With Christmas over and New Year approaching we zoomed off to our 5th stage of the trip. This saw us based in Olos at the fancy Lapland Hotel and to my amazement was located along side a ski slope! Knowing that we were already spending the week driving snowmobiles and rally cars (super exciting!) I couldn’t quite believe I’d even get a chance to run out on my snowboard. Sincepublication of all the stages this one promised so much excitement and I had it penned in my top 3 for the tour. Who would not to want to spend a week driving snowmobiles and rally cars though????
Having dumped the excessive amount of bags we are lugging around on the trip (so much gear) into the spacious penthouse suite that I’d be staying in for the week, I ran to the ski rental to grab myself a board so I could get a few runs in before dinner. We’d been in Finland for nearly a month at this point and It had felt pretty weird being in such a snowy place but not spending my days on a board. Here there’s not the huge mountains you get elsewhere in the snowy Europe I have visited before. Instead they have fells so they don't tend to have massive ski resorts although we were staying roughly 40mins drive from Levi which is Finland's largest ski resort. As I took the drag lift up I instantly regretted not adding more layers as the bitter wind tore at my cheeks. Apart from being shown up by the insanely skilled Finnish kids, it was a decent slope and, as it was flood lit, I got a good few hours in before it closed at 5pm. The boots I rented were about 3 sizes too big which made for an interesting ride. It was like trying to control my board whilst in wellies! Anyhow, at this point we were not sure what the exact schedule was for the week so I'm glad I went out whilst I could.
Day one - Snowmobile Cross
After we were all kitted out and barely recognisable from one another we met our instructor Mikka who would be showing us the basics of riding a snowmobile. We’d spent christmas day having a go on them so I felt fairly confident getting back in the saddle. I feared the worse as we practised using the throttle whilst walking along side and thought ‘Oh god todays going to be long’. But I should have never doubted the crazy Finns because an hour later we were let loose on the snowmobile cross track for a few laps before lunch. As I’d said in my interview that morning when asked about my fears, there is nothing really that scares me about driving the snowmobiles it is more my lack of fear that I think could be the problem. Before, when I’ve driven a quad bike or a motor bike, I'm fully aware of how much power I am sitting on and all I really want to do is go as fast as I can. Now on the cross track thats a different story, much like a BMX track its full of different jumps. Some small tight ones which you need to pump the bike over (I was desperately trying to apply the technique I use when riding a BMX) then the big ones which you know the pros just clear. Gaining more and more confidence after each lap I really started to up my speed but my small head was rattling around in my helmet and it was dropping over my eyes. Finally, after losing my helmet taking a jump a little bit too fast and landing fairly abruptly, I reluctantly left the track for lunch hoping to swap my helmet to avoid such problems in the afternoon.
When we returned to the track it was much darker and the pros had arrived with their sporty looking snowmobiles with all the gear on. They showed us the type of protection they wore and demonstrated a few laps. Suddenly my confidence was shattered as the young Finnish lad flew over most of the jumps I thought I was nailing. It was incredible to watch, the height he got was insane. He admitted that he does get a bit scared when riding in the dark because his front lights aren't much help in the air and he’s having to land blind which is mental. Inspired by his skills I went out on the track even more determined to ride it well. Maintaining the speed is tough and it can be detrimental to hit the jumps too fast as you just end up landing dead and having to pick the pace up again. We were all going round together but some of the team were more confident than others, or safe as Popil called it. You couldn't wipe the smile off my face though as I powered round and round the track.
As always confidence turns into cockiness and I tried to recreate a move I saw Mikka do on one of the laps where you drive up a bank on the side. It looked fairly straight forward when he did it but as I revved my way up the side, getting the left part of my snowmobile on the slope, I got stuck, stalled and was left at a compromising angle. Feeling a tad ridiculous sat at a 45 degree angle and looking like the titanic ready to topple over and sink I deliberated my options.
- Option 1 - Get off the bike, potentially causing it to fall onto me and be flattened
- Option 2 - Try and start the engine again and accertalte my way out of trouble but again with the chance that it topples over completely.
- Option 3 - Wait for help…
In the end it was a combination of 1 and 3. I put one leg off the snowmobile (exactly what they tell you not to do) and propped it up. Mattias came to my rescue and dragged my nose out of the snow. Lesson learnt and I sped off to continue working on my jumps and sticking to the track. It’s tough going on your body, controlling the snowmobile really takes it out of your arms and even my right thumb was struggling to stay on the throttle. The light was gone by now and the snow was blurring our vision so we called it a day. I thoroughly enjoyed it as it was just the perfect mix of the things I love - and you sweat a lot less than on a BMX…
Day 2 - Snowmobile Safari
The plan for day 2 was to do a 100k trail but because of snow conditions it wasn't possible. They hadn't had a good enough base of snow yet for the trails and because of that the tracks were just made up of bumps and is pretty uncomfortable to ride. Instead we set off on a 60km route which took us up to the top of Levi. My arms were sore from the previous day as I’d pounded them going round the cross track like a lunatic so they were feeling quite delicate. Like the first day we took it slow to start with just to get everyone comfortable driving the snowmobiles. During winter they have tracks just for snowmobiles and here in Levi they have over 880km of maintained routes, but with the recent warm weather (that counts as below -10) the tracks weren’t too great and again pretty bumpy. It was pretty similar to the cross track the day before!
We spent the morning travelling over lakes, through the forests and learning to control the snowmobiles. Most people ride them sitting down but I find that I feel more in control and comfortable if I stand up ( I also feel like a bad ass). We learnt throughout the day that the best way to drive over the bumpy track is actually to go quite fast, about 35-40kmph so that you glide over them, then its a lot more comfortable. It feels like your slightly out of control but I enjoy that feeling so its good. Sometimes you’ll get the wrong line or take a bump too hard that it jolts you a bit. This can see you hammering the accelerator by accident which then sees you pull off the gas which then quickly slows down but then you just hammer it again! The result sees you bunny hop over the track with an slightly insane smile upon your face. The group as always has a mix of ability and Mattias and I liked the high speeds a bit more than everyone else but we regrouped often and this allowed everyone to go at their own pace. It’s not the sort of activity that you want to be pressured to go any quicker than you feel comfortable going, especially in the conditions we were riding in.
Our mission for the day was to reach the top of Levi. There were tracks all the way up but because of the exposed areas the wind had blown away parts of the snow so there were rocks to watch out for. At first I just thought it was a tree root so just drove over it. The scraping noises that followed didn't sound like wood so I avoided the brown bits from then on. I loved driving up the hill. The gradient was quite a challenge and you had to work quite hard to get up it. At one point Yuichi even took a tumble, flipping his snowmobile over him but he was fine and once he was dug out we powered on. The weather at the top was arctic. We’d lost the great view we’d seen coming up and the wind was blowing the snow over the brow in a ghostly wave. We didn’t hang around long but as soon as we dropped down a bit the conditions were back to normal. The light was fading so we started our journey back. Your body soon gets exhausted and also mentally you get tired from concentrating on the track to stay alive so the team were all pretty shattered when we returned.
Riding a snowmobile is such good fun. When I've rode a quad bike or a motor bike I've never really pushed it as fast as you can but on the snowmobiles I felt safe enough to really power it. Especially across the flat areas where I would hit maybe 50-60kmph which feels so fast when the wind is blowing and your bouncing over the snow. I know the locals go much faster but the exhilarating feeling of going that fast for me was incredible. I enjoyed it so much, and stepped off the snowmobile at the end of the day just shaking with adrenaline.