The Story

In August 2013 the biggest mountain bike race in the world, The Birken, drew two Englishmen to Norway. The race was completed and they both were left in awe of the organisation and scale of the Birken event.

The Birken bike race is the summer cousin to the original winter ski event. Not long after returning to the UK a plan to return was hatched but this time not on 2 wheels but on skis. Apart from the obvious challenge of the 54km of cut cross country ski tracks which make up the Birken race there was another more pressing issue... neither of the mountain bikers had ever cross country skied.

Can two absolute novice skiers learn to master the technique of cross country skiing in time to complete the Birken Ski Marathon by March 2014 ? well there is only one way to find out ... the Zero to Hero challenge was born.

Saturday 22 March 2014

Tough Times and Law 3.8 (a)

So race weekend came around and knowing no more training could be done we headed off to Oslo on a morning flight from Manchester. On arrival and having met up with a couple other journalists we headed up to Rena with Jean-Francois at the wheel.

As the race starts near Rena it made sense to stay there, so having picked up race numbers at the event HQ, we headed up the valley to a large farmhouse  hotel - Søndre Løsset    A stunning and expansive farmhouse from where 9000 hectares of forest are managed. We enjoyed a remarkable meal, the very best Norwegian cuisine really is world class.

                                         One of out buildings at Søndre Løsset

Friday brought the opportunity to stretch the legs and get used to XC skies as opposed to roller skis, so we headed out and covered a steady 10km on the course which was being used for the leisure and relay events. These Friday events are an opportunity for those wishing to complete the course in a more relaxed, and less competitive atmosphere or do it as a relay with a team of four. This latter option is often used for Norwegian business’s for team building and interdepartmental competition.

                                         Paul stretching his legs above Rena

                                          Racers in the relay event.

After another fine dinner at Søndre Løsset we were given the opportunity by owner Per to take a look at two power stations he has on his land. One built in 2000 as his ‘millennium project’ and one built by one of his relatives over a hundred years ago. The latter is one of the few remaining hydro electric generators of that period - and really is a feat of engineering.

                                         A fully functioning 100+ year old hydroelectric generator !

One final job before bed was the ski prep. - and as ever Jean Francois did us proud, with fresh glide wax and some base prep / grip wax applied with the plan to leave the coating until the morning when we knew exactly what conditions would be. Cross country waxing really is a dark art.

                                                           Jean-Francois box of Swix tricks.

                                          The race ready Madshus

As snow fell it was then time our save our power for Saturdays race.

It was still dark when the alarms went and on opening the curtains we were greeted with an inch of fresh snow a largely clear sky - although some clouds could be seen moving rapidly in the pre dawn light. After a fine breakfast of porridge, bacon and egg and coffee we began to load the van. After skiing to Lillehammer we would be in a different bed.

Just before leaving Per commented on it looking like it could be windy out on the course.

At the start above Rena there was a hive of activity. With the best part of 17000 racers starting to roll up, get ready, and ski to Lillehammer. Anticipation was in the air. The sky was blue. The snow was fresh.

But the wind was blowing, and blowing strongly - especially on the most exposed parts of the course.

So much so that with a windchill in the region of -30 C the decision was taken to cancel the race.
Now as any Englishmen will tell you, especially in the summer, it’s not uncommon for rain to stop play or cause the cancellation of a cricket match.....

The Laws of Cricket -

Law 3.8 (a) states 'It is solely for the umpires together to decide whether either:
‘conditions of ground, weather or light or: exceptional circumstances mean that it would be
dangerous or unreasonable for play to take place'.

But it came as a shock to everyone that for the first time in its 77 year history the Birkebeinerrennet would be cancelled before a skier had had a chance to kick’n glide away from the start. ( In 2007 the race was abandoned after the first three waves of skiers had started.)

Everyone was left feeling pretty hollow, but being or becoming a ‘Birkebeiner’ is a tough challenge.

                                                     Birkebeinerrennet is for the tough and gnarly

And there is nothing tougher than having to make the call to cancel the race, and with 17000 people ranging from 16 years old to 70+ taking part there was a risk of things turning ugly and that one or more people could find themselves in life threatening circumstances.

The game was over.

                                         Finish line at Lillehammer Stadium

To salvage the day we skied the tracks around the Olympic stadium and crossed what would have been the finish line. Some more experienced skiers had headed over the course from Rena and the general feedback was that it was pretty grim conditions and that is had been a sensible decision to call the race off. Lets face it Norwegians know a thing or two about bad winter weather.

