New mud bath looms for bike racers

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Thousands of cycling enthusiasts were heading for the hills between Lillehammer and Rena this weekend, for the annual Birkebeinerrittet, a 94.6 kilometer race over the mountains from one valley to the next. Rainy weather threatened to turn it all into another mud bath.

Former Olympic skiing star Kjetil Andre Aamodt was among the many who braved rain and mud in last year's Birkebeiner cycling race. Similar conditions are expected this year. PHOTO: Birkebeinerrittet

The weather forecast was not good, with more rain after a summer that has sparked the most flooding in decades. Organizers of the Birkebeiner race, a summer version of the traditional ski race that follows roughly the same route in winter, have already been busy shoring up tracks and repairing damage caused by torrential downpours.

More rain was expected on Saturday, when around 18,000 cyclists were registered to take part in the main Birkebeiner race. It sold out in just 53 seconds when registration opened for the popular race. Another 7,000 were due to cycle over the mountains on Friday in what’s called Fredagsbirken, which doesn’t offer the coveted merker that are the equivalent of prizes for performance.

There are many reasons why so many people invest in cycling equipment, pay the fees and put up with often poor weather and logistical challenges to cycle nearly 60 American miles on a tough course: Competitive instinct, warding off a mid-life crisis, testing one’s endurance and strength. Surveys show that 80 percent used the race as a goal in their personal exercise programs, while 25 percent wanted to win the various levels of awards offered in the race. Around 13 percent participated as part of their jobs, often in groups made up of colleagues.

The race ended in illness for thousands of participants two years ago, when heavy rain and lots of mud meant that many riders ingested muck along the way that apparently contained bacterial remnants of grazing livestock. That resulted in diarrhea and vomiting for many.

But still the race is booked solid year after year, despite calamity and poor weather. Asked whether there were any plans to move the race to earlier in the summer, when the weather might be better, organizers said “maybe,” but noted that it was easier to assemble the necessary volunteers needed after Norway’s traditional summer holiday season was over.

“But I’m beginning to think we’re very unlucky,” Tone Lien, head of Birkebeinerrittet AS, told newspaper Aftenposten. “I think most have been training in rainy weather, though. So there’s relatively few who show up unprepared.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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