WOW Cyclothon 2014 began with a group start at the Harpa Concert Hall and then cyclists rode behind a police vehicle until they reached the outermost part of the city where the police gave them the go ahead for a flying start. The first changeover was allowed shortly before the cyclists ventured into Hvalfjörður (Whale’s Fjord). After that, changing cyclists was at every team’s discretion. Every A team has a support vehicle with two drivers who take turns driving and managing the team. Often two or more teams band together and support each other on the road for some distance before staging an attack, trying to leave the other team, or teams, behind.
Even though WOW Cyclothon is over 1,300 km (the longest bicycle race in Iceland), the top teams were in heated competition all the way to the finish line, something no one had imagined.
When it was time to start the A category the rain poured down outside the Harpa Concert Hall. Seventeen teams had signed up for the A category and three teams; Örninn TREK, Workforce A and Team Hleðsla, led the race in the beginning. We got hold of Ingvar Ómarsson from the Workforce A team and got him to tell us about the race from his perspective.
“The Workforce A team consisted of Emil Þór, Óskar and I,and then we recruited Tigran Korkotyan, a great cyclist from Armenia. He works for bicycle industries’, Specialized and jumped at the chance to visit Iceland and experience it in this way. Our drivers / managers were Sölvi Sig and Ingi Már. Their part cannot be underestimated because without them we would have forgotten to eat and to wake up and get ready. They took care of us and made sure we put on our helmets and gloves and basically kept us alive. They enabled us to focus on the competition 100% while they took care of the rest, and for that I am so grateful,” says Ingvar.
“The start is one of the most important parts of this race. A lot of teams are taking off at once and not all are equal when it comes to form and know-how. We decided that Emil and I would start the race and drive up the speed to try and leave some of the teams behind. We knew Team Örninn Trek would have a similar strategy. As soon as we were past the N1 gas station, shortly before we got out of Reykjavik, Hafsteinn from Örninn Trek’s team raced past me and called out: ‘Ready to start this race?’”
Thus began the race around Iceland with 4-5 teams that took turns leading the way. “Hafsteinn, Steinar from Team Hledsa and I were all trying to keep our speed to a maximum, racing at speeds that you’d see in a 100 km race, not a 1,332 km one. Our plan worked great and when we got to Hvalfjordur it was clear that only three teams were leading the race. Now the fun would begin.”
On the road
“Our support vehicle was a tiny 13 person bus and into that we had crammed all six of us (although only five at a time), seven bikes and a giant load of equipment and nourishment. Fortunately our team manager / driver, Sölvi, had made a little bed for us in the back so we could get some shut-eye if only for a few minutes. Despite the tight quarters the team was always in high spirits, even during the toughest of times on the road. We soon got a good routine going, changing cyclists every 25 minutes.
“It’s hard to describe the experience of racing in WOW Cyclothon, when the sleep deprivation and mental exhaustion start taking their toll. You memory becomes patchy and in your mind events start to blend together; you’re trying your best to focus on the task at hand and not to lose your positive spirit.
The night shifts
“We cycled through two nights and the first one was easy as we’d all had a good night’s sleep before the race. We weren’t as physically drained as one might expect, the long training session of the previous winter had obviously paid off as we were in great form. The second night, on the southeast corner and along the south coast was another story. We had shaken off Team Hledsla shortly before we reached Egilsstadir and right after we finished the Öxi Mountain Road we tried to shake off Örninn Trek in an attack that took a lot out of me. I was glad to get two hours of rest after that but I had to keep going and my minutes on the road were perfectly coordinated to Hafsteinn’s from the Örninn Trek team. During our race along the south coast the lack of sleep was really starting to take its toll on me and to make up for it I started eating almost anything in sight while I was resting in the bus. The only thing that really kept me focused was being on the road with Hafsteinn, although at times I was afraid that I’d fall asleep at the wheel and drive him off the road.”
The Öxi Mountain Road is the most unique part of WOW Cyclothon. It’s 27 km of gravel and about a 400 m ascent, followed by fast downhill cycling on a winding road all the way down to Berufjordur. “Öxi is often the most exciting part of the race and it fell on me to take it on. We had discussed attacking Örninn Trek at Öxi before the race and on paper this looked like the perfect spot to leave any team behind but in reality there are still 600 km of hard cycling left after Öxi and somewhere in northern Iceland we decided we’d just watch for whenever an opportunity would present itself.
