Ultra-cyclist Omar di Felice begins his winter Arctic World Tour

·8 min read

On Wednesday, ultra-distance cyclist Omar di Felice will begin a ride that boldly goes where no cyclist has gone before -- at least not during the depths of winter.

From Kamchatka, Russia, the 40-year-old will embark on his self-titled Arctic World Tour, a 4,000 kilometer journey through eight nations that border the Arctic Circle. The winter bikepacking adventure is also an awareness campaign: the Arctic World Tour is part of di Felice’s "Bike to 1.5degC” project which aims to heighten awareness of climate change.

As di Felice makes his way west toward Alaska through Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Greenland, and Canada, people can track his progress or check his Facebook page for updates. In addition to updates about weather, wildlife, and gear and equipment, di Felice will also broadcast conversations with scientists and climate experts who he’ll speak with along the way.

From adventure to awareness

Di Felice’s love affair with riding in the frozen winter began, unexpectedly, in Rome, Italy.

“Like many Italians, I fell in love with cycling when I was a baby,” he told VeloNews.

Di Felice said he did everything he could as a young boy to become a professional road cyclist -- and briefly did -- but quickly fell out of love with traditional racing when he started competing in ultra-cycling events like the Race Across Italy (620km) and Tortour Switzerland (1,005 km). At the same time -- around 2012 -- di Felice began to incorporate huge adventure rides into his annual calendar.

He also discovered a love of snow and ice.

“I love the winter, I love the cold conditions, I love to prove myself in the great north,” di Felice said. “I love the snow. I think the snow and ice are my real elements and my favorite elements. I know it's not so normal that a person who was born in Rome, where it's warm all year round, has this kind of love for the great north.”

<span class="article__caption">Di Felice will alternate between a gravel bike and a fat bike, depending on the terrain. Studded tires are mandatory on both.</span> (Photo: Omar di Felice)
Di Felice will alternate between a gravel bike and a fat bike, depending on the terrain. Studded tires are mandatory on both. (Photo: Omar di Felice)

Di Felice’s first cold-weather expedition was in 2013 when he rode Iceland’s Ring Road over four days in winter. The following year, he rode 700 kilometers from Tromso, Norway to Nordkapp, the North Cape, also in winter. Instead of being horrified, he was hooked and returned to both countries multiple times in the last decade to ride in the frigid temperatures and darkness of winter.

While di Felice still lives and trains in Rome -- he said that he does 80 percent of his training on a road bike -- he traveled to Iceland in December to train and test equipment for the Arctic World Tour. The weather that should have been a shock to the system felt strangely familiar.

And, it was alarming.

“In the northern part of the country it was something like five, six degrees,” he said. “Like Rome! There was no snow and no ice. I couldn't test any of my gear. So yes, the climate is changing really quickly. They have funerals for glaciers in Iceland. Soon they will all be gone. It’s very sad.”

De Felice’s heightened awareness of climate change has grown in tandem with his cycling adventures. He’s been a full-time ultra-cyclist since 2016, but in recent years he’s experienced a personal evolution in how and why he goes on bike adventures.

“Sometimes I was the first to do something,” he said. “Other times the fastest, or I just did it because I wanted to.”

<span class="article__caption">In October, Di Felice rode 2,000km from Milan to Glasgow to the COP26 climate conference.</span> (Photo: Omar di Felice)
In October, Di Felice rode 2,000km from Milan to Glasgow to the COP26 climate conference. (Photo: Omar di Felice)

Now, instead of doing something first or riding it the fastest, di Felice wants his bike adventures to serve as a platform for sharing information about climate change. He’s partnered with the Italian Climate Network, and the Arctic World Tour will be the second ultra-distance ride in his “Bike to 1.5degC” project.

Using adventure rides to help educate people about climate change makes sense to the Italian; Di Felice said that it was through riding bikes that he noticed firsthand the changing landscape.

“You can't not consider what you're looking at around you when you’re riding your bike through these countries,” he said. “So yes it's an adventure and it's what I really love. But on the other hand, maybe in 5-10 years Lapland won't be the same Lapland I know now. It's changing. When you love someone so much, you take care of them. That's why I'm trying to take care. Trying to mix my passion for sport and adventure and doing something that could help the planet in some way. I could speak about how strong I am because I cycle in winter, but I can also speak about climate change and animals and mountains, all the things that are part of my adventure.”

