Euro-Roos OF700 Race Report 2015

Offroad Finnmark is the toughest single stage terrain-cycling race in the world, passing through 700 km of unspoilt wilderness on the Finnmark mountain plateau. The trail follows forest paths, back roads and reindeer migration trails.  Some sections have no paths whatsoever, making the cycling extremely demanding.  In certain areas the riders have to carry their mountain bikes across hundreds of streams and rivers of various sizes.  Riders climb approximately 10,000 vertical meters along the way.  The race would not be possible had it not been for the midnight sun.  24 hours of daylight ensures that the race can be completed over three to four days.

In July 2015, Simon Vandestadt and Tom Crebbin (Team Euro-Roos) travelled north to Alta in Norway, and attempted to become the first Australians to complete the full course.

Offroad Finnmark, foto: Jon Vidar  Bull, Simon VandestaadtOffroad Finnmark, foto: Jon Vidar  Bull, Tom Crebbin

Looking back on our goals for the OF700, I count more boxes ticked than crossed.   In spite of falling tantalizingly short of the 700km needed to finish the event, this was no fail.  Tom and I were in awe of the Finnmark wilderness we had crossed, had forged new friendships and along with thirty or so ‘exceptionally vigorous and a little crazy amateurs’ had tested our physical and mental limits in what is undoubtedly the toughest single stage MTB race on the planet.

We both had the form and experience to complete this MTB ultramarathon, subject to breakdown of either bike or body.  If we succeeded, we would be the first Australian team to do so.  In the end our bodies were the weakest link.  Unfortunately, we thought Tom would be able to ride his hardtail over the rocky quadbike tracks and marshes.  But all time spent out of the seat, coupled with a substantial amount of walking over boulders in the first 250km, strained Tom’s Achilles forcing him out at Karasjok.

Offroad Finnmark Foto: Jon Vidar Bull
The Danish Team Superior boys and their tireless family support crew kindly adopted me as their own, which meant I could continue without Tom. Together we made good progress, at least until the final pass through Suossjavri at 600km.  The previous 55km had been a tough slog taking us seven hours to cross trackless terrain in unusually warm weather and had me wishing I’d eaten a bucket of pasta in Masi, rather than the potato chips and Coke I had managed to guzzle down.  The next 55km to Jotka had taken five hours to ride in training, but even familiarity with the track and a gradually approaching finish in Alta was no match for the headwind, pain and exhaustion I was suffering after three and a half sleep deprived days of cycling.

While Team Superior had encouraged me to keep riding past Suossjavri, the seven hours it eventually took to get to Jotka, convinced me I was so depleted that if I attempted the last stage I might crash, jeopardizing Team Superior’s chance of finishing before the cut-off.  What’s more Jotka is an arctic oasis hidden deep in windswept landscape where nothing but endless marshland and a few distant mountain tops buttresses the horizon.  After 658km and 84 hrs, I was out – allowing the warmth from the log fire and a cooked breakfast to recharge me as I dozed in my sweat soaked kit on a couch.
So what were the lessons learned from the experience – that most brutal of teachers.

Foto: Claus Jørstad, Offroad FinnmarkThere is no doubt we were all hurting at Jotka.  In my case, my back, feet, knees and legs had all held up well.  Serious swelling of my lower legs only kicked in later that evening, but it didn’t stop me walking about or getting down to the Ishavskraft Banquet and prize ceremony.  My hands had taken a beating from the road vibration and were numb from the palms to the fingers.  I still feel some lost sensitivity six months later.  However, on top of the general tiredness, the overriding pain was from the saddle area.  It’s hard to explain exactly how sore that area gets, as there were definitely no saddle sores, just bruised bum bones and chafing of the undercarriage that no amount of chamois cream can sooth.  While it would be at least a week before I’d dare sit on a bike seat again, the general tiredness passed very quickly - following breakfast at Jotka, a couple of hours sleep and a few more cups of coffee I was beginning to wonder why I’d stopped.

Was there anything else I might have done to get myself over the line, or advice that other teams preparing for the OF700 might like to consider?

Lesson 1: Get your head right.  Once I could no longer complete the event with Tom and the weariness and pain became intense the goal to finish waned.  It was way too easy to find excuses and let the Team Superior boys continue without me ... I’m slowing down … they are speeding up … they are not hurting as much … I’m going to crash and they are not going to finish … this is far enough … I have nothing more to prove … I don’t need the finisher T-Shirt!  What’s your Plan B?  What new mind games can you conjure to stay focused at 600+ Km?  Take a break.  Regroup.  Tape your mantra to the handlebar, repeat it over and over and finish!

Lesson 2: You are what you eat.  The race organisers estimated the fastest time would be around 60 hrs, including compulsory breaks and feed stops.  The winning time was 74 hrs – a 25% overshoot.  The last team to complete the course finished one hour before the cut-off, after 95 hrs in basically ideal conditions.  Plan breaks to refuel and enjoy the plentiful food on offer at every checkpoint.  Continue to eat regularly and carry enough calories and variety for anything up to 10 hrs between checkpoints.

Lesson 3: Gear up.  Don’t attempt this race on a hard tail.  The rocky tracks are unlike anything you are likely to have ridden anywhere else in the world.  The entire surface is essentially remnant glacial rubble, partially overgrown with arctic scrub, crossed by rivers and bog that drain the copious snow melt all summer.  Compliant dual suspension, wide diameter tyres with moderately aggressive tread, toughened side walls, low air pressure, carbon rims, spare spokes, a plush or cut-out seat are all highly recommended.  Wide-ratio 1 x 11 gear configuration is probably simpler and easier to keep clean than a 2 x 10 configuration.  Widened handlebar grips will help dampen road vibration and provide more hand hold variation.  Even with good weather, there will be times when you will be cold.  Full cover Gortex® riding jacket and pant shell, a dry wool thermal, headgear and a mosquito head net (or two, they tend to get lost) are minimum kit requirements to carry at all times[1].  If not for the weather, to keep the voracious mosquitos off when you stop for repairs or to eat.  Abundant chamois cream to reapply at each checkpoint!

Lesson 4: Fly by wire.  We used a GARMIN GPSMAP 64s for navigation.  The screen needs to be on all the time so you don’t miss subtle changes in direction of the track (when you can find one).  Battery life is a critical factor.  We used and carried replacement lithium AA batteries and got at least 12 hours’ life out of each fresh set.  The button controls are ideal for use on rough terrain, in rain and with cold hands, and are an advantage over touch screen controls in my view.  The satellite reception is excellent and map updating fast.  GPS systems use a different logic to bike computers, so if you are not familiar with them make sure you get plenty of practice loading maps, navigating and reading the map at different scales before you start.  You will also need a decent Wifi connection to download the GARMIN maps, extra cable ties and gaffer tape to secure the mount to the head stem.

Lesson 5: A little help from friends.  We could not have begun this odyssey without the support of our partners and enormous encouragement from friends and family around the world.  From the warmest hospitality in Alta, Conny and the OF Team’s regular updates, the Full Rule boys for fixing some last minute mechanical glitches, Team Superior and their support crew for taking me along and Tom’s willing and unreserved commitment to an expedition unlike any other, for a laugh and a genuinely epic experience in the rawest arctic wilderness.

The OF700 is much more an adventure race on a bike than a traditional mountain bike race – something we were ready for.  We may have been a bit crazy to begin with, or to fear we might see polar bears along the way, but we were privileged to take on this challenge and to be embraced by the arctic people and their formidable homeland.  If you are into extreme adventure, why not give it a try?  You can’t fail.

[1] Note: refer to current Race Regulations for all mandatory equipment requirements.

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