An Italian cyclist who specializes in extreme long-distance rides completes a return trip across Antarctica, where the lack of human contact is the biggest challenge.
Last year, Omar Di Felice from Italy tried to ride a bicycle across Antarctica from coast to coast. He believed he had fully prepared for the challenge, having a specially designed “fatbike” with wide tires, enough food and gear for a 60-day unsupported journey, and warm clothing to withstand temperatures as low as minus 38C.
He did not anticipate the mental obstacles that would come with embarking on this journey, particularly as his family faced issues in Italy. In December, after eight days and nearly 100km into the trip, Di Felice chose to end it.
“He expressed the importance of staying focused while spending extended periods of time in a remote location. However, he personally struggled with this mindset due to concerns for a family member’s health, leading him to cut his adventure short and return home.”
Making the choice was difficult. Di Felice spent three years getting ready for the journey to Antarctica, including obtaining financial support from his sponsors and physical training. He explains, “When faced with the challenge of crossing such a treacherous environment, with fierce winds and numerous hazards to my life, I had to be completely focused. Any distraction or issue that could divert my attention from the adventure was dangerous.” Ultimately, it was a tough call but he had to make it. He couldn’t imagine being in Antarctica for two months while dealing with significant problems back at home.
After being evacuated by Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions, Di Felice was certain he would return. He expressed his determination, stating, “This has always been a huge dream of mine. I have dedicated my entire life and career to making this dream of crossing Antarctica a reality. I refuse to let any obstacles stop me from achieving my goal. It’s similar to an alpinist attempting to climb Mount Everest – it may take one, two, or even multiple attempts, but the important thing is to never give up and always keep trying.”
After one year, Di Felice is getting ready for his second try. He plans to fly from Chile to Hercules Inlet, located in the western part of Antarctica, within the next few weeks, depending on the weather. He confidently states, “I am prepared to attempt it again. I have improved and now I know how to handle not only the physical obstacles, but also the mental challenges. I have learned to distance myself from news and distractions from the outside world.”
In order to achieve a significant feat, Di Felice must travel 2,000km across difficult land, starting from west Antarctica and continuing to the south pole and Leverett glacier. The use of fatbikes has enabled cycling through snowy terrain, with the first Antarctic cycling expedition occurring 20 years ago.
In 2013, Maria Leijerstam achieved the monumental feat of cycling from the Antarctic coast to the south pole, covering a distance of over 600km. The following year, Juan Menéndez Granados and Daniel Burton each individually completed the 1,250km journey from the coast to the pole. However, to date, no one has successfully completed the coast-to-coast crossing.
Di Felice, who is in his forties, has a notable background in extreme long-distance cycling. In 2014, he achieved the unprecedented feat of cycling to North Cape, Norway during the winter season, reaching Europe’s northernmost point. He has also completed long-distance rides through Alaska, Canada, and Mongolia. Most recently, he emerged victorious in the Trans Am bike race, covering a distance of almost 7,000km across the United States.
According to Di Felice, Antarctica presents a unique challenge. He believes that the biggest obstacle is psychological rather than physical. While facing extreme weather conditions and carrying necessary supplies is physically demanding, it is something he has prepared for throughout his life. However, mentally, Antarctica is unlike any other place in the world. The solitude is overwhelming and one is left alone with their own thoughts without the ability to communicate with anyone else.
According to him, his initial try was the most challenging journey he had ever embarked on. After only a few days, Di Felice was forced to take shelter in a tent for 72 hours due to extreme winds of 110km/h. The most difficult aspect for him was the feeling of isolation.
“In the Arctic, Canada, Alaska, or Iceland, and north of Russia, I encountered harsh winds, freezing temperatures, and snowy and icy terrain,” he recalls. “But in Antarctica, there are no human settlements or places to take a break. It’s just you, your tent, and your bike. You must endure this lifestyle for 65 to 67 days, completely on your own. Mentally, it is extremely demanding.”
According to Di Felice, he is currently in his best physical state. He recently took a break after winning the Trans Am race, and now feels rejuvenated and prepared to continue. His initial objective is to reach the south pole. He states, “Each kilometer beyond the south pole is a fortunate accomplishment.”
Timing is a crucial aspect of the challenge, as there is a small timeframe for land-based journeys across the frozen continent. However, Di Felice’s ambitious goal of crossing the entire coast in 60 or more days means that the initial weeks, when summer is just starting, will be especially difficult. He emphasizes the importance of strength during this time.
Aside from his journeys, Di Felice is an advocate for environmental protection through his venture known as Bike to 1.5C project. In 2021, he cycled from Milan to Scotland to participate in Cop26 in Glasgow. He stated to the Guardian in 2020, “The bicycle is the most effective way to convey the message of climate change and promote the importance of reducing our carbon emissions.”
On this occasion, Di Felice has been collaborating with Italian scientists who will be stationed in Antarctica while he cycles through it. He reports that he is witnessing the effects of climate change personally in Antarctica.
According to the speaker, my journey this year will vary slightly from the previous year’s route. This is because there are more crevices in the southern part near the South Pole, caused by melting ice. The ice is undergoing changes, which has been confirmed by data. Although to me, Antarctica may seem unchanged with its ice, winds, and snow, scientific evidence shows that the climate is rapidly changing.
After facing difficulties in his initial journey biking across Antarctica, Di Felice remains positive as he embarks on his second attempt. He will have to endure over 60 days, cover a distance of 2,000km on icy terrain, brave hazardous winds, and conquer the ultimate obstacle – mental strength – in order to achieve this feat.
According to Di Felice, reflecting on my initial encounter yielded one key finding: it is feasible to cycle across Antarctica. Despite my previous apprehensions about the bike’s functionality in such a harsh environment, spending just 10 days there has convinced me that it is indeed achievable.
“It will not be easy, it will be incredibly challenging, but I believe it is achievable,” he states. “Therefore, I am returning to Antarctica with the determination to continue my journey by bike on my own.”