Head winds, Tail winds, Alliances and Sprints. All terms I use at work, and relate to Aviation and Commercial Strategy. But today I’m going to talk about them not in context of an airline, but an airlines endurance event. The WOW Air Cyclothon, 1,358kms around Iceland.
Earlier his year we were asked by our partner WOW Air, if Expedia would like to enter a team into their annual Cyclothon. Circling Iceland with a team of 10 in a non-stop relay, under 24hr daylight. Naturally, the #bikeexpedia community stepped up to the challenge!
We assembled a team from across the business. With cyclists from CSS, MeSo, LPS, HCOM and Egencia. From London, Denver and Bellevue. The team was balanced with mixed ability. Ex-Bike shop professional, Nate to spin class attending Valentina – who admitted asking social media, ‘how do I change gears on a road bike?’ The week before we flying out(!). Like any great team, we played to our strengths and worked together to achieve something unforgettable.
The event started just outside Reykjavik on the west coast of Iceland. In what can only be described as 4hrs of adrenaline fueled, peddle bashing! There were 112 teams racing to get around the Fjords and set strong start. Teams sent out two cyclists, so if one was held up, the other can still make the exchange. Nate and Daniel began the race for us.
Daniel has an amazing up-beat personality and is a remarkable biker. He tore through our fist exchange at 23kms handing over the baton, (figure of speech – there was no physical baton. Instead you had to pass your next cyclist before they could set off. This tended to be a rolling exchange to keep speed and momentum.)
Carl took the second leg while we collected Nate and Daniel up in one of the support vehicles and drove ahead to the next exchange point. Carl is another strong cyclist completing his first 150 mile race at the age of 15. Carl was known amongst the team for that next 48hr period as the ‘Nordic giant’, on day two he would scale and descend Oxi, the toughest hill segment over gravel trail. And then sleep like a giant taking up most of the second row in the minivan…
Pro Car rental supplied us two support vehicles. A two seater camper and a 9 seater minivan with a closed trailer for bikes on the back. The minivan and bikes carried the active cyclists and their bikes, leap frogging the live rider to the next exchange point. The camper followed the route with our riders switching 2 people every 4hrs so they could get some rest, find a bathroom, fuel and if lucky – an hour or two of sleep.
I took the first driving shift in the minivan and loved it as much as the cycling. Driving around Iceland on its Route 1 is on many travel top 10 things to do, (The Cyclothon started when the CEO of WOW Air, an avid cyclist, suggested route 1 be cycled, rather than driven!).
Quin and Raf took the first shift in the camper. This meant that they joined at a time when we had found a rhythm for exchanges and were comfortable with the distance and effort being put in. They quickly came in sync despite the difference in emotional states. Quin commented on how ‘amped up’ we were from the rush of the start. He jumped on his bike and tore up a hill for a solid start to his biking contribution. I felt totally guilty being the next rider and getting a long downhill section the other side. I had another easy leg on the second morning. Coming out of a tunnel on the east coast into an awesome tailwind. I remember being on my highest gear hitting a top speed of 26mph – uphill. I also had my share of hard segments too with headwinds and a 10% gradient hill, (where I got switched out at the top for someone else to enjoy the following downhill…)
Raf was our ‘MVP’. Often first out the van, helping with the exchanges. I remember him shouting ‘Give me another 5k’s’ as we passed him while on his bike. We were delayed from an exchange and he was willing to push a bit more so the team could get back on track a little further down the road. Gestures like this was something all the team were doing in their own way. But Raf seemed to be the one always there to contribute and support.
Iceland might have 24hr daylight in the summer. But it’s still cold. And windy. And rainy. We got it all! After starting at 6pm on the Wednesday night, we were half way in 24hrs later. Tim, (who often cycles 23miles into the London office – as it takes him the same time in his bike, as it would public transport.) was told by another team that there was a storm due to hit the following morning. Race HQ confirmed that if teams we not able to be past the danger area by 6am the following morning, they would be Cut Off and not allowed to continue. A sweeper vehicle was out on the route. Pulling out teams as it caught them, who wouldn’t make the deadline. We did the calculation. For us it would be tight…
At midnight on the second day we called HQ for an update. The storm was still a threat and the cut off remained in place… We had 6hrs to cover abound 160km. We were tired, but we had to push. Our legs were putting in hard sprints.