The Arctic World Tour

Di Felice’s Arctic World Tour adventure begins on Wednesday morning in Kamchatka, Russia.

He’ll begin the ride aboard a Wilier Triestina Jena, a gravel bike equipped with the Shimano GRX groupset and Mavic Allroad SL wheelset with Continental studded tires. This bike will carry him 800km through one of Russia’s most remote and wild regions. Then, he’ll continue to Lapland, riding 1500km from Murmansk (Russia) to Tromso (Norway), passing through Finland and Sweden.

From Tromso, di Felice will switch to a fat bike (also with studded tires) for his travel to the Svalbard islands, the northernmost point of the adventure. He’ll dip into Iceland’s Snaefellsnes peninsula before arriving in Greenland, where he’ll ride the Arctic Circle Trail, a 200km off-road path from Point 66 (40km east of Kangerlussuaq) on the ice cap margin, to the village of Sisimiut.

For the final part of the ride, di Felice will be back on the gravel bike for a long stretch from the Whitehorse, Yukon region of Canada to Alaska.

While the logistics for an adventure like this sound nightmarish -- from the flights (there will be four) to the visas to the uncertainty about the locations of resupply -- di Felice feels confident in his planning. He is prepared to wait out storms when they blow in and he believes that he knows where the ice is (covering all of the roads in Lapland, Greenland, and some of Alaska).

Di Felice will carry a full winter camping kit but hopes to rely mostly on accommodations in villages. He is prepared for the challenges of sleeping outside, as well as carrying up to six days worth of food.

“When I find villages I will sleep in the villages,” he said. “If I look at my past adventures, in some of the most remote places there are generous people. Maybe along the journey or if I can't get to the next village, I will camp. Every night that you spend in the tent is another challenge. Sleeping at -30 is not something that you enjoy too much. We will see.”

For food, the protocol is similar: di Felice will carry enough for the stretches without resupply and will always stop in villages for provisions. He’s prepared to carry everything for the sections in Svalbard and Greenland.

“There I will bring a sled for all the food. In Greenland, it will be 5-6 days with nothing. Svalbard is three days, maybe. I think on the Dalton Highway in Alaska, there is only one resupply. I have to be ready to bring the food with me.

Sometimes the adventure becomes just surviving.”

<span class="article__caption">Di Felice is an experienced winter cyclist and says it’s crucial to check your hands every 30 minutes for signs of frostbite.</span> (Photo: Omar di Felice)
Di Felice is an experienced winter cyclist and says it’s crucial to check your hands every 30 minutes for signs of frostbite. (Photo: Omar di Felice)

Perhaps the most critical element of di Felice’s survival is his ability to thermoregulate and prevent frostbite. He said that vigilance is key since frostbite can present with no forewarning.

“For example, if I'm riding at minus 30, I know that every hour I have to stop and check my hands,” he said “If everything is not OK I have to stop and try to warm the hands or maybe if there is a village I can stop. Or have a fire. It could be dangerous but if you're experienced, you know what you have to do.”

While di Felice is an experience winter cyclist and bikepacker, he isn’t as attuned to the conditions and situation he’ll find on the ground in the Arctic. At one point, he’ll need a guide to escort him through polar bear country in Svalbard, but he’s also aware that the animals’ behavior is becoming less predictable. While he doesn’t want a run-in with a polar bear, he also doesn’t not want to see them.

These are the types of experiences di Felice hopes to share while he’s traveling and when he returns home. He believes that a winter bike ride through the Arctic can teach people far more than they imagine.

“After a lot of years spent cycling all over the world I started looking at the world with more critical eyes,” he said. “Winters are becoming warmer and this is why I started thinking, ‘what can I do to share these experiences and talk about climate change?’ This is why I started the new project, to spread the word that we can reach this goal using the bike. The bike may be the most important vehicle for this. What is happening to the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic. The effects are in our countries, our towns and our cities.”