SWOT and the North Cape 4000 – Erik Nohlin

SWOT and the North Cape 4000
Words by Erik Nohlin, photos by Beth Welliver

Editor’s note: this is a long piece, but I wanted to leave it mostly unedited to maintain Erik’s voice, and all are encouraged to ask Erik questions here, just 24 hours before he departs for the North Cape 4000. So feel free to ask away and hopefully he’ll have time to address any questions you might have!

Wednesday / July 11 2018 / 04.22 am / Orlando International Airport / T-16 days to NC4000
Dehydrated and wrecked after canceled flights and a week on the road hunting Tour de France in cars, being off the bike completely for eleven days while eating shitty gas station food. The longest ride I’ve ever done is two weeks away and I’m lacking the fitness I wish I had enough of to relax about it at this point. Gear is not dialed and there’s a lot of questions without known answers right now. I’ll use this piece as a checklist, trying to get some answers for myself and to give you a picture of what’s in my head right now as I write this on a plane from Orlando to San Francisco, but first some context and a SWOT, a thing I tend to do when shit’s about to hit the fan. When this is published in two weeks from now, we’ll be on our way to the start in the north Italian city of Arco on July 28th.

North Cape 4000 is an annual unsupported ultra-distance bicycle event in the same family as the Transcontinental Race (That starts the same weekend), Indian Pacific Wheel Race, the Great Divide and all the European Divide races. The format has gained popularity in the last decade and from having been a lone-wolf format, with the help of social media and GPS trackers, we now see a rapid growth in attendance and races popping up all over the world. Suddenly, family, friends, and fans can follow your dot on a map 24/7 when you’re 200 miles off the grid and the term “dot watching” has become a subculture online. As an example; when I did the first Transcontinental Race back in 2013, 29 signed up and started. The 2018 Transcontinental Race is rumored to have received over 1000 applications for roughly 300 spots while the North Cape 4000, in its second year, will have about 150 riders starting.
It’s easy to see why this format is growing in popularity. They’re all quite spectacular events. The North Cape 4000 is 1 continent, 10 countries, and 4200 kilometers. Pretty punchy but these events are grassroots, unsanctioned events and just like Red Hook and similar new school criterium events, just because you’re the strongest rider on paper, doesn’t mean you’ll win. Leal Wilcox beating all her male competitors in the 2016 Transamerica Race is one of those great equalizing moments of this sport. Unlike all other bicycle racing formats, women and men compete and take part on equal terms and to me, that’s fucking refreshing. Like Red Hook, it’s also one of the few contexts where big names of the sport race with first-timers. Rules are minimal and simple. Stick to the route, check in at the gates, no outside help and you either finish or you don’t. Some will race it, sleep two hours a night, finish in 10 days, others will take their time and finish in a month. Finally, there’s a format where you can race yourself within the context of others.


I’ve done a bunch of the long fuckers before. From the first Transcontinental Race, riding the ultra-brevet Length of Sweden, 8 Super Randonneur titles (200, 300, 400, 600k in a season) some 1000-1200 k brevets including Paris-Brest-Paris and last summer’s Gold Rush Randonnée. Even though North Cape 4000 is twice the Length of Sweden and this is the longest one to date in my career, I still don’t have any real fears about the challenge.
Rita F. Jett aka The Velvet Hammer and my partner in crime for stuff like is a great strength to me. She will be on my side at the start in Arco and we aim to stick together to the end of the road. We’re a good team and she completes me well, not only as a better strategist but also as a more relaxed FTW attitude with a lot of cool that always makes us faster when shit gets real. After the Length of Sweden brevet two years ago, it was obvious that we had a good riding chemistry and that we most likely would end up being miserable on the bikes together again on the distance. We’re alike, great friends and when we sign up for something like this, we deliver.

