In Search of Sanctuary

Sometimes you dream about waking up one morning and settle out for the big adventure,  leaving the daily life behind. More rarely though, you take the freedom to actually do it – to dare going on that voyage, discover unknown land and fresh air, and rediscover the beauty of an empty mind.

Through the past unusual months I have been waking up every morning, looking out the window longing for that exact journey – but contrary to how life normally is, the freedom to go was now taken away from me. That very essential freedom – some would say human right – to form and shape your life and the will of your own. 

I regularly ride with some great guys. They tend to go on three or four well-known loops. I have wondered why they are not more explorative but on the other hand, I accept that people are different. But, it also appeared that the COVID-lockdown actually made them realize that your freedom can be taken away from you when you least expect it. So, I decided to introduce them to bike-packing and take them on an adventure – well, not in its purest form but introduce them to ride their bikes – not for the sake of power meters or KOMs, but with the journey as the purpose and primary goal. To move through the landscape at a decent pace and enjoy that freedom rather than set up dogmas for it.

Back in the 1980s, my parents revealed the beauty and greatness of the enormous forests of Värmland and Dalarna in Sweden to me, where we camped in a small cheap tent. Little did I know that I would come back one day – not in a Citroën 2CV – but on a bike two times the cost of that car.

Now I was here. Excited to rediscover some memories from my childhood and to inspire my friends to discover the magic and beauty of the unspoiled nature while riding. I wanted them to envision new aspects of the vast diversity of cycling. On the map, the first day’s 170 km appeared to be within our limits, yet long, grueling, and tough with only a few paved roads. I made it clear that it was not a walkover ride. More like an examination in distributing energy and power.

Riding in a small group in challenging terrain requires a lot of teamwork as there is no free speed from drafting or benefits by covering for the weaker riders in the group. None of the guys had ever been on gravel for a whole day, so I knew we had to rely on my experiences from the devastating week of the Torino-Nice Rally back in 2018.

Just a few days before the departure to Sweden, the weather forecast looked like a television screen tuned in on a dead channel. Heavy all-day rain and 10 degrees Celcius would demand the very best of any rider at any level, but before riding out in the morning the weather, fortunately, showed a more friendly face.Everybody was excited and thrilled to go. And for some reason, the fact that no one knew where the roads were taking us seemed to be encouraging to us all. It was also time to observe if the rumors were true that this was bear and wolf territory. I think none of us really feared that. So, we were six guys and zero guns riding out.The ordinary farm roads and the hard-packed forest paths from the homelands were substituted with all kinds of mixed roads. First superfast concrete-like, then suddenly like quicksand that almost forced the bike to stop and then back to rough, crushed and quarry processed stones. The relatively short and open roads that usually connect the paved roads back home were gone. Alternately they continued persistently mile after mile, and the monstrous pine forests appeared to never end but just continue their repeated and endless pattern. Such greatness and magnificence make one feel small and insignificant. 

Spirits were high and the weather forecast still looked promising with promises of sunstrokes cutting through the fluffy clouds now and then – and only a slight risk of us drowning in the rain. It was quiet and mild.So, here I had the guys exactly where I wanted them. Completely out of their comfort zone, but in surroundings they were demanded to absorb and mentally consume. Gone was the speedy adrenaline rush of smashing circuits, and suddenly you had the time and space to hear your own breath blending into the silent wind. One of the guys, a former mountaineer compared the silence to his efforts on the journeys in the mountains where he was simply consuming the moment without any further goal than moving ahead while just being. That rare feeling and yet primal force. Man and nature. Nature and man. Right here in the middle of the endless Swedish forests, I was testifying his awakening from the belief that cycling is just about performance and pushing the limits of the body. It is also about creating new perspectives to your freedom and a magnificent opportunity to allow yourself to disconnect from reality for a while. Today, inspiring others like this is still the most powerful and rewarding feeling cycling has ever given me.

