Hardy Swedes gear up for classic challenge

Nicholas Chipperfield explains why thousands of people from dozens of countries are getting on their bikes by a lake in the middle of Sweden this weekend.

This Friday, as Swedes quietly leave work early to start furious preparations for midsummer – forming vast queues in Systembolaget and printing off song sheets featuring ditties for dancing like frogs around Viking fertility symbols – thousands of keen, sporty types will be gearing up for a 300 kilometre-long bike race, one of five events that form one of the sporting world’s most Swedish, and multi-disciplined achievements: A Swedish Classic.

The Classic comprises cycling, swimming, running and skiing events, all of which are tough competitions in their own right;

This weekend’s Vätternrundan, a 300 kilometre race around Lake Vättern, will see 17,800 cyclists from a record 34 countries assembling at the starting line in Motala.

Vansbrosimningen, a three kilometre swim, is set to attract some 3,100 people to the waters of Vansbro, south of Mora in Dalarna, on July 8.

September’s Lidingöloppet, a 30 kilometre run through woodland on the island of Lidingö in Stockholm, was established in 1965 and had some 13,000 competitors in 2006.

Engelbrektsloppet, a 60 kilometre skiing race held in February, or Vasaloppet, again in Sweden’s heartland, Dalarna, a 90 kilometre cross-country skiing competition or its Öppet Spår course, held in the first weekend in March.

Those seeking to attain Classic status are required to complete these events over the course of 12 months.

According to the latest count, 27,802 people – 4,751 women and 23,051 men – have achieved a Classic since its inception in 1971.

If many of those who have obtained a Classic see the accomplishment as the realisation of a one-off, life-long ambition, there is a select band who surely deserve to be feted in their own right. These are the eight people who have attained the honour 25 times, and a further two individuals who have done the Classic a total of 30 times.

A version specifically designed for female athletes – Tjejklassikern – was established in 1992, and has been completed by 11,827 women.

”What makes the Classic so unique is that it’s a competition open for both professional athletes and people who simply enjoy exercise,” Åsa Larsson, spokeswoman for A Swedish Classic tells The Local.

The Classic was founded by Mats Qvarfot from Vansbro, who wanted to encourage people to exercise continually through the year in different disciplines, rather then focusing on one specific event for a limited period.

Qvarfot brought together representatives from Sweden’s major sporting events. The group decided that an individual who completed Vasaloppet, Vätternrundan, Vansbrosimningen and Lidingöloppet in a 12 month period would be honoured with the title ‘A Swedish Classic’.

”The Classic has a unique link to the Swedish countryside and many competitors are as interested in experiencing nature during the races as their performances in each event,” Larsson says.

Vasaloppet, one of the world’s biggest ski races, attracting 15,800 skiers this year, is also steeped in history. The race commemorates a journey made by a key figure in 16th century Swedish politics, Gustav Eriksson Vasa.

In 1521 Vasa travelled to Mora in a bid to convince the local people to join him and fight Danish King Kristian. Vasa was unable to rally support and fled – on skis – pursued by the Danes.

The inhabitants of Mora however, then decided to back Vasa. Two of the town’s fastest skiers were dispatched to catch up with him. The pair found Vasa in Sälen, 90 kilometres away, and convinced him to return.

Vasa led his country to victory over the Danes and in 1523 he was proclaimed king of Sweden.

Vasaloppet runs in the opposite direction of Vasa´s original journey, starting in Sälen, with the finish line in Mora, as it has done since the first race was staged in 1922.

Sweden’s history, natural beauty and a healthy dose of typically Swedish clean living and efficient organisation have made the Classic popular in amateur and professional sporting fraternities throughout the world.

Three hundred and forty Sweden-loving sporty foreigners from 15 countries including Australia, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and the US, have achieved the Classic.

”I think our overseas competitors are fascinated by the Swedish countryside and that the events are so extraordinarily well-organised and such fun. For many it’s a lifestyle choice, and many participants have become life-long friends through A Swedish Classic,” Larsson says.

Nicholas Chipperfield