NOTNext week, Omar di Felice will begin a journey no human has yet attempted. The Italian ultra-endurance cyclist will arrive in Hercules Inlet, West Antarctica, and begin pedaling across the ice towards the South Pole. All going well, he will ride for 60 days through almost 2,000 km of dangerous terrain, passing the pole and reaching the Leverett Glacier in mid-January to complete the first ever coast-to-coast bicycle crossing. .
Cycling in Antarctica is a relatively new phenomenon, made possible by the development of wide-tire bicycles called “fatbikes”, which can traverse snowy conditions. The first cycling expedition to Antarctica took place in 2003; in the years that followed, only two men managed to cover the entire distance between Hercules Inlet and the South Pole (about 1,250 km). No one has yet ridden to complete a coast-to-coast crossing of the continent.
“I know it will be a very difficult challenge,” di Felice said, speaking to the Guardian from Italy before flying to Chile and then to the Hercules Inlet airstrip. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to do it – because it’s very hard. But I just want to try, it’s an attempt. It’s a tough attempt, but why not give it a try?
Di Felice is no stranger to ambitious cycling adventures. A former professional road cyclist, the 41-year-old switched to expedition cycling early in his career and has never looked back. In 2014, he became the first cyclist to travel to the North Cape in Norway, near the northern tip of mainland Europe, in winter; he also crossed Alaska, Canada and the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.
But the Italian admits that Antarctica will be something else altogether. “Hopefully I’m ready for the most extreme adventure of my life,” he says. “Everyone I talk to says I’m crazy, it’s impossible, the bike won’t pass because of the deep snow and the wind. It’s very difficult for cycling, but I’m just going to explore and find out for myself if it’s possible or not.
Di Felice will depart Hercules Inlet next weekend (weather will determine exactly when his flight can depart from Punta Arenas in southern Chile). The first part of his journey will be the most difficult, sometimes over unchartered terrain – di Felice estimates that he will cover only 20 or 30 km a day. From the South Pole, he will take a road of hard-packed ice that connects the pole to McMurdo Station – where he hopes to travel 50 or 60 km a day.
But di Felice will have to keep up the pace: his authorization to stay in Antarctica expires on January 20. “I’m going to have to be very fast if I want to make the crossing,” he laughs.
Di Felice will tackle this epic journey with a custom steel fatbike. “Carbon is worse than steel in cold conditions,” he says. But even with a dedicated bike, it’s unlikely to ride all the time. Eric Larsen, who attempted to ride from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole in 2013, recently told ExplorersWeb that, given the conditions, “off-road biking in Antarctica means walking your bike.”
While he rides or walks, di Felice will pull a sled carrying his tent, supplies and plenty of warm clothing (temperatures could drop to minus 38°C). It rides unassisted, although it can refuel at the South Pole if necessary (the expedition is not officially considered unassisted by the Polar Expedition Classification System as its route partly follows a constructed ice road ). Di Felice estimates he will consume 4,500 calories a day: a breakfast of muesli and dried fruit, energy bars for lunch while he rides for eight to 10 hours, then a dry meal before bed .
“We can change the world with a bicycle”
Di Felice has dreamed of Antarctica since he was a child, watching films about Italian polar explorers such as Reinhold Messner, the first to cross Antarctica on foot. “Now as a cyclist, ultra-cyclist, I try to mix my work with my passion for polar conditions,” he says. “And this great adventure is a mixture of all my passions.” Di Felice adds that the history of Antarctic exploration stimulates him. “The great adventures of the past inspire me to reach my limits, to exceed my limits.”
But in addition to fulfilling his childhood aspirations, there is a more serious message behind di Felice’s expedition. The cyclist is a climate activist through his Bike to 1.5C project. “It’s a project that connects my adventures to a scientific program to raise awareness of climate change,” he says. “The bicycle is the best vehicle to tell the story of climate change and raise awareness about reducing our carbon footprint.”
Last year, di Felice attended Cop26 in Glasgow, traveling to Scotland from Milan. “It was really symbolic – we showed the world that we can change the world, with a bike,” he says. It has also partnered with the Italian Climate Network and the European Space Agency as part of its outreach mission. “We need to tell the story of Antarctica and why Antarctica is so fragile [due to climate change].”
Whether or not di Felice makes history in the coming months, he insists he will be happy with his efforts. “The most important thing is to think you can do it,” he says. “I will be happy even if I don’t reach the other coast.”
He doesn’t think this will be his last expedition either. “The world is very big and there are lots of places we can explore with our bike,” he says. “Maybe I’ll come back to Antarctica and try again, maybe I’ll try another part of Antarctica, maybe I’ll go to the North Pole. There’s a lot to do – I can’t not imagine retiring.
But no matter what happens next, di Felice will continue to spread his climate action message through bold exploits. “We can change the world if we use the bike every day,” he says. “Going to work, going to school, even going on extreme journeys. My desire is to show people that you can do anything with a bike, you can even go to Antarctica.