To round the weekend off we headed out for a Sunday ski with new friends Torbjørn and Dise, and instead of heading up to our usual training grounds at Sjusjøen opted for the tracks around Nordseter followed by hot chocolate and waffles.

So while it was a big disappointment not to race in 2014 it’s been a great experience, becoming familiar with cross country skiing, cementing friendships and making new friends. Which is what sport is all about - having great experiences and making friends.

So a huge thanks to everyone who has helped us and roll on Birkebeinerrennet 2015.

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Happy Mondays - a perfect start to any week.

Zero to Hero ( Part 2 ) from Henry Iddon on Vimeo.

Short video of our second and final training camp on snow. After two days poor weather we had perfect conditions - Norway at it's best? Probably !

Friday 21 February 2014

Peak of the Week (end)

After a challenging first day back on Norwegian snow we were hoping for an easier second day ... unfortunately like the Norwegian National XC Ski Team our tough times were not over on day one.

 Norwegian media had  a field day questioning why there was a lack of medals in XC skiing at Sochi.
Sunday morning greeted us with more of the same weather that had proved so challenging the previous day.  With limited time on our hands we affixed the British stiff upper lip and got back out in the snow.

                                           Lillehammer XC Stadium in heavy snow.

The days plan was to head back to the Olympic stadium just above Lillehammer for an hour or so in the morning then to head to Sjusjøen in the afternoon, where we hope a greater altitude would give us colder temperatures and better performing ski conditions.

As the day before no combination of wax gave us the grip / glide performance we had seen in perfect snow back in November.  The skis would glide with no grip or grip with no glide ... better to suffer these conditions now than on race day we hoped.
After an hour at the stadium and a lunch watching another Norwegian ski relay defeat we headed to Sjusjøen.  Conditions were poor with very limited visibility and the same issues with the skis.

                                         A near white out at Sjusjøen.

To make matters worse after stopping for a chat I pushed off but instead of gliding forward I simply pushed myself over forward to the sickening sound of an expensive SWIX pole snapping :(

                                         Well over 2m of snow at Sjusjøen - covering huts !

We continued to rack up a daily total of 24km ...

An evening of good food and wine with Torbjøen and partner Dise was reward for our toil in poor conditions.

All along all hopes had been pinned on Monday being a fantastic day ... in cross country ski terms that is blue skies and -5 to -10 temperatures ... Monday did not disappoint !

                                         Blue sky and freshly groomed tracks

Monday was a real test for myself and Henry as it would be the first time we were out on the tracks unsupervised, not only this but the days plan was to tackle the final descent form Sjusjøen to Lillehammer, the steepest part of the course !

The day was fantastic ... we had grip, glide and phenomenal views across the snow covered slopes with there heavily snow capped trees.  We headed back up the Birken course for 5km before we turned to make our way to Lillehammer.

Straight away as we left Sjusjøen the track got steep and luckily today my snowplough had returned so when Henry switched in to speed ski mode I maintained a more controlled approach and ploughed my way down the steeper part of the slopes.

As the skiing was pretty relaxed we subconsciously took a decision for more climbing and took a wrong turn as we neared the stadium at Lillehammer.  What should of been a gently rolling descent turned in to a roller coaster as we herringboned up some pretty steep slopes to be faced with, at one point, what looked like a ski jump we had to descend.

Arriving at the stadium, with another 25+km's under our belt, I think we were both now much more comfortable with completing the full course though come race day I am sure nerves will prevail.

                                         Recovery treat time at the stadium.

Bring on the Birken !!

                                          Heading home.

Huge thanks again to Jean Francois who though injured still orchestrated our whole training weekend and put us in touch with the excellent Torbjøen and Dise.  Thanks also to Jon from the Birken organisation for driving us on the Monday so we didn't have to face a large climb back to Sjusjøen.

Saturday 15 February 2014

Tough Day for Norway

So we're back in Norway for some on snow training - after flying in and picking up the Benz we headed up to Lillehammer.

The weekend was set to be a big one for Norwegian XC skiing - with the relay events taking place in Sochi and National pride at stake !  It was also an important one for us as we needed some time on snow.

As if the challenge of limited time on snow wasn't enough our mentor Jean Francois had sustained a skiing injury the week prior to our arrival.  Jean Francois was able to draft in a substitute ... Torbjøen ... a multi time Birken finisher and wax guru.

