My first foray into racing fat bikes in cold climates was in Finland in 2015, where I completed the Rovaniemi 150. Despite being on the Arctic circle of northern Finland in February, I remember the weather was comparatively mild, ranging between -8 to +2 degrees. Not quite the exposure to the arctic environment I was quietly hoping for, but the challenge of racing nearly 100 miles on snow-packed trails was a good one, and I vowed to return some day to race next rung up on the ladder; the Rovaniemi 300.
Despite being twice the distance, the 300 route is more than twice as hard. The first 150 km is shared entirely with the riders only racing that distance, and the course has had a degree of preparation to compact the snow. Along the route are eight checkpoints, which usually have a fire and fresh water and some being a full on shelter. After the 150 route is completed, the "300" riders then embark on a loop of more remote trails on less well compacted snow. Checkpoints are more numerous, but only to monitor safety of the riders. There are no provisions at all on this section, save for three shelters (or laavu's) that lie along or just off the route. However, we were allowed a bag-drop at the end of the 150 route, which allowed for some predetermined resupply before heading back out into the wilderness.
After an anxious few days of watching temperatures swing between -10 to +3 degrees, the Saturday morning of the race saw temperatures down at -14. The light thaw of previous days was now a nice crisp bed of firm and crunchy snow. As with almost every bikepacking race I've entered, the weather plays a big part. But when you're contemplating the 300, your speed will be influenced greatly by conditions a few days prior to the event, and how the weather evolves during the event. The fickle nature of the weather here can see wild swings in temps in short periods, which has a profound effect on the snow conditions as you race. The cold start was very much welcome, but the forecast was for it to warm up progressively over the next two days with, at best, snow showers and at worst, rain.
Three, Two, One
GO! The opening section up the river was fast, but wind favourable. I got into a small group of “150” riders that were moving quickly, and I settled into their rhythm (read as: I let them do all the work). Almost out of sight was the advanced bunch of 150 riders, and the lead 300 rider of Tor-espen Jolma. (Tor won the 150 in 2019, setting a course record, and appeared on a bit of a mission this year).
The first 20 km was largely straight forward, clearing Checkpoint 2, and the intricate bit of woodland known as the Pain in the Ass section, before heading onto the lake of Sinettajaarvi. This is quite a long section, open and exposed if the wind is in the wrong direction. I started out on my own before being caught by the small group I rode with up past CP1 (Porohovi). The requirements for the 150 and 300 riders differed slightly at checkpoints; 150 riders had to stop and sign a sheet to signify their arrival/ departure, whereas the 300 riders just pressed "OK" on their Spot tracker. Thus, I could sail straight through the first two checkpoints with a flick of my index finger and it would be 5 mins or so before the riders I'd been with rejoined me.
The group reformed part way up Sinettajaavi and we rode at a brisk 18 km/h. I did my best to keep off the front. The pitfall to riding in a group was needing samurai-like reactions for the trail surface, as ruts or patches of soft snow were impossible to detect until the rider 18" in front of you had passed over it, and if you weren't quite on the right line, you could find yourself in trouble. Inevitably, my luck ran out and I found myself on the deck. Bouncing up again, dust off the snow, straighten saddle and back on it before the group disappeared out of reach up the lake.
After the lake, the trails took to snowy roads and eventually single track. I let the 150 riders ride away while I conserved my pace a little. The trail from CP3 to CP6 is probably the highlight of the course, with some superb singletrack and some magical forest scenery. At CP4, I learnt I was in second, which was a nice surprise. I'd lost my train of riders by this time and was mostly on my own, though never far away from another rider in terms of minutes up or down the trail.
Late morning saw a fresh fall of snow on the northern part of the course which made the going hard into/ out of the CP6 at Kuusilampi. It was hard to find traction, and the optimum line from other trail users was fading under fresh snow. At Kuusilampi, I stopped for some food, making use of their hot water. In error on packing for Finland, I didn’t bring enough main dehydrated meals, so had to make do with some Uncle Ben's rice I bought locally. This I ate most of but didn’t enjoy, but crucially it put me off other stuff too. Here, my second position was handed to Rene Albister, who caught me and took a shorter stop.
