Finishing this long race around Iceland's Ring Road, is winning in itself and finishing last does not equal losing. One group of stars of the 2014 WOW Cyclothon were the young members of Team Hjolakraftur (Cycling Power). The team consisted of 6 teenagers: Birta Guðný Árnadóttir (13), Ingimundur B. Sigfússon (13), Þorbjörg Tinna Hjaltalín (16), Sigurður Marteinn Lyngberg Sigurðsson (16), Kristín Sif Þórarinsdóttir (16) and Ása Kara Smáradóttir (17), and their four grown-up leaders: Árni Sæmundsson (49), Gauja Rúnarsdóttir (48), Sigfús B. Ingimundarson (49) and Þorvaldur Daníelsson aka Valdi (43). Their goal was not to win first place but rather to conquer themselves by finishing the whole race within the allotted 72 hours.
We met up with Valdi, one of the founders of the Hjolakraftur project and asked him to tell us about the Hjolakraftur project. “Hjolakraftur is something I came up with along with a friend of mine, Eiríkur Árnason. It was, and still is, a project that aims to get children and teenagers that haven’t found themselves in other sports, to give cycling a chance. Most of the young people that we have met have heard about this project through the National Children Hospital’s Health School (Heilsuskoli). It so happens that for various reasons, some of them have been losing the battle to all sorts of lifestyle diseases,” says Valdi who contacted the doctors at the health school when the idea for the project came up. “They were very positive and that is actually how we managed to pilot the project,” Valdi adds.
Valdi had big ideas for the Hjolakraftur project from the word go but how did he get the idea of entering the group in WOW Cyclothon?
“That is actually a funny story. In 2013 I was talking to the group and their parents and I told them that if they would work very hard I would want to take them to the WOW Cyclothon in 2014. It goes without saying that they all thought I was mad, but I was sowing a seed. At the end of the year I started receiving messages from the kids, asking when we would start preparing for the race. After that there was no turning back. Our preparations began in January by taking walks in the ice and snow, but as soon as we had the chance we started biking,” says Valdi.
Taking a group of teenagers on the road is no small feat and it's not cheap. “Before the WOW Cyclothon, I contacted some companies and individuals and asked them to sponsor us. We needed new bikes, clothing and everything. This actually turned out way better than I had hoped for and as far as the cost of participating went, we almost broke even. Our main sponsors were Tryggingamiðstöðin, Eimskip, Ormsson and Örninn. There was also an individual that made all this possible, but he asked me to keep his name a secret and I’m going to respect that,” Valdi tells us. Hjolakraftur has already started preparing for the 2015 WOW Cyclothon with 5 teams of 10 that will compete in a special Hjolakraftur Category. “Hjolakraftur is becoming a formal enterprise, and I've already begun looking for additional funding.”
Off to the races
Everything Valdi had hoped to achieve before the race materialized, but the competition itself was yet to come. “The hardest part of the WOW Cyclothon is, without a doubt, staying awake, and eventually recovering from all that lost sleep. It's amazing how you can drive your body for all those hours without getting tired. My experience is that the WOW Cyclothon boils down to mental strength. I used meditation while riding my part of the race, and I’m not kidding.
“We had some great moments in the competition. The biggest was of course crossing the finish line together with the WOW girls. We teamed up with them only 15 hours into the competition and decided to finish together - a real WOW moment! After that we got a police escort down to the Harpa Concert Hall.”
Mental strength is indeed the name of the game. How did Valdi and his Hjolakraftur teammates manage to keep going, knowing they were the underdog in the race?
“During our preparation I had an idea for the team. We set three goals; the first one was to finish absolutely last, the second to conquer ourselves and win the hearts of others by doing this and the third was to win the fundraising competition because WOW air had promised flight tickets to the team who raised the most pledges for the race. We managed to do all that, except that the WOW girls were given the last place, even though we finished at the same time. It has to be an alphabetical thing,” says Valdi and laughs.
“We all knew we were the very last teams but still we were ahead of schedule the whole time so we knew we were going to finish within the time frame for the competition. The teams have up to 72 hours to finish and we finished in 57.02, 15 hours ahead of schedule and that is a huge achievement. The most amazing thing though, is that nobody in the team ever complained about anything – we were in high spirits the whole time, and as for having a group of teenagers cycling and staying so close together on a bus for 57 hours without drama … well that is an achievement in itself, isn’t it?” says Valdi and adds that quitting was never an option. “We kept referring to the rules from the booklet we got before the race, and rule #5 [Harden the f*** up] more than any other.”
Finishing last and winning
“When we had less than an hour to go I could actually feel the emotions starting to take over. We decided to ride all together, almost hand in hand, the last 2 km, and the WOW girls were with us. When we saw the finish line tears started appearing and we saw that a huge crowd had gathered to welcome us, all the parents, grandparents and even some fans. Many tears of joy could be seen in everyone’s eyes and this was a moment of victory and pride for us all,” Valdi describes. But as we’ve already stated coming in last does not equal losing and Team Hjolakraftur won the pledge competition by a landslide.
“Being the youngest team in the WOW Cyclothon got us more media coverage than many of the other teams. That, and the fact that we are all on Facebook, gave us some competitive advantage to begin with. Before the competition started, Tryggingamiðstöðin, one of our sponsors who also had a team in the WOW Cyclothon, decided to ask people to pledge money to Hjolakraftur instead of their own team. The same happened with Team Hledsla and in the end, one of the cyclists in the solo category, pledged Hjolakraftur with a huge amount. We knew that so many people saw us as underdogs who were willing to just lay it all out there and go for it, and so many people wanted to support us. The big sum we collected was mainly made up of pledges from 1,000 to 5,000 IKR. You need a lot of those to collect 1,148,000 IKR,” Valdi says, proud of his Hjolakraftur kids.
Valdi and Team Hjolakraftur all received flight tickets with WOW air for their great success in the pledge competition and they’ve already put their spoils to good use. “We decided to go to Lyon, France, in September. The group decided that this should be a tour different from everything we had ever experienced, and it really was. One of the parents came up with the idea to stay in tents in a forest and that is exactly what we did! Imagine that! The camping areas were so amazing and the scenery is magnificent. We were also extremely lucky regarding the weather, with temperatures reaching 35°C. We stayed there from Wednesday until Sunday and it was incredible. We would recommend it to anybody. There's so much to see and great routes to ride bikes. We took a city tour on our bikes and also biked to the neighboring villages of Lyon. We all want to go again.”
2015 here we come!
For the 2015 WOW Cyclothon, the Hjólakraftur project is currently preparing members to fill five teams in the newly added Hjólakraftur category. That means 50 people, out of which there are around 30 teenagers. “The goals are the same: Don’t finish first! The emphasis is on overcoming any obstacles team members might have, proving that when you put your head in the game the sky is the limit!” says Valdi and adds: “We would like to thank WOW Cyclothon for making this event so great, and providing a platform for people like us to make our wildest dreams come true."
With great support, Team Hjolakraftur took the pledge competition by storm, collecting a whopping 1,148,000 IKR, the only team to go beyond the one million mark. All in all, WOW Cyclothon managed to raise 15,237,244 IKR for for the Department of Orthopedic Surgery of The National University Hospital of Iceland.