Explore: Off-piste, off-road

Skiing and bikepacking are not somethings that usually goes hand-in-hand, but adventurer Henna Palosaari couldn’t think of a more beautiful match

This article was produced in association with Velocio

Some things in life don’t seem like they would go together, but somehow they defy the boundaries between all logic and reason. Think strawberries and balsamic vinegar, Laurel and Hardy, olive oil and ice cream, Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue, watermelon and feta cheese or vodka and cream – all pairings you’d question at first glance, but once experienced, you understand how they perfectly complement one another.

Unlikely pairings challenge our preconceived notions and open our minds to new possibilities, leaving people questioning what else could work. Of course, some work better than others, and some divide the crowd – Marmite peanut butter, for example – but it only needs one person to be daring enough to dip their toe into a new pairing to see if it really works. One more example: bikepacking and skiing.

Finnish adventurer Henna Palosaari mixed these two unlikely bedfellows by undertaking a 420-kilometre bikepacking trip to ski around the Dolomites, carrying all her kit on the bike from Innsbruck to Riva del Garda. “I love the seasons,” says Palosaari, sat at home after returning from her trip. “Cycling has mainly been a summer thing for me, but then in the winter, I love snowboarding. I have grown up in the snow, so it is really important to me to be able to enjoy the colder months. I’ve spent the last four winter seasons in Innsbruck, snowboarding, but this year it has been a bad winter snow-wise, so it made me think how can I make the most of it.

“It just started out as this idea of combining two of my favourite things for a while, and being able to ride my bike and go snowboarding, and have all the equipment I need on the bike, too. Then I started to look at the map to see what was around me and I realised the Dolomites, which is meant to have super great skiing and really scenic biking, were less than two hours away. I was shocked it was so close and that I had not been there during my four years in Innsbruck. I knew I could have a week off and I decided I’d go through the Dolomites to Riva del Garda, and it would be the perfect length with time for snowboarding and skiing along the way.”

When cyclists think of the Dolomites, they picture sharp-toothed, sheer-sided mountains that stand enormously tall as the background to vast green vistas speckled with mountain villages filled with wood-panelled lodges. They are perfect for long days in the saddle, climbing and descending these iconic mountains that have written history for races like the Giro d’Italia, sun beaming down, tan lines sizzling on skin and postcard-like views on a perfect summer’s day.

The Dolomites are a location most cyclists daydream about. But in the winter, the Dolomites become renowned for their skiing, and thousands of people from around the world flock to the alpine villages, hoping for excellent snowy conditions and great après-ski. Not so much a calling for a cyclist at this time of year... But having grown up in Oulu, the winter cycling capital of Finland – a city where one in five journeys are made by bike, no matter the weather – riding bikes in rain, wind, or snow is second nature to Palosaari, and this combination of cycling and snowy mountains was an adventure she just could not miss.

With no hesitation, Palosaari began putting her loosely-planned trip together, placing emphasis on the loosely part. “I think overthinking is very common, and you just start thinking about what you are meant to take or what do I do if this happens, like there are so many things to consider,” says Palosaari. “You obviously need to try to think ahead for what you need for the trip and the route, for example, but do a rough guide for timing – nothing too specific – because that is stressful and just makes you overthink in the end.”

This sense of freedom is what pulls Palosaari to continue exploring on her bike. The time to spend all day roaming around, embracing the minimalist spirit by carrying only the essentials, uncovering new vistas and finding out what the body and mind are capable of. With bikepacking, there are no limitations or time factors, she noted, just her, the bike and endless days. For her, it is even more fulfilling when she could merge her two passions into a single pursuit.

During her eight-day trip from Innsbruck to Riva del Garda, Palosaari was joined by two like-minded individuals, Sami Sauri and Malva Björkman. Together they embarked on a unique adventure of skiing and biking, conquering the snow-covered slopes and navigating scenic trails. Although Palosaari had previously met Sauri on a trip to the Norwegian coast, this was her first time meeting Björkman. However, their shared passion for bikepacking and skiing, as well as their connection through social media, eased any concerns about spending eight days together. Instead, Palosaari appreciated the opportunity to get to know both these women on a deeper level during the trip.

