There are small details in cycling that can make a major difference. When I opened the booth of our hire car in Kalmar on Friday morning, I followed the same procedure I would normally have followed many times before: getting the bike out, sliding the front wheel in, fitting the thru axle and rolling off soon afterwards. But there was no axle anywhere to be seen in the car! It soon dawned on me that I was less awake then I thought when we set off at 6am. The axle was at home, my bike was here. And I had a problem!
Not knowing by then how difficult, or better impossible, it will be to find a replacement in the Swedish town, the first day of a long weekend was spent exploring various bike shops in search of the missing part. While I would have preferred a longer ride instead, browsing the local bike shops was equally fun. While cycling around the world, bike shops were often the source of information for me, and at times I got to even sleep in them, like in Newton, Kansas, or I was invited to dine with the locals, like in Istanbul.
The fact that I discovered on my bike shop tour: As with other bike parts, standards are not the brainchild of the bike industry. While some shops had spare axles, either the length was right and the thread was wrong, or the thread was fine and the length didn’t match.
Thankfully I could use my partner’s bike for the first day to explore Kalmar. A city in the southeast of Sweden, it is beautifully situated by the Baltic Sea in Småland. From the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries, Kalmar was one of Sweden’s most important cities, with the Kalmar Slott (castle) at its heart. The history of the legendary castle stretches back 800 years, and for a long time it was one of Sweden’s most important fortifications, known as ‘the key to the kingdom’ due to its strategic location. As I still had no luck in finding an axle, we were down one bike to ride together, so Louise and I explored the castle for a good few hours on Saturday by foot instead. It was worth it, as the exhibitions offered a great insight into Swedish history.
In the afternoon we moved our base from Kalmar to Kastlösa on Öland, where Louise had booked an Airbnb for two nights. For cycling, the island of Öland, accessible via the Öland Bridge, proved to be an absolute gem. With loads for quiet roads and peaceful villages, there is enough there for at least a week’s exploring. We only had an afternoon and the following day left, so focussed on the southern part of the island, where our small house was a perfect base to cycle during the day, and relax in a sauna in the evening.
The southern part of the island of Öland is dominated by a vast limestone plateau. Human beings have lived here for some five thousand years and adapted their way of life to the physical constraints of the island. The landscape wasn’t what I was expecting in Sweden, it was unique. With abundant evidence of continuous human settlement from prehistoric times to the present day, Öland nowadays is a World Heritage site – a living agrarian landscape where villages, arable lands, coastal lands and alvar plains define the present agricultural landscape and the community.
After a short sunset loop on Saturday, I mapped a 40km gravel route for my early morning ride. It was one of those rides where I possibly spent more time off the saddle. There was the possibility for a great picture wherever I rode. Imagine a smooth gravel road through mystique landscapes hidden in early morning fog, with droplets caught in spiderwebs, all presented in a golden soft light.
At the heart of the cycling routes on the island is the Ölandsleden, a signposted route stretching across the whole island. With the ‘Allemansrätten’ exploring the island by yourself is easy too, wild camping and off-road cycling are allowed in Sweden. The freedom to roam in Sweden means that you have the right to walk, cycle, ride, ski and camp on any land with the exception of private gardens, near a dwelling house or land under cultivation.
While unsuccessfully searching for my thru axle, one of the bike shops in Klamar suggested Ölands Cykeluthyrning, which offers hire bikes of all kinds in Mörbylånga, one of the smaller settlements on Öland. A quick email to Gunnar on Saturday confirmed that we can hire a bike on Sunday.
While I was initially looking for a simple bike to spend the day cycling with Louise, we both agreed that a tandem would be worth giving a go. We had tried one for a few hours in Edinburgh once, and with quiet roads and flat paths there was very little that could go wrong here. We strapped some of our bikepacking bags on it to take food and jackets, and off we were on a 55 km kilometre loop exploring the beauty of the island, in wall to wall sunshine.
Gunnar Kvarnback, who runs the small hire business since 2012, told me that he was tasked with organising the 2018 International Tandem Rally on the island, and surely we were in for a treat if tandem experts from the UK, US, Canada, Netherlands, Belgium and Germany would come here to ride their bikes.
We weren’t disappointed. Starting in Mörbylånga we headed east first, crossing the barren landscape and stopping at a small lake for a walk. With cafes and shops in rare supply on our route we packed lunch ourselves, and chose one of the many windmills on the island for a break from the saddle. The most fascinating bit of the route was an old railway, on which a gravel cycle path now leads from the former Skärlöv station to Kastlösa. Half way along there was an opportunity to explore the ruins of a former village, with a resting place in the forest providing shelter.
While we only cycled on the tandem for a day, I would love to return to Öland with a gravel bike. There were a number of basic shelters along the Ölandsleden suitable for bivvying, with a nice firepit and firewood provided, as well as track pumps for filling up tyres and nice benches to enjoy cooking in the evening. Everything was geared up well for cycle touring.
But it was also the general vibe that made Sweden a great place to visit by bike. Everywhere in Kalmar I could see people doing their shopping on bikes. Most roads had cycle lanes, there were plenty of cycle racks at stations and supermarkets. Unlike often in the UK, cycling wasn’t just a leisure activity, it was part of the everyday routine. And I guess that was the reason why most bike shops stocked more simple bikes. Disappointed at first, my search for a thru axle led to what turned out to be one of my favourite cycling adventures in 2023.
Markus’s route can be found on Komoot here. You can find more information on cycling on Öland on the website of Ölands Cykeluthyrning here. And don’t forget, if you’re planning a cycle touring or bike packing trip abroad, do you have the correct cycle travel insurance? Yellow Jersey offer cycle specific travel insurance designed to cover cover everything from cycle touting to downhill racing. Yellow Jersey also offer specific bicycle and electric bike insurance, designed to cover accidental damage, crash damage and theft anywhere in the world.