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Riding to the South Pole – cycling's hardest challenge?

Nick Busca
11 Dec 2017

Sir Chris Hoy has put back his attempt on Maria Leijerstam's coast-to-pole world record

'You can train and prepare as much as you can, but you can’t ever totally be prepared for something like this. Particularly in Antarctica, because Antarctica is a beast in itself and it will decide what it wants to do to you and you can’t stop it. It’s a beautiful, but vicious place.'

Maria Leijerstam is the first person in the world to cycle to the South Pole from the edge of the Antarctic continent. She smashed the challenge in December 2013, cycling for 10 days, 14 hours and 56 minutes to set the current world record for the fastest human-powered coast-to-pole traverse.

And it's that mark that Sir Chris Hoy will try to beat when he takes on the challenge himself in 2019. Hoy had originally planned to cycle to the South Pole at the end of this year, but has now put back his effort.

The month of December is the most favourable month for attempting to reach the pole on two wheels because the weather is the most favourable – or rather the least unfavourable. While fighting polar temperatures of -30 degrees C (not including wind chill), Leijerstam pedalled for a total of 638km (500 miles) in setting her 2013 mark.

Despite consuming more than 4,000 calories each day, cycling between 10 and 17 hours daily in those harsh conditions made her lose 8.2% of her body weight.

But records are made to be challenged and six-time Olympic champion Sir Chris Hoy has his eye on breaking Leijerstam’s achievement.

Hoy originally announced his intention to cycle to Antarctica back in the spring and challenge the record by the end of the year.

The plan, however, changed and the attempt was re-scheduled for 2019. Although contacted by Cyclist about his goal, he wasn’t available to comment at this stage.

In the meantime, Leijerstam has indicated she'd be ready to put on her warm boots again for another crack if her record does fall.

'I love the fact that I have got an Olympian trying to beat my speed record,' she says. 'It’s quite exciting and it will be really interesting to see what happens because he’s obviously an incredible man and an incredibly dedicated and focused, fit person, but this is a totally different game... I’m sure that with his competitive streak in him he’s gonna push pretty hard.

'Let’s see what the outcome is and whether I need to return or not. It’s definitely not out of the question.

'I absolutely loved Antarctica and I would quite like to do a cycle across Antarctica next time, not just to the South Pole but continue to the other edge of the Continent, so I would cross the whole of Antarctica.

One of Leijerstam’s main goals was to prove that cycling was more efficient than skiing as a means of transport to the South Pole.

For this particular purpose her team conceptualised a unique three-wheeled PolarCycle that was then manufactured by Inspired Cycle Engineering in Falmouth.

The cycle features a recumbent position, three fat tyres and a very low gear ratio that enabled Leijerstam to cycle even the steepest sections of the Trans-Antarctic Mountain range (with gradients above 20% at a maximum height of 2,941 metres).

Leijerstam’s PolarCycle also needed to be able to carry all her kit: fuel, tent, sleeping bag, polar and emergency equipment and communication devices.

'I was carrying 55kg of kit on the back,' she says. 'It’s a very aerodynamic position to be sitting in and very comfortable position and I didn’t have the problems you normally have on a normal bike seat, where you get chafing and it’s uncomfortable.

'And it also gave me much more flow having three fat tyres instead of two. The downside is that I had to make three tracks instead of two but there are far more pros than cons on a bike like that.

'I even wore a harness around my waist and attached myself to the bike, because I figured that in the event of it rolling away I needed some way to stop it.

'I also had a small axe, which I had very close to me, should I need it. [But for the opposite reason] I had to wear a specific kayaking harness with a quick release, because I also thought that if the cycle picked up enough speed and I couldn’t stop it, I had to be able to let it go.'

She also took a different road than the one used by two other cyclists who attempted the challenge at the same time – the American Daniel Burton and the Spaniard Juan Menendez Granado.

Hers was shorter, but mainly because its surface was more compacted. The road Leijerstam cycled on is driven on by trucks that deliver fuel to the South Pole.

Theoretically it makes cycling “easier” – although not a single vehicle took that path for more than three weeks before she did.

Even if it was shorter, because of the steep sections, her road was probably even more challenging than the longer one. With a normal two-wheeled bike it wouldn’t have been possible.

'Two-wheel bikes out there become a real problem. My expedition was a success because I was able to cycle every single metre of the way, which was what I managed to achieve on the PolarCycle.

'On a two-wheeled bike I can guarantee there is no way that you can cycle every metre of the way. There will be parts where you’ll need to get off and push it and to me it wouldn’t be a proper cycling record, but a walking/skiing/cycling record.

'The other two cyclists who were out there the year that I cycled to the Pole, one of them ended up skiing probably the majority of the way and towing his bike and the other one pushing his bike for half of it.

'To me it’s not a worthwhile expedition if you can’t cycle it and that’s why we came up with and developed a PolarCycle.'

Her first intention was to cycle the whole length to the Pole fully unsupported, but after five days – because of knee pain and a slight delay to the schedule – she decided to switch her attempt into a half-supported one.

In order to complete her ride within 11 days, Leijerstam slept an average of 3 to 4 hours a night and her stops were mainly dictated by needing to melt down snow and make water to hydrate.

In terms of nutrition, she cooked a soup in the morning and ate it within two hours otherwise it would freeze. Throughout the day she kept eating from a snack bag filled with pretzels, chocolate, jelly beans and a mix of other sources of energy food.

At night she could make herself a “proper meal” with soup, dessert or even spaghetti bolognese.

'Making water, my own food and putting up the tent would probably take about three hours because there is really a lot to do.

'One night I even sacrificed all my sleep only to take the snow and ice studs out of my tyres. And I remember I sat with the PolarCycle half in the tent with my legs so I could be in the tent and then I slowly took the snow away.

'That night was my sleep time gone.'

But beyond the physical challenge, the sleep deprivation and the poor nutrition and hydration, the psychological challenge was crucial.

If you can’t control your thoughts or let them be, it can turn the whole challenge into a disaster.

'I managed to not think a lot of the time,' says Leijerstam. 'I had so much at stake because first of all it was an expedition that took me four years to plan and organise.

'I had a lot of people who had supported me along the way. I didn’t manage to get sponsorship so it was an awfully expensive expedition to go on.

'I could have let my mind just run wild and almost lose control but I kept myself really focused by just drawing an invisible circle around me and the PolarCycle.

'What I needed to think about was all in that circle.

'I kept the pedals turning, kept the focus and absorbed what’s there and enjoyed it. I didn’t let myself think too hard and it was such a liberating experience.

'When we’re back home we’re constantly being fired with information, data, technology all the times. There, it’s the most esteemed and beautiful environment where you can just be and not think.

'I just looked at the amazing surroundings. I did have an iPod with some songs, but I didn’t take it seriously to upload good songs so I had 20 really bad songs that kept me amused because I repeated them quite a lot thinking "I hate this music!"

'And that was actually a good motivation to cycle faster because then I didn’t have to listen to them again!'

Leijerstam has just published a book about her challenge.

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