We welcome one of most popular German cycling writers, Claude Walter to Bicycles Network Australia to share his story from the legendary Swedish Vätternrunden. The CyclingClaude website has been voted the top German cycling blog numerous of times and although overseas travel is limited for a while… this could be a ride for the wish-list.
Author – Claude Walter
Each June, for the Vätternrundan, a small Swedish town named Motala on the Eastern shore of lake Vättern transforms into the European bicycle capital. The story of Vätternrundan started in 1966 when a handful of cyclists cycled around lake Vättern for the first time. Fast-forward fifty years and today we now see 20,000 riders taking up this challenge every year. This makes Vätternrundan one of the largest cycling events in the world.
Traditionally the ride takes place on the weekend before Swedish Midsummer celebrations in late June. The tour commences when the first cyclists pass the start-line on Friday evening at 7:30 pm. It takes all night until all 20,000 riders are on the course for the gruelling 300 km challenge. For safety reasons, the route was modified for the 2020 event and extended to 315 km.
At 3am in the morning it is daybreak in Sweden and riders with a start time later than this are not required to have lights on their bikes. The course is safe and well-managed, though not completely free of traffic. Participants have to obey the traffic regulations at all times, though the traffic density around Lake Vättern is relatively low and at nighttime usually only the organizer’s service vehicles will be spotted on the roads.
The routes takes you south from Motala and you cycle clockwise around the lake. After about 65 miles, you reach the regional capital of Jönköping on the southern tip of Vättern. This is the third rest stop but the first that serves hot meals. The large feed-depot is located inside an ice rink. Besides the usual drinks that are available at all food stations, you can enjoy the famous Swedish Köttbullar that many of us in Europe already know from IKEA restaurants.
Riders who reach Jönköping have already passed two rest stops and there are still six more to go. Beside honey-water and energy drinks, you shouldn’t not miss the warm blueberry soup. Very tasty! Swedes say that pickles help against cramps, so don’t be surprised if you offered pickles at some of the rest stops.
A few of the depots lure you in for a longer break but are also timing checkpoints as the Vätternrundan provides official timekeeping. But if you are expecting a winners list and rankings, you are at the wrong event. Everybody receives a certificate, a so-called diploma, with your own time and the individual transit times at each of the checkpoints and all finishers get a medal.
Although there are no winners, many try to ride fast and compete for a good time. Riders usually try to beat the hour: faster than 12 hours is called Sub 12 and faster than 11 hours is Sub 11 and so on. Thumbs-up if you can do a Sub 10. It is worthwhile noting that your final time is the total time including any food and rest stops so don’t dally if you are racing against the clock.
For your reassurance, your riding time doesn’t really matter in this massive cycling event. You earn your stripes by making it all the way back to Motala.
The Vätternrundan has a legion of loyal fans, many of the riders taken part more than 20 times which and this is recognized as an achievement. These ‘veterans’ ride with blue starting numbers so they can be identified among the field. The pinnacle of loyalty goes to two riders who have participated in every single Vätternrundan since 1966 and picked up their 54th event medals in 2019. These riders are known as ‘pioneers’. Chapeau!
In 2018, I crossed the finish line for the ninth consecutive year without any crashes or major mechanical defects. Since 2015 I have been riding my Litespeed T5 around the lake, a bike which I built for my 50th birthday with the aim of comfortable long-distance cycling.
On my own list of achievements, I completed the Sub 10 four times and recorded a personal best time of 9:28 on the Litespeed. I didn’t think that I could get faster as I already had limited my drink-breaks to the absolute minimum of one stop to fill my water bottles. Regardless, I took the plunge get try and get ‘marginal gains’ for my 10th Vätternrundan in 2019.
For my 54th birthday, right before Vätternrundan, I invested in a more aerodynamic set of carbon clinchers. 48.5 mm deep Swiss Side Hadron Classics – a choice to fit my wallet, and silver decals to perfectly match my Litespeed.
Swiss Side wheels are renowned for excellent aerodynamic rims and are paired with DT Swiss spokes and hubs. They are also only available online from the manufacturer directly at a competitive pricing.
Parallel to my purchase, Swiss Side sent a set of test wheels, their super-fast Hadron Ultimate 625. The deeper 62,5 rims and a very small DT Swiss hub, specially designed for Swiss Side, paired with ceramic bearings are pro riders’ choice. Two times Ironman world champion, German athlete Patrick Lange, relies on Hadron Ultimate wheels.
I was not sure if I wanted to ride such deep rims as wind conditions around lake Vättern can be challenging. I took the chance didn’t regret it! Now I know how fast these wheels are and discovered that I could also keep them under control in crosswinds.
