They call it the sleigh ride: the three-hour flight on a ski-equipped Hercules cargo plane from the U.S. base at McMurdo to that most exotic of Antarctic destinations: the South Pole. Schoolboy keen, I showed up early at the icy airstrip, bundled up, bags packed, eager to go. It was the summer of 2000 and I was in Antarctica on an assignment for National Geographic, bound for Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station where I was supposed do a story on the future of science at the Last Place on Earth, talk with climatologists about such worthy topics as global warming and the ozone hole, and write a side piece about the construction of a new $150 million super-high-tech base the Americans were building there. Unbeknownst to my editors, I had a hidden agenda as well: to ride a bicycle around the world. I love touring and I’d always wanted to circumnavigate the globe by bicycle, but never could find the spare year or so such a journey would take. At the South Pole, however, not only could I ride around the world on a flat course free of traffic, but I could do it in a time that would make even the space shuttle’s ninety-minute orbits seem pedestrian by comparison.
A few quick turns of the pedals was all it would take, a little circle around the pole itself, and I would have passed through every single line of longitude, both the Prime and Ante Meridians, and geographically speaking, could claim to have ridden round the world.
The stars must have been all in alignment on this one. It turned out I wouldn’t even need to bring my own bicycle. In the course of my research into the goings-on at Pole that summer, I learned that a team of design students from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, working in conjunction with scientists from the U.S. Antarctic Program, had recently come up with a ‘Polar Bicycle’ for use in the South Pole’s extreme conditions.
Given the high cost of getting fuel to Antarctica, the sensitivity of the astronomical instruments at the South Pole Observatory, a half mile away from the base, and in keeping with the general low-impact eco-philosophy of Antarctic research, it was decided to make Amundsen-Scott South Pole base a bicycle friendly zone-or at least take a crack at it. A prototype of the new Polar Bicycle had been built and shipped down to Pole for testing-and yes, sure, I could take it for a spin if I liked. I liked.
The Sleigh Ride to ‘Pole’ was magic, three-hours of high adventure, following at 22,000 feet the route taken by both Scott and Shackleton back in Antarctica’s Heroic Age: across the Ross Ice Shelf, through the towering peaks of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains along the Beardmore Glacier, up to the hauntingly empty vastness of the high polar plateau. Amundsen-Scott base, when I eventually spotted it in the distance, looked almost frighteningly remote, a few scattered specks of colour in an immensity of white that stretched to every horizon.
We circled once and then the big turbo prop touched down, its skis kicking up a blizzard of snow. The hatch opened and we emerged, blinking, into a dazzlingly bright, bitterly cold, alien world, where the air was razor thin with the nearly 10,000-foot altitude, a double halo circled the sun, and home was a great blue Plexiglas dome that belonged more to the realm of science fiction than real life. The outside temperature on that balmy summer day was minus-33, the wind chill minus-61, while in the dimness beneath the dome, where the sun’s rays never reached, the temperature stayed at the Poles constant year-round average of about minus-60.
But all was pleasingly snug and warm inside Sally’s Galley, as the base canteen was affectionately known. Cramped and crowded, with lots of heavyweight red parkas hanging on hooks along the walls, it made me think of a truckstop café on the Alaska Highway, circa 1975. Meals here were hot and hearty – 5000 calories a day was the reckoning for people living and working in the extreme conditions at Pole – and there were always pots of steaming coffee on hand, trays of fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies, and generally plenty of amiable company as well, for this was the social hub of the base.
And it was there, the following day, over mid-morning coffee and biscuits, I met Jeffrey Petersen, an astrophysicist from Carnegie-Mellon University who, it turned out, was Pole’s resident wheelman, commuting back and forth between the dome and the futuristic astronomy complex half a mile away.
He took me around to the Polar Bike. It was quite a piece of work. With its chunky frame and seven-inch-wide steel-mesh tyres it was never going to make me forget my whippet-lean Italian road bike back home, but then Italian road bikes aren’t designed to run in minus-80 temperatures, and be operated by someone wearing huge fur-lined gauntlets and enormous insulated ‘bunny boots’ that are standard South Pole-issue. This one was.
I hopped aboard. Jeffery grabbed his studded-tyre mountain bike which he’d freighted all the way from America and together we pedalled off to trot the globe. And yes, if you’re wondering, there really is a pole at Pole. There are two of them in fact: the barber-striped ‘Ceremonial Pole’ with all the flags around it, where everyone goes to have their photo taken in Hero mode, and, because the ice cap shifts about thirty feet or so each year, a more portable and more precise Pole a few yards away, its position being recalculated by GPS each January. We looped both. Many, many times.
We pedalled east to west, west to east, racing each other, cracking jokes and playing the location for all the quirky humour we could conjure. We even paused to wind our watches for the different time zones. As far as handling goes, the Polar Bicycle made a Mao-era Flying Pigeon look as light and responsive as a Pegoretti-Jeffrey’s mountain bike performed far better-but it was a fun toy to play with out there on the high polar plateau. Finally when we’d had enough we turned for home and pedalled back to the sheltering warmth of Sally’s Galley. Our best time, we reckoned, was somewhat under ten seconds, or as I like to think of it now, we lapped the entire world in around the time Usain Bolt can run a hundred metres.
Alas, I’m afraid our record doesn’t stand. I’ve since learned, with all the recent hoopla over round-the-world cycling records, that the nice folks at the Guinness Book of World Records take a picky stance as regards circumnavigations. They expect you to suffer a little more than we did, the morning’s minus-72 windchill and Pole’s razor thin air notwithstanding.
They expect hills, traffic, bandits, war zones, bad food, bad roads, near misses, and hairbreadth escapes. They want visas and stamps in your passport. They want you to have cycled a full eighteen thousand miles, to be precise, like James Bowthorpe did when he set the record of 175 days, not to do it playfully during your tea break as we did on a sparkling summer morning at the South Pole, then trot inside for milk and cookies like a couple of overgrown kids in the world’s biggest winter wonderland.
I dunno. Maybe I should see if they’ll give it to us with an asterisk: done at altitude.