The forecast was for high wind, fresh snow and temperatures around or just above freezing - the most challenging conditions for XC ski waxing. We headed up to the Lillehammer XC stadium, home for events at the 1994 Olympics,  to get some sheltered skiing.

After prepping the skis headed out on the trail. As the wind buffeted us and big flakes of 'wet' snow fell obliterating the freshly cut tracks it soon became apparent that we'd got the waxing wrong. And so had virtually everyone else we spoke to.  Instead of trying fix things on location it was decided that we head back to Torbøen's house (His house was part of the athletes village for Lillehammer 1994 winter games) for some early lunch, watch the women's Olympic relay and get the ski prep dialed.

A great race was won by Sweden with Norway having a tech disaster, getting their ski prep wrong - finishing 5th. The TV pundits were having a field day blaming wax and skis.

With our skis getting the relevant treatment on the bench we headed out for a challenging 18km circuit - fresh snow around or just above freezing, still strong winds and so much snow the tracks were getting covered. By all accounts is was as tough as conditions can get.

Next up a shower and more tmrw

Monday 20 January 2014

North Sea training camp

One of the key aims of this whole project was to look at how individuals without access to perfectly groomed slopes and tracks can train to complete an event like the Birken ... at the moment though my current situation is testing the limits of adaption.

As a geotechnical engineer I work in predominantly offshore renewables so every now and then I have to supervise site works... and as the job description suggests those sites are in the sea.

Since the start of January whilst Henry has been terrorising the pensioners on Blackpool Prom I have been working nocturnal shifts on a drill vessel in the North Sea.

Home sweet home ...

My ability to train has improved somewhat with the delivery to the vessel a week or so back of some new gym equipment so when time and tiredness allows at least now I can spin my legs for a while.  The laptop is a useful distraction from the shelves of oven cleaner, washing up liquid and large freezers :)

Looking forward to getting home in a week or so and tackling the roller skis before out next Norwegian training session .. I feel at the moment I have a lot of work ahead of me.

Saturday 4 January 2014

Seasonal RollerCoaster

Two weeks after training on snow in Norway there was a real need to keep the ball rolling, or kicking and gliding as the case may be.

Now as a cyclist it’s handy to be an hour from Manchester Velodrome, and I have great road riding on my doorstep in North Lancashire. If I want to get out in the hills hiking it’s only an hour to the Lake District, and several hours to the Highlands of Scotland. However the problem I now face is I live nowhere near regular snow. Specifically cut tracks for cross country skiing! Snow in the United Kingdom is a fickle thing, especially at low altitudes and on terrain suitable for cross-country skiing.

One fortunate thing is I live only a mile from the coast and a traffic free promenade that stretches for over 10 miles - perfect for roller skiing. So in mid December Jean-Francois flew in, like Santa, from Norway bringing with him Pro Ski roller skis , Madshus boots and Swix poles (as well as some rather nice looking Madshus Nanosonic Skis should the opportunity arise to get on snow before our next visit to Norway).

With the reindeer taking a rest before Christmas I picked JF up at Manchester Airport, where under a leaden sky and steady rain we loaded the car and headed up to the Fylde Coast, and Blackpool  - one of if not the most famous seaside holiday location in the UK complete with it’s Tower and 3 piers.

After the inevitable ‘chippy’ lunch washed down with a mug of tea we headed off to recce out a suitable area of promenade for me to be introduced to classic style roller skiing . Driving down past Cleveleys and Anchorsholme we settled on the area just north of Blackpool’s famous North Pier.

I must say I was pretty nervous at the thought of standing on little wheels, having not been on roller skates since I was a kid, or not having taken up inline skating when that was all the rage. I’ve never looked good in neon.

Thankfully the ‘skis’ proved pretty stable, with the ratchet in the rear wheel meaning you can only travel one way standing up right proved manageable. The proscribed wisdom is that although ‘classic’ roller skis allow you to lift your heel and mimic the action of an on snow kick ‘n’ glide, what actually happens is that you rely on the ratchet on the back wheel to provide ‘grip’ which can result in poor technique and pushing back with your toes. On snow the ‘grip’ comes from downward pressure by the whole foot.
So with precious little time on snow to learn good technique the last thing I want to do is pick up bad habits.

