An epic journey around Iceland
How can you explain WOW Cyclothon to someone who wasn‘t there? I used to be one of those, and yet, as editor of WOW magazine I’ve been writing about the Cyclothon since the fall of 2012, usually by recounting the experiences of people who’d been there. Let me tell you that going the distance is quite different than hearing or reading about it. It just happened that this road trip became one of the most exciting 3 days of my life despite the lack of sleep.
WOW Cyclothon is not for the fainthearted, it’s not for those who give up easy and it’s not for those who demand a 12 hour beauty sleep each night or else they’ll get grumpy. This great ultra-cycling race is a competition of endurance and strategy and sometimes the difference between a winner and loser is who can get the most sleep while crumpled up in a moving vehicle that speeds up and then stops every 10-15 minutes.
For this year’s Cyclothon a solo category was added and five brave men signed up. Because their journey around Iceland would take longer than in the team categories they got an 9-10 hour head start. The Ring Road can be unforgiving and the first two soloists dropped out in Northern Iceland. Three continued, Sigurður and Þórður, who cycled side by side, and Eiríkur who cycled the whole ring all by himself. After following the soloists all the way through Borgarnes we hardly saw any of them again until the end of their journey when they took on Kambar, the last mountain ridge before Reykjavik.
Emotions ran high, and after leading the solo race together the whole circle neither Sigurður nor Þórður felt like competing against each other for the first place. Exhausted and emotionally drained they stopped right in front of the finish line, stepped off their bikes and walked hand in hand those last few steps, sharing the first place and the honor of being the first to finish the WOW Cyclothon solo. We’re pretty sure that we just witnessed a friendship that was forged under the most unique circumstances.
Sigurður and Þórður finished the Ring Road in 74 hours and 28 minutes, well within the allotted time frame for the solo competitors. Eiríkur seemed to gain amazing speed on the south shore and finished in 76 hours and 40 minutes. Even though he cycled the whole Ring Road by himself he was in high spirits and seemed to have plenty of energy left as he bunny-jumped over the finish line on his bike. This is ultra-cycling at its best and we salute them all!
The A Teams
When it was time to start the A category, teams of 4 cyclists and 2 drivers, the rain poured down outside the Harpa Concert Hall. The weather was even worse than during the solo start if that was possible. Knowing that the rain would cease as soon as we got out of the city we didn’t feel nearly as sorry for these cyclists (or ourselves) as we did the soloists earlier that day.
WOW Cyclothon begins with a group start at the Harpa Concert Hall and then cyclists ride behind a police vehicle until they reach the outermost part of the city where the police give them the go ahead to start racing. The first changeover is allowed shortly before the cyclists have to venture into Hvalfjörður (Whale’s Fjord), after that changing cyclists is at every team’s discretion. This is a very strategic changeover that has to be chosen carefully as, according to the leading teams, being among the first out of Hvalfjördur is very important.
Seventeen teams signed up for the A category and all finished, most of them within 10 hours from the first team‘s arrival to the finish line. Three teams, Örninn TREK, Workforce A and Team Hleðsla, led the race in the beginning but shortly before Egilsstaðir in east Iceland, Örninn and Workforce A managed to break away from Team Hleðsla. According to Ragnar Þór Ingólfsson, one of Örninn TREK’s drivers and team managers, this meant a whole new race plan for both teams. “We managed to do a quicker pit stop than Workforce A in Egilsstaðir and be the first on the road to catch up to our cyclist for a changeover. This should have changed the race for us but the wind was too strong and their cyclist, Emil, too good. We decided to wait until Öxi knowing that their attack would be coming there.”
A real race to the finish line
The two teams battled each other throughout east Iceland and the south coast but at the same time it was obvious that these guys respect each other. “Close to Selfoss the Workforce A team sped up indicating a changeover. We didn’t know which cyclist they’d put out so we had everybody ready. When we reached them we saw that they were getting Ingvar Ómarsson ready and we decided to answer with our guy, Hafsteinn Ægir Geirsson. He got ready and we stopped behind the Workforce vehicle but to our horror we watched as Hafsteinn’s chain fell off amid all the commotion only 10 seconds before the cyclists caught up to us. Here the incredible happened; Seeing Hafsteinn in trouble with his chain, Ingvar waved his teammate on and decided to delay his team’s changeover,” says Ragnar. This could have changed the last moments of the race completely but these guys are not just great athletes, they wanted to win on the right terms.