I had fallen for the Siren's Song of an open fire and a warm cabin. I stopped for 45 mins here; too long, really, though it didn't feel like it. On exit from Kuusilampi, it was clear the fall of snow was making the trail harder and harder to ride. Everything was significantly more effort, traction was in short supply, despite fiddling with tyre pressure and there were more instances of getting off and pushing. My mis-judged feeding strategy at CP6 started to show and I paid for it on the easier road section to the next checkpoint. I rode the long road section solo, and by the time I arrived at CP7, Rene was just leaving. I needed to recompose myself a bit, so I cooked up my preferred (and only) dehydrated main meal of chilli con carne as it was "tea time" at around 6pm. By the time I left, I was in better spirits. The drop to 3rd place hadn't bothered me much, as there was still a long way to go.
The route rejoins the river we rode up at the start, a little upstream from Porohovi. As I rolled down to towards the river, with less than 10 km of the 150 route to do, I punctured. Being less than 2km from the checkpoint, I pushed the bike in so I could change the tube with some shelter and light. It still took a while though, as getting the tyre bead seated on the rim properly required pumping my 4.5" tyre up to 25psi+ with a hand pump, and letting the pressure back down to the 4/5 psi I had been running. Tobias Bos caught me up at this checkpoint, so I was now down to 4th. We both made it to the bag drop at 145km (finish point for the 150 km loop) at similar time. The bag drop was a life saver. I'd filled my bag with a day's worth of food, a thermos wrapped in two pairs of thick socks and set about swapping my food out while sipping the hot chocolate (which was nice and warm).
Tobias and I headed down river together - on and off - until Checkpoint 11, where there was a laavu. Rene was already there. It was now past about 1:30am, and here were 2-4th places preparing to sleep in the same shelter together. The extra food at the bag drop had given me a bit of a second wind, and on realising Rene was here, I very nearly resolved to carry on along the trail and put some distance between us. But I would need to sleep at some point, and while a snowy bivvy was a prospect, the laavu presented a quick place to sleep. I stayed, setting my alarm for 5:30. Not long after we got to sleep, Alejandro Garcia arrived too, and on finding no room in the small laavu, sought refuge in the adjacent wood shed (most laavu's come with stocked wood sheds in the winter months)
I heard Rene moving at 5:00am, so got up and sorted my gear out and made some porridge. Rene was away about 5 mins before me, foregoing a warm breakfast. I said "see you later", but he obviously had other ideas. More snow had fallen overnight and although Rene had carved a line through the fresh fallen snow for me to follow, increasingly I found the conditions softening to the extent that sections he had clearly ridden, I could not. Pushing was slow. I'd been nursing a sore left knee from some way back on the 150 loop. I don't recall when it came on, but maybe the result of one of many spills off the bike in the changing conditions and fresh snow. Pushing wasn't helping my knee, and my trudge through the snow needed to be done carefully.
Up, up and... up
The trail lead gradually up onto a higher plateau of around 190 metres. Not that high, but the trails undulated a lot. The gradients toyed with me. The ups were definitely up - a mix of hard riding and pushing. The flats sometimes felt up too, when the contours on my GPS definitely said otherwise. Downs could sometimes be so gradual, they were constant effort to get to the bottom, whereupon you'd be faced with another climb. I seemed to be in a world contrived by M C Escher, and as fatigue set in through the day it gnawed at my psyche until I eventually vented my frustration verbally. Out here, no-one can hear you scream. The snow just absorbs the sound.
I lost Rene's tracks when a snowmobile joined the track between he and I. His narrow and sinuous line had been obliterated beneath a wide strip of churned snow. The surface became as soft as cotton wool in places and not easy to ride at all. In others, it had become a bit more packed, but the snowmobiles had created an uneven surface of yumps, which were just less than the wheelbase of the bike. They were also hard to ride and became increasingly painful on the body, riding either standing or seated.
The wind was picking up, exactly as forecast, and with it came flurries of snow. Initially light in texture, it brushed off easily, but the ambient temperature was rising ever closer to 0 degrees and the snow became sleet. At CP18, I donned my waterproof jacket, and realised how wet my thermal top had become. Higher up now, with thinning tree cover in places, conditions were looking bleak. The light was waning on these short days, and it was doubtful I'd make it off the plateau to CP22 before fully dark.
The plan when I left checkpoint 11 at 5:30am was to ride through to the finish that same day, a distance of 140 km. On the plateau, in the fading light, on route to Checkpoint 19, the snow became heavier and began to accumulate on my bike and bags. There was more pushing and with 12 hours of "moving" behind me, the edges were starting to peel on my plan to finish that night. I had 73 hard-won km under my belt, but still had 65 km to do, which was at least another 10 hours. I was tired.
