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Omar riding

An Icy Ride For Climate Awareness

Italian ultra-endurance cyclist Omar di Felice has just set off to Antarctica hoping to be come the first athlete to cross from coast to coast.

By Chris Cummins

Cycling adventurer Omar di Felice is about to set off on an epic bike ride that he hopes will make him the first human to cross the icy continent of Antarctica by pedal power.

On a sturdy, steel-framed fat-bike he intends to spend the next two months crossing 1,600 kilometres of frozen, barren terrain and he hopes to make an ecological statement.

Omar runs a project called Bike to 1.5C, a reference to the maximum amount of post-industrial temperature rise we can “afford” without sending our planet into a dangerous spiral of tipping points.

Omar close up

Communicating A Crisis With An Adventure

He says this adventure on the melting southern continent could be an inspiring way to bring the issue of climate action into people’s minds. “I hope the scientists can speak with people using my adventures, maybe using maybe some beautiful images, to communicate a crisis.”

I got into bike-packing two-years ago and realized that the biggest challenge was keeping the weight of equipment down to something I could manage to carry, so I wince as Felice explains his preparations.

“I will spend something like 60 to 70 days to do all the crossing of 1600 kilometres and I will be completely alone without a chance to resupply at the South Pole,” he tells me from Chile as he makes his final preparations, “so I will have to bring all the foods and all the stuff I need with me.”

A Heavily Loaded Sled

That stuff includes medical kits, tools and a tent as well as plenty of warm clothes to deal with temperatures that could fall to as low as -40 degrees Celsius.

He’ll put much of it on a sled, dragged behind by his bike. In all it will be 100 kilos of weight carried by a man who himself weighs only 62 kilos. And the going will be tough, especially on the outward route from the coast of the Hercules Inlet towards the South Pole.

Omar's map

“It’s a very dry sort of snow as you head to the Pole,” he tells me. “It’s a bit like fine, white sand. That means it’s very hard to push the bike and to stay on the bike and to cycle on it.” Indeed, the cycling trip will involve lots of pushing.

Constant Head Winds

Then there is the wind. The Antarctic winds are are very strong and usually they go from the South Pole to the coast which means Omar will have to face head winds for most of the trip.

All of this means he plans to cover an average of 23 to 25 kilometres per day. “But is it just an average distance. You need to consider that some days I will stay stuck in the tent due to the bad weather and the storms.”

The Power of Patience

This slow pace must be a mental challenge for a man who recently cycled nearly 7,000km in just 18 days while winning the legendary Trans Am Bike Race. An ultra-cyclist reduced to the sort of distances I cover in a daily work-commute!

“The most important thing that you have to stay positive,” he tells me. “Even when you see your Garmin with an average speed of 3 to 4 kilometres per hour.”

Indeed, he expects the mental challenges to be the stiffest opponents, tougher to overcome than even the snow or wind. Last year, in his first attempt, Omar abandoned after 100km of riding. A serious illness in the family was playing on this mind, anxieties magnified by the intense loneliness of an expedition through an unpopulated continent.

Omar riding hard

“It’s not easy to manage, for example, a problem at home. It’s not easy to manage the bad news,” he confides, “So this year I decided to receive just good news. I need to have a big filter between me and the rest of the world.”

Staying Focussed = Staying Alive

That’s not selfishness. That’s a necessary survival strategy. “It’s so important because, you know, if you are not focussed on what your you are doing, maybe you can risk doing something dangerous,” he says. “You can go into crevasses, or you could carelessly destroy the tent or the medicine. Really you must be 100% focussed on where you are going and what you are doing.”

I find myself obsessing about Omar’s feet. There’s nothing worse than cold feet, I find, and I’m rarely tackling anything more severe than a couple of December hours along the Danube.

2kg Boots

“I use some special fat bike special shoes with very, very strong soles. It’s something like the one that you can see when we go to Alaska or to Canada to do something like the Iditarod Trail Invitational.” These are massive boots that weigh around 2kg. “They are very heavy but it is the only way that you have to protect your feet.”

He also has a prototype suit based on the sort of high-Himalayan climbers’ clothing but adapted to allow him to keep pedalling. “You have to move the legs and you have to stay comfortable on the bike.”

Omar, who says he has dreamed of Antarctica since he was "a baby”, is very aware of the ecological crisis his dreamland is facing. The Bike to 1.5C project saw him ride from Milan to Glasgow, Scotland to advocate for ambitious climate goals at COP26. He has spent a lot of time riding in the Arctic and, after his aborted mission last year, he is aware of how both polar regions are changing.

Some people say adventurers should stay away from the Poles in this era of climate-crisis. They say the continent should be reserved for scientists and penguins, but he dismisses that. His adventure is too tough!

“I don’t expect that people who are looking at my adventure will be inspired to try to cross Antarctica next year,” he says. “So maybe I don’t expect that within the next year hundreds of people will go to Antarctica to destroy it by cycling.”

A Unique Ride

It’s time to end the theorizing and to start the cycling and Omar is looking forward to a good weather window that will allow him to get the adventure started. “There is no other place like Antarctica,” he tells me. “And when you find yourself riding there, it’s very exciting and emotion eating because you look around, you see just the sky or the snow or the sky. It is freedom and you are doing something unique. That is the best motivation for me.”