Norway’s most challenging cycle race

On the longest day of the year, some 5,000 cyclists assemble in Norway to take part in a gruelling endurance race. Two nights later, James Henderson and four friends are among the 1,500 to go the full 543km distance

A cyclist at the race’s highest point, just over 1,000m above sea level
A cyclist at the race’s highest point, just over 1,000m above sea level | Image: Styrkeprøven

Around new year, across the bars and other gathering places of Norway, a cry goes up. It starts as a rumbling, rises to a growl and erupts into a roar: “THIS… IS... THE… YEAR!”

The cry refers to Den Store Styrkeprøven – The Great Trial of Strength – a cycling race between Trondheim and Oslo, held in the middle of June. More than 5,000 people enter, around 1,500 of whom opt for the full distance, a hideously long 543km. It’s an exceptional challenge, something to tempt anyone with fire in their belly.

The cycling scene has changed completely since I first did this race 20 years ago. Then, it was clearly certifiable self-abuse. People would chuckle politely and edge away when I mentioned it. In the intervening years, the “mamil” – middle-aged man in Lycra – has come into existence and everything from nutrition to the equipment has become more technical. Den Store Styrkeprøven nonetheless remains an almost mystical challenge.

This year, the 50th anniversary of Den Store Styrkeprøven, the roar echoed across England too. A clutch of seven of us threw our hats in the ring. Emails began to fly. There was some attrition. In February one rider fell by the wayside and in March another noticed he was living in Australia. And then poor Willie got a case of labyrinthitis, making it impossible to balance on a bike. “What about a tricycle?” ventured his wife, inadvertently laying down a gauntlet. Ever one for a challenge, Willie took her at her word. He had no idea how painful it would be.

As I shared distances and form with the other four, I began to get alarmed. Rick represents Britain in triathlon for his age group; Wave competes in triathlons and Ironman competitions. They have coaches. Once upon a time, Bruce was a sprinter in the junior Olympic training squad. This left me, middle-aged man with a paunch, wondering if I had confused fire in the belly with indigestion. So I trained like mad, circling Richmond Park countless times until my trousers were hanging off me.

The contents of my trousers were also a cause for concern. When voiced, there was fruity rhyming reference to Chalfonts (St Giles). And sitting on a racing saddle for 540km can also result in genito-urinary “trauma”. It can take a while for normal service, so to speak, to resume.

We flew on a Thursday evening, climbing through clouds into the sunset, which we tracked along the horizon to Trondheim. Cyclists arrived all the next day. Posses of them rode around town, scooting past the pastel-coloured wooden buildings, stretching their legs before the off. It was clouded and cool, threatening rain, but we were told there might be a 10-knot tailwind. As we rebuilt our bikes, there was plenty of charged banter:

Wave, Rick, Bruce and the author at the start line in Trondheim
Wave, Rick, Bruce and the author at the start line in Trondheim

“My grandmother had a bike a bit like that, James…”

They love a bit of kit, these guys. Watts and power meters are the currency. I’m informed that an FTP is a Functional Threshold Power test and the 910 is a Garmin triathlon watch.

“My 910 says…”

“Sorry, mate, but according to my 920…”

There was an early wave of departures at 10.30pm. Among the crowd on Trondheim’s central square were six trainee officers on ex-military bikes, cycling in uniform and boots, and a man in a Day-Glo orange suit (supporting Dutch football, I think). And Willie with his three-wheeler, “Trikie”. There was an air of Norwegian nonchalance in the face of a vast challenge. These guys would be out there for 20 or 30 hours, nonstop, over two nights – though with no darkness in midsummer, it’s hard to distinguish night from day. The start line was busy again at 5am, as the club teams left, and then the rest of us departed, in groups of 80, at around 7am.

After a shout for the countdown, we’re off. We roll past Trondheim’s light industry, all garages and warehouses, into open fields. A river meanders and massive hillsides slide past. And then the rain comes crashing down.

Our main group splinters but the four of us stick together. Keeping up the pressure alone is brutal, so racing in company and chivvying one another along makes a big difference. Drafting too, which helps as much as 20 per cent.

