Rails to Trails: Bikepacking Finnish Lapland (Film)
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Rails to Trail is a new short film from Kona Bikes and Suunto that follows three friends on a winter fatbiking trip to the far reaches of northern Finland, well above the Arctic Circle. Watch it here, along with a story from one of the riders and a wonderful selection of wintry photos…
Seeking a quick winter getaway to reset their routines, and with the pandemic shutting down any possibility for a trip to ride somewhere warm, Finnish cyclists Antti Laiho, Erkki Punttila, Timo Veijalainen decided to embrace the season and head out on a unique fatbiking trip to Finnish Lapland, the country’s vast northernmost region and home of the Sámi people.
Hopping on an overnight train after work one Thursday last month, Antti and Erkki made the trip from Helsinki to meet Timo for a ride through Lapland’s rolling hills, pedaling their way toward a remote shelter where they could keep warm for the night. Along the way, filmmaker Joonas Vinnari captured the trio as they snaked their way through the enchanting, snow-covered landscapes. Watch the film below, followed by a written recap of their trip.
During this time of social distancing, we have been forced to change our ways of riding and adventuring. A winter riding camp somewhere warm, like Mallorca or Madeira, would have been the norm just a year ago. Not anymore! We had to look the other way for an adventure ride: to the cold, wild north.
So, on a Thursday afternoon this January, after finishing work, I jumped on my bike and rode to the central railway station in Helsinki to meet up with my friend and avid adventure cyclist Erkki Punttila. We were heading north to enjoy some of the epic winter cycling Finnish Lapland has to offer.
During recent years, several of the ski resorts up there have really started developing their winter cycling offerings. They have planned and created a comprehensive network of maintained winter cycling trails and gathered a complete fleet of rental fatbikes to get visitors out there.
Skis have always been the main way of exploring the vast wilderness areas of the north, and they are certainly still visible, but there are more and more people who travel to Lapland to do other activities. Cycling also allows non-skiers to explore the wintery landscape further. Non-skiers used to be limited to walking around with snowshoes and covering much less terrain.
And terrain is something Lapland has plenty of. Rolling hills, or fells as they are called, are the highpoints, but between the rises is square kilometer after square kilometer of flatland. This land is comprised of frozen wetlands, mires, and endless stretches of pine and spruce forests. The snow-covered trees create mythical snow ghosts and a unique atmosphere.
The remoteness is one of the reasons I love Lapland. There’s no rush and not many people. It is peaceful and quiet. Of course, the destination resorts are a bit of an exception, but even with those, there is room to roam.
The magic of the far north
After taking the overnight train to Rovaniemi, a city right at the edge of the Arctic Circle, we continued even further north to Kiilopää, past the 68th parallel. That is pretty far north, about 800 kilometers further north than Anchorage, Alaska, for reference.
Despite it being so far north, Finnish Lapland is not that cold. The Gulf Stream keeps temperatures in Northern Europe reasonable. However, one thing that remains special in all the Arctic regions is the amount of light. In the heart of winter, the sun doesn’t rise at all. In mid-summer, you’ll be enjoying the midnight sun.
But even the short winter days don’t make the days pitch black. The snow reflects the little light that is available and, especially when the weather is clear and the moon is up, it really isn’t so dark. The polar night landscape is painted in monotone colors. Whites and shades of gray with a bit of blue added in are all you see, until the sky clears and the aurora borealis start to dance up in the sky with the tones of green, blue, purple and even red. In the polar regions, the chance of seeing auroras is good. And to ensure you are out when something starts happening, you can download an aurora app with alerts to keep you informed.
In Kiilopää, we met with Timo Veijalainen, a Lapland native who simply loves riding in cold temperatures. Anyone who knows Timo knows that he is different: he would take cycling in -20°C weather anytime over a +20 °C cycling day! But that’s not all. Timo has also spent more time out in the wilderness planning, building, and maintaining the winter cycling routes than anyone in Finnish Lapland. Grooming the tracks with a snowmobile after – or sometimes during – snowstorms in the middle of the night is his business. We could not have asked for better companion to join us for the ride.
The trail network at Kiilopää connects with the trails of nearby Saariselkä. Some of the trails are within Urho Kekkonen National Park. The 2,550 square kilometer park is the second-largest protected area in Finland and has both wide-open fells that rise well above the treeline and ancient forests.
Most people at Kiilopää go on day rides from one village to another or to a wilderness cafe or a campfire site. We decided to head out for an overnight trip. Snowfall and wind had made the trail somewhat soft, but that’s part of the game. When fatbiking in snow, you’ll end up pushing your bike at some point. Luckily, there wasn’t too much of that this time.
A critical part of riding in snow is low tire pressure. Tires have to feel soft and should make a flat surface against the trail. This increases the surface area of the tire and allows the bike to float nicely without leaving tire marks. If the tires are too hard they’ll sink into the snow and break the trail surface. You may still manage to ride, but in the long run, tire tracks will ruin the fun for everyone.
Fatbiking isn’t a fast, aggressive type of cycling but rather soft, flowy, and smooth. The snow dampens the ride. There’s no bouncing and popping. It’s a way to enter the winter wonderland and enjoy nature.
Staying warm in minus 20
We were winding along the flowy trails and up and downhills. We had to cross a reindeer fence, but Rudolph and his crew were nowhere to be seen this time. Reindeer herding has a long tradition in the area and that tradition is still strong. Unlike most farm animals, reindeer are semi-wild, spending significant portions of their lives roaming the wilderness – as do the reindeer herders.
During the ride the temperature dropped to below -20°C. Minus 20º is cold, especially for the face, fingers, and toes. But it isn’t intolerable. With the right clothing and a bit of skill, riding in the cold can be an awesome experience. First of all, don’t wear so much clothing while riding that you start to sweat. After sweating, you’ll be cold for sure. Get good gloves or use pogies to keep your hands warm. Play as a team: keep an eye on your friends’ noses, ears, and cheeks, and tell them if you see any signs of frostbite.
It didn’t take long before the darkness fell and we needed to turn our lights on. Riding with lights in the snow is so much fun. The speed feels much faster with the darkness around you and the snowy landscape even more magical. You don’t even need a super bright light as the white surface reflects the light.
After some time pedaling, we arrived at Latvakuru hut for the night. Once we’d set up camp and ate dinner, there was plenty of time to stare at the fire, chat with one another, and recharge the batteries. We were in the right place at just the right time. And this time it was far away up north.