The Arctic Race may well have been the most ambitious, bizarre endeavour on 2013’s cycling calendar. You might have caught it on TV in early August, in the lull just after the Tour and before the Vuelta.
Twenty teams, ranging from ProTour powerhouses like BMC, Belkin and Katusha, to mid-level mainstays like Vacansoleil and NetApp-Endura, plus a handful of Norwegian UCI Continental squads, made their way to a spectacular chain of islands north of the Arctic Circle.
The whole thing was co-sponsored by the Norwegian government and Statoil, the country’s largest corporation.
Since Statoil – the race’s single biggest sponsor – is majority-owned by the Norwegian state, one could argue that the Arctic Race was one big party Norway threw for itself, using a tiny fraction of its oil revenues in celebrating the natural beauty of its north and beautiful weirdness of its northerners.
The very idea of a race in Norway, where it’s too cold and dark to ride for half the year, could be viewed as an offence to the sweaty gods of cycling.
Where, after all, would the fans come from? There are barely 24,000 people living on all the Lofoten Islands put together. What could be more artificial, more symbolic of the modern made-for-TV sports culture, than a bike race with no spectators, paid for with oil money and scheduled for the convenience of TV broadcasters?
Landing at the airport in Bodø, I’m unsure. But having witnessed the tentative rise of cycling in the US, I’m willing to believe anything’s possible. And Norway – wholesome, healthy, sports-crazy Norway – seems as likely a place as any to catch cycling fever.
That said, on the plane I was struggling to imagine the parcours. A stage race held entirely above the Arctic Circle: would there be reindeer? Icebergs? Whale meat at the hotel buffet tables? Would the industrial-strength mosquito repellent in my suitcase be required?
Bodø was the race’s starting point, with the area’s biggest airport. For most Norwegians it’s known as the end of the line, the northernmost point on the nation’s rail network. Tourists often make their way here by train from southern Norway, but rarely stay.
From the station, it’s a mad 10-minute dash on foot to the ferry terminal, where squeaky-clean ships packed with trucks, trailers, campers and tourists set sail for the Lofoten islands – the area’s real attraction.
Tomorrow’s weather forecast and the ferry schedule needed studying. The race’s first day promised to be a logistical challenge. After a 192-kilometre loop beginning and ending in Bodø, dozens of trucks, team cars, mechanics, soigneurs and race officials would have just a few hours to catch the two ferries chartered for the race. (Riders and team directors would catch a plane.)
From the outset, the tremendous distances were a daunting challenge for Tour de France organisers ASO. The nearest crowd control barriers were 1,200kms away in Oslo; arches for the start and finish – the same ones used at the Tour just weeks before – had to be trucked in from Paris, a 3,000-kilometre drive.
And it wasn’t just equipment. Some of the Lofoten islands don’t have a single police officer, and there isn’t a motorcycle cop in all of northern Norway. Race escorts were borrowed from the elite, Oslo-based unit that guards King Harald V.
And though I assumed the blonde hostess detailed to hand out jerseys on the podium was local – no shortage of fair-haired women in Norway, after all – behind the podium I heard her speaking rather excellent French.
Turns out she was a former yellow jersey hostess at the Tour, now a marketing department intern at ASO. “There’s a lot that needs to go smoothly at the jersey presentation, and we knew she could handle it,” says Claude Rach, ASO’s man in charge in Norway.
In Bodø the following day, things were not going so smoothly. Clouds hung heavy over the start line, and a chill rain began to fall not long after the riders rolled out. The weather was an ill omen, since the first stage was perhaps the race’s most decisive.
The 192-kilometre loop had the race’s sole substantive climb, a 10-kilometre, 535-metre rise that would be the only chance in four days for significant time gaps.
The stage was fast – so fast that the TV coverage cut in too late and missed all but the tail end of the race. With six Norwegian teams in the race, there were dozens of young men from within its borders desperate to show themselves in a break.
The winner was a surprise. Squeezing past BMC’s Thor Hushovd metres from the line, Dutchman Kenny van Hummel, a sprinter L’Equipe once dubbed “the worst climber ever”, took the stage.
Perhaps better known for his dramatic struggle against the time cut as the 2009 Tour’s lanterne rouge, the garrulous Van Hummel’s middling career has been defined by wins in the professional cycling world’s lesser-known, out-of-the-way contests: Tour of Hainan, Tour of Turkey, Dutch Food Valley Classic. So perhaps it was appropriate that the Vacansoleil rider took the first-ever win in the Arctic Race.
After the race, riders grumbled that Van Hummel was nowhere to be seen on the stage’s sole climb, only to suddenly materialise just ahead of his team car at the summit… Van Hummel’s beaming face on the podium indicated he couldn’t have cared less what they said about him.
The Norwegians were a different matter. From the beginning, this race was supposed to be the Thor Hushovd show. Travelling the islands, two names were on everyone’s lips.
“Norwegians are very interested in sports, and the football team is crap right now,” Robert Walker, a transplanted Englishman from Leeds who’s lived in the tiny town of Reine for 35 years, told us the morning of the start in Bodø. “Hushovd and Boasson Hagen are defending the national honour of Norway right now.” A Dutch interloper was not part of the plan.
It was hard to focus on the ins and outs of the racing. The scenery was the real star. Most of the four-day race ran from one end of the Lofoten islands to the other, skirting dark-blue fjords and jagged mountain peaks.
Driving along deserted roads, each view seemed more amazing than the last. In the tiny hamlet of Borg, their annual Viking Festival was in full swing, peopled with locals in 11th century garb roasting meat on sticks and brandishing swords and spears for the cameras.
But as we sped towards Svolvær, where the second stage was scheduled to start the next day, the doubts crept back in. A true race needs more than magnificent scenery, no matter how breathtaking. The biggest risk ASO, Statoil and the ambitious, optimistic Norwegian organisers faced was that they would throw a party and no one would come.
It’s happened here before, and it nearly killed cycling in Norway for good.
This is an extract from Rouleur 43.