Northcape 4000: A Journey to the End of Europe
Sophie Gateau spent more than three weeks navigating the unknown as she rode from Italy and into the northernmost expanses of Europe in this year’s Northcape 4000. Read on for her story of pedaling through the wild and wonderful, plus a collection of uniquely beautiful photos…
Words and photos by Sophie Gateau (@sofigato)
It all started with a story of mutts. A panicked fear of packs of stray dogs in the Balkans—biting the calves of cyclists who dare pass in front of their muzzles—convinced me to register for the Northcape 4000 instead of the Transcontinental Race. The ferocious beasts I’d face would be reindeer, not wild canines, during my self-sustained 2,800-mile adventure connecting Torino in Italy to North Cape in Norway following a fixed route.
July 27, 8:00 AM. Torino, Italy. We’re 141 eager cyclists, a motley mix of long-distance experts and newbies like me and my friend Myriam. An untimely puncture 100 meters after the start and we will hardly see anyone again. The leaders of the race will ride nearly 250 miles per day. We’ll stick to a more modest 130. Our humble goal is merely to reach the end.
We quietly conquer the first 1,250 miles, spread out as they are between Italy and Denmark with two mandatory checkpoints: Strasbourg in France and Bastogne in Belgium. The highlight of these festivities is an epic arrival at the top of the Great St. Bernard Pass. There, we have to walk the final 20 meters because the wind nearly blows us off our bikes. The subsequent descent into the clouds, the crossing of the Jura Mountains via a crowded pass that I soon hope to forget, and the rugged and beautiful course of the classic Ardennes Liège-Bastogne-Liège, also known as “The Green Hell.” Adding a classic as a short interlude in the whole parcours helps give a sense of perspective to the challenge. It’s longer that most, to say the least.
The landscapes change quickly. The hills disappear, leaving the flat fields free to the advances of the western wind. Dutch brick houses dot the horizon, their flowery gardens and lawns mowed with precision, then to the endless German and Danish agricultural plains where wild animals frolic. In Denmark, villages—between rows of Christmas trees and lowland fields of cereal crops—are fewer and fewer and smaller and smaller. Oddly, there’s rarely a supermarket but always a hairdresser. Priorities.
The routine of the ride is firmly installed by now. Ride, find a coffee, ride, find something to eat, ride, look for a place to sleep. Simple. The big winner for one night’s sleep is the sandbox under the pirate ship in a children’s playground. It deserves a four-star ranking in the guide to the best roadside bivouac spots. Our routine is set to repeat, ten days in a row.
Your relationship with time evolves when you spend hours after hours on the bike. A day seems to pass extremely quickly, but there’s so much going on that it also comes with a sense of eternity. Our routine is well established but fragile. It’s constantly being adapted due to unexpected events: an unplanned meeting with a Dutch dot watcher who offers us something to drink; a friend from Strasbourg who rode a few kilometers with us; the loss of a bivy bag that rendered the future of the adventure uncertain; mechanical problems that lengthened the days. Days blend together, my only reference point is on which day supermarkets are closed.
August 7, 6:30 PM. Oslo, Norway. Crossing the Skagerrak Strait allows us to rest for nine hours. Myriam decides to stop there and I’ll continue solo. More than half of the participants have already scratched. Buck up, old chum! I hit the road right away. I know if I spend the night in the comforts of the city, leaving will be harder. I don’t know what to expect beyond the certainty that the weather will deteriorate and the distances between the villages will lengthen. Drastically. Riding alone doesn’t frighten me; quite the opposite. The time, distance, and fatigue will now be managed on my own terms.
Into the unknown. Scandinavia is a new playground and I don’t yet know its rules. Having brought only a simple bivvy bag in place of a tent, places to camp become difficult to find. With the cold and humidity settled in, camp placement becomes an important part of my strategy. An attempt to sleep on the side of a Swedish lake infested with mosquitoes proves quite catastrophic. The silver lining: it provided the nicest and most improbable meeting with Marine, a Parisian hiker on vacation who took pity on my forlorn, soaked state and feed me a warm meal. She promised to follow my journey to the end by dot watching. Motivation levels were reset to 1,000!
After a quick traverse of Norway, I enter Sweden—an entirely different story. The crossing of the country is nearly 560 miles long. Everywhere I look I find wild nature, fir and birch forests, colorful wooden houses, and pink, mauve, white, and yellow flowers growing randomly along the road. It felt almost like riding through the set of a film by Ingmar Bergman. And I meet my first reindeer. Turns out they don’t bite.