Since 2018 I’ve experienced pain in my left forefoot and cramps in my left thigh and then I met Jens Machacek. Jens is an orthopedic shoemaker and has been working with the German track cycling team since the Olympic Games preparation for London 2012. The result of this cooperation and learning exercise are handmade carbon insoles (branded as WINSOLE) which stabilize cyclist’s feet in the best possible position to bring optimal power output onto the cranks. Not only do track cyclists rely on WINSOLE, customers extend to road cycling and mountain bike professionals as well as amateurs.
What can I say? With my pair of WINSOLEs I can really feel the difference and my issues with the left foot are nearly gone. My rotor power meter gives mostly a 50/50 or 49/51 balance on average upon return from every ride. The 185 miles of Vätternrundan 2019 was a perfect 50/50!
Professional Bike Fitting
Jens has also been in the business of bike fitting for more than 25 years. His focus is on finding the best possible position through measuring and analysis of pressure at the contact points, the saddle and pedals.
I experienced a handful of other bike fittings before, mainly laser based, but never had a better feeling as with Jens when riding the bike for the first time with the new adjustments.
One of my fellow blogger colleagues, who incidentally came second at the 2019 UCI World Championship for track cycling, convinced me to try Molten Speed Wax, so I did. I sacrificed one weekend in March 2019 and pimped four brand new chains. My only regret was that I didn’t do it sooner. A newly waxed chain does not need any fresh lube (I recommend Squirt lube) for the first 600 km! The drive train runs smoothly with less noise and resistance with a nice side effect: dirty chains and dirty fingers become problems of the past.
Frame Sticker and Street Art
You’re right, a frame sticker does not make you faster. However, the Vätternrundan sticker (which was required in previous years to get your bike returned in case of DNF) is still a trophy for me and highly motivational. Finishing long distance cycling is not only about training, the right mind-set is important too.
Street Art à la Tour de France is not common in Sweden. However, I painted the road at the last short incline with the names of fellow participants. With just 13 miles to go, it still a sufferfest to reach the end so it was exactly what we needed for the final stretch.
How did it go?
We had perfect conditions. No rain, no heavy winds. My start time of 3:22 am was perfect. The Swedish night was over and temperatures acceptable to start the course with just knee and arm warmers as well as a Polartec Alpha vest.
Although I avoided bigger groups, my average speed was at 22.5 mph (36 kmh) after completing one third of the ride distance. I was positively surprised and would suggest that it was mostly the wheels that made the difference.
At around 90 miles I re-filled my two large water bottles along with High 5 Energy Source and some salt caps and continued. The only additional nutrition I carried were 16 packs of High 5 Energy Acqua Caffeine gels. From previous years, I knew that 14 sachets were enough to get me around the lake. With two extra gels, I was on the safe side.
After completing two thirds I was still surprisingly fast, but was also suffering from the warm and sunny weather conditions. The knee and arm warmers were promptly stowed in my jersey’s back pockets but there was no storage option for the vest because the remaining space in my jersey pockets were filled with gels that I still needed.
The Vätternrundan organization runs a clothes service during the event. Clothes that you don’t need, such as the warm jackets for cold night rides, can be handed in at each depot and then retrieved the following day in Motala. But dropping of clothing costs time and having a Sub 9 finishing time at the horizon, keeping the vest was a no-brainer so it was a sacrifice I felt I needed to make… to make the time.
The last part of the ride really hurt, but thankfully I did not experience any cramps. After the finishing line I could even dismount the bike without help.
My finishing time was a big surprise: 8:35 which was 90 minutes faster than the year before and 53 minutes faster than my personal best!
Fun fact: The marginal gains only worked out as I didn’t experience any defects. For the first time I tried Schwalbe Pro One tyres in a tubeless set-up you will be interested to know what happened next.
When I was packing my bike for my return back to Germany, I located a spot on the front wheel that looked strange, like melted rubber. I scratched it and opened a deep whole. Obviously, the sealant had worked and had kept me going. Without tubeless tires I probably would have had to change tubes during the ride. “Bye-bye Sub 9” I would have said.
In 2021, the Vätternrundan has been moved back from the traditional start in June to September 3-4 for the 315km main ride. There are also other distances including the 150km Halvvättern, a women’s only 100km Tjejvättern, another 100km even which allows e-bikes and some mountainbike and kids rides during the bike week. More information from vatternrundan.se/en/
If you want to put your German to the test, the CyclingClaude website and Podcast will teach you all the basics and advance terminology important for cycling. The original article covering the Vätternrundan was published in January 2020 on CyclingClaude.
Thank you Claude for permission to republish the article in English along with the photos.