Obviously not being dialed or at full fitness right now. Navigation devices are an unknown. I think my Garmin battery is done and I will either have to buy a new GPS or replace the battery. Where is my SPOT device? I honestly haven’t checked the route yet and I don’t even know if I have time to dig into it. It’s a bit like thinking of outer space – scary as hell. What happens, happens and not knowing can also make it a better adventure. In the end, me not being at peak fitness starting the race might be beneficial. For the first Transcontinental Race, I entered ultra-fit and too skinny and lost too much weight along the way, 12 lbs. is a lot when you don’t have much. At this point in time, I’ve got a healthy fat reserve.

Ignorance is bliss they say. The less you know, the less you know. We might just surprise ourselves. As we don’t really have a tight schedule, we can’t really disappoint ourselves and if we finish in eleven or thirteen days, doesn’t matter – it’ll be fun anyways. I’m cocky enough to say that we could podium if we wanted but we agreed to take it as it comes, maximize the fun, stay for a swim in the heat and take a mid-day nap, not just slay the distance for the win and spend a month to recover. The only thing we know now, strategy-wise, is that we will ride fast and still get enough rest to keep it safe.

Fitness is not quite where I wish it would be two weeks before such a big task. At least I’m not too skinny going into this event. Arthritis in my left hand has gone worse lately and a stressful month of June kept me out of the gym for that extra upper body strength. With some solid focus this coming week, quitting alcohol and everything else with inflammatory properties, and go big on CBD, I should be able to relax a bit about the state of my body while I rest myself into shape.

Pre/Post Logistics
North Cape 4000 starts in Arco – Italy, on the northern shore of Lake Garda on July 28th and finishes whenever you’ve covered 4200 kilometers or 2600 miles of central and eastern Europe at the end of the road far above the arctic circle. We will send a box of essentials from Milan to my brother in Oslo including things to wear after the race. I’ll fly from SFO to Milan, Rita from Denver and we’ll travel up to the start of the race with everything packed on the bikes. What we bring to Arco is what we will bring to the North Cape.

Having crossed the epic Italian and Austrian Alps via Innsbruck and fast pacing through southern Germany, we’ll arrive at the first gate in Prague a couple of days in. Czechia will serve some challenging elevation with the Carpathian Forest (FYI: Black metal band formed by Nattefrost and Nordavind) before the dead flat central Poland and the arrival to Warsaw, the second gate. Everything from leaving Germany to the finish is completely unknown terrain for us. We’ve never ridden in Czechia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland and never visited Norway this far north. Obviously, we’re unsupported and will carry everything needed to conquer heatwaves, thunderstorms, dirt naps in cornfields and the slow transition towards the usually cold and wet arctic tundra. Tallinn in Estonia is the third gate and from there, via boat to Helsinki, we’ll have a thousand miles, a thousand lakes and a potential thousand mosquito bites before we reach the final gate in Rovaniemi right on the Arctic Circle – not only the gate to Lapland but also home of Santa Claus. From there it’s a pretty hardcore section to the finish where Arctic weather can turn on you in minutes. After arriving at Nordcap after 11-14 days and pass the last checkpoint, we’ll have to catch a bus to Alta airport and then fly to Oslo to get picked up by my brother. No podiums, no welcoming party, no fame, and fortune. Nothing but Rita, I and 2000 German campervans.

Modern mixed terrain endurance bikes fight for space in a very small and crowded pond. Even though my S-Works Specialized Diverge might be among the most performance-minded, they’re pretty much all the same at this premium level. But, the Diverge has one feature that makes it a superior endurance bike. The Future Shock is a Specialized invention that makes all the difference and gives us a performance benefit. The 20 mm of compliance between the headset and stem saves your upper body in an amazing way that is crucial when the vast majority of the approx. 200 hours on the bike will be spent in the aero bars putting all the weight of the upper half of your body on your elbows. I started riding the Future Shock this spring on all my brevets and it’s been a game changer making me faster. My body has a much smoother ride than the competition. Smoother is faster and especially on long distance riding and I both ride and recover faster since the stress on the body is smaller.

(I know, disclaimer, I work at Specialized though I love bikes in general, good bikes and good looking bikes, still for me, the Future Shock is what makes the Diverge the best endurance bike for events like this out there but don’t take my word on it – go ride one yourself and make up your own mind so this doesn’t end up being an ad.)

