Another chance to go back to Finland...
I have always enjoyed going to Finland and feel at home with the quirkiness of the country. I like the fact that things which are considered different or even strange in the U.K such as frequent sauna use, eating reindeer meat, a right to roam freely in the countryside and industrial levels of personal berry consumption are normal and part of being a Finn.
A few years ago, I completed the Finland Ice Marathon in Kuopio on a traditional Finnish Kicksled and have toured around the country fairly extensively. I still check on Finnish news in English and keep an eye out for happenings in the country such is the fascination I have with the place.
I seem to retain facts about Finland like a sponge, have been to the Finnish Embassy in London for evening receptions and find periods in Finnish history such as the Winter War of 1939-40 against the mighty Soviet army truly fascinating.
Fat biking from the Martinselkonen Wilds Centre...
In November 2016, I was offered a place on the VisitFinland cycling ‘fam trip’ to Northern Finland to tour around the area near Suomussalmi on fat bikes. The daily rides would be based at the Martinselkonen Wilds Centre on the Finnish/Russian border in the remote Finnish wilderness. The routes would then form a winter cycling holiday sold by Wheel2Wheel Holidays.
‘Wilderness’ is a term that is thrown around quite loosely in travel, but there is almost nothing else around in this corner of Finland except millions of pine trees, deep snow and the 1340km border trail marking the eastern edge of the EU and Russia’s western front.
Coming from a culture where you can nip out to Tesco at all hours of the day to buy anything, going from having everything on your doorstep to nothing is quite a culture shock. Being out in Suomussalmi province is almost like being in an episode of Ben Fogle’s ‘Lives in the Wild’ programme.
Onwards to Northern Finland...
We were an international group from all around Europe from different backgrounds, however I flew from Manchester on Finnair with Hannah, a journalist from the leading mountain bike magazine - SIngletrack.
The flight was rather uneventful and after a quick dash through Helsinki to the internal flights area, we boarded a small turboprop for the hour hop up to Kajaani. As we landed in the small airport in the lower ‘north’ of the country, we noticed an immediate change in temperature, snow on the ground and ice on the runway. We realised that there was a two hour drive up to the Wilds Centre in the dark and on icy, snowy roads.
Driving with challenging terrain is fairly normal for people living this far north and it is no surprise that Finland has produced a disproportionately high number of professional rally and Formula One drivers! After the minibus transfer, we pulled into the Martinselkonen Wilds Centre that up to the early 1990s was the border guard station separating Finland and Russia.
Staying in a converted Finnish Border station...
The current owners are part of the family that manned the station during the Cold War and have turned the centre into one of Europe’s best places to watch bears and cubs in their natural summer habitat.
Like the bears, the centre goes into hibernation over winter and Riina along with husband Jaani decided to use the extensive cross-country ski trails that traverse the dense forest to offer fat biking experiences. This was my first time on a fat bike and I was feeling quite nervous about riding one. However, my fears were soon to be unfounded.
We picked up the bikes on the Saturday and had a few hours to familiarise ourselves with them using the road and ski routes that pass in and around the centre. The wide tyres provide grip whilst the rest of the bike is fairly similar to a mountain bike.
The Finnish made fat bikes have 24 speeds and I was amazed that despite being covered by ice and temperatures reaching -10, the gear changes were seamless and the disc brakes were excellent.
Learning how to use a 'Fat Bike'...
After doing a short 10km loop on Saturday morning, I realised that I needed to let out air in the tyres to create more drag on the slippery snow. Riding a fat bike actually requires a good level of bike handling skill and one of the more challenging aspects is avoiding the ‘lips and kerbs’ that form in the snow and can cause the tyres to slip or ridge.
I found that letting air out of the tyres to almost flat and lowering the saddle to create a lower centre of gravity really helped control the bike better. There is also a bit of nervousness when riding a fat bike that caused me to sweat underneath my thermal baselayer causing my sweat to cool and feel very chilly.
To further boost my handling skills, I went out on my own away for the group to learn a bit more about the fat bike and my own limitations riding one. After an hour or so, I was able to build confidence and felt ready for the next day.
After a visit to a nearby reindeer farm in Hossa National Park where we saw some local reindeer, got pulled around on a reindeer sled by a reindeer and then ate a reindeer, we headed back to the Martinselkonen Centre and our thoughts turned to riding around on the fat bikes again.
The best Sunday I have ever had...
On the Sunday, we headed out on the fat bikes in the surrounding Martinselkonen Nature Reserve on trails prepared by Jaani and his father using a skimobile as well as cross-country ski routes prepared by the Finnish National Park Rangers. As we rode through pristine snow, across frozen lakes and danced between high pine trees on our bikes, I had a strong sense of wellbeing.
My mind had begun to accept the remoteness of the place and I realised that riding through such untouched nature that the group was experiencing something special. After riding at a slow pace for around 2 hours, we stopped off at a small cabin used by local hikers and skiers to enjoy a traditional Finnish lunch of reindeer and moose soup, rye bread and a selection of cheeses and hams.
The cabin was dimly lit, warm and the ideal place to experience Finnish wilderness culture. We drank strong black coffee to keep our energy levels up and cooked sausages on the open fire before leaving. Setting off was difficult given that the hut was one of the cosiest places I have ever been in and once again we were out riding in the snow.
To the Russian border and ski trail...
After a short time, we arrived at a fairly common, yet important sign telling us that we were at the Russian border. It is not possible to cross over into Russia although there is no watchtower, fence or marked change in scenery between the two countries.
The border is well defended and manned by border guards of both sides that patrol the dividing zones using helicopters, CCTV and foot patrols. To someone who has travelled to all corners of Europe without showing a Passport knowing that you cannot simply ‘ride across’ is a difficult thing to comprehend.
We were at the edge of Europe and the setting of the Winter War battles between the Finns and Russians during the Second World War. We followed the border trail for another couple of hours and I felt the chill of the Siberian wind through my gloves and jackets. The temperature dropped below -10 and my camera couldn’t function.
As the trail conditions were better than normal, we completed the daily route quicker than expected so Jaani took us out snowshoeing and gave us a lesson about outdoor life and how the bears, wolves, moose and plants survive in such harsh conditions.
After experiencing a superb post-snowshoeing sauna at the Centre, we were treated to a cabin evening meal around the fire as a group and had a chance to reflect on the experience which we all agreed was memorable and special. That Sunday was one of the best I have ever had...
Back to urban life...
After a short ride on a very cold (-21 degrees!), yet bright Monday morning, we were picked up for the return flight from Kajaani. I actually found it strange to rediscover urban life back in Helsinki and later Manchester after the silence of the Finnish wilderness and I had only been out in the wilds for a few days.
Riding the fat bikes in such unique conditions has left a lasting impression on me and I feel very lucky to have been on the tour. My bond with Finland continues to grow stronger year after year!
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