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Refreshingly mad

What do you do next when you’ve run the 250km Marathon des Sables and ridden your bike 600km across Siberia’s frozen Lake Baikal? You ride to the South Pole of course, and that’s exactly what Maria Leijerstam is en route to do.

Maria, 35 and a custom-built ‘fat trike’ - a recumbent with four-inch wide snow tyres - are currently en route to Antarctica where she will attempt to become the first person to ride to the South Pole.

The attempt is scheduled to start around December 18 (you can never be too exact thanks to the antarctic weather) and the Welsh adventure racer, statistician and management consultant hopes to reach the South Pole around January 7. 

She’s no newcomer to cold-weather epics. That Siberian ride we mentioned? That was a race, and Maria finished second out of 30 starters, beating all but one of the men. Only eight riders finished.

Anyone who’s read Ranulph Fiennes’ books knows that the biggest challenge with unsupported polar travel is carrying enough food.

When they walked across Antarctica Fiennes and Mike Stroud man-hauled sleds so heavy they didn’t know they could actually pull them till they got to Antarctica and tried it. In contrast Maria will be carrying a relatively feathery 45kg of gear.

She’ll therefore have to travel relatively fast in a race between success and starvation and that means riding for 18 hours at a time, with a few hours’ break for a power nap, and then off again.

Three wheels on my wagon

One of the most unusual aspects of Maria’s polar attempt is her bike - or rather, trike. On the surface, the obvious machine to choose would be a fat bike, a mountain bike with four-inch tyres designed for riding on soft surfaces like snow and sand.

But there’s a problem.

“Fat Bikes fail because they get blown over in the high winds, or can’t ride fast enough through the snow to stay upright,” said Maria. “I knew I needed something that would overcome these limitations.”

This was a problem Maria hit when racing across Lake Baikal. “On a few days the wind was so fierce that I simply could not stay on the bike as it was blown from underneath me,” she said.

Recumbent specialists Inspired Cycle Engineering have built her a custom machine to handle the conditions. A recumbent trike for stability, it has three huge snow tyres, with studs on the rear drive wheel and step-down gearing for a wall-climbing low gear.

“The trike is amazing. It’s completely stable, even in extreme winds and I can take on long steep hills that I’d never be able to climb on a bike” said Maria.

To test out the trike, Maria has been training in the Tamworth snowdome, and has travelled to Iceland and Norway to test the bike and her kit in sub-zero temperatures.

As she will be carrying her own gear, it’s technically an unsupported trip, but drivers from supporter Arctic Trucks will never be far away if she runs into trouble.

Rivals

That’s not the case for one of Maria’s rivals to be the first person to pedal to the pole. Spaniard Juan Menendez Granados has already set out to ride to the pole on a more conventional fat bike, towing an 85kg sled full of supplies.

Granados is travelling alone, and his support crew estimates that it could take between five hours and several days to reach him if he gets into trouble.

So far, however, weather conditions have made it impossible for Granados to ride at all.

American Daniel Burton is also heading for the South Pole by fat bike, and has actually been able to do some riding, though he too has been struggling with sled-towing.

You can follow Maria’s progress at www.whiteicecycle.com and her trip will be the subject of an ITV documentary to be shown in January 2014.

Acknowledged by the Telegraph as a leading cycling journalist, John Stevenson has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.

He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.

Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc editor Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.

John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.

He joined road.cc in 2013 and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.