Not a Drop to Drink
Feeding yourself in this environment isn't easy. I had a range of different options with me, but had reduced my preferences to a cycle of five different foods; jelly babies, malteasers, jaffa cakes, spicy bacon nuts (own recipe) and some dark chocolate/almond butter cups (Beth's recipe) . I took a few minutes at CP 19 for a good feed, taking in a decent quantity of each, between sips of my gradually depleting water supply. Water is another aspect that is hard to come by, and I needed to preserve what I had until I could stop and deploy my stove to melt some snow. In the distance, the braaap of snowmobiles could be heard. The sign at the crossroads said "Rovaniemi 22", so not far from civilisation despite feeling utterly detached from the rest of the world. Snowmobiles turned out to be a blessing and a curse. One snowmobile created a surface so soft I was often reduced to a push. Two snowmobiles appeared to be better, but sometime gave rise to the dreaded yumps. Lots of snowmobiles usually gave a more consolidated surface that was rideable, provided it didn't keep snowing. Which it did.
The flurries of snow were illuminated in my helmet light, and the repetition of dusting the snow off my bags was becoming less and less effective. My error though (one of many) came after a long stint of pushing through soft snow to a bit where the gradient turned downward enough to ride. I jumped on the bike, pushed off with a foot against the soft snow and sat down on the saddle. The cold wet snow that had accumulated on my saddle soaked immediately into my bottom layers. Until that moment, I hadn't felt the need to put on waterproof shorts. After that point, it was too late. Wet backside it was, then.
It took over 1.5 hours to get off the plateau and down to checkpoint 22. A short passage across another lake was soft, but rideable. Darkness had descended over an hour before, but it would be a further 16 hours before I would see the light of early dawn start to creep across the snowy landscape.
After the lake, I scanned my surroundings for a place where I could deploy my stove. An open door to a firewood store, the partial cover of a snow plough, the eaves of a barn all looked hopeful, but for one reason or another seemed unsuitable at the same time. The snow continued to fall, pushing became more frequent and I seemed to pass into a daze where the neither time nor distance seemed measurable. Perhaps this was just as well, as the reality was it took 4 hours 40 mins to cover to cover the 16 km to the laavu just north of checkpoint 27.
Shapes in the Snow
The passage through these few kilometers gave rise to some interesting visual effects. Not hallucinations as such, but the snow had caused many young pine and spruce trees to bend over under the weight of snow. More snow falling onto these created a some bizarre shapes in my helmet light; a giant ant, a spaniel, a dragon, a Chinese lady in traditional head dress. You name it, there's probably a tree out there, covered in snow, that shape. Yet each time, as I got closer they all morphed back into a pine tree bent over with the weight of snow.
The final push to the laavu was tough. Only 600m, but no-one had been this way for a while. At a track fork, I took a left and started to scan the surrounding woodland for signs of the laavu. Truth was, I didn't know exactly where it was. I had a waypoint on my GPS, but it seemed imprecise. I reached another fork. Left, or right. I started right, but then changed my mind. With more luck than judgement, the faint outline of the laavu appeared against the snowy slopes. Shelter. Firewood. Space to lie down. It was 12:40 am. Another long day in the saddle and out of it.
The wind had blown a fine covering of snow into the laavu, which I scraped out before setting down my sleeping mat and bag. I scraped the snow off the fire pit, split a few bits of timber into kindling and set to making a fire. The birch soon sprang into a fire that warmed both body and soul. My bike and luggage was covered in snow. The wheels were two white discs. Snow was layered on my helmet. I got out of my wet clothing and hung up what I could in the vain hope it would dry, or at least become less wet. I ate a little and melted some snow to drink. Mounding the fire up with wood, I crawled into my sleeping bag and watched the flicker of flames. Sleep came quickly.
I awoke at 3:30am. The flicker of the fire had gone, but from my sleeping bag, I could see there were still some glowing embers. It took me 15 mins to summon the body to leave my cosy cocoon, rake the embers together and put a few more logs on. As the flames licked up around the new logs, I drifted back to sleep.
My alarm went off at 5:30am. This was still a race, and I might not have been able to match Rene's pace to fight for second, but there were still two riders behind me. There was half a chance they could have joined me at the laavu, but if they had gone through the night, would they have overtaken me? Rising early was some insurance against that, but part of me was prepared to concede 3rd to anyone who had endured riding right through the night in those appalling conditions. The fire was still going, and the warmth in the laavu had thawed out my bike a lot and reduced the wetness of the clothes. I made up my last porridge, and melted enough snow to fill my camelbak with water to get me to the finish.
