Some of you Caminos may not know that we have a cycling coach in our Team.
So if this is new - please let us introduce to you Paula's baby sister Sarah.
Sarah's recent passion has been endurance cycling - applying many of the skills we coach in multi-day endurance running to cycling. A few weeks ago Sarah took part in the epic North Cape 4000 and as so many of our Camino community either use cycling as cross training or enjoy a few hours out on the road - we asked Sarah to share some more about the sport of endurance cycling, getting familiar with the saddle for weeks at a time, not washing much and more.
A huge thank to Sarah for this special edition and if anyone is interested in some cycle coaching then DM us on the usual channels.
Over to Sarah:
"Having completed a few ultra distance bike races in the past couple of years, my friend Richard and I decided to enter the NC4000. The NC4000 is a 4350km unsupported bike race from Turin in Italy to North Cape in Norway (the most northerly point in mainland Europe that can be accessed by road).
The race follows a fixed route that changes every year. This year the route would pass through 10 countries with check points in Lausanne, Paris, Oslo, Gallivare and North Cape. The race appealed to us as it was a great way to see Europe and explore places we’d never been to. Unlike other unsupported ultra races riders are allowed to ride together if they choose, making it a more social affair. The ethos of unsupported means that you need to be self sufficient on the road, carrying everything you need with you or picking it up along the route. You are allowed to utilise services available to the general public but are not allowed outside support that is personal to you.
Entries opened in December 2022, and we secured our place. We’d train consistently since early 2023 with the time that we had available, we’d done practice rides with our kit and spent hours poring over the route breaking it down in to manageable chunks and identifying food and rest stops.
We both needed to back by 14th August for work and family commitments, which meant we need to arrive in North Cape around 10th August to allow time to travel back. We’d have to average 240km a day over 18 days to make that happen. Our approach to the race had been simple ride (averaging 240km a day), eat, sleep and to try and allow ourselves time within the day to enjoy the experience without feeling we were constantly racing the clock. To give ourselves flexibility on the road we took a compact 2-man tent, sleeping mats and bags. We planned to camp for 2 nights and find accommodation every 3rd to allow us to wash and recharge our electricals.
Part 1 – Turin to Lausanne Check Point 1
On the 22nd July with around 280 other riders we set off with trepidation from the Palace of Venaria. The highlight of day 1 would be the 40km climb up the great St Bernard pass with an average gradient of 5.5% and topping out at 2473 meters above sea level. As we left Turin small groups of riders formed as we made our way to the foot of the climb. We weaved our way through quiet country roads, trying to conserve as much energy as we could for the climb. We stopped briefly to grab snacks and go to the toilet. 100km into the race, following a toilet stop, I went to grab my camera from the pocket of my backpack only to realise I didn’t have my backpack! The horror of the fact that I’d left by backpack outside the toilet 12km back up the route dawn on me. I felt sick. It had my phone, passport and money in it. Loosing it could have meant it was game over for both of us. I broke the news to Richard who was obviously annoyed, and I headed back to the toilet whilst he slowly road on. I was now undertaking a 12km time trial back to the toilet praying that it would still be there when I arrived. As I pulled into the layby, I spotted the backpack on the wall. I have never felt so lucky! Scoping it up I turned around and headed back along the route reuniting with a relieved Richard. We were still in the game! From this point on I initiated systems check (bag, phone, glasses, gloves) after every stop to ensure it didn’t happen again.
After a quick lunch stop, we approached the foot of the climb with a bunch of riders and began the 5-hour ascent of the pass. It was about 35 degrees as we started climb and there was no shade. It was hot, hard work with our loaded bikes. Respite came in the form of water fountains where we filled up our bottles and drench ourselves in the cool water, at one point standing in the water trough to try and cool our feet. We met James (an acquaintance of Richard’s) on the climb and rode to the top together. What goes up, must come down but only quickly! The fast, non-technical descent took about an hour and a half.
