Thousands gear up for a mud bath

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Around 18,000 cycling fans are ready to pedal over a mountain range in eastern Norway this weekend, and hope they won’t get sick like last year. It’s time for the annual Birkebeinerrittet, a gruelling test of endurance and discomfort that surprisingly many are willing to take.

This was the scene last year, when racers had to navigate a muddy route and thousands fell ill. PHOTO: birkebeiner.no

Others may feel pressured into riding Birkebeiner, maybe cause their employers have mounted huge teams and participation is expected, or maybe because their buddies are doing it. No one wants to be considered a wimp.

Last year’s race, though, resulted in an estimated 20 percent of all participants getting sick. Conditions were wet and muddy, and officials later determined that most of those who fell ill with severe stomach trouble probably had ingested mud or dirty water along the way. The Birkebeiner route runs through large open grazing areas, and mud or water from puddles can contain animal excrement.

Organizers this year are cautioning all riders to “take precautions.” The weather forecast is poor, with rainfall expected, so the route can once again be muddy and hazardous.

“There have been just as many sheep in the area as last year,” warned Tone Lien, leader of the Birkebeinerrittet. “We can’t chase away all the sheep in the mountains.” She has advised installing fenders on bikes and urges riders to spit out their first drink from a water bottle, because dirt and bacteria may have gathered on the bottle top.

Registration for the race sold out quickly despite last year’s sickness and riders like Ludvig Aasen Ouren don’t seem worried. “No, I’m not going around being worried about getting sick,” he told birkebeiner.no. “When you’re cycling out in the field you get dirty and muddy no matter what. If you get sick, you get sick.”

Riders from around the world
Saturday’s race follows a 94.6-kilometer route similar to the annual ski race of the same name, from Rena in the eastern valley of Østerdalen and west over the mountains to Lillehammer. There’s also a preliminary race on Friday, Fredagsbirken, which has attracted around 7,000 participants.

Riders are coming from every county in Norway, with the majority from Akershus (3,774) and Oslo (3,296). A total of 54 riders are traveling all the way from Finnmark in northern Norway to take part.

The race also has attracted riders from 37 countries other than Norway, from Australia (9) to China (2) and the US (34). Denmark has the most participants after Norway, with 171 registered, followed by Sweden with 149 and Great Britain with 45.

Oil company Shell has the largest group of employees in the race (262). Other companies with lots of employees taking part include Norcem, Adecco, NorgesGruppen, Nortura and Volkswagen.

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported Thursday that the race has become big business, not just for organizers but for all the sporting goods retailers who have sold equipment. With the average bike in the Birkebeinerrittet costing NOK 20,000 and many up to NOK 50,000, DN estimated that around NOK 560 million worth of bicycles and other sports gear will be rolling over the mountains.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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