Valentina and Kate were doing solid 5km segments and the guys 8-10km. The girls were sharing a bike, adjusting the saddle each time. They put in an impressive distance on that bike between them. And also both did their fair share of driving. Kate, like Tim, is a bike commuter. Though her journey is a bit shorter. She had similar worries as Valentina about how much they would be able to contribute. For both ladies, dedication and drive made them valuable team members.
Nate’s Bike Shop skills were put to the test when Raf acquired a snapped gear change cable at an exchange! We sent another rider out instead while Nate worked a medical repair from the back of a moving van. We made the storm deadline with 40mins to spare, ahead of 34 other teams who were pulled out of the race.
Dan from MeSo was the last of team to get confirmed on the trip. A fitness fanatic with an appetite to match! Keeping fed as well as rested was essential for all of us. Snickers bars seemed to be the fuel of choice! Though the pizza at half way and occasional hotdog or burger at petrol stations complimented our elite diet and performance!!
Once we knew were we’re still in the race we thought we could ease off the pressure and enjoy the 3rd day and the last 12hrs back through the south into Reykjavik.
However, with the storm hitting the east – the surrounding areas were also experiencing high winds. Hopeful they were going to be powerful tailwinds behind us? They seemed to come from all angles except from behind… With added rain. I remember watching the waterfalls coming off Eyjafjallajökull, (The infamous volcano responsible for the ash cloud causing European flight disruptions in 2010) the wind was so hard these waterfalls were vaporising before they made the ground!
It’s hard to put into words what was going on at this point. 36+hrs in, still with 100+km in front of us. Headwinds, Rain drenched, and Fatigue all working against us. We were still pushing forward as a team. We hadn’t formed an alliance early on in the race. And we knew what we were achieving under our own steam, as 1 team, was an impressive feat.
Many teams over the start of the race teamed up and formed alliances. They worked packs sending out a rider from each team to form a group of up to 5 riders on the road so they can draft each other. This is when riders cycle close to the next rider and form a line in each other’s slipstream. They rotate the front rider and work together to go faster and with less individual effort. I heard quotes that it makes the event 30% easier if you draft. We made decisions as a group throughout the event and ended up not being part of an alliance. We learned from that. Was it the wrong decision? I honestly wouldn’t have don’t anything differently. We may have gotten a better time, but I wouldn’t trade the experience we had for it.
The wind kept battering us but the rain died down. We were 30km from the finish – Daniel and Carl took to their bikes for a long, hilly, partly gravel section to finish. Gusts hitting them from all angles and physically moving them a foot or two sideways at times. They pushed on.
5km from the finish we pulled over and eight of us got on our bikes. Tim and Valentina drove as close to the finish as they could and we joined them.
Wednesday evening, we had left Reykjavik. Friday evening, 48h38m later, we were coming full circle. Beating the storm, which stoped 34 teams completing the race. We cycled past Iceland’s glaciers, waterfalls and fjords. The awe inspiring scenery. Through the rolling hills of the North, and the breathtaking trail across Oxi in the East. Our race against the storm in the South back to the gio thermal springs and lakes in the West. We crossed the line as we had taken on the whole challenge. Together. As a team. Team Expedia!
Medals collected and back at the hotel. We shared a meal and sorties from the last few days. Tiredness overwhelmed us and we retired to our rooms.
It was an amazing experience.
The next day WOW Air hosted a closing party and awards ceremony. We chatted to other teams and our airline hosts, who made the whole trip possible. We speculated on participating next year… I asked Carl. Would he do it again and what would he do differently? His reply; ‘I’ve been eyeballing the 4 man group… but if I could do it again with the same team. I’d do that in a heartbeat.’ That summed it up for me. We had all come together from across Expedia. From different offices and departments. To achieve one thing. And we nailed it!!
Pro car rental provide the vehicles. WOW Air supplied the flights and entry fees. The Base hotel covered our accommodation and for them we are grateful or their support and partnership. Team Expedia and the Expedia bike community came together and covered 1358km around Iceland.