The Arctic Circle to Vienna in 100 Days

After a 30 hour flight, my twin brother Ben and I landed in Rovaniemi, Finland on the July 18th, 2010 ready to get started. To get on the road though we needed just one thing, our bikes, which we desperately hoped were still in one piece and on the same plane as us. As a result, my first memories of the trip are not of air in my hair and Nordic forests, but rather of us standing, glued to the airport window watching the entire plane being unloaded. Finally out came the bikes. So excited were we that everything had made it, we found ourselves assembling our bikes then and there. Despite the fact that it was now 11.30pm we started riding our first kilometres south.

Before I start counting off the kilometres and stories though, I think it is important to explain the aims of the trip. We were not out there to break any records or train for the Tour de France. Our aim was simple, get to Vienna from the Arctic Circle in 100 days. How we got there and what we did along the way, well that was fairly open. It was this freedom to explore the world around us that really made this trip such a magical experience for me. On the way we got distracted by random sights, went to whole countries on a recommendation and got waylaid for weekends by friends. All this meant that we felt we were not riding to get somewhere. Instead we were riding to experience something. It was this element of the unknown that saw us getting back on the bikes day after day.

The first four weeks our trip took us down through Finland, in the most scenic and indirect way possible. We would ride 60km to kayak a river, before heading another 100km to laugh at what the Finnish people call a beach. With the landscape covered in lakes of all sizes there are no direct routes in Finland and that suited us perfectly. Each night we would always find ourselves swimming in a lake at sunset, as we decided if we would head to a national park, town, castle or all three the next day. We were surprised to find that after the first few days of the trip our legs were no longer tired in the morning, with riding became a task and not a chore. It was in this style that we rode, sauna-ed and ate our way down Finland, enjoying the unique elements in each region and slowly getting sick of pine trees.

It was in Helsinki that our first major distraction occurred. Arriving there we realised just how close we were to the Baltic States. So despite the fact that it was in the wrong direction we found ourselves on a ferry over to Tallinn, Estonia. As soon as we arrived in these small states the interesting sights and cultures made us forget that these countries were completely in the wrong direction. In fact we enjoyed ourselves so much we ended up being 300km from our Tallinn ferry with only two days to get there. Throughout the Baltics we enjoyed a mass of castles and sites supported by a people proud of their culture. These experiences more than made up for our first day of constant rain and the trip’s only crash, luckily resulting in only small cuts and a bruised pride. So with a need to get back on track, it was back on the ferry to Finland.

From here we rode along the southern coast of Finland, following the ancient Swedish Kings’ postal route. With one last sauna, lake and salmon buffet, we were then on a ferry over to Sweden. In Stockholm, I had a commitment to attend a water conference at a set time, and it was here we found ourselves circling the capital. On this route we took in a royal palace and discovered the gastronomical delights of pickled herring. Arriving in Stockholm just in time for the conference, we both enjoyed the change of a few day of just riding around a city. At this time I attended some fantastic presentations about bringing water and sanitation to the third world while Ben explored a city, truly at the heart of Scandinavia. Yet again though we realised time was slipping away and we were still no closer to Vienna, so it was back on the bike. Riding around the horn of Sweden, we saw amazing Viking sites and palaces, while also having time to meet up with old friends along the way. The hardest part of the ride during this time was the wind. While before it had been negligible, now it picked up, blowing up to 40km/hr. It also seemed to follow us, always changing to be head-on, no matter which way we turned. Despite being attacked by the elements we pushed on making it over to Demark with time quickly running out.

With friends to see in the Czech Republic and Austria on weekends, we had only 10 days to get through Germany and Demark. Luckily the wind and rain died down and we were able to push on and managed to enjoy two days in Copenhagen and one in Berlin on the way through. It was in Copenhagen that we really saw the power of the bike. Here, cyclists outnumbered cars 5:1 and we enjoyed being part of a city which runs on two wheels. Along the way we also visited some of the most impressive palaces on the whole trip and admired the 160m white cliffs of Mon. Taking a ferry over to Germany the forest started giving way to more and more fields and our first real hills appeared. Despite this we were pushed on by an uncontrollable love for Germany pastries and great cycle paths. Berlin, with it catch phrase of ‘dirty but sexy’ was also different to any other European city but after 80 days on the bike we at least fitted in with half of the city’s name.

After our sprint south we crossed the Czech/German border and I found myself knocking on my host family’s door, having not seen them for five years. The weekend with them can only be described with the words ‘excess food’. Meeting high school friends one day, a teacher the next and family friends the day after, we seemed to move from one meal to another. Still it was a fantastic time and I really enjoyed how many people I managed to catch up with after so long. We also managed to make it down to Cesky Krumlov and some of the other castles in this area, on our way to Austria. These places were spectacular and made the Czech border mountain ranges worthwhile.

Finally with only seven days left in our 100 day journey we climbed up to 1065m to cross the Austrian border. While this may seem like enough time to make it to Vienna, with snow falling around us in mid-October, it was not a moment too soon. So, with -5 degree nights we pushed on, being warmed by the natural beauty of the Danube as we rode down to Vienna. After a few more turns of the wheel we pulled into Vienna with four days to spare. These days were not wasted though and we enjoyed celebrating the 8,434km ride with a trip to the Opera and a feast of Vienna’s famous chocolate cake – the Sachertorte.

And thus with a last pull on the brakes, just like a first push of the pedals that started this journey, our cycle trip came to an end. As I look back on the event, I still can’t believe that it really happened. Each day seemed to have been its own event, full of wheels turning, sights and experiences. When I remember all of these moments the final goal seems like nothing more than another city on another day. As I look back I release that I did not ride for a final goal, I did not see amazing sights, after all that time sitting and thinking on a bike I did not even discover the meaning of life. Instead I experienced a little bit of the world in the most open and freest way possible, and in our current busy world that was truly magical.

Aaron Smith
Kissing Point Rover Crew