Now in Switzerland the route took us to the eastern shore of Lake Geneva. As the sun began to set, we tracked the shoreline through Montreux where we enjoyed dinner at MacDonalds, finally reaching Check Point 1 in Lausanne around 11pm. The check point was closed but we simply had to pass by to verify our arrival. We waved good by to James in Lausanne as he peeled of for his hotel. We had planned to camp that night but had to clear the city first, so we pushed on a further 30km stopping in a wooded area outside a small village to set up camp. We’d survived day 1 despite the drama of the lost bag and the brutal accent of the Great St Bernards pass. I wriggled into my sleeping bag and duly passed out.
Part 2 – Lausanne to Paris Check Point 2 and beyond
After packing up camp we were on the road by 07:30. The heat of the previous day remained as we sweated our way through the rolling terrain of Switzerland accompanied by the melodic ring of cow bells. There was quite a strong headwind which made riding hard. The heat and accompanying sweating had begun to cause a few “bottom” issue that would plague us through the ride. Unfortunately, it’s an almost unavoidable curse of spending long hours in the saddle. Compeed blister plaster placed on hot spots and chaffing would become are trusted friend as well as a lot of chamois cream. One the second day we said goodbye to Switzerland and entered France (our second country), passing through the vineyards and sunflower fields of the Jura, then picked up a path along the Canal de Bourgonge shortly before Dijon. We stopped briefly to cool our feet off in the canal and on setting off Richard realised he had fishing wire wrapped around his jockey wheel. This result in a delay of over and hour as he dismantled his rear mech to unwind the wire. Luckily once again disaster was averted, and we made our way towards Dijon stopping for dinner on the outskirts of the town before pressing on a further 50km and setting up camp about 23:00 in a farmer’s field.
The plan for day 3 had been to get to the outskirts of Paris where we’d booked an Air BnB for the night. Luckily the day was uneventful. The heat was less intense, but the headwind prevailed. Steadily we advanced towards Paris. In the afternoon we stopped at a Tabac for a well-earned beer and noticed on the tracker a lot of riders heading our way. We swiftly finished our drinks and jump on the train of riders (including James and Keith who we knew) for the 40km ride to our accommodation. The shelter of the small peloton was welcome as we’d been on our own for most of the day. We scooped up other riders, including Laura enroute, before we peeled of to find our accommodation 30km short of Paris. The accommodation was perfect, everything the weary, smelly cyclist could wish for. We were warmly greeted by our host and promptly set to work doing a full load of washing, hosing down the bikes, oiling the chains, showering, plugging in all our electricals for charging and to our delight order a Thai via Uber Eat.
Day 4 saw us clothed in clean kit as we set off for the 2nd checkpoint in Paris. We arrive at the check point mid-morning and made a sight seeing detour to the Eifel Tower, before re-joining the route and taking in more of the sights of Paris. Including cycling up the Champs-Elysee as they packed away the last bits of infrastructure from the finish of the Tour De France 2 days earlier. We joined up with James and Keith and headed out of the city together. It had begun to rain, and punctures delayed our progress somewhat. As we headed out into rural France resupply became problematic, we’d pass through towns that resemble ghost towns. Nothing was open, but we managed to find water fountains to refill our bottles and relied on the food we had to keep us fuelled. As the evening fell, we started to panic about where we might find somewhere to eat. Luckily about 21:00 we found a pizza restaurant for dinner. After dinner we said farewell to James and Keith as they headed to their accommodation, 20km off route in the opposite direction. We pressed on until about 23:00 when we started to look somewhere to pitch the tent. Around 23:30 we lucked out finding a fully enclosed gazebo-style bus stop on a village green. It was a little exposed, but it was late, and we’d be up and away early so hopefully we wouldn’t get spotted. It was perfect. We wheeled the bikes inside and set about inflating our sleeping matts and laying out or sleeping bags. It rained that night, but small bus shelter kept us dry.
