Willie Carr and the Styrkeproven
I usually associate dizziness with excessive fun at my local pub, so when I started feeling light headed, intermittently, a few months ago I was slightly disconcerted. And as this year’s lambs had just started their gamboling larks and the roads were free of ice, it meant I should ramp up bike training for my next mini-expedition: Norway’s Styrkeproven, a 340 mile non-stop cycle from Trondheim to Oslo. However, what ultimately manifested itself as vestibular neuronitis (ie the nerve connecting the balance mechanism in my left ear to the brain was irreparably damaged), meant that balancing on a bike was impossible. After two months of mind-numbingly boring work on a turbo trainer, it became apparent that I was highly unlikely to join my mates on the ride unless a miracle occurred.
I’m not big into miracles but my wife jokingly suggested I should ride the Styrk on a tricycle. Minutes later I had found the ICE web site and realised that just possibly I could ride the Styrk on a trike. However, with just four weeks until the off, I was not in the best of shape, as my turbo rides had been focusing on 1-2 hour ‘sprints’ and slower fat burning three hour rides (which clearly hadn’t worked). A quick phone call later with the kind people at ICE and within a week I was on my way to Falmouth to test ride a trike.
Dan kindly took me out on a very sleek VTX that was fast and fun. I was hooked and could sense that the Styrk was possibly achievable. The next challenge was to find a suitable trike to beg, borrow or steal. Enter Dave Cornthwaite. Dave is a serial adventurer who uses a family of supporters on social media to define all his expeditions, one of which had been to trike from Germany to Falmouth covering 1,106 miles on a tricycle named Trikey. Trikey is not a sexy ICE VTX but a detuned model: the Sprint 26X. It has smaller, heavier wheels, slightly fatter tyres, a mesh seat and a higher riding position. Like me, it also carries a little extra weight around the middle compared to its svelter chums. However, Trikey, it turns out, offers the most comfort a person can find this side of Harrods’ bedding department. The mesh seat is not as hip as the VTX’s carbon fibre option but for long distance travel its comfort is immense. The team at ICE said Dave was currently on one of his expeditions (Uganda it turned out) and would willingly lend me Trikey as one of his mottos was ‘SAY YES MORE’. Thanks Dave.
So, with just three weeks and 10 hours to the start of the Styrk, I left Falmouth with Trikey in the back of my car. The following day was forecast overcast but I set off from my outlaws’ home in Plymouth for a trek around Dartmoor. The weather soon brightened and I headed north along the Plym Valley trail towards the heart of Dartmoor. It soon became apparent that I would struggle to exceed 12 mph but it turned into a wonderful sunny day and I just followed my nose, taking in Princetown, Widdecombe in the Moor, Chagford and Okehampton, then south to Tavistock and back the way I came via Yelverton. With 84 miles and 2,400m of ascent in 10 hours, the Stryk seemed with reach, possibly. A rather less vertiginous ride around my home county of Rutland, the following weekend, of 125 miles and 1800m of ascent, was slightly disheartening as it confirmed I could only manage 12mph.
Having spent the final weekend, before the Stryk, tapering my training (ahem) by building a plywood air transport box, I’d covered a total of 249 miles on Trikey, easily the least training I’d ever done for an event and less than the 340 miles of the Styrk. Not the ideal ratio.
In Trondheim I rebuilt Trikey having previously split it into three bags/boxes for the flight. The forecast was for rain so I elected to have all three mudguards fitted and to take a mountaineering jacket, which would be far more waterproof than any cycling-specific one.
Styrkeproven roughly translates as ‘great trial of strength’ and 2016 was its 50th anniversary. It’s a high profile event in Norway and doubles as the national team road race. A 12 mph Trikey couldn’t possibly keep up with the rest of my mates so I set off the night before their scheduled start. The group of 80 bikes that I started with lost me before the 3km mark, so I cycled through the midnight dusk towards the mountains on my own. I wish I’d taken caffeine before the start as the 60km to the first feed station was uphill and well past my usual bed time, so I was struggling to keep on the ball. As I headed up a long valley a raging torrent flowed in the opposite direction with many a waterfall. I looked at it in the half-light wishing I had the skill to kayak down it. Knowing that I was facing the waterfalls validated that I was cycling uphill, as did the mini squeal from the rear tyre every time I pushed on a pedal. However, when I looked at the road ahead, for miles I was certain I was going downhill and wondered how much slower it would be when I was going uphill! It took about two hours of this for me to realize that my funny ear must be playing games with my tired brain. As half-light turned to daybreak at about 2:00am my mind eventually woke up to the fact that I was still ascending. At this point I wished that I’d fitted my GPS to let me know average speed, heart rate, ascent etc but, knowing that it wouldn’t last the course, I’d left it in my kit bag.
For the next 200 miles I was followed by a cycling equivalent of a pilot fish; a kindly old Finnish man who spoke not a word of English, but seemed happy to sit right behind me, just visible in my rear view mirror. We were occasionally overtaken by pro cycle teams and privateers shooting past at at least twice the speed we were achieving. They were probably shouting pleasantries to us in Norwegian but I have no way of knowing for sure.
The whole of the next day and night was spent gradually descending towards Oslo alongside beautiful mountains and wild salmon rivers. As I approached Oslo, the regularity of the houses increased but the architecture rarely wavered beyond a few basic designs. Throughout the next night I was convinced that I was cycling around in big circles but that was just the effect of tiredness. At feed stop five of seven the road signage failed and I missed the stop, and I feared that five hours between decent, but repetitive, food would result in me hitting the dreaded ‘wall’. However, within a few clicks some kind Norwegians had victualed me sufficiently to get me to the next stop.
At about midnight on the second night I sensed the end was within reach but it was an illusion as I’d been reading the normal road signs to Oslo rather than considering that our route was to take us off the main road. Then at 3:00am the rain that had been promised the previous day, arrived. Here Trikey excelled. The mountaineering jacket appeared from the decent sized panniers and I was warm and comfortable in the final five hours, when it didn’t stop raining. At each food stop I’d see cyclists either curled up in the first aid tent or shivering under a woollen blanket but the combination of decent jacket, a warm seat and mudguards kept me snug.
I struggled through the last couple of hours of the ride, the low point being hallucinating that I was on a motorway in Plymouth (note – there are no motorways in Plymouth) while being unable to comprehend the helpful Norwegian instructions being shouted at me by one of the excellent marshals. Turning around on the semi-closed motorway and triking back to get further instructions was pretty dumb and not recommended. Apparently I looked drained at the finish but, hey, I didn’t have a back like Richard II and the more tender parts of my body weren’t rubbed raw after 33 hours on my mesh mattress.
Although I’m no engineer, I think the key reasons that slowed Trikey were: rolling resistance, weight and pedaling position. I suspect the first two can be addressed by throwing money at the problem and I’m sure that ICE spend a lot of their time balancing them against cost. Pedalling position is something that cannot be overcome without completely redesigning a trike and I suspect it’s impossible without destabilizing the platform. You just have to get used to focusing on the pedal downstroke. Which brings me back to the seat. The VTX’s carbon option is clearly the fastest option but the comfort of the mesh is amazing. So please Santa, may I have a bike that doesn’t exist: an ICE VTX, 700c wheels with mudguards and mesh and carbon seat options. I’d use the carbon seat for sprints and the mesh for longer rides and I bet I could keep up with my mates, perhaps.