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Unlike the étapes and Gran Fondo events available elsewhere, Den Store Styrkeprøven is more about endurance than hills. Actually, it has one hill, 915m of it, part of the Dovrefjell mountain range. Still, with a 100km approach, the gradient is mostly shallow. We track the river, glass-clear water boiling, tumbling and thrashing down towards us. We fly over a bridge, a waterfall one side and a 90m drop on the other, and reach high meadows where red and white barns stand dwarfed by the remorseless pine-covered mountain flanks and an occasional extrusion of granite. The tarmac stretches for miles and miles ahead in sinuous, mountainside curves, until the valley disappears into the distance.

Everyone has their rhythm on the slope and I get left behind as the others glide away. An hour later, I reach the high plateau – and ride straight into a ferocious wind. In the capricious manner of these races, the hoped-for tailwind becomes a 25kph headwind, grinding riders down to a snail’s pace. I struggle along at 10kph. This is hard, hard work. Post‑race, I discover everyone suffered up there.

But only 30 minutes later, back in our group and surfing a tailwind down a long valley in sunshine, our spirits are soaring. We fly along, past farms and holiday homes. For an hour we clock around 45kph.

“Cycling nirvana,” shouts Bruce.

Riding with triathletes feels a bit like being promoted unexpectedly to the A-team. The skills are better rehearsed and they behave like a team, too, shepherding me along when the going becomes hard (yes, that’s on any uphill slope). Everything’s also a bit harder and faster. It’s most painful on B roads, where the gradients are steeper. Occasionally, I get left behind. But then sometimes, I overtake them down the other side.

We stop at food stations, to replenish and stretch rather than rest, taking on energy drinks, sandwiches, sometimes soup, occasionally chocolate cake. And bananas (the organisers supplied 24,000 this year). I have never eaten so many. We meet Willie after 400km. But we must keep the pressure up, get back out there.

Another result of being in a good team is that people tag on to you. After each checkpoint, our small group grows a tail of four or five riders, mostly slipstreaming me. Fine, but I growl as I notice none of them shares the lead until, near my limits, Arvin, a German, introduces himself and announces he’ll blaze the trail.

Competitors cross a bridge, 300km still to go
Competitors cross a bridge, 300km still to go | Image: Styrkeprøven

In the dark and, blood sugar crashed, the mind plays tricks. Flashing red rear lights drill into my brain. Passing a pile of cut wood is like slamming into a sauna. I try to focus on one simple thing: keeping the pressure up.

At the penultimate checkpoint the group is waiting for me and we ride straight on. Immediately, exhaustion strikes. I pant, I grunt, but there’s nothing left. Every set of muscles is screaming – back, legs, shoulders, joints too. Any hill is torture. Suddenly, illogically, power returns. At 2am we flash through small towns under acid streetlights, encouraged momentarily by cheering staff pointing us on our way at the roundabouts. And I spot the countdown – signs announcing 50km to go, then 40, 30…

The final section into Oslo is merciless. At 3am, on a dedicated lane of what’s now become motorway, the headwind returns to tease us, along with a deluge of rain. We pass the six exhausted soldiers. Then there’s anticipation on the final, soaked descent into the northern suburbs. And four of us – Bruce is ahead somewhere, but Arvin is with us – scoot though tunnels and flyovers, past hoardings and into a massive sports arena. The finish! Twenty hours and 41 minutes.

We are catatonic, but spirits are high, and despite the exhaustion the banter returns, now slightly surreal. Rick announces that I must have won the “110kg category”. If I wanted to punch him, I can’t even move.

“My 910 nearly lasted all the way…”

“Sorry, mate, but my 920…”

Willie and his Trikie manage an estimable 33 hours. The poor man looks like a waxwork.

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We discuss the issue of “trauma”. The organisers tell me with a wry smile there are no “hard facts” on the subject. One of us volunteers: “Works fine, but it could have been anyone holding it.”

For days, my exhaustion is deeply ingrained. Sleep is furious, overheated. My thighs are in crisis, I am dehydrated and race food has terrorised my digestion. But then, the cry from the belly has been satisfied – for now.

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