Head Rpm90 Super Domestique, Jo Burt talks about riding on our Finland Tour of the South West
What you get most of in Finland is space.
It’s not necessarily a big country, it’s only a little larger than the UK but it has 60 million fewer people living in it, the entire population is less than that of London. There’s a lot of room to move about in and you can feel it. This is a little odd as you’re always within sight of human influence; be that a house or a barn, or you’re riding alongside a large tidily cultivated field, a kind of vast empty safe solitude. Maybe it’s the noticeable lack of people, or the size of the sky, or the thick silence or the endless swathes of trees (about 70% of Finland is covered by forest), maybe it’s all of these but it feels endlessly spacious, you’re aware of how small you are, and you get the inkling that you could pedal your bike forever.
Riding abroad always brings with it its little differences, some of which are welcome, some charming, others might be an interesting reflection on how things could be done a different way to what’s your normal, and if you’re used to riding anywhere in Europe Finland will nudge those slightly nuanced distinctions a smidgen further. As it sits in the top right corner of the map of Europe and adjacent to the vast mass of land that is Russia and all points east it’s both very familiar but also just different enough to be tricky to put your finger on how exactly. Again, something you can feel but aren’t sure why. The language is one of the most difficult to learn for English speakers so this helps to put a sheen of otherness on the relative day-to-dayness, it’s all quite the same and yet not. And because of where it lies it would be easy to hop over the border and ride your bike forever, which gives the place a huge sense of possibility.
The biking is also just a little bit different as well, while this southernmost part of the country may not be the hilliest ground you’ll ever cross the constant up and down of the terrain all add up to something and the extra strains and effort that gravel riding puts on the body makes sure that you know you’ve put a solid day in the saddle when the sun goes down. If you’re used to the scruffy bits of off-road that pass for gravel in your part of the world that need linking up with sections of tarmac to constitute a decent ride then you’re in for treat with the lengthy stretches of off-road that criss-cross this area of Finland. Whilst we might revere this kind of rough surface as something special and a giggly challenge to ride bikes along the locals use the gravel just like ordinary roads and as an everyday way to get around the place so it’s totally normal to encounter a family car clattering across the stutter bumps whilst you’re thinking you’re all rufty-tufty. There’s a reason the country produces good rally drivers.
Most cycling holidays typically involve a tedious transfer of a couple of hours to take you to your jump off point for the trip, but not here. A brief shuttle bus hop to an airport hotel, building the bike in the room and heading off from the foyer after breakfast makes the trip something special. That different thing again. There’s no helicoptering in straight to the nice bits but having to pedal through whatever mundane suburbia and scruffy industrial estates sit between you, the countryside and where you want to be. A slow-release into the empty space, and reversing the process over the last few kilometres to get gently reassimilated.
Combine this with carrying all the stuff you’ll need for the next few days on the bike and there’s a tremendous feeling of self-sufficiency. With no support van and no pre-booked stops for lunch the ride lives off the land and has to rely on whatever is available along the way. This brings with it specific challenges as the combination of the sparsity of people and cultural differences mean that there’s not a chain coffee shop or burger joint or petrol station on every corner to pick up mid-ride snacks like you might be accustomed to. There’s a steep learning curve of remembering to stock up whenever and wherever provisions present themselves because there might be a lot of emptiness before you have another opportunity. You also have to learn to adapt to whatever food is available when it presents itself, which is another chance for Finland to be the same but just a little bit different as the food looks familiar but what’s inside can be a little bit of a surprise. But that’s all part of the adventure.
Jo Burt lives in Sussex UK and is the author of Longer Rides, available at rapha.cc