“You get to directly see who they are,” she adds. “You are kind of naked in a way. Like, there are going to be tired moments, good moments, and there are going to be bad moments. You right away get to see the person and how they react to different situations. I think you also become friends a lot faster because everybody is genuinely themselves on a trip like this, helping each other out to solve problems together and then you have this memory to share.”

A learning curve

“I was scared before the trip that it was going to be a full sufferfest, but splitting up the days, being flexible and having a reasonable riding distance, made it really doable,” she says. “I really loved the variety and diversity of being able to do these two different things and get two different experiences. I think, especially during the winter, it is harder to get to the mountains with your bike because of the snow, but with this trip, we got to ride our bikes and take in the scenery but then we were able to really go into the mountains that you see from the road – it just worked really well.”

The first two days were the hardest, says Palosaari, because all three of them were trying to find their rhythm and balance with not only the route, but also their bikes, which were laden with skis, ski boots, backpacks, handlebar bags, and sleeping bags, all secured with many, many straps. “The goal was to get to the Dolomites as soon as we could,” she adds. “Which meant at the beginning we really had to push it.”

After riding to Vals from Palosaari’s home, the second morning saw them ride to Padaun, where they had planned to complete their first ski day to Vennspitze, a ski tour located in the Tux Alps just before the Italian border. However, with their eyes firmly on the majestic mountains in Italy, they had to push on again for another 30km that evening to make it to Vipiteno, riding into the night to cross the border into Italy.

Upon arriving in Vipiteno, exhausted but determined, the group of three women sat down to discuss the best way to tackle the next part of the journey. “We all needed to enjoy the trip. We all had to be comfortable and look at the map and take responsibility. Even though we were together, each one of us had to take responsibility for ourselves and be a part of the planning. I think it is always important to know where we are going instead of just following everyone else.”

After the second day, where they slogged it out on the bikes after squeezing in a day skiing in Austria, the rest of the trip saw them split the days between the two disciplines. This brought about a smoother schedule, and most importantly, a more enjoyable experience. Despite the initial difficulties, the three women soon found their rhythm on the trip.

At the centre of the Dolomites

The Dolomites put on an otherworldly show for their arrival on the fourth day. The sun’s rays ignited the vertical walls, illuminating them with golden yellows and fiery reds where the light touched the rock face. The peaks showcased shades of pink and purple, creating a mesmerising dance against the white snow backdrop.

After a ski day to Monte Castello, day six took the three of them on their bikes to Marmolada – the highest massif and also known as the Queen of the Dolomites. Standing more than 3,000 metres above sea level, the climb provides spectacular views after a gruelling ascent to the top. Travelling 45km to get to Marmolada, they climbed more than 1,600m of elevation, but the reward was priceless as they arrived.

“In Marmolada, you really felt in the centre of the Dolomites,” says Palosaari. “There were scenic mountains everywhere and we got to ride and tour high up them. At that point, I was happy to be exactly where I was, doing exactly what we were doing. We arrived late at night at our next stop and the sunset colours were amazing. At that point you are kind of happy you started riding later in the day.”

After seeing the Dolomiti queen standing proud over the village, the opportunity to ski the mountain’s slopes was irresistible. With the mountain being covered in fresh powdered snow, Palosaari wanted to make sure she had as many runs as possible, choosing to take the ski resort’s cable car instead of touring up the mountain. “Why would you not use a lift and get more time on the downhill instead of just spending all your time going up?” asks Palosaari, smiling and shrugging. 