In Too Deep
Checkpoint 28 was 11 km along the trail, but the conditions were tough. Riding could be done in short stints, barely more than 500m at a time. Either the snow became unrideable or failure occurred as a result of physical exertion. Cutting through 4-6" of fresh snow soon takes its toll. The appearance of dawn was welcome and I stopped briefly on the top of a small hill and absorbed the serenity of my surroundings. The passage of time slowed once more with the seemingly endless trudge through a scrolling scenery of snow and trees. There was no denying there was beauty to the environment, with stunning vistas through birch forest, or sweeping views over snow-encrusted pine trees, but my world was reduced to the few yards of snow in front of me and whether it was worth trying to ride, or not. Frequently it turned out to be not, despite countless valiant efforts and a general refusal to accept that bikes were better pushed in these conditions rather than ridden. In the end, it took over 3 hours to cover the 11 km to CP28, though the last couple of kilometres offered some respite as the surface turned in my favour.
The cumulative effects of route had taken its toll on my body. Pushing the bike through the snow left me with tense shoulder and neck muscles, with occasional stabbing pains for good measure, particularly standing up to ride. My knee hadn't got any worse, but wasn't great. Walking was painful, but riding less so. It did have an awful creaky feel to it that was disconcerting. To complete the set, I was saddle sore. The snowy saddle incident of the previous evening has resulted in much chafing. Sitting down took considerable care and it was usually a minute or so before the pain had subsided. So pretty much any forward movement carried some level of discomfort somewhere.
Conditions continued to improve between 28 and 29, though it was short-lived. Immediately after 29, there is a massive climb. By far the longest and steepest of the race. The push was relentless, but I was encouraged by what must surely lie on the other side - a descent. Big climbs, and hence big descents had been few in number, in what is largely a low-lying rolling landscape (though, this is deceiving, as the route had 3,500 metres of ascent in total). However, what lay beyond the summit of CP29 was 6" of the softest and least rideable snow of the whole route. I tried and tried to get going, but simply starting off was hard. I would wheel my bike forward a few bike lengths to bed the snow down, wheel it back, hop on and start riding, hoping I could stay in my initial track. If I could get speed up and stay on line, it was OK for a bit, but eventually I would loose traction at the rear or have the front drift into some soft snow. I fought my way down the hill in growing frustration, when suddenly the snow seemed to harden. I got on, started riding tentatively, then with increasing speed, and suddenly the bike seemed to surf on the top of the soft snow. Snowfall seemed to have been less lower down, and a few kilometres of rideable snow brought me to the river and the last 20 km to the finish.
I had been looking forward to this, thinking the hard bits were behind me. How wrong I was. The structure of the snow was very different on the river. Soft, wet, granular. No structure to it at all and it was a tough task to find traction and apply it carefully enough to keep the bike in a straight line. It was all too easy to drift slightly, and one or other wheel would bog into the wet snow. I dropped the tyre pressure progressively until it looked - and was - ludicrously soft. There was less than 1 psi tyre pressure. The riding was still hard, but at least I could ride.
Gradually, very gradually, I made my way down the river. Snowmobiles buzzed up and down the river, and eventually one approached me. It was Alex, the race organiser. He told me my third place position was safe; Tobias and Alejandro were still a good way behind, having stopped the night up on the plateau.
I passed Porohovi for the third and final time. Onto the more regularly used snowmobile trails now, the riding surface improved, but I kept the tyre pressure low all the same with 6 km to go. I picked up the pace, as much as I possibly could, aiming to finish before 3:00pm. It was an arbitrary target in the end, for the sake of finishing under 54 hours, and turned out to be too much. It was hard to attain more than about 11 km/h on the river riding as hard as I could manage. At last, the course flags indicated a right turn across the river towards the finish. Turning to face the setting sun, I cross the line at 54 hours 6 minutes.
By far the toughest ride I've done at that distance, with many lessons learnt (and mistakes made) along the way. The immediate emotion of "I'm not doing that again" affirmed a full on Type 2 experience, but on reflection a couple of weeks later, there's a deep sense of accomplishment. It's difficult to compare absolute results and ride times between years, and even in the same race, as we each seemed to experience different conditions on different parts of the course as the race evolved. The dream of enjoying perfect conditions would be such a rarity, it may only have happened once in the history of the race. So, to endure the mixed conditions that prevailed took me to places mentally and physically that I hadn't been before. To finish was the target, to finish third far exceeded my expectations.