hearty breakfasts, lunches, dinners and cake stops I’d be surprised. The food was outstanding. My only disappointments were both in chains in Stockholm: I had my only bad (and undrinkable) coffee of the week at Espresso House and my worst meal at Fisk (and it was the atmosphere and service as much as the food that let it down). Wobbler in Orebro and Varda in Vasteras stand out as especially memorable.

Effort

I really took it easy on this trip. On the outward days, heading broadly West to Motala, I had the wind against me, checked directions constantly and averaged only 14 mph plus change. On the return the wind was with me more and my average speeds were north of 18 mph, bringing me to something above 16 mph overall. But to put this in context, on the two days of the Tour of Wessex that I did recently (days one and three), on average I cycled over 50% more miles each day than I did on my Sweden trip and climbed more than three times as much per mile ridden – yet still held a higher average speed. There’s no mystery to it: my average heart rate on the Wessex was 20 bpm higher. The consequence of this gentler, Zone 2 approach was that I ended every day on my Sweden trip with fresh legs.

The Swedes, I learn, have their own domestic equivalent to an Ironman challenge that has been running since 1972. It’s called the Swedish Classical and features four legs that, rather than taking place in brutal direct sequence like an Ironman or triathlon, are spaced over the months March to September. In the full form they are a 90 km cross country ski, a 300 km bike ride (the Vatternrundan), a 3 km river swim and a 30 km run. To complete the challenge you do all of these in the same calendar year. As well as the full form there is a “half” version and a “ladies” version of each event, so you can complete the half version or the ladies version of the overall Classic. The ride that I did on Sunday – the 150 km Halvvattern – is the half version of the Vatternrundan.

I find the thought of doing the whole Classic set appealing, despite having no interest at all in triathlons. I am interested to observe in myself no drive to do the full version but rather  a sense that the half version would be more enjoyable. When I finished the halvvattern, with my lazy average heart rate of only 134 bpm, I barely felt tired. However, I’d had enough of sitting in the saddle and the thought of having to do the same distance again would have been an ordeal rather than a challenge. I ride for the pleasure it brings me, not to prove a point.

the bike

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