The Length of Sweden by Bike

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Photograph by John Watson

For the 41 cyclists who have just set out on the Sverigetempot, a 1,325-mile self-supported ride down the length of Sweden, the harsh reminder that they’re 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle arrives — less than two hours in. Icy rain begins to spear them like cold, wet needles. The temperature drops below 50 degrees. Riders can’t feel their hands or feet, and the weather radar looks like an overheated lava lamp, predicting a storm that will last well into the night.

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It’s an especially rough day for Erik Nohlin, a Swedish-born industrial designer who works for the bike company Specialized in the Bay Area and has traveled back to his homeland to test his latest creation, the new steel Sequoia touring bike. Nohlin began the ride with a fractured shoulder blade and rib, as well as a face full of stitches, courtesy of an unlucky spill while riding outside of Los Angeles a week prior. He was hoping for an easy start so he could convalesce.

As it turns out, today’s 214 miles couldn’t be harder.

“After the crash last week, I felt like a million Argentine pesos,” Nohlin says wryly, far less than his typical million bucks.

“But nothing would have stopped me getting here.”

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The event, started in 2008, is now one of hundreds of similar rides around the globe. Their popularity reflects a massive resurgence in bike touring, or as today’s generation calls it, bikepacking. It has boomed on the success of events like the Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile mountain bike race from Canada to Mexico that has seen steady growth in participation in recent years. Meanwhile, mixed-terrain road riding on bikes with fatter tires has also exploded, spurred by the proliferation of  ”gravel races” in the Midwest, such as the Dirty Kanza. Minneapolis-based Salsa Cycles has been a proponent for years, but now big brands including Cannondale, Diamondback, Rocky Mountain, and Specialized have jumped on the trend.

With seven days of near-nonstop pedaling, the Sverigetempot, which translates as “Swedish time trial,” is one of the longest of these rides. It also falls into a subset called brevet, a historic French genre in which cyclists pass through checkpoints along a route and finish within a designated time. Riders in the Sverigetempot collect stamps at 10 towns along the length of Sweden and must reach the country’s southernmost point, Smygehuk, within six or seven days, depending on their category.

For Nohlin, after the first day, that seems impossible. In his black skinny jeans and inked-up body — a triptych on his chest reads, “heart, peas, vino” — Nohlin has always seen the Sverigetempot as the perfect place to launch the Sequoia. But this ride is also personal. It’s the world’s longest brevet, and it traverses his home country. He’s never ridden the race before, so as a Swede he considers it something of a patriotic duty to complete the Sverigetempot.

The race begins well north of the Arctic Circle, in Lapland, and only one rider in Nohlin’s loose group, which includes an American from Specialized, Rita Jett Borelli, one of Nohlin’s old friends from Sweden, and four other riders, has ever attempted the event. Johan Björkland entered the race in 2014, but halfway through he developed a case of Lyme disease that caused his knees to swell like cantaloupes and forced him to drop out. He’s also the only one in the group to have even seen this rugged landscape, a stark expanse of old, dark, squat mountains carpeted with dwarf birch and juniper trees.

“It’s an exotic place,” says Peter Tonér, the founder and organizer of Sverigetempot, as well as a two-time finisher. “Most people will never see the north half of the country — not even Swedes.”

During the first few nights, the sun never really sets. Instead, days drift together in a strange blend of silvery midnight light and the gauzy fatigue haze of pedaling so late. The constant sunlight means you never miss a single detail, from the shields of granite in the far north, dappled with black, white, and green lichen, to the stands of spruce, alder, and aspen that spring up around great mirrored lakes below the Arctic. Except for reindeer that occasionally scurry onto the highway, it’s raw, empty country. One American on the ride described it as “the world’s most impressive clear-cut.”

The first half of the course follows a route called Inlandsvägen, which means “inland road,” and the interior, in stark contrast to Sweden’s progressive cities, is completely provincial. This is Swedish hillbilly country, complete with restored American muscle cars — one of Sweden’s national fixations — outsize people, and cold stares. In the border town where the race begins, Norwegians score cheap deals, and discounters hawk contraband that is exorbitant in socialist Norway: alcohol, tobacco, porn, and pork.

Other than pizzerias opened by immigrants, there are few food options in the tiny hamlets the riders pass, so the ride becomes a competition to see who can eat the most pizza along the way. Even stranger, as the ride moves farther south, the convenience stores often have salad bars. Many of Nohlin’s crew are vegan, a growing trend in the country, though, paradoxically, most of them also chew tobacco, another national predilection.

When you travel by bike through a place, you travel methodically, wide-eyed, and all its weirdnesses and contradictions come to the forefront. That’s the whole point of the bikepacking movement: Saddle up, head out, experience something new.

“I feel like I have a responsibility to demonstrate to the community that cycling is not all about racing,” Nohlin says. “I feel that we, as an industry, have done a disservice by not focusing on the fun of cycling — the social aspects, the camaraderie.”

If there’s a dark place on the route, it comes in the pale 1 a.m. light of night two, when Nohlin is in such pain from the battering his body took during his 16 hours in the saddle that he contemplates quitting. The next morning his friends and teammates (and a few painkillers) shore him up so he can continue. The group arrives together that night, well after 2 a.m., but it’s like the fever has broken and Nohlin’s body has acclimated to the task. There’s even time for a postride chew: Grovsnus Lös , the Swedish Copenhagen.

Villages pop up more regularly in the south, and the Swedes point out the buildings’ red hue, which comes from an iron-oxide-infused dye (not a paint), a product of copper mining. “It’s how you know you’re in the real countryside,” says Nohlin’s friend Daniel Levin. Magnificent wood churches of weathered timber date from the Middle Ages. And the tourist kitsch is just as spectacular: In Dorotea, there’s a 40-foot-tall wooden moose; the nearby town of Sveg claims “the world’s second-largest wooden bear”; and in Mora, a three-story red horse called the Dalahäst has become the region’s symbol.

As the course continues south, the land feels less backwater, more small-town charming. At Tre Björnar (“Three Bears”) lodge in Älvdalen, a mustard-hued Victorian hostel, Tini Björs and Lennart Mattsson serve a stupendous breakfast that includes freshly made brown-bread rolls, a jam of cloudberries picked in the surrounding marshes, and moose sausage. Local bakeries brim with cinnamon rolls called kanelbülle, a regional speciality, along with marzipan tarts and chocolate balls.

In Klippan, Två Systrar (“Two Sisters”) cafe sets out a proper Swedish smorgasbord, with platters of classics like pickled herring, smoked salmon, and cheese-stuffed crepes, plus fresh watermelon salad and grilled zucchini with barley. Having overdosed on pizza, the ravenous group vaporizes the buffet.

Spruces give way to fields of wheat and alfalfa, and windmills crop up like giant flowers. Soon the briny whiff of the Baltic Sea drifts in on the wind. And still the group rolls south. The riders reach the lighthouse finish line after 156 hours, blistered and bruised, and though you can almost sense an urge to keep going, they are, at least for now, out of road.

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