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European Divide Tour

14 November 2023

Words & Photos: Hugh Malan

8 countries, 70 days, 6606 km on the European Divide Tour.

On 5 July 2023 I arrived in Grense Jakobselv, which is the godforsaken north-east corner of Norway, deep into the Arctic Circle, and right by the Russian border. The only things north of here are the Barents Sea and North Pole, a few endangered species and other people who have made questionable life choices.

It’s cold, it’s grey, it’s wet, it’s miserable. It’s accessible only by a gravel road that kicks up fine volcanic grit, which made my drivetrain sound like bolts in a blender. It is so close to the Russian border that there are signs warning that trying to cross the border, or communicate across the border will get you imprisoned, in three languages. Even taking photos in a threatening manner is illegal. And the Norwegian Army are here in force to ensure all those rules are followed.

The end. (GPS: 69.7902,30.7931)

Even the GPS says it’s time to turn around.

Nevertheless, it’s the triumphant end of a long solo ride from Cabo de São Vicente in Portugal, so let me try to a) make it look glamorous, exciting and Instagrammable and b) justify some of my choices here.

The plan was to ride the European Divide; it runs from the south-west corner of Spain to the far north-east end of Norway. It deliberately takes indirect routes which could be charitably described as 'scenic' or 'challenging' and uncharitably described as 'malicious' or 'nonexistent'. I’ll get to that.

The GPS track for the trip.

But I’d like to start with the reason for doing this, and after some long and thoughtful introspection, I’m not entirely sure. Midlife crisis? Overreaction to a dank Northern Hemisphere winter? Asked my wife if I could be two months late for dinner because of a cycle ride, and she called my bluff? All these things fit the facts. Maybe I should disentangle these issues with some professional help… but I had to take an awful lot of unpaid leave for this trip and can’t afford therapy, so I’m getting comfortable with it staying a mystery and maybe you should too.

Let’s back up a bit. The last section to Grense Jakobselv is a long, hilly grind in bad weather and it’s the natural conclusion of the last section of the trip through Finland and Norway that got increasingly windy, cold and mountainous. Which does mean 'spectacular' on good days, or if you’re not on a bike. This is troll country: sheer rock cliffs with epic curtains of cloud or fog blowing up them, long cold vistas with turbulent cloud ceilings, and there’s so much rain and sleet and damp that water will spontaneously condense out of the air, just from habit. The roads are narrow, with no space for cyclists, always steep, and there are not many of them. But they’re good, and there’s very little traffic.

Because the whole region is depressingly remote. It’s north of the Arctic Circle, which means the sun doesn’t even flirt with the horizon, it doesn’t even go near it. I was going up around midsummer and had been in 24 hour sunbathing-strength sunlight for the last week, since about Kalix in late June. At midnight in Kirkenes it was so light they didn’t even bother to put the streetlights on. Modern windows around there are complicated: triple glazing (for the winter cold), but they could be opened (for hot summer days), had thick blackout blinds (to block the midnight sun) and a mesh (to keep insects out).

The midnight sun in Solleftea. (GPS: 63.1600,17.2372)

So far north that moose are an actual problem. (GPS: 65.3973,21.4564)

Of course, weeks of continuous sunlight in summer means weeks of continuous darkness in winter. Full respect to the people who choose to live there, especially professional fishermen - but there are not many of them. Towns get smaller and further apart on the way north: the last town is Kirkenes, the one before that is Inari which is 200 km away and that was a very long day in the saddle.

The best sign of how much smaller the towns get, and how few people there are, is that there’s no transport. There’s a well-connected transport network across most of Europe: so if your bike or nerves fail, you can arrange the trip of shame back home. Not in northern Scandinavia: there are no train lines, no scheduled bus services. The only real option is to Make It Work, and go the rest of the way to Kirkenes where there is the only airport around.

Well, the last town before Inari is Ivalo, a few hours south, and I was a bit out of town when I noted a bit of a buzz from my back wheel. That’s normal, the drinks bag is roughly lashed onto the rack and sags onto the tyre at least once a day. Shoving it back into place fixes it. A minute later the buzz starts up again, which is very not normal: I haul in the brakes, get off the road and do a worried check of the whole back wheel. There’s good clearance around the rack, the bag and panniers, nothing seems to be touching the wheel… but unexplained vibrations like this are a silent alarm, broadcasting dread on a frequency only cyclists can hear. I roll the bike back and forth, and feel some friction. Some fine pressure applied to narrow down the angle reveals that the buzz is caused by the tyre brushing the frame, because the wheel is bent into a horribly twisted piece of modern art called, 'Take Me To My Favourite Shop And Make It Rain'.

