New Zealand – Land of Inspiration
A cycle trip the length of New Zealand was the inspiration behind a British endurance athlete’s mission to cycle to the South Pole and claim a world first.
Five years ago, 35 year-old Maria Leijerstam from South Wales, UK, spent Christmas at the bottom of the world, battling through snow, ice, crevasses and winds of 40 miles per hour in a solo attempt to be the first and fastest person in the world to cycle to the South Pole from the edge of the continent. After ten days of cycling in atrocious conditions with an aggravated knee injury, she claimed the title.
Maria, now a mother of two young daughters, reminisces in her new book “Cycling to the South Pole — a world first” about her expedition and how cycling across New Zealand set alight her passion to cycle Antarctica.
“I was completely smitten by the fact that sport seems to be a way of life for young and old in New Zealand. Anything and everything seems possible. In the UK we seem to be bundled with bureaucracy and a culture where we are becoming obsessed with protecting ourselves from claims,” said Maria.
“I found that this burden often discouraged people from trying out something new. In New Zealand, everyone seems willing to experiment with adventure and sport is as common as breakfast,” she continued.
During her visit to New Zealand in 2010 Maria cycled from Cape Reinga in the north to Bluff on the furthest tip of South Island, stopping off temporarily in Christchurch to race the Speight’s Coast to Coast Multisport race from west to east and in Wellington to race the Karopoti National Mountain Biking championships. She also met former prime minister John Key to discuss plans for a north to south cycle route.
Following her New Zealand trip, Maria began a three year programme of intense physical training as cycling in snow was a whole new ball game. After many trials and failures on a two wheeled fat bike, she worked with a UK company on the development of a unique polar cycle with three wheels that would be aerodynamic and carry her through snow and the intense cold of Antarctica.
After much research, Maria chose a shorter but steeper route to the South Pole rather than the traditional expedition route. Inspired by the iconic Captain Scott who had climbed the Beardmore glacier and Roald Amundsen who climbed the Axel Heinberg glacier, Maria chose the neighbouring Leverett glacier.
“During my training I built up great strength in my thighs and I took some comfort from the fact that my 985 watts of power produced in my fitness testing, would help me. Testing my legs in a controlled environment was, however, no comparison to testing them on a glacier in Antarctica at minus 40 degrees,” said Maria.
They did not let her down. Her physical fitness and determination carried her up an icy fifteen per cent gradient on the Leverett glacier, though at times pedalling became so tough she could not move faster than 0.2 kilometres in an hour. "At one point it took 12 seconds for one revolution of my wheels,’ said Maria. At the same time avalanches were powering down the mountains throughout the day gnawing into her fears.
Exhausted and hungry after a long day of pedal pushing Maria had to erect her tent in howling gales and prepare freeze dried rations on her tiny stove. Then there were aches and bruises to nurse along with a rapidly swelling right knee.
Reaching the polar plateau was a monumental relief, but there she faced further problems. “ I have never experienced such biting cold,” said Maria. A complete white-out and regular mounds of compacted snow called sastrugi continued to mar her progress.
After five days of being totally unsupported Maria feared that her slow progress would prevent her from reaching the South Pole in time for her departure flight — and there were two other cyclists, a Spaniard and American cyclist also trying to claim world first. She took the difficult decision to abandon some of her 55 kilogrammes of kit strapped to the back of the polar cycle, in order to increase her speed.
Fortunately, the plan worked and five days later Maria arrived at the South Pole in a record time of ten days, fourteen hours and 56 minutes, bringing not only intense relief to her family and friends but a double world record to be proud of.
"Why did you do it?” is the constant question.
"Adventurers have already walked or skied to the South Pole. I wanted this to be a smart expedition and to demonstrate that my polar cycle is a proven method of human powered travel in Antarctica,” said Maria. She has certainly proved that.