Well, beauty shines but only for a short moment, and that feeling of light glowing within me was more or less the last feeling of uplifting light I had on our journey – at least if we talk about the weather. Now the rain set in and became our faithful companion for the next days. It all started to get a bit tough, and one of the other guys casually admitted that he might have been a bit open-mouthed about the difficulty of the conditions and that the monotonous long roads were very different from the fast-paced CX-inspired gravel rides back home. This day was apparently turning into a Gran Fondo on gravel. 170 km with 3000 hm on gravel roads. No free speed, but free rain.We arrived at our first stop. A nice authentic Bed & Breakfast a little South of Malung. Cold, exhausted, and drenched to the bone. We were the only guests there. Also in the restaurant. Filled souls, empty bodies and empty eyes, Full beers, empty beers and more empty beers. But as on a tombstone with a pithy saying, I remember words like “this is the best day I have ever had on a bike” at our small graveyard dinner. So, if this would be the last supper, there were definitely premium memories to bring into the afterlife.

Those mornings where you wake up to the sound of heavy rain. The same sound as when you went to bed. Staring out the window for slight signs of sunlight. I remember waiting just like that in the schoolyard thirty years ago. Searchingly hopeful and longing for the girl from sixth grade you had a crush on. This day there was no sign of her and after lunch, we couldn’t postpone the departure any longer, and we settled out in the pouring rain. 30 mins later the familiar feeling from yesterday of being drenched returned, but we tried to keep the pace to stay warm. Some managed to, others not. Regardless, everybody agreed to shorten the stage a bit to still keep this just a bit enjoyable.The large repeating pine forests were still our companion and on every second hilltop, the barren and naked felled areas from the forest fires in 2018 left us with wide-open views to the nearby hills. Combined with the innumerable lakes it made the scenery more varied than on the first day.Just before dusk, we arrived at the Bed & Breakfast where burgers and a large selection of local microbrew were served by the friendly host. Spirits were obviously lifted at the cozy fireplace in the dining room, and it served as a great warmup for the last day. 120 km on continuous gravel roads with no sight of civilization – or freshwater for that sake.

In the bathroom, we made a primitive installation with an old electric heater and sweet dreams that at least our shoes would dry up overnight. The weather forecast still looked uncertain. The shoe forecast a bit more promising.

With a sparse chance of seeing the sun again, we headed out for the final day’s ride. Something inside me ached for more, but another part was so full of impressions that I was just longing to go home and digest it all.

The infantry of black clouds was finally fought by sunlight and it felt like a well-deserved finale of some pretty rough days. Little did we know that we were also to get a 10 km descent on pristine creme-smooth tarmac as a dessert. Some say it pays off to work hard. This day it certainly did. Needless to mention, the post-ride beers were excellent and countless.Now, looking back on those days on the gritty and rough roads, I simply have forgotten the feeling of untameable rain and numb fingertips. What is left is a powerful and profound feeling of fellowship and uncomplex emotions. 

So if I ever had a mission, I succeeded. I enlightened my fellow riders on the opportunity that riding your bike is not always about performance and going fast, it is just as much your chance to find a space within yourself. A space where there is no goal you can quantify. No result to compare. No numbers to upload. A space to be in and reflect on.Nature is truly such a simple and beautiful canvas to start doing just that. The guys feel they have discovered a new way to ride their bikes, and that this was just the first of many journeys into the unknown.

Cycling has once again shown how powerful it is. How it is, in fact, a tool of expression. Regardless of your condition or your mood, cycling will always guide you. It may guide you back or lead you to new places. It may misguide you on detours. But mentally it will always guide you home. And that is where we all belong.

In life, many of us struggle to find our way now and then. Simply, I believe, because we have already defined that we have to advance from a to b and are so damned convinced that b is our purpose and goal. How can we be sure if we haven’t been there before? Maybe the primary goal in life is simply to move from a to b? The space within. All that is between a and b.This image of life is very simple to transfer to cycling, and I feel that everyone came home with a strong belief that going out on one’s bike with no purpose other than to collect memories, breathe the open air, and feel the wind in your face is a very defining and character-building experience. Well, going on a journey into the unknown is not for everybody, but not everybody necessarily has the call to define, redefine, erase, or clear the self. It is all about finding balance, and that balance can be found in many ways.

For me, cycling is the most fantastic and versatile way, and I will ride my bike as long as my mind will allow me, and my legs will follow.

A photo story by Benjamin Andresen / Hammerhead