What to do? Fortunately there is cellphone coverage so I could search Google Maps for 'bicycle repair shop': and while that search wasn't as high-stakes as, say, 'what to do when being hunted by a bear', it was still memorably intense. I found a place! But it was 40 km back in Saariselkä, and it closed in an hour and a half so it’d be a stretch to get there in time, even on a working bike. The obvious thing to do would be to go there and stay overnight. But since accommodation was so sparse around here I’d carefully booked it all in advance, including the flight out, with no rest days on the schedule. Despite my best efforts none of it was refundable. A day's delay means I’d lose it all.

Alternatively I could press on: that means another 60 km today, and 175 km to Kirkenes tomorrow with only Inari along the way. But that’s a very high stakes gamble with an untrustworthy wheel.

So it’s a horrible dilemma. But as usual with horrible dilemmas, there’s another better option that shows up with a bit of looking. A bit more roadside googling showed a camping store called Ivalon Eräsoppi 7 km back in Ivalo which has a 5 star review from someone who got their bike fixed there. That’s exactly my situation! Maybe they can help? If not, it’s also on the way to Saariselkä. So I ride over there gingerly, attuned to every little sound and vibration coming off the tyre, detouring around every bump. They're not really a bike repair shop, but they do have a bike mechanic. His diagnosis is that the wheel needs to be replaced, but there are no new wheels in town. The nearest place that has one is the shop Google found in Saariselkä, but they close in 30 minutes. That’s going to be a stretch… but I get a ride arranged and start moving as fast as good manners would allow. Got there a few minutes late - fortunately they were still open. Picked up a new wheel, then headed back to get the rim taped, tyre fitted, sealant in, and all the rest. Not so much time pressure now. It takes until 7pm to get it all sorted - but I’m back on the road. There are a few more hours of cycling and I don’t get in until 11 but I’m back on schedule. If I could leave a six star review, I’d do it.

Reindeer visiting town, this was just after my wheel was fixed. (GPS: 68.6559,27.5399)

That was quite the dramatic end to the Scandinavian section, but very out of character with the time leading up to it. Which was low drama, and filled with trees: because there’s over 100 billion - with a capital B - of them up here. So when the route’s out of town it’s mostly forest. But it’s commercial forest so every so often there are bare hillsides where they’ve all been cut down and the logs stacked up with barcodes for tracking. And in-between places where it’s been replanted. Wood production is a big thing here; IKEA was founded here and it’s easy to see why.

It’s also steep. On the west side of the country is the big mountain range; I was going up the east side specifically to avoid it, but that only makes it relatively flat. It’s usual to do a thousand metres of climbing each day. But despite all the hills and the climbing, the ever-present trees meant there usually wasn’t much of a view from the peaks.

It says “Reindeer burger, 23 euro”. (GPS: 67.4186,26.5883)

And this is the burger.

So most of June was spent following the white line on the right side of the road, going up hills, going down hills, surrounded by the trees... and cranking like a maniac to outrun the cloud of flesh-eating horseflies actively chasing me down.

Chasing, indeed. These things are basically a low-key Biblical plague: there’s an infinite number of the damn things, they’re relentless, and the flesh-eating thing is 100% actual fact. They were a deeply nasty surprise. I’d done some research on the wildlife, and the advice was: don’t worry about being eaten by bears, do worry about being eaten by mosquitoes. People had warned me that they got quite nasty up north; apparently you can even get beekeeper-style mesh head-coverings to keep them off. Well, they simply weren’t an issue - I can vaguely remember passing through a cloud of mosquitoes once or twice, and that’s it.

But the horseflies are pure evil. And feisty: I had one land on my cycling glove and bite me right through the fabric. They’re basically the same size and shape as wasps, and are usually found near roadside flowers where wasps also hang out. Which makes swatting them a risky move; it could be a wasp you’re batting around and that’s going to escalate things dangerously. I’d try to keep up a good pace to outrun them, which is upwards of 20 km/h, and they weren’t just keeping up, but swinging in to look for tasty places to land. They’re so big I could see their shadows on the road, and know for sure that there was a small cloud buzzing around in my wake.

When I stopped for a bite, they would too. I had to eat while walking in circles. So for most of Scandinavia I rode at top speed, and didn’t stop a moment longer than needed. They’re basically an unimaginative personification of time pressure. I probably would have taken an extra week if they hadn’t been there.

Actually, there’s one other malevolent experience, and that was Santa’s Village in Rovaniemi, Finland, right on the Arctic Circle. It’s a clutch of crass tourist traps. It is like Santa lore has been captured and flayed, the skin divided up, and each business is now wearing a piece, stretched so far the skeleton underneath is visible. It’s not pretty. Or deceptive.