I’ve ridden a complete Sram Force groupset during the last three years and love the simplicity of the 1x. My bike is mostly built with off the shelf available components. Wheels: Roval CLX 50 disc, the best overall performance wheels in the Roval family. Tubeless Roubaix 30/32 tires. S-Works seat post and stem. Reflective Specialized Power Arc saddle and bar tape on the aluminum Hoover bar. Aluminum Profile Design aero bars with custom integrated batteries for GPS and iPhone charging. There’s 2500 mAh in each bar extension from 5$ single cell battery USB packs.

I ordered some custom Full Nuke Aurora Borealis Burra Burra packs for us both that really explodes in the dark. Safety is a big concern and while daytime visibility is taken care of by our Hyper Green apparel being very close to the most visible color on earth, at 555 nm. The dusk and nighttime safety consist of a retro reflective fabric on all packs, saddle and bar tape. We will probably rock 1000% more retro-reflectivity than anyone else on the road and it feels great doing the best you can to stay visible in a very exposed environment. The frame pack is a custom Diverge design we made for Lael Wilcox’s “Ride all Roads in Alaska” project and we just swooped the fabric for the reflective.

I love the feeling of being more visible on the road and over are the days when I ride solo over long distances dressed in black and without tons of reflectivity on my gear, it’s simply irresponsible to my dear ones with so many tragic events in long-distance cycling over the past few years. I simply have the responsibility to do all I can to maximize my visibility on the road. I will also ride with 24/7 blinkers front and rear and will just have to carry a bigger battery pack to keep me lit.

I’ve opted out of a dynamo setup this time. I like the dynamos, but I always end up having to carry a battery pack anyways to charge the GPS nighttime and instead of adding the weight with an intricate and vulnerable dynamo setup, I simply bring a total 8.000 mAh of battery power in my TT-bars and packs. That will keep me going for days. With a European socket multi-plug adapter, I can get charged in restaurants and motels rapidly. The major flaw with a dynamo is that it won’t charge when you ride below 16-ish km/h and climbing the Alps, especially in the dark when you need both the GPS and the lights, you’ll need the battery pack anyways.

I’ll sport one Flux 1200 front light and 3 Stix red blinkers that I can charge while riding. My navigation is still TBD, Garmins are big investments, but the idea is that we have the GPX files chopped up in sections in the GPS and also a back-up on a micro SD if the device dies and a new has to be bought on the route. The iPhone in airplane mode with off-line Google maps will be backup navigation, camera and everything else.

On the bike
Apparel is custom made through the Specialized Custom program. The Evade2 helmet (or any aero helmet) offers a huge aerodynamic gain over 4200 kilometers and if temperatures allow, I will ride with Hyper Green shoe covers over my S-Works 7’s, Hyper Green arm covers, a reflective Gillet and reflective socks. There will be a hyper rain jacket, some cycling caps and gloves to but they’re TBD. Eye ware are 100% Speedcraft and I will pack a clear lens for night riding, it keeps your eyes from drying out.

Off the bike
This is the trickiest part for me. The lighter I pack, the faster I can ride but from too many experiences, I know I’m terrible at avoiding hypothermia when it gets wet and cold. I know one thing, everything I pack must have dual functions so instead of bringing a sleeping bag, I’ll bring an ultra-light Specialized Alpha Hoodie, puffy Patagonia vest, and pants that I can both hang around in off bike and sleep in. Riding gear will get so filthy that you’d want to get out of it asap after stopping at the end of the day. Speedo’s are essential and with a light T-Shirt and the puffy uniform, I have everything I need off the bike. Still, TBD if I bring a pair of Teva’s. Not for the ride but for transit to and from the race but they might be too heavy and they’re not dual purpose. Socks are light, so I’ll pack one pair of Dark Lord’s, one pair of warmer socks for wet conditions and one pair of compression socks to sleep and ride in when legs get sore. During the Transcontinental Race, I did laundry once with a hotel reception service halfway to tilt the filth. A Buff for sleeping and cold mornings is great and will be packed.

