Thursday, 8 August 2013

Cycling Scandinavia: Sundsvall to Umeå

Härnösand open air museum
Härnösand did not sound like much in my guidebook but I still made the slight detour from the Sverigeleden bike route to visit the town. It had the usual amenities which for me consist in a Lidl supermarket and free internet at the visitor centre. The internet came in very handy indeed as I coincidentally found out that on Thursday when I wanted to take the ferry to Finland the ferry schedule was different than normal. Instead of 7 pm the ferry departed already at 2 pm. That would have been a very bad surprise to find out on Thursday.... It was Sunday and Härnösand was basically dead. There weren't even hardly any other tourists. But my guidebook promised a county museum cum open air museum and the visitor centre promised it was free. I love free stuff and decided to go. Good choice! The museum turned out to have a really good and very modern local history exhibition and the open air museum was huge. But at 4 pm everything closed and I was on my way again to get in some more kilometres.

Trainline next to E4
The Sverigeleden here usually parallels the busy E4 costal motorway but occasionally even uses it - mostly when there its no other choice. Crossing the Storfjärden and a 3 km long bridge was one of these situations. When cycling up the bridge things still looked good. There were 2 traffic lanes for each direction and a half way decent shoulder on my side. But then I saw the construction work sign. One side was completely closed off and traffic in both directions was routed over two very narrow lanes - and I was cycling on the tiny shoulder next to all this. The E4 is the only traffic artery going North here so all the traffic uses it including huge multi trailer trucks and tourists with caravans. They could not give me any berth because of the oncoming traffic. I wondered what would happen if two trucks passed each other with me being next to them. The result did not look good for me and I basically started to cycle for bare survival fervently praying for no trucks. And I was very lucky indeed: the whole 3 km only small trucks passed me but no multi trailer trucks. I had to stop immediately after the bridge and have a break because I was shaking from fear and exhaustion. I had probably set a speed record, at least a personal one.

It was already getting late by the time I had made it out of earshot of the busy E4 and had found water at a cemetery. I took the first deserted looking side track and found myself at a nice grassy area next to a rickety bridge. Unfortunately there was no tree cover but I was tired and set up camp. I had just settled into my tent when I heard voices coming down the deserted path which might not be as deserted as I had thought. A mother with her young daughter was on her way to an evening swim - across the rickety bridge was a good swimming spot they told me. But I could not be bothered because I was already cooking dinner, although I was relieved that the two late visitors did not make any problems. Next morning I woke up at 5 am because the sun was relentlessly burning down onto my tent turning it into a Swedish sauna. I know why I usually camp under tree cover. At 6 am I gave up and decided to get up and have breakfast - and then remembered the swimming spot. I walked over the decrepit bridge and for sure there was a nice rock with a pontoon bridge and a ladder. To say that this early morning swim was delightful is an understatement! I was all alone in this beautiful lake, the water was refreshing, the sun was shining in a prefect blue sky - this was the picture perfect Swedish summer morning.

Whenever I had a swim on this trip I had the same feeling of happiness - and I had a lot of swims! It had been very hot the whole month and whenever I had the opportunity to swim I did it. Luckily there are lakes everywhere and usually I could find a deserted spot for a quick skinny dip. There are also a lot of official swimming spots that are signposted off the road often with toilets and even changing rooms! It feels incredibly good to submerge yourself into the refreshing water on a hot day and  wash off all the dirt and grime.

Next day brought me back to the E4. The Sverigeleden uses it for 12 km and the cycling wasn't actually too bad on it. Two car lanes each side plus a nice and wide shoulder for cyclists. Unfortunately this seduced me to stay on the E4 when the Sverigeleden leaves it for a much longer detour. Big mistake! The nice and wide shoulder disappeared and I was left with only a 30 cm wide strip of pavement right of the road blazes. To make things worse the blazes were not only painted but also washboarded to wake up tired drivers swerving off the road. Things were still tolerable going uphill as there were two lanes this direction and drivers could give me a wide berth. But I was already nervously eying the other, downhill side of the road. Just one narrow lane for cars and trucks and the 30 cm "shoulder" for me. What could be my death sentence was a road barrier between the two directions. With no second lane drivers could not give me a berth even if they wanted. I was doing something unusual for a cyclist: I prayed that the uphill would not end... but of course it did after 6 km. I was now facing a 6 km downhill on the "death lane". Although I was scared shitless there was nothing I could do. There was no alternative road and even turning around was impossible because of the road barrier. Luckily there is not much traffic on the E4 and you get passed by one maybe every 10 minutes. But whenever that happened I expected to die. (But as you can see from this post I didn't.) My German bike guide says that the E4 is pleasant to cycle on and say something about a 3 m wide shoulder.... Forget it: At least up to Umeå the E4 is more like a death trap for cyclists and I now understand why on long stretches it is actually forbidden for cyclists. The Sverigeleden joins the E4 again for a couple of km and I had the same scary experience. No more experiments for me: I stayed on the Sverigeleden although that meant tremendous detours. But it also offered safer and much more scenic cycling. Did I mention the swimming spots?

Snow shoes in the ski muesum
So finally I reached Umeå and the end of my trip in Sweden. The cities of Northern Sweden have one big advantage: most of the sights and museums are free! This was also true in Umeå that had the usual county museum including the ski museum and the usual open air museum. But it also offered free English city tours. Of course I joined but Umeå is not that exciting, although it will be cultural capital of Europe next year - which explains why the whole town resembled a huge construction site. The weather forecast for Finland did not look good and as I needed a rest day anyways I tried to figure out accommodation for my next stop Vasa, Finland. But alas, no hostel there and no luck with Couchsurfing. Have I mentioned that the CS website is crap? On older browsers it does not display correctly and you can't even log in. The mobile version is mostly useless, too. So even with internet access at the visitor centre and the library I could not get into couchsurfing. But in the end everything worked out. I spent my last Swedish crowns on a crappy Thai AYCE buffet, found free wifi at Mac Donald, got accepted by a CS host and made it to the ferry to Finland. Bye bye, Sweden - I'll soon be back.


John Harwood said...

Why do you get so worked up about narrow roads. Most drivers are reasonably good, especially the trucks drivers. If there is not enough room they are unlikely to driver right over you, they are more likely to wait for the space to pass. So don't panic. I can easily imagine you racing through that narrow bit though, you would have left me in your wake!

Enjoy Finland.

Stevey said...

Hi, Thanks for your detailed info. I'm doing a ride from Stockholm to Helsinki via the gulf and had this crazy idea the E4 would be OK to cycle.
Do you recommend the bike route instead?