Off-piste, off-road, off-rules

Taking a relaxed approach to her bikepacking adventures, Palosaari doesn’t worry that she isn’t following any set rules and instead focuses on making sure she gets the most fun and enjoyment out of every moment. The same goes for her kit. With eight days’ riding in the snowy, freezing conditions, staying warm on the bike was essential, especially on the eye-wateringly cold descents. “It got super cold,” she recalls. “And that was why I was so happy that we had our ski coats.

“On the second night when we were riding in the dark on a long downhill, we had all our layers on. I had a long sleeve merino base layer, then I even had a wind jacket on, and then a Gore Tex jacket, and then my down jacket and ski gloves.

“Sometimes it is hard to stay warm just by wearing cycling kit, especially when we were stopping a lot along the way, so having enough of these layers made it so much nicer. There is nothing worse than being really cold on the bike – that is something that originally made me not like winter riding that much. Luckily we had all our stuff in our bags, so if we did get cold, we could just say, ‘Oh I am going to put on my jacket... and then I am going to put on one more layer.’ It definitely wasn’t the normal tight-fitting cycling outfit, but the key was to stay warm.”

Comfort over style is so important when on long-distance rides and practical items make a big difference. She adds, “It’s super important to have good comfortable bibs that are easy to go to the toilet in, and the Velocio bibs I used were great for this purpose because you had all the jackets on and with the flyfree element, you can pee with all your layers still on – saving you from getting cold.”

Not doing things by the book is what Palosaari has become accustomed to. Her first bikepacking trip was a mere 5,000 kilometres around Finland. Never having tried her bags, she set off on her adventure around her vast home country with the mentality that she’d just learn on the job. Since that first trip, she has carried this mindset forward and even on her trip to the Dolomites her new bike only arrived two days before leaving, giving her no opportunity to test carrying the skis on the bike, as well as all the gear she would need for the eight days of riding and skiing.

“Luckily everything worked super well,” she says. “Everything did fit on the bike and it felt comfortable. There was, with that amount of load, some shaking on the downhills. On the first day it did it a lot, and I was thinking, what am I doing on this bike? But over time I learned that I needed to put a bit more pressure on the front and then I just got used to the shaking. It was only the first day I felt really spooked, but then I felt more confident.”

Try and try again

Defrosting their bones after four ski and bike days in the snowy mountains, they then headed towards their finish line in Riva del Garda, stopping in Trento after 100km of riding – the longest day in the saddle. Arriving on the northern shores of Lake Garda, Palosaari, Sauri and Björkman popped a bottle of celebratory champagne gifted to them by their B&B, shared congratulatory hugs, and took in what they had just achieved – an eight-day adventure of two sports and three women coming together, in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

During the trip, each of them inspired and motivated one another, highlighting the importance of women supporting and empowering each other in such adventures and in life. Palosaari recognises that fear can often hold people back from pursuing their dreams, especially when it comes to bikepacking trips. However, she believes that by sharing their experiences and demonstrating that anyone can embark on such journeys, more individuals, especially women, may gain the confidence to try it for themselves. Not only will they get a sense of accomplishment from having completed the distance, but they will have another layer of achievement, having overcome any trials and tribulations along the way “And there is always YouTube,” Palosaari says, reminiscing on the time she used a YouTube tutorial to help fix her rear derailleur.

“Women have the idea that we have to be like professionals, so we forget that in fact, we need to practise and fail, and practise more; we need to learn and try to master it. So it is alright if things don’t go super smooth at first, but once you’ve changed a few bike tyres, for example, you’ll soon learn how to do it.”

Palosaari is quick to point out that you don’t need to go solo on your first bikepacking trip or it doesn’t need to be the most extreme trip in the world. Build up, and start building your confidence in a group or on a shorter trip. But what she does suggest is getting involved. Take part in the planning, help with the route, try to solve your own mechanical problems – absorb all the knowledge that you can.

In the end, Palosaari’s message is clear: don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, and especially don’t be afraid to write your own rules. What at first may seem like an unlikely mix of two things can often lead to the most extraordinary outcomes.

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