Villages are a scarce commodity. No more improvisation. I must now plan the details from one day to the next, such as where to find food and sleep, because the resupply locations are sometimes spaced more than 60 miles apart. Most of the time I end up in a gas station that offers coffee, hotdogs, licorice candies, and fishing tackle. The region is full of campsites, most often cute little wooden cabins with all the modern comforts. That is to say, a heater, immediately transformed into a dryer for rain soaked kit, and a kettle. They’re my godsend. It takes little for me to be happy.
I cross the Arctic Circle. Admittedly, I didn’t research the geography of this part of the parcours and find myself in the middle of a desolate plateau. It’s as surprising as it is challenging. There is only one road, shared by motorcycles, cars, double-trailer trucks, and me. I spent almost 250 miles on this axis, balanced on a 10-centimeter ribbon between the white line and the gravel at the side of the road. Teeth gritted, music turned up, and turbo mode engaged to finish as soon as possible.
Back in Norway, the beauty of the landscape, the respect of the drivers towards the cyclists, and the many messages of encouragement from my buddies motivate me again. Too much euphoria and along comes my first mistake. I aim for a long day and a sleepless night to catch the early morning ferry some 200 miles away. But I’ve been on the road for 17 days and at 11:00 PM, exhausted, I stop and settle into a bus shelter. To avoid getting out all the bivouac equipment, I give it a try with only my bivvy bag and a survival blanket, despite the cold night. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t go well. I leave at 3:00 AM and it’s already daylight. I have hardly slept, but I tell myself that the boat will give me the opportunity.
Second mistake: I neglect to take a proper look at the map. There are only 60 miles remaining, but there’s a mountain in the middle. An icy rain comes in a deluge during the ascent. There is no shelter. In the middle of this misery comes a magic moment when an elk emerges from the fog in front of me. Even so, I start falling asleep on my bike. Although I wear all the clothes I have, I’m frozen and my feet and hands are soaked. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I take a 10-minute nap in the Norwegian drizzle and wrap my survival blanket under my waterproof jacket. It’s my a silver, gold, and yellow armour that will get me to Bodø harbor. Back on the bike and I arrive at my destination around 1:00 PM. I book a hotel and go directly to bed. The boat can wait half a day.
The next morning I land on the Lofoten Islands, just before the start of the Artic Race of Norway, the UCI Continental Race for pros. The roads are blocked, except for bikes, and roadside supporters wonder what I’m doing there, two hours before the peloton. The landscapes are breathtaking, the vegetation is luxuriant, the fishing villages are traditional, and the sun is back. The upcoming final 600 miles are promising. Yet the day on the bike will be short as my friend Guillaume, who works on the race, offers me a bed and a hot meal. It’s an offer I can’t refuse, and that’s how I find myself watching Van Der Poel’s stage victory on a giant screen in the central square of the small town of Svolvær, surrounded by other cycling fans.
I pass through the Troms area—somehow even more majestic than Lofoten—with its spectacular fjords surrounded by snow-capped peaks. Reindeer are everywhere, gray wagtails swirl in front of my wheel, and the roads are empty. The pleasure of riding a bike is concentrated in these few moments. I experience the Venturi effect on a monumental scale. The topography of the fjords suddenly heightens the force of the wind, which stops immediately once these glacial valleys are bypassed. The weather changes extremely fast. Rain, sun, cold, hot. Everything evolves in a few minutes.
But the end of the adventure approaches. I enter the austere region of Finnmark and its arid tundra of stones, moss, and small, crooked trees. The only people I meet are the employees of the few gas stations and some cycle tourists. Our roads all converge on the North Cape, a symbolic magnet.
The last of the countless tunnels crossed is in front of me, and this one is somewhat out of the ordinary. It’s 4.3 miles dug under the sea, in the obscurity, with a descent followed by a 9% climb out to reach the island of Magerøya. I feel as if I am entering the darkness. The temperature drops to 30 degrees Fahrenheit in five minutes and the water flowing on the interior walls is frozen. Let’s get out of here as soon as possible.
After a short night in Honningsvåg, the northernmost city in the world, I leave at dawn to enjoy the last 20 miles alone. The journey is crazy. The harsh landscape is hilly, the wind is icy, and clouds rise along the cliffs. Emotion grips me as I see the North Cape building in the distance. It’s August 21st, the sun is rising, and have reached the end of Europe.
Torino – NorthCape / 4,631 km / 40,754 meters of climbing / 24 days, 22 hours, 42 minutes
About Sophie Gateau
Sophie Gateau is a filmmaker and photographer based in Paris, France. She’s also the co-founder of the bike agenda and newsletter La Map (sorry, it’s in French) and member of the organisation team Classics Challenge. You can find her on Instagram @sofigato and on her website, SophieGateau.com.