Part 3 – to checkpoint 3 Oslo
Day 5 would be our final day in France and the route took us through the beautiful Ardennes. We treated ourselves to a 3 course Menu De Jours in a small bistro for lunch. Mid afternoon we entered Belgium our 3rd country, heading towards Liege, and later that day we entered country number 4, the Netherlands. Our day ended just south of Maastricht, where we were forced to pitch the tent somewhat unglamorously in some grass at the side of a lorry park, unable to find another suitable spot and knowing we couldn’t carry on riding indefinitely in search of a better spot. It rained heavily that night.
We woke on the morning of Day 6 to heavy rain, and we cowered in the tent for an hour hoping it might ease. About 08:00 we bit the bullet and packed up camp in the pouring rain. Rain would be a feature of the next few days. We stopped for a breakfast of pancakes after a couple of hours of riding through the rain. We soon entered Germany our 4th country and despite the amazing roads and cycling infrastructure I manage to pick up 2 punctures, going through all my and Richards spare tubes and delaying our progress. It rained all day and when we arrived at the hotel around 20:00 we look thoroughly bedraggled. The hotel manager was so kind to us and offered to wash our clothes. Their hospitality was warm and generous, and truly appreciated. After enjoying a large meal and a couple of beers in the restaurant we bagged some well-earned sleep.
On day 7 finding a bike shop became the priority. We needed more inner tubes and Richard needed new brake pads. We manged to find a bike shop and got everything we needed. The rain continued through the morning, but the sun finally came out in the afternoon as we weaved our way through the quite German countryside. Despite the appearance of the sun our kit was still wet, and we decided to see what accommodation was available near Bremen. It was quite late in the day, and we managed to bag a couple of cheap hotel rooms near the airport.
Day 8 on paper was straight forward. As we continued north through Germany, we need to get a Ferry across the River Elba. Just before we’d set out the organisers had sent a new route for this bit due to a broken bridge but neither of us had time to download it! This cost us 2 hours as we tried to find our way around the obstacle. We’d been making good time that day but this error cost us dearly. We consoled ourselves with bratwurst and coke on the Ferry crossing (it’s the simple things). We pressed on trying to complete our planned milage for the day finally bedding down in a wooded area just off the route around 23:00.
Day 9 saw more rain as we entered our 7th country Denmark. We stopped to grab some lunch at a supermarket, as had become the norm, and sat outside under an awning to enjoy it. We must have looked a sight. Our timing couldn’t have been more perfect as a big storm passed over head as we tucked into pasta salad and chocolate milkshake. Our destination for the day had been Silkeborg. Our Ferry to Oslo was booked for 23:55 the next day which would leave us approximately 200km to ride to the port. As we neared Silkeborg, at the top of small climb, a car pulled over then we heard a man shouting Richard’s name. A friend of his who lived about an hour a way had driven out to meet us. It was quite surreal and even ‘tho I didn’t know him and his partner it was so lovely to see them and chat to them briefly. I know it gave Richard a real boost. We’d booked accommodation in Silkeborg and arrive around 20:00. Yes, it had a washing machine!! Wash on, we grabbed some take away pizza and beers and discussed our plans for the next day. Ferry day!
The Ferry to Oslo would mark the end of Part 1 of our trip as we saw it. So, on day 10 having only 200km to ride and not needing to arrive until 22:00 we had a lie in and set off at 09:00. This would give us plenty of time to get to the port. As I wheeled my bike out of our accommodation, I noticed a puncture in the rear wheel. I should have checked them as soon as I got up but didn’t. We fixed the puncture and headed out. 2 miles down the road I got another puncture, which we fixed but we were back in the situation of now only having patched tubes on us and it was becoming clear that our tyres really weren’t up to the job. There were several bike shops in the town, so we headed to one to pick up new tubes. When we got to the bike shop, we decided that it might be safest to replace our tyres, as after arriving in Oslo we’d be heading into some really remote areas and if we continued to have the amount of issues we’d been having to date it would be race over. The bike shop was great as we took over their workshop and they helped us fit new tyres to both our bikes and replace brake pads. We left the bike shop just before mid-day leaving us 12 hours to make the Ferry. If we didn’t have any further delays, we’d make it, but it was still a bit stressful loosing the time. We got our heads down and stopped only once to pick up some lunch. As we sat on a bench eating it, we met Mark the cycling Cockatoo!!!! Luckily, we arrived at the Ferry port in good time and grabbed some dinner and headed to the terminal. There were about 12 other riders there and we chatted as we waited to board. We boarded the ferry just before midnight and managed to upgrade our reclining seats to a cabin. After a decent sleep we attacked the breakfast buffet before disembarking in Oslo (our 8th country) at 10:00.