Where roller ski training comes into it’s own is that it provides  a great opportunity to improve double poling technique and importantly fitness. Come the Birkebeinerrennet and it’s 54km’s of hills there was going to be a need for a get out of jail card - double poling could be it! The technique can be seen here on the American Birkie YouTube site.

With rain still falling we headed south past North Pier and under Blackpool Tower towards Central Pier before returning over the ‘Comedy Carpet’.

As we’d rolled south I’d spotted a friend and client at work in The Beach House  - Blackpool’s newest and most unique bistro, bar and restaurant, on the promenade.

As it was quiet and it was unlikely that two damp and hot roller skiers would cause the place to empty we swung by for a fresh coffee and mid ski break before returning back to the car.

All that was needed now was more practice to develop technique and build some relevant fitness.
JF was on a whistle stop visit so the following morning we headed to a stretch of the upper promenade between ‘The Gynn’ and Little Bispham - this area is well surfaced with tarmac but more rolling that the previous afternoons location meaning that there were short uphill sections to build some strength as well as steady but thankfully short downhills to help with balance and confidence. Out and back it gave a good hours training.

After a quick shower it was off to the railway station - JF heading back to Norway and me to London to shoot a last minute campaign for BBC Worldwide. There’s never a dull moment.

With it looking likely that it could be up to six weeks before getting on snow again and with such limited time before The Birken in March the pressure was, and is, on to get as much work done on the rollers as possible, building as much core and XC specific fitness as possible.

While most regular XC skiers use roller skis as a summer fitness regime we’re having to use it as the majority of our training. So I even took the opportunity to get out on Christmas Day for an hour - partly as it was a novelty to get out roller skiing at Christmas and also because it was one of the few days recently when it hasn’t been either pouring with rain or blowing 40mph winds with gusts up to 70mph.

Just my luck to take up roller skiing on an exposed promenade the same month as some of the worst gales in living memory have pounded the coast of Britain !

So as the sun sets on 2013.

It's best foot forward into 2014.

Henry Iddon

Monday 2 December 2013

The Reality

Every idea is great at the point of conception.

The age we live in allows us to plan in intricate detail all manner of crazy of adventure from the comfort of our sofas.  With a reliable internet connection and a good supply of freshly brewed coffee the world can be conquered virtually.

Up until we arrived back in Norway in late November the 'Zero to Hero' challenge had only existed within a long email chain which had outlined from day one how it was all going to work, those involved and a rough timeline of our adventure.  Stepping off the plane in Oslo and feeling the fresh nip of winter air the realisation dawned of the challenge we had set ourselves set in.

Our visit was set to be a busy one with not only as much time on skis as possible, but also the factory visits of Swix and Madshus (two Norwegian cross country ski industries suppliers) to check out the equipment we would be using, oh and someone had mentioned something about Norwegian television.

As in August when we came to ride the Birken bike event we were looked after by the Birken Marketing man, Jean-Francois Gehin.  Luckily for us and unfortunately for Jean-Francois he is an excellent ski instructor so had been tasked with the hopefully surmountable task of training us to cross country ski.

Thursday, a day of travel from the UK to Norway.

Any thoughts we might ease in to our first training trip were misplaced, as all time available to be on the skis had to be taken. So after dropping our bags at the hotel Lillehammer, where we would stay our first night, we traveled up into the hills behind the town that hosted the 1994 Winter Olympics to the cut tracks of Sjusjøen.  Sjusjøen has a flood lit park of cut cross country ski tracks perfect for the novice to cram in as much practice as possible day or night.
The temperatures that night were a bone chilling -13 degrees celcius and the fingers were numbed as we pressed down and clipped in to our ski bindings for the first time ... everything was suddenly very real ... in 4 months we would have to have the fitness and skills to cover 54km.
The first 45 minutes on the skis that evening were just a taster as we scooted up and wobbled / slid back down a sedate section of track.

Friday, so what equipment do we need ?

First things first. Although we both had houses full of cycling equipment we had nothing that would help us with this cross country ski caper, so it seemed only fitting to visit two companies highly regarded by Norwegian cross country skiers.

First up was Madshus who have been making cross country skis since 1906 and we were treated to the full tour of their factory .

Personally as an engineer, though not in this sense, it was very exciting to walk the lifecycle of a ski from raw materials right through to final finishing and ready to see active service on snow.

