Just days before the world came to a screeching halt in March of 2020, I was in Greenland attempting to fat bike the Arctic Circle Trail. At least, that had been the plan — a plan two years in the making with hours spent researching the route and logistics, not to mention training. Unfortunately, when my riding partner and I landed in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, it was -53ºF (-47.2ºC) — about 40ºF colder than we’d prepared for based on the ten years of weather data we looked at.
The forecast was grim. We opted to pull the plug on the ride before we even began, something we knew was a possibility while planning but hoped wouldn’t become reality. While we still filled our time dogsledding and snowmobiling, we couldn’t help returning home with pangs of regret and disappointment.
Upon our return to Minneapolis… well, you know what happened: COVID-19 shuttered life as we knew it. Then a social uprising started. Then the pandemic hit a second wave, then a third, and so on. Through all of that, getting out for regular rides kept getting pushed to the backburner and I watched as all the fitness I’d earned leading up to the Greenland trip withered away.
Fast forward to late summer 2021. My fitness was next to none and I’d barely done a ride over 25 miles in the past year or so. Try as I might, I just couldn’t find the motivation to get out and ride. I decided to get my ass in gear and plan something that would hopefully motivate me while offering a little bit of redemption for the Greenland trip.
So I planned a solo bike tour for the fall. I requested a week off work at the end of October and started planning a route. I knew I wanted to be out for 4 or 5 days and ride about 40–50 miles a day. I figured that even though I was out of shape, I could handle those distances with the right route.
In planning my route, I decided to stick with roads and trails that I knew like the back of my hand, that I’d ridden plenty of times in the past. The reason was two-fold. First, I wanted to enjoy the scenery and take in the beauty of the ride without having my face buried in my GPS the whole time awaiting my next turn. And the other was that I wanted to be able to change course on the fly without much hassle if I found that my body couldn’t handle the mileage after all.
My route was set and I had about two months to get reacquainted with my touring bike on some training rides. Of course, life got in the way of that. I got busy with work, I started to feel comfortable seeing friends more often and going to shows again. Life was picking back up after a year and a half and it felt great. But it didn’t do much for my training schedule.
The week of my departure arrived and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about the tour. My fitness wasn’t where I was hoping it would be and the forecast was looking like windy days and frigid nights hovering around freezing. But hey, at least it wasn’t -52!
I set out on day one and felt pretty good. I felt great actually and was shocked at how quickly my body settled into the familiar rhythm that was absent for so many months. The miles ticked by and my first night’s campsite crept ever closer. With 15 miles to go, I had to channel my inner Kate Bush and make a deal with god about halfway up a challenging climb. I’d been expecting to walk up a hill or two on this route though and gave myself some leniency.
At my last opportunity for civilization, I grabbed a few beers and some cheese curds to enjoy while I set up camp. I got to camp well before I’d expected to and was feeling optimistic about my ability to finish the rest of the route.
And then the cold of the night set in.
Wearing just about every stitch of clothing I had with me, I huddled close to the campfire and read for as long as I could before retiring to my sleeping bag. (A word to the wise, when on a late-season solo tour, don’t bring The Shining as your only reading material.) When I finally zipped myself in for the night, sleep came in fits and starts. Despite multiple layers and a 15-degree bag, the cold was winning its battle with my rest.
Before I could even open my eyes in the morning, I heard the wind howling outside and felt the fire of the previous day’s miles burning hot in my legs. The day ahead was 55 mostly flat miles but the wind would make even the slightest incline could feel like the alps. The way I saw it, I had three options. I could attempt the planned mileage for the day and hope for the best, I could head for home, or I could ride a more manageable and chill 25 miles to another state park and ride the 42 miles home the following day.
After doing some quick mileage math, I opted for the latter option. That way, I’d still get a total of three days of riding and two nights camping for the trip. Plus, it would allow me a chance to actually enjoy my time on the bike rather than begrudgingly grit my teeth through it, further driving a wedge between me and my motivation to ride.
I ate breakfast, broke camp, and headed in the opposite direction from what my GPS told me. Good thing I planned the route on roads I knew and could make on-the-fly changes.
The wind was aggressive but eventually, I made it the 25 miles to my destination. Since it was still fairly early, I took my time eating and sipping while reading in the warmth of a Wisconsin dive bar about a mile down the road from my night’s state park accommodations. I slow-rolled to the park, set up camp, and got a fire going, content in my decision to cut the tour down by a couple of days. It was a few degrees warmer than the previous night so I even got a more restful night’s sleep before pointing towards home the next morning.
My third day of riding was uneventful, albeit slow. I could feel every single mile of the previous two days as I trudged my way back to Minneapolis, further proof that I’d made the right call in allowing some flexibility in my route. As I got closer and crested a hill, the city’s skyline suddenly appeared, welcoming me home a couple of days earlier than expected.
So did I get redemption for my lost Greenland trip? Not exactly. But I’m not entirely sure I need it anymore, at least not in the way I thought I did. I’ve come to realize that most bike tours don’t go as planned. Reroutes happen. Weather happens. Sometimes extremely dangerous cold temps that derail your entire ride happen. And all of that is ok and makes the time spent riding that much more meaningful.
Words and photos by Joel Swenson - a Minneapolis-based writer and former bike racer who now opts for rides that don’t elevate his heart rate quite as much. When not writing or riding, you’ll probably find him cooking, reading, buying records he’ll probably never listen to, or relaxing with a beer in hand and cat on lap.