'Mrs Santa’s Shop'. 'Santa’s Salmon Place'. Reindeer Rides. There's a building advertising 'Santa's Pizza & Burger', it has 'Santa's Special Meal' which is a burger and fries. 'Santa's Motor Park', with mini-skidoos and mini-quadbikes for children.

Nothing unexpected for world-weary grownups. But how does a Santa-believing 6 year old interpret these things? Do some have doubts? I imagine epic meltdowns, where a pre-teen suddenly glimpses the dead-eyed greed all around and starts denouncing all adults for propagating this flimsy and toxic fiction...

I didn’t see anything like that while I was there - but this was the off-season, no school holidays, so the visitors were almost exclusively grownups and the vibe was indulgent suspension of disbelief rather than active gaslighting. The anthropologist in me is interested to see how it looks in winter. But not interested enough to actually go back.

Visiting the Arctic Circle. (GPS: 66.54349,25.84719)

It’s for real; this is "Santa's Pizza & Burger". (GPS: 66.5441,25.8511)

Two malevolent things in a row; this is getting a bit mean. So here’s a neat thing that I haven’t seen anywhere else: unattended hotels. By this I mean, you arrive, get to your room, sleep, have breakfast, and leave without seeing any staff. This happened a few times, starting in Denmark. There’d be an email with the code to unlock the front door, the room number, the code to unlock the room or maybe an envelope with the room key. In the morning you provide your own breakfast, clean up the kitchen area, and get on the road. And it all worked, the rooms were clean, I didn’t have any need to ask anything of the staff. The mix of efficient, successful and slightly antisocial feels very on brand for Scandinavia.

But if Airbnb decides to try it themselves and sets it up elsewhere, I can see some Lord of the Flies situation developing, with people subletting their rooms for profit, holding roomkeys for ransom, extorting protection money for keeping stuff in the fridge.

Breakfast in Scandinavia (GPS: 64.5969,18.6784)

And lunch (GPS: 64.9446,19.1229)

Nevertheless: with all due respect to the lovely, kind and friendly people I met up there, it was harder work than the countries before. Take Denmark: three days of cycling, biggest complaints are headwinds and prices. Germany: good cyclepaths everywhere, regular towns, less hills - that headwind was still a problem though. France: boulangeries, and frankly that’s all that’s needed for the win, even considering the constant headwind.

Yeah, the headwind. It’s apparently called 'The Mistral'; it starts far out to the north and west, springing from an anticyclone up in the Bay of Biscay. The air flows south and east, a kilometer-high river of air steadily gathering speed and volume as it floods over central France to the Rhône Valley, where it’s funnelled and strengthened and shaped into a cold laminar blast. It’s an epic force of nature, forcing trees to grow slantwise, capable of clearing the sky of clouds in an hour.

Enough meteorological poetry. Down on the ground it’s a gritty 30 km/h gale, and cycling upwind is like swimming upstream - hard, slow, grinding work. All day. Every day. It roared south the whole time I was pushing north. Rides estimated at 7 hours were routinely taking over 10. I’m no stranger to headwinds - there’s a reason the Netherlands is known for its windmills - but this was a whole new level.

The forecast was routinely over 20 km/h, and there was at least one severe wind warning. I’ve got a screenshot from the Nimes-Montelimar section where it hit 39 km/h; I took a rest day afterwards out of sheer annoyance.

I’m not sure if it’s like this every year - but if you’re planning a trip in eastern France, definitely check if the Mistral is in the long-range forecast, and maybe go the other way.

If you’ve had days like this: you know.

1.6km long - it’s the longest bike tunnel in Europe. (GPS: 46.3899,4.6640)

Boat jousting! It is a legit historic French sport. (GPS: 43.3079,3.4954)

Just outside the Hemisfèric in Valencia. (GPS: 39.4562,-0.3543)

Going the other way would take you into Spain, rather than out of it like I did. Spain is, on the whole, a rather great place for cycling. It didn't have the headwind problems for the most part. What it had instead was a savage unseasonal heatwave. This gave me fear: the Spanish climbs are the longest and steepest and highest on the whole route. I’d been training in the flattest country in Europe, so I already had some doubts about climbs in general - and the shark-toothed 1500 m daily ascents in particular. But the main worry was that I’d done my training at the back end of a frosty Northern winter, in merino and gloves, and was now looking at three straight weeks of climbing in the hellish summer heat, with a blazing sun and no shade. Badly written cautionary tales start like this…

So I overcompensated and took about 10 kg of water every day, and drank it religiously. The sun and heat were about as bad as you might expect, but the lack of shade took some getting used to. When my water bottle got low I’d idly plan to stop under the next patch of shade to refill it - but although there were trees around, they didn’t cast much shade and weren’t near the road; and half an hour later, there still hadn’t been a good place to stop. Nevertheless, I had plenty of water and I was able to ride all through the day without problems.

