Skaidi Xtreme isn't just a bike race, it's an experience, an adventure. This would be my third time visiting Finnmark Norway for this spectacular event. Hammerfest has almost become a little home away from home. Since first visiting in September 2018 the Norwegian community has been incredibly welcoming.
After flying from London to Olso and then onto Alta we enjoyed a picturesque ferry ride from the airport to our hotel. The beautiful scenery on the horizon would become our playground for the remainder of the week. Hammerfest is the most northern town in the world, we'd be based here for a couple of days before moving to Skaidi for the race.
Shortly after arriving the bike was built and I was stood at the start line of the show race organised so we could meet the kids from the local cycling club. Maybe 100 people gathered, mostly youngsters, the next professional cyclists perhaps, eager to race up the 2.4km climb to the barbecue at the top! The lungs were burning but the views from the top made the effort worthwhile.
Thursday we enjoyed a more social ride to the top of Tyven before a tasty lunch of reindeer and then a speedboat trip from Hammerfest to Skaidi!! Wait, what! Yes, a speedboat! That's a new way to arrive at a bike race! At the hotel and the atmosphere was already building. The people who'd been on the Experience since Wednesday were joined by competitors for dinner with the local reindeer farming family who work on the land where we'd be racing. Without their support there wouldn't be a race. We heard how they share the land with other farmers and in total there's almost 5000 reindeer on the land. We feasted on reindeer stew and bread cooked on the fire. It was great to be back with many of my Norwegian friends I've made over the years.
On Friday the kids took center stage with their races happening in the evening. We had the opportunity to practice the course. The weather had changed a few days earlier turning a dry course into a muddy technical route. What was already physically demanding would now be hugely challenging. After more reindeer and some coaching work with our Norwegian partner Fun Biking it was time to focus on race day.
Having finished 3rd in 2018 and 2nd in 2019 I was being seen as the favourite for today’s race! On the start line I knew after all the issues earlier this year I couldn't stuff this one up. Favourite status just means all eyes are on you, extra pressure and competition who'd be following your every move. It was a different race this year compared to my previous two times here, in 2019 I raced Soren Nissen who has very similar strengths to me so we were pretty equally matching on this course. This year though the competition came from elsewhere, first the supercharged diesel of Karl Platt who could sustain a hard pace, rail the descents and use his experience to challenge for the win. Then there were the two international level cross country athletes, both who could match me over shorter efforts and put me under pressure on the descents. I'd not ridden a rocky trail like these since maybe a year ago, we have nothing like it at home so this would be a challenge. They were the known challengers or challenges but what and who else would show themselves on race day?
I had a race plan, it was one I was confident with but first I needed to stay at the front of the race to the two thirds distance. When the course is this hard and competition so motivated it wasn't easy. Conditions really challenged everyone, line choice, skills and a bit of luck were crucial. Through the first loop a group of four formed, this became six by the end of the second or third loop. Each loop was different but returned through or close to the arena to keep the spectator’s excitement high. Onto the larger loop, we were a group of four, until the group slit with Ole and me gapping Sondre and Karl through the next rocky wet slippery ascent which weaved its way right up onto the top of the mountain. The gap was small though with the elastic stretching out and back. The pressure was on and here on this track you work for every meter. Ole was getting small gaps on me through some of the technical section but each time I'd creep back onto his wheel before taking to the front and setting the pace. I tried a few small attacks but up on top of the mountain where you're riding through the heathland it wasn't possible to use my extra power to really make a gap. I knew that my opportunity was coming. First though was the descent from the top of the mountain through Deadwood. I survived and as we reached the next phase of the race I prepared to launch. Ole was showing signs of tiring, we were past xc race distance, he was dropping the pace when on the front and then began refusing to work.
The final two climbs were largely on gravel, here I could use my extra power to win the race. Or so I hoped! I go full gas from the base of the penultimate climb. The gradient pitches up and a gap begins to open. Only a bike length. Ole is still there and gets back on the wheel. This youngster is strong! He finished 20th at European Championships a few weeks ago. I try again and this time I just keep the power on, the gap opens, meter by meter. The Simplon Cirex is flying up the climb. Off the gravel and into the muddy technical tracks, Ole closes to a few meters as we descend. Out onto the tarmac, towards the race hotel, and up the final climb. Again the gradient pitch up which helps me open the gap. I start to think this race can be mine but quickly realise there’s more climbing and a technical descent to follow.
Onto the final section of singletrack climb, up past the point where I lost the race win in 2019, then into the final descent. I'm doing what I can to maintain the gap but I'm definitely not making the most of what the Simplon Cirex is capable of. I hold on to the bars, try to flow through the rocks, a single mistake would remove my advantage. Down to the tarmac stretch to the finish, I have a lead, I'm going to win, Ole isn't in eye site but I'm not letting off the pedals just in case. Full gas, timetrial mode. I can see the race arena, I can hear the commentator revving up the crowds. 500 meters to go, final trail, zip up the jersey. I punch the air. I love this race! I've won.
Ole is only seconds behind, Karl in 3rd and Sondre in 4th not much further back. What a race! The event isn’t over yet through! There’s more to come. On the podium, the winners receiving a hunting knife, a book showing the last 50 year history of the Sami reindeer farm and a traditional Sami outfit. In 1969 a French photographer visited the reindeer farm and took some photos of the work. Then in 2019 that same photographer revisited to take the replicate those photos to show the difference 50 years later. The family had never seen the original photos. The book is a beautiful memento of an amazing trip to Norway.
All that was left to do was to enjoy the banquet and party! A 3-course formal dinner was laid out for all the guests at the hotel, with a presentation from the race organisers and first sighting of the race video. Many tales were told, many bottles of wine were drunk, many new friends were made.
This isn't just a bike race, it a completely unique experience not to be missed. If you like bike racing, want to party, see the northern lights, visit a reindeer farm, ride in a speed boat, and enjoy travelling to new places then join me for Skaidi Xtreme 2022.
All photos: Cecilia Emilie Johansen, Frikant, Skaidi Xtreme.