Part 4 – Oslo to Gallivare check point 4
In getting to Oslo we’d completed over 2353km with 17,137 meters of elevation and had passed the half way mark of the race. The bikes were in good shape, and we weren’t doing too badly either. The aching arms and necks of previous days had eased, and we did our best to nurse our saddle sores as best we could. They were a daily annoyance but as long as they didn’t stop us cycling, they could be managed. This leg would be slightly more complicated as we headed into the wilderness where finding resupply and accommodation would become increasingly difficult. After disembarking the Ferry on day 11, we got our cards stamped at the check point and were reunited with James. We also persuaded Laura who was on the same Ferry to head out of Oslo with us. We had booked a cabin at a campsite 211km up the road. We set out together entering Sweden our 9th country late afternoon. After stopping at as supermarket to pick up some pasta for dinner and bits for breakfast we arrived at the campsite around 22:00. We cooked some dinner and plugged our electricals in to charge and clambered in our bunks.
On day 12 we left the Cabin around 8:00 and said to bye to Laura as she fancied a later start. Richard, James and I headed off to continue our journey across Sweden ultimately heading towards the coast. We followed main road,s which we shared with a convoy of camper vans and trucks, through densely forest areas (this would become the norm as we traverse the country). The forests that lined the roads did little to give way to scenery beyond and we were left to focus on the long straight roads head of us. It was hard going. We devised a rotation plan where we each did 5-minute turns on the front to break up the journey and occasionally treated ourselves to some tunes on the speaker to keep us going. In between my turns I busied myself rearranging the content of my feedbags and made calls to family. The rain set in in the afternoon. There were long stretches between stops, sometimes as much as 130km, so there was little to break up the day. Realising with the rain and dense forests camping would be difficult we booked accommodate for the night in a hotel. About 40km from the hotel James suffered a puncture. It was pouring with rain and there was no shelter. As we pulled over to fix to it, it was agreed that I would go ahead to the accommodation, no point us all trying to fix it. I made good time despite the torrential rain. With 10km to go I did the maths and reckoned I could be in bed by 23:00. Unfortunately, I hadn’t clocked that the hotel was at the top of a climb in a ski resort, and it took a lot longer to reach than I anticipate. I arrived at the hotel soaking wet and checked in. Only the bars staff were still up, tidying up for the night. I asked if they could pour us 3 pints whilst I went up to the room. When I went back downstairs, they had kindly put some bottles of slightly out of date beer in a bag and the chef and boxed up a selection of different leftovers from the kitchen. They wouldn’t take any money for it. It was the kindness of people like these that made the tough days worthwhile. About 30 mins later Richard and James arrived. We enjoyed our treats and headed to bed.
Day 13 and 14 saw us continue our journey on the long straight roads of Sweden with their tunnels of pine forests. Occasionally mouse would trot nonchalantly across the road in front of us and eagles sored above our heads. Despite the lack of services, we managed to secure enough food through the day often having to stock up where we could and carry it with us for later. The evening of day 14 we’d managed to secure accommodation on a remote part of the route. The weather had been wet again, and the promise of a warm shower was motivating. To our horror we arrived at our Air BnB to find it was a hovel, with no beds, bathroom or running water! Far from ideal. We fetched some water from the Church Yard across the way which enabled us to cook some noodles for dinner. After that we got out of camping gear and set up our beds, at least we had a roof over our heads and we’re able to see the funny side!!