We were guided through the factory by Per Wiik,  the man tasked with marketing Madshus with Per giving us as much information as we could absorb.  Before the visit I personally knew very little about skis. I  had an idea they varied in length dependant on your height but our visit indicated there were so many little elements considered to make sure every individual buying a pair gets the best performance they can. One of the key elements of XC skiing is how your weight is distributed along the ski as that effects your kick and glide, so knowing the stiffness and various flex characteristics of individual skis is vital.

When the tour was over we were left a better informed pair of wannabe cross country skiers ... with strong desire to own Madshus skis of our own.

Next port of call was Swix, now the only other small piece of info I know about skiing in any format is it requires wax.  Swix are THE wax people so we couldn't have asked for better advice.

Elvind Opsahl greeted us at the companies head office based in Lillehammer to help us understand the importance of wax.

Wax is applied in alpine skiing to speed progress downhill but Elvind was to help us understand the importance of wax in cross country skiing and affording the ability to go uphill.

Wax doesn't just come in one do it all formula either,  there are many variants developed for use in not only varying temperatures but also wetness, age and type of snow.  Each wax variant contains between 9 and 15 ingredients !!!  This is a highly specialised product and we had a lot to learn.

Elvind not only gave us a great insight in to the wax production process but also supplied us with some clothing to train in and ski poles.  We were as well equipped as we could be now to tackle the training Jean Francois had planned.

While at Swix we met with a TV reporter from Norwegian National TV broadcaster NRK who will be documenting the whole project, to broadcast in March during it's coverage of the big event.  After some intro shots for the camera it was time to get back on skis.

In the afternoon we moved our base of operations to Sjusjøen and the Rustad hotel.  This place was perfectly placed for our training as a short trail from led from the hotel to the flood lit tracks we had visited the previous day.

After another 2 hours of introductions to the varying techniques involved in cross country skiing, while NRK filmed our exploits, we called it a day to head to NRK's local radio station for a last minute radio interview ... the job of an international adventure idiot never ends :)

Saturday, practice, practice practice !

Armed with equipment and some basic skills we had two days left of this first trip to practice what Jean Francois had taught us.

Unlike the previous two trips to these tracks the weekend had drawn in skiers from further afield as conditions here were good .. it was busy!!  Luckily Norwegians are not only blessed with the ability to XC ski from birth but a great tolerance for floundering foreigners on the trails.

We practiced in the cut tracks our diagonal strides and double poling but the real challenge was when the tracks weren't present and we had to herringbone uphill or worse still snow plough downhill. Luckily Henry has a lot of alpine ski experience so the concept of snow ploughing was not foreign to him even if the execution on the much narrower edgeless skis proved challenging. Cross country skis are far narrower than alpine skis, and the boots offer virtually no support, and far less control than a modern plastic alpine downhill or touring boot.

We practiced techniques with two skis .. one ski .. poles and no poles .. Jean Francois was a patient man and always could indicate the flaws in our technique and offer up helpful advice.

We split our day in to two halves with a break for lunch then the evening brought a much welcome beer and sauna ... we were definitely discovering some non cycling used muscles. XC skiing is a full body workout requiring good core stability, co-ordination and balance. It's not all grunt.

Sunday, lets do some distance.

Sundays session was an attempt at stringing everything we had learned so far together and venturing further along the tracks we had used for training.  Unlike the previous days the wind was blowing strongly ... when we skied in to the wind the progress was slow, on our backs was a boost and cross winds was just .. well ... a test of balance on narrow skis.

After some refreshers on what we had learned the previous day we set off on what would be our first real taste of covering some ground.  Anybody can strap on some skis and shuffle along approximating cross country skiing the real talent comes in developing an efficient technique, kicking and gliding with the least amount of energy expended. Kick'n glide, kick'n glide.

After 12km the morning session was done and we had skied approximately a fifth of what we would have to achieve at the Birken ... after a few days of tuition what had seemed a daunting task was now still daunting though with a little more optimism.

Our final session on snow gave the last opportunity we might see to train on snow for a couple of months so we made use of every moment to practise more and more.  Just as we skied our last little section of trail before turning back to the hotel we were suddenly swallowed by a pack of fast moving serious skiers.  Before we knew it we were amidst a full on training session involving members of a Czech National Team and got a real taste of what a real trained athletes looks like ... fast and efficient !!!

Back home in the UK plans are now in the making to start the roller ski training ... equipment has been sourced and we await Jean Francois to come to UK soil to show us how to train with no snow .. expect to see men in the shadow on Blackpool Tower roller skiing the promenade :)

Paul Errington.