Well, almost without problems. On about the second or third day I started having some serious and vivid cravings, specifically for Schweppes lemonade. Water didn’t seem to help. The cravings were so serious I willingly chose to take a 30 minute detour to a supermarket to get some. And it was so tasty I drank about a litre without stopping. This was a pretty clear sign that there was a problem.

But I'd figured out it was probably dehydration so in addition to the lemonade I'd picked up some Aquarius isotonic drinks. They're tooth-rottingly sweet but I found that if I cut them 50-50 with water they were just right. I went through a few litres every day, all the way across Spain.

That solved the cravings, and they also gave me an unholy reserve of stamina. I'd go up a hill, get to the top, and instead of coasting and taking a breather I'd vaguely think "I guess I can change up now", do so, and keep going with the same energy. It's an odd feeling, and not entirely pleasant; it made me think that there would be some corresponding downside I'd discover shortly. Possibly tooth decay?

This is what most of Spain was like - dry, dusty, steep - and hot. (GPS: 39.2547,-1.3276)

I met this hill on the first day; definitely the shape of things to come. (GPS: 37.0715,-8.8134)

This is one reason bikes haven’t caught on in Spain… (GPS: 39.1909,-1.4291)

I booked a cheap place to stay online, no hints that it was maybe also a museum. (GPS: 37.8796,-4.7789)

Now back to the first day and my departure from the precise European Divide. I started off following it exactly, but on that first day the route took me along some gravel singletrack into a downhill so steep I took a photo of it before heading down. This is not the first time I’ve made some choices I regret later… I’m getting better at seeing the signs, and one is: if the route is exciting enough to take a photo, it’s probably a bad idea.

Well, it was so steep I had to walk the bike down; the surface was so rough the bike would slide even with both brakes locked, and just staying upright was a challenge. By the time I hit the bottom I was regretting everything and ready to get back to a better route - but there was no cellular data connection. So I went on. The route led to an uphill slope so steep and so wild that it took a bit of map-checking to figure out that it was the way I was supposed to go, and not just another mountainside. It was so steep I couldn't actually stay on my feet, and definitely couldn’t push the bike: hands were required to get up it. "Maybe this is the worst part, at the top the route would be flat and reconnect with the main road?" Very wishful thinking, but I figured I’d go up and have a look; so I unhooked a pannier to take with me and scrambled up. There was a great view from the top, but the route disappeared over a small hill and it wasn’t clear if there would be other climbs like this… getting the bike and the rest of the gear up was going to need a few difficult trips, it was 1830, the sun set in 2 hours and there were 3 hours to go. I’d been cycling since 1300, and my day started before 0300 so I didn’t have much appetite left for adventure.

So that's the point I stopped following the European Divide route precisely. I could see an asphalt access road leading out, so I went back down, grimly saddled up, and took it. Once I had cellphone coverage again I poked the cycle route app to give me the fastest way to the day's destination. It thought 2.5 hours, not much improvement, but it meant I could get there while it was still twilight if I hustled - though if there was more rugged singletrack I’d probably be sleeping out here. The first hour was asphalt but after that it switched to steep gravel backroads, and despite pushing hard and there being no singletrack, I was losing the race with the sun.

The estimate ended up being woefully optimistic. Later I figured out that the app thought a lot of the roads were asphalt when in reality they were actually gravel, which delivered wildly low time estimates. The sun set while I was in the hills and still a long way from town. This far south the sun sets definitively: it quickly went from golden hour to twilight to blue hour to just plain black. I ended up having to navigate some feral backroads through forests by the light of a dim half-moon since my headlight was near death and could only manage a few feeble candlepower. The final section was zigzagging down through a Portuguese village on a ferociously steep hillside, back brake locked, no streetlights or signs. I finally got to the hostel around 2130, which was a 'result', but I was so keen to not repeat the experience I made boring safe choices for a whole week afterwards.

It’s a photo of the route. But mostly a moment to learn from. (GPS: 37.1092,-8.9338)

My bikebox is on the left, waiting to be loaded onto the flight out of Schipol. (GPS: 52.3095,4.7724)

Which is a bit of an overlong explanation as to why I wasn’t exactly following the European Divide. One of the other cyclists I met had started off following it precisely - including the hellclimb! Henri, I salute you. But then he switched to a more jazzy interpretation like I did. Henri described his ride as The European Divide Tour so I'm doing that too.

So that’s how things started. And we’ve already covered how things ended, so I guess that’s the whole story. As a cycle route I’d rate Europe 11/10. I would 'Divide' it again… but not anytime soon; 120 km days with a thousand metres of climbing don’t have the same appeal they once did. For now, I’m pretty happy just cycling to the supermarket. Which is very close, and on the flat.