Day 15 saw us continue our journey through Sweden, entering Lapland and edging closer to the 4th checkpoint. It looked like the rain might be behind us and the sun came out. Day 16 was a relatively short day of around 150km. We built in a few shorter rest days along the route to enable us a bit of time to relax. We arrived at the 4th checkpoint in Galivarre around 15:00 where we’d booked a hotel for the night. The weather was warm, around 20 degrees, considering we were 100km inside the Artic Circle this wasn’t what we’d been expecting. We rewarded ourselves with a couple of beers in the sunshine. After checking in to our rooms we met on the roof of the hotel and enjoyed an hour or so relaxing and taking full advantage of the roof top jacuzzi before getting dressed in our off-bike clothes to enjoy a relaxed dinner and enjoy a bit of time feeling “normal”.
On day 16 after taking full advantage of the breakfast buffet, we set off from our mini-break and enjoyed our last days cycling in Sweden. The pine forests began to give way to views of lakes and rivers. Early evening we crossed the border into our 10th country Finland, just as the rain started again! We had hoped to be at our accommodation around 21:00 however we’d forgotten that on crossing the Finish boarder we’d gained an hour and finally arrived at 22:00 (mourning the loss of this valuable hour). To my delight the owner invited us to use the Sauna. After I’d plugged in the electricals for charging, I took a refreshing dip in the river at the bottom of the garden then enjoyed a traditional Sauna and cleanse “Finnish” style before heading in to share dinner (ready meals that we’d picked up at the shop some 80km back and strapped to our bikes) with Richard and James.
Day 17 saw us back in Norway and with approximately 500km to the finish I let myself start to believe that we might make it. On day 18, with 280km to go, we finally hit the coast. And our eyes were treated to horizons that we’d been deprived off in Sweden’s corridors of pine forests. The weather was warm around 25 degrees and the sun glinted on the ocean as Reindeer meandered along the water’s edge.
We had accommodation booked about 30km from the finish at North Cape and decided that when we arrived there, we’d make a call as to whether we would head to the finish that night to the next morning.
First, we had to cycle through 3 tunnels the most memorable being the North Cape Tunnel. This is 6.8km subsea tunnel. James who’d ridden the tunnel before encouraged us to put on our jackets and lights before entering. There is no bike path in the tunnel, so you share the roads with the camper vans and lorries. As the tunnel descended beneath the sea the temperature droped dramatically. The roar of the traffic is deafening and terrifying. You can’t quite work out if it’s coming towards you or from behind you, but you’re too terrified to look around. After a tense decent the tunnel ramps up as you head towards the exit. The climb is long and steep. It had begun to feel like we’d been underground for hours with terrifying monsters chasing us down. I think we all emerged from the tunnel feeling like we might need therapy!
Back in the bright sunlight we pressed on to the hotel, whilst hatching a plan. We all felt pretty good and decided that when we got the hotel we’d dump any unnecessary kit and carry on to the finish. The allure of finishing just as the sun was setting (around 23:00) at the most northerly point in Europe seemed like a fitting way to end our adventure.
With slightly lighter bikes we took on the final 30km of the race. Of course, this wasn’t straight forward as the route involved 2 significant climbs. The final 30km took nearly 2 hrs but gave us time to enjoy the beautiful scenery and start to reflect on our epic Journey.
As is the way with these kinds of races, we arrived at the finish with no one to greet us or marvel in our achievement. Only us and a few other riders who were there knew how far we’d come and what it had taken to get here. We hugged each other in celebration, then jostled with the tourist to get our photos taken at the famous Globe monument as the sun set behind us at the most northerly point of mainland Europe. It was a fitting way to finish!
And after some food and a celebratory beer in the visitor centre, and some choice purchases in the gift shop, we cycled the 30km back to the hotel as the sun rose behind us.
Despite a few issues we’d faired pretty well. The route was amazing, we met some amazing people and we rode with some amazing people. Our training and planning were instrumental to our success and so was our openness to embrace the challenge and make the most of whatever it threw at us good or bad.