I hope we can do every 4th night or so in a motel with a proper bed so I’m opting for the lightest possible sleeping setup while still having some comfort to be able to rest properly. A 300g Klymit sleeping pad and 300g Special Forces Bivi is the comfort I can afford. The Patagonia puffy kit will act as a sleeping bag. My sleep system is less than 1000g and is by no means comfortable but with 4 hrs. of sleep a night, I’m hoping it’s enough. A reliable forecast on the morning of the start will decide how much warm gear we bring.

Personal hygiene kit with toothbrush and paste, chamois and sunscreen, wet wipes and clear eyes is a classic setup for me. The medical pack consists of CBD and backup Ibuprofen (less than Length of Sweden with less broken bones) Caffeine pills, Salt tablets for the potential heatwave, Selzer for the sweet stuff and Melatonin for dirtbagging behind the first row of corn in a polish farm field along a highway.

Tools and spares will be the standard. A gutted micro multi-tool with the essentials. Some M5 and 4 bolts, a shifting wire, some zip ties, a gear strap and some tire booting jammers (Euro bills). One tube, one Dynaplug with 8 spare plugs, a tire lever, and a small pump. If unlikely I have a flat that can’t be fixed with the Dynaplug, I’ll ride the tube the rest of the way. Since I started doing ultra-distance on new tubeless tires, I haven’t had a single flat (knock on wood) so I won’t overpack heavy tubes. On the Transcontinental Race, we had to lube the chain with Serbian olive oil – I will pack a few drops of chain lube this time.
Target weight of my complete bike with empty packs, TT-bars and whistles is 10 kg and once packed down and ready to go, including a gallon of water, it will be around 15 kg or 30 lbs.

I’ve finally found a product that works for me on long rides. The secret behind Maurten, a startup from my hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden is that they’re able to pack an insane amount of carbohydrates in a small number of liquid thanks to a formula that turns into a gel in your stomach. This means that I can absorb a bigger amount of energy in a slower but more efficient way. I will pack sachets for the days when we have to cover more ground or need recovery from bonking. The Maurten mix will be in the down tube bottle and the main hydration will be water with tablets from a 3-liter bladder in my frame pack. I’ve been trying out a triathlon approach to drinking in the aerobars and it works fine. Along with that, every stop will include a couple of soda’s and extra water to stay hydrated. August in central Europe often means heatwaves so I might up capacity as we get closer to a reliable forecast.

I have no idea how my plant-based diet will play in the Baltic countries, but I figure there are tons of carbs in shitty gas station food and I’ll try to find proper grocery stores where I can stock up on fruit, PB and hopefully I can get a pizza-no-cheese even in eastern Europe. Being Vegan on a multi-day or week event’s gets frugal and shitty but so does it when you eat animals and find food as you go, options are poor. I’ve never experienced not getting enough protein during my 20 years of not eating animals, so I’m not worried about if I’ll be able to energize myself, my only concern is how shitty it will get as I’d never shortcut my principals. This is where Maurten works well for me and with a real solid meal towards the end of the day, fruit and plant-based snacks along the way should do it. The only place I’ve scouted this far is a vegan middle eastern place in Warsaw called Tel Aviv, just a kilometer from the checkpoint – prepare the kitchen for some serious gluttony!

I’ve done this kind of riding for a decade now and I can’t emphasize enough the impact my late and great friend Mike Hall has had on my cycling career. Even though I had made several brevet series before I met Mike, he was the one that opened the door to the next chapter, the real shit, with the first Transcontinental Race that we produced a documentary around. I know Mike had a profound effect on this community with his hardcore but the humble approach and I will ride the North Cape 4000 for Mike as a thanks. He left an amazing legacy I’m thankful for having gotten caught up in at the right time of my life and I will celebrate him and what he left behind for the rest of us to live by #bemoremike


Follow Erik on Instagram, follow Rita on Instagram. Watch their progress on the North Cape 4000 as EN and RJ.