For years I had dreamt of spending Christmas or New Years in Shetland. I wasn’t entirely sure what exactly its appeal was, but at a time of year when most people in Britain dream of a holiday much further south, I was keen to try a holiday much further north.
The dream would finally become reality last year, as a Christmas present for my girlfriend and me, but then lockdown prevented us from heading to Shetland for Christmas. As many people we had ferries booked, accommodation arranged and a car full of food to have little impact on the island population, but it wasn’t meant to happen. This year I wasn’t thinking about repeating my attempt to go to Shetland, but cycling home for Christmas again. I had done this four times, first in 2010, then again in 2011, again in 2014 and the last time in 2017 (you can read more about the trip here). But with regulations changing on an almost a daily basis, this was off the cards, as soon as the new virus variant was discovered.
I left the UK just before things tightened up again and I spent the last weeks of 2021 in As, a small town in Norway, just south of Oslo. My girlfriend has moved here to take up a job as assistant professor. And as my biggest current project is to finish the book I have been researching over the past year, portraying the gravel riding scene in Britain, I saw this as a good opportunity to hide from everyday life and spend a few weeks in an unfamiliar environment. This often helps with focussing and getting a task done, and it wasn’t different this time – the book is almost written (keep an eye on the Vertebrate website if you are interested to hear more).
When I arrived in November, the temperature dropped as low as minus 18 degrees Celsius at night, a mild shock to the system. Those temperatures weren’t anything new for me. I had experienced winters in Germany where the mercury dropped below minus 25. I also had a short period of such low temperatures on my round the world trip in New Mexico, when I crossed the high plains in December, shortly before Christmas. But in Edinburgh, which I call home since 2009, winter temperatures are considerably milder, and I had gotten used to that over the last twelve years.
Thankfully Edinburgh had an exceptional winter last year, with the lowest temperatures being around minus five or six. I used this as an opportunity to squeeze in a lot of rides with Mark Beaumont, and I also played around with the idea of camping in the snow, but the restrictions on overnight stays prevented me from taking this idea any further.
I fully enjoyed the day rides in Scotland last winter, and even made a film to prove that. And with consistent low temperatures in this part of Norway over the last weeks, there was something really appealing about a microadventure in the snow. First to compensate for my failed attempts to make it to the 60th parallel in Shetland and the lack of a cycle home for Christmas this year. But I also had made very good progress on the book, so a night in the tent and a day riding my bike in the snow would be a gift to me this Christmas.
I chose the longest night of the year, at winter solstice. We often celebrate the shortest day, but the longest night merely gets a mention. I wanted to start with that, and add a short day of riding afterwards. My plan was to head out in the dark, find a nice spot to camp, listen to some Christmas songs, have dinner, hopefully don’t get too cold, find a nice coffee and croissant the next morning and then spend the following day cycling.
When it was snowing heavily outside in the afternoon, I started to question my plan, but I had enough determination and a blog to write, so I made it happen. Giving myself a reason to go out was a crucial piece in the puzzle. I also did some last minute changes to what I was planning to bring, so by the time I rolled out of the house it was about 6.30pm. When I cycled to the supermarket to get food I realised I had forgotten toilet paper. After collecting that, I made the second shopping attempt, and realised I also didn’t have a spork. I was finally rolling out of town at 7pm, with snow still falling.
Cycling in winter requires confidence and good equipment. Thankfully the bike I was given to test, a very nice FARA GRAVEL/R, came equipped with studded tyres. While I occasionally use studded tyres in Scotland, in Norway they are essential for cycling in winter. This is something that Oslo, where Fara Cycling is based, realised when they tried to keep people cycling in winter during the pandemic, to reduce congestion on public transport and roads. The council had two rounds of grant programs for studded tyres, one in the fall of 2020, and one this recent fall.
By introducing the tyre program, city authorities hoped to convince more people to try out cycling as a way of getting around in the city during the winter months, and to leave the car at home. The hypothesis was that lasting changes in travel habits could be created for people trying out winter cycling for the first time. The program was open for all applicants, and subsidised 50% of the costs of buying studded tyres – with a maximum grant of 1000 NOK (£85) per applicant. Applicants could also receive a grant for tyre change service, with a maximum grant of 500 NOK (£42) per applicant.
The city initially budgeted for 1000 grants in total, but in the end over 5000 grants were approved in a couple of weeks. The scheme was repeated this year, but targeted towards private businesses. The city council also carried out a survey. Without going into too much more detail, the initiative was hugely successful. One interesting finding was the fact that 77% of the responders reported that fears of slippery roads were initially viewed as something that could keep them from using their bike during winter. When the winter season had ended, only 7% reported the same fear. The same reduction in worries was reported for cold weather conditions, clothing requirements etc. Their conclusion seems to suggest that trying out winter cycling is an effective remedy against many common prejudices held by people who haven’t tried it yet.
And the exactly the same applied to my camping microadventure in the snow. It was an effective remedy against many common prejudices held by people who haven’t tried it yet. I had some fears when I set out, but I can honestly say that the night camping in a winter forest was one of the best nights camping I had so far. I slept like a rock and felt utterly refreshed the next morning. I used the right equipment, an insulated winter mattress and goose down sleeping bag, which were key to success. The sleeping bag was water-resistant too, which was helpful, as the condensation in the small tent I used was significant.
The cycling the next day was stunning. Having successfully spent the night in a tent, the coffee and traditional Norwegian bun the next morning were well earned and tasted even better. There was also no pressure to cycle many miles that day, I was deliberately taking it easy. My solstice adventure was different from the Rapha Festive 500 or Restrap Solstice Century Challenge. This wasn’t about miles at all. Cycling was the bonus, not the main activity.
I had pre-arranged a visit to Truls Erik Johnsen’s workshop in Holen. Truls Erik is a frame builder, and one of the former founders of the Norwegian mountain biking magazine www.terrengsykkel.no. We had exchanged a few messages on Instagram, and finally found a date that would suit both of us to chat. As I was under no pressure, I had the time to chat with him, and there was so much that connected us. Mutual friends, the love for strong coffee, singlespeed riding. And the idea that cycling should be about enjoyment, not about chasing endless miles to self-inflict pain.
When I arrived home I felt so much richer than when I had left. I had given myself the time necessary to reconnect with myself. But I also had the opportunity to make someone else’s life richer. I did start cycling for the social aspect, and the opportunities it gives me to try something new, and the conversation with Truls confirmed that. And if there is one thing this Christmas that I can give, which is free, then it is to make time for those moments in 2022 and give them to people I already call friends. And those, like Truls, who will become friends.
Merry Christmas! Yellow Jersey are award winning providers of bicycle insurance.