“When we got to Öxi both teams opted to keep on using road bikes despite the gravel ahead. We were lucky because the gravel road was exceptionally good but the heavy fog made it hard to do anything but focus on our front tires. I went into the bus at the top and Óskar took the fast downhill race. When we came out of the fog I saw that Óskar had gained on Bjarki, one of Örninn Trek’s cyclists, and we stepped on the gas to do a switch and use the opportunity. I went back out, cycling as fast as I could to keep the gap that had formed between us but Örninn Trek put out two cyclists, Hafsteinn and Árni, who helped each other and closed the gap. I have to admit that I smiled a little when I saw it. They feared our attack and now began a very exciting chase on the southeast corner of Iceland. We all realized that we couldn’t keep this up all the way to the finish line and having had enough fun and excitement I slowed down, Hafsteinn and his team catching up to me in no time. Hafsteinn and I both got into our vehicles and got our well-deserved rest, preparing us for the never ending south coast.”
After completing their race through the south coast it was time for the final race, beginning with Kambar Hill leading up to Hellisheidi Moor. “We knew that Örninn Trek had two TT-bikes and we also knew that catching a cyclist on a TT-bike after finishing Kambar Hill is next to impossible. This was a risk we wanted to avoid. When we got close to the town of Selfoss we came up with a little plan based on our instinct that Örninn Trek would rest Hafsteinn and Árni as much as they could before Kambar Hill, sending Árni out for the climb and having Hafsteinn ready to take over at the top on his TT-bike.
“We knew we could win them in a straight race to the finish line but our plot was supposed to mess up their strategy. I would go out with another cyclist, forcing them to put Hafsteinn out, then, when we’d all be together I would hop straight back into our bus. When we were just about to set our plan into action Hafsteinn’s chain fell off. We could have used their misfortune to our advantage but we didn’t want to win the race because of their bad luck so I waved our cyclist on and went back in the bus, awaiting the next opportunity to make an attack. The chance came shortly before we arrived to the town of Hveragerdi, our plan working exactly the way we’d pictured it.”
The final stretch
Now began the steep and winding climb up Kambar Hill: “We raced up Kambar Hill, first Tigran and Óskar against Hafsteinn and then they all went in and Árni and I took over the climb up the steepest part of the hill, the last one before reaching the moor. Suddenly Árni slowed down considerably, I managed to keep behind him, checked out the traffic behind me and made my attack then and there. I put all my strength into it, zigzagging up the hill, watching as Árni fell further and further behind me and the Örninn Trek’s vehicle sped past me to put Hafsteinn back out against me. I had managed to exhaust Árni, even on my road bike. The excitement was so high it charged the air all around us. There was no room for mistakes now and their TT-bikes were out of the picture. I slowed down, waiting for Hafsteinn to catch up, which didn’t take long, and we climbed up the moor where both vehicles awaited putting out more cyclists.
“‘Everybody out!’ I heard Hafsteinn shout into their bus and suddenly all eight of us were on the road, 27 kilometers left and we were racing like the last 1,300 kilometers had just been a little warm-up for this moment. We formed a kind of procession where I made sure to use the shelter provided by Óskar, with Emil watching the other team but Tigran fell behind shortly after we got off the moor. Örninn Trek did the same, sheltering Hafsteinn so he would be up for the last 100 meters.
“As we got closer to the finish line, just a few hundred meters left, I saw Árni drive up the pace in front of Hafsteinn. I almost lost the group there and I really had to put everything into keeping up with them but I made it. When we got over the small hill right before the finish line Árni went to the back of the line and the line-up was Haffi, Óskar and me. I tried to relax but I saw that Hafsteinn was speeding up so I decided to get in front of Óskar to be as close to Hafsteinn as I could. The final race was on, I stood up and waited for a just a moment behind Hafsteinn and as I saw the finish line I started pedaling like a madman. I felt like my feet were made of rubber and that I had been tranquilized, like I was pushing myself forward with my mind. Perhaps I did and that was enough. At the final moment I shot past Hafsteinn, reaching the finish line only a bike’s length ahead of him.”
“This feeling is indescribable and it was without a doubt the biggest victory of my career. It’s all thanks to a great team effort as well as a great collaboration with our rivals from Örninn Trek. It’s hard to imagine that a 39 hour race around the country can end with such exciting final moments, after sitting hunched on a bike or inside a small bus. Some people say that this race will go down in history and if so we are more than proud to be part of that history.”