'Birkebeineren' riders brave cold, rain and mud over the mountains

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Conditions were horrendous, but more than 15,000 eager cyclists set out on Norway’s grueling 94.6 kilometer mountain bike race called the “Birkebeineren” on Saturday. Most of them eventually made it to the finish line, with the fastest man doing it in just over three hours.

The same course, from Rena in the eastern valley called Østerdalen to Lillehammer, is also skied by equally enthusiastic athletes eager to test their own limits or simply strut their stuff. The summer version involves bicycles, many of them costing tens of thousands of kroner.

The annual event attracts men and women, young and old, working and retired. Some companies field entire teams, and most participants train for months to make it over the mountain.

Among them this year was Tom Rune Lian, a 39-year-old lawyer with a major firm in Oslo. He’s ridden what’s fondly called simply Birken three times and told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv last week that he cycles at least five to 10 hours a week, both on roads and “out in the terrain.” He had hoped to complete the race in under three hours this year, after finishing in three hours and five minutes last year. Instead he ended with a time of three hours 33 minutes.

Stormy weather and relentless rain on Saturday left the winner of the men’s elite class, Andreas Kugler, clocking a time of three hours and two minutes. Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå, who has won Olympic medals, took three hours and 27 minutes to complete the course.

Ole Kristian Silseth, who won the first Birkebeinerrittet 16 years ago, told newspaper Aftenposten that he thinks it’s “fantastic” that so many people take part in the race, which was fully booked months ago. Even though 17,500 had registered for the race, organizers reported that the bad weather reduced the number of starters to 15,140 from Rena, with 14,460 of them crossing the finish line.

Silseth wishes more participants, however, spent more time thinking about the experience itself instead of just their finishing time.

“There are many who have incredible goals with this,” Silseth said. “Not everything should hinge on being able to finish in less than three hours and 30 minutes.”

See some video from the race.