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As Grand Tour season hits a transition from Le Tour and with La Vuelta right around the corner, as cycling fans we dream of Europe. We can’t help it. There is little doubt that the beautiful footage of the far away continent on our television and laptop screens is the culprit.The races that see the peloton winding through bucolic country roads of Flanders, and the dramatic mountain passes of Italy, France and Spain capture our imagination in ways that little else can.
There is a romance to Europe for everyone, well, at least nearly everyone; and for cyclists, all the more. Yet for some Americans, the idea of embarking on a trip to Europe’s cycling hot spots can be sometimes met with trepidation. The truth is, while we may all be pursuing that “euro pro” look on the bike, for some of us, the idea of a trip to Europe can be intimidating. It’s crowded, and, in some places, a little cramped. The tapestry of languages can be disorienting and the bathrooms are really, really small.
The tiny hotels, and the tiny beds. The tiny coffees that you’re supposed to stand and drink. The tiny cars for those tiny roads. On a bicycle, those tiny roads are the best place in the world to ride, but they are undeniably tiny. So how does one experience the joys of Europe and rubbing shoulders with World Tour riders in a way that perhaps feels just a bit like home?
Go North young man, or woman.
I arrived in northern Norway, in Bodø (pronounced like Buddha), for an iteration of the Arctic Race, not quite sure what to expect. That’s the beauty of travel, ultimately it’s the unknown that draws us away from our daily routine and the sights and sounds of our day-to-day life. We travel somewhere new for a change of pace, or a change of scenery. We end up, if we’re lucky, with a completely changed perspective. Travel has the ability transform us; all we have to do is let it.
Bodø itself is fairly stark, fairly modern and not terribly charming; tucked in along the Norwegian Sea just north of the Arctic Circle. The town itself was only founded in the early 1800s, a fishing town on a peninsula that juts into this part of the North Atlantic. Like many of the former outposts in this northern hinterland, Bodø sprung up because of a massive surge in herring in the Norwegian Sea. Nearly the whole town was leveled in an attack from German bombers in May of 1940. The rebuild finished only in 1959. As with much of the architecture from that time period, charm wasn’t a central element. However, to be taken in by Bodø (and frankly any part of northern Norway) all it takes is to simply lift your eyes to the horizon.
Related: Arctic Race of Norway 2013
Sawtooth mountains jut out from the sea. The nearby Landegode Island and the far off Lofoten Islands rise from the water and are framed by dramatic coastal clouds on this morning. Mountains are always majestic, but when they appear to shoot straight out of the black waters of the North Atlantic, it makes them all the more impressive.
As the setting for a World Tour race, northern Norway is quite literally on the frontier. We’re used to the sport’s historical stomping grounds in Belgium, France, Italy and Spain. The narrow strips of ribbon, cobblestones and tiny medieval village scenes. This part of Norway is quite different. The roads are wide, the towns feel more like small towns in America than Spain. Yet Norway has the scenic majesty to meet and surpass any of those places when it comes to natural beauty.
The Arctic Race of Norway is in its fifth year in 2018 and represents one of the racing calendar’s true gems. Where stage racing in America is struggling to maintain itself beyond California, week-long stage races throughout Europe have continued to thrive – and not just those with a long standing tradition. The race was conceived as a way to show off what is an undoubtedly stunning countryside.
After the team presentations, we headed south where the peloton launched towards stage one. While they transferred in buses, I took a boat. A rigid inflatable through some of the region’s dramatic fjords. There are not really any trees to speak of, but the Norwegian sea eagles are abundant, taking off from nearby isles that are really no more than a few square feet of bare rock.
The boat is captained into Saltstraumen, home of the world’s strongest maelstrom, or whirlpool, which sounds scarier than what I experienced. Docking in nearby Salten we snacked on a local favorite, minke whale, before heading into Rognan to catch the finish of stage one. The rugged coast means that even the “flat” stages aren’t flat. Stage one included two category two climbs and the category one Ljøsenhammeren climb. Yet still the sprinters did battle with the favorite Kristoff taking another win in a setting that looks a bit like Main Street, USA.
Stage two started out just south of the Arctic Circle in a town called Mo i Rana. I headed to Sandnessjøen where the day’s stage would end, and got on another boat. Norwegian life is intertwined with the sea, and to truly experience its culture is to embrace that. We motor out to the Sandsundvær, a collection of rock islands and sheaves that makes up essentially what is one village spread over a number of rock isles. The staid red wood homes built right on the rock have no protection from the elements, as the descendants of Vikings pull halibut, herring and salmon right out of the cold waters a few feet from their doorsteps. In January of 1901 Sandsundvær experienced one of Norway’s great tragedies as a winter storm came in and flooded some of the islets. Strong winds whipped debris and fishing families were torn from each other’s arms to be lost to the cold black waters of the North Atlantic. On the day of my visit it’s hard to imagine the cruelty of those conditions as the blue skies, puffy clouds and warm sunshine make for a perfect day of island hopping.
Thor Hushovd won the first iteration of the Arctic Race, and has served as the race’s ambassador since his retirement. Thor still looks like Thor – like he could tear your legs off. Though he comes from the south of Norway he sees this race as an opportunity to showcase what is undeniably glorious country. “The beauty of cycling is that a race like this can really be put on anywhere. Anywhere there are roads.” And Thor is right, the uniqueness of our sport is that it happens within a cultural context. A football stadium could be anywhere, they all look the same. But there is only one Galibier, only one Oude Kwaremont, only one Ljøsenhammeren. And these are all places worth seeing.
Thor makes his way among the crowd in Sandnessjøen as we await the coming peloton. Young girls my daughter’s age, their faces painted with Norwegian flags, and one dressed as Olaf, the most famous snowman for this next generation, take turns pounding their hands along the dasher boards near the finish line.
The final stage, for the sprinters, departs from the Polar Sirkel Center, at 66° 33’ N. A party of sorts is taking place and many folks have camped overnight in the treeless, rocky fields adjoining the the visitor center. There is traditional food, reindeer meat mainly, music and many folks in traditional dress of the Sámi, an indigenous people native to this part of Norway, as well as the northern coastal areas of Finland, Sweden and Russia. The peloton rolls out into the cold morning weather to make their way north.
I wait in the sunshine at the Lønsdal station for a train to the race finish in Bodø that afternoon. The station is seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a bright red wooden building, complete with white window sills. It’s a replica so many of the homes and buildings that dot this part of the country.
The Arctic Race showcases yet another, completely different context for our sport. The arctic scenery juts skyward from the icy black North Sea, showcasing what is a very approachable race with a stunning backdrop. Short boat rides deliver you into the heart of this culture’s life blood and history in these dark waters. While a ride can happen anywhere there are roads, those found in Norway are uniquely beautiful; and when it comes to visiting Europe, there’s no place like Norway.