After finishing the Kambar and reaching the Hellisheiði Moor both teams sent out all their cyclists in a strategic effort to shelter and help their number one cyclists, realizing that this would now become a battle all the way to the finish line. The side wind made everything that much more difficult until the teams reached Sandskeið but once they were there a more favorable wind followed the cyclists the rest of the way. Here began the most exciting final race that WOW Cyclothon has ever seen with all members of both teams putting all their energy into those last few kilometers. Hafsteinn was in the lead but just as he neared the finish line Ingvar managed to speed up and beat him to it.
The results after a 1332 km race around Iceland … both teams finished in 39 hours and 12 minutes, a new WOW Cyclothon record, with barely a noticeable difference but Workforce A took first place.
The B teams
It’s a well-known fact that the B teams have more fun and 39 teams of 10 signed up for this year’s WOW Cyclothon. The B category could be seen as the amateur’s category but let’s be clear that those teams are every bit as competitive as the A teams. Four teams took the lead in the beginning, Team Landsbréf, Workforce B, Team Nýherji and Team Arion Banki and it was clear that those teams were in it to win.
In teams of 10 where all can take turns cycling, sleeping and driving the support vehicle, the strategies are a little different. Most teams seemed to have split themselves up into two smaller units, 4-5 people resting while the rest took turns cycling or driving, and then changing units every few hours. Many of the teams had two support vehicles as all the gear and people didn’t fit into just one. This led to some of them using one as the designated sleeping vehicle where the resting half of the team parked the car and got a good rest for a couple of hours before meeting up with the other half and then splitting up again.
In the beginning the race was on but a luxurious break for the Workforce B resting unit just before Öxi is said to have lost the team their chance of first place. We caught up to the Workforce B team at said break where they were grilling some delicious rib eye steaks next to their yellow Kawasaki bus. According to an unconfirmed rumor the resting unit didn’t factor in how much time it would take their big bus to thread the narrow and unforgiving Öxi mountain road in the heavy fog. Öxi is one of the few places in WOW Cyclothon where cyclists are able go faster than their support vehicles. When the yellow bus finally caught up, the Workforce B working unit had gotten too tired to keep up with Team Landsbréf who led the race after that, all the way to the finish line, completing their journey in 40 hours and 36 minutes.
The most exciting final sprint in the category was probably between Team Nýherji and Team Arion Banki for the third place; both finished with the time 41:18 but Nýherji reached the finish line first and took the podium.
The young cyclists who could
We can’t finish our run-through of the B teams without mentioning the heroes of Team Hjólakraftur. As it happens WOW Cyclothon is not just a race to the finish line and a good time, every team that enters the race also enters a challenge to raise money for a charity. The team who raises the most gets a special award. This year teams raised pledges to buy some much needed equipment for the Department of Orthopedic Surgery of The National University Hospital of Iceland.
Team Hjólakraftur consisted of 6 teenagers, aged 13-18 and their four grown-up leaders. In 2013 the team decided to compete in the 2014 Cyclothon, training hard to make that dream a reality. Their goal was not to win first place but rather to conquer themselves by finishing the whole Cyclothon within the allotted time frame, and hopefully winning the pledge competition. All eyes were on the young and inexperienced team and Hjólakraftur had a lot of fans throughout the race. Members of other teams even asked their friends, families and co-workers to give their pledges to Hjólakraftur instead of their own teams, tipping the scales further in Hjólakraftur’s favor.
With this great support team Hjólakraftur took the pledge competition by a 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.
Proud members of Hjólakraftur delivered a giant check to Páll Mattíasson CEO of The National University Hospital of Iceland and Yngvi Ólafsson chief physician at the Department of Orthopedic Surgery a few days after the race.
See you next year?
It is customary to celebrate after such an event and so all who participated in the WOW Cyclothon were invited for a festive award ceremony with drinks and snacks. It was a great way to end the competition with a grand finale. Everywhere you looked you could see smiling faces, people still feeling the rush of endorphins that unavoidably follow those who accomplish this great feat. Standing in the middle of the crowd the most common phrase you could hear was inevitably: “next year …” as individuals and teams plotted their next journey.
Written by Guðrún Vaka Helgadóttir, editor of WOW magazine
Photos by Kristinn Magnusson. Click the link for more photos from WOW Cyclothon 2014.