Omar di Felice: Freeze spirit

Most road cyclists avoid bad weather. However, ultracyclist Omar di Felice actively seeks it out. We interrupted his preparations for a ride across Antarctica with a few questions about his life choices

This article was originally published in Rouleur Issue 116. Support our journalism by subscribing here.

Omar di Felice grew up in the balmy climes of Rome. As a child his heroes were the great road cyclists of the 1990s: Gianni Bugno and Marco Pantani. However, his own cycling career took him in the direction of ultracycling and especially riding in the freezing and inhospitable far north and south.

He has ridden around the globe, albeit a shorter route than the traditional round-the-world parcours, on his Arctic Circle World Tour 4,000km of cold and ice. He rode Iceland’s Ring Road over four days in winter. In a more temperate ride, he cycled from Milan to Glasgow to coincide with the COP26 conference, to raise awareness of the climate emergency. His next expedition will see him traverse Antarctica via the South Pole by bike, which will aim to be the longest ever coast-to-coast on the southern continent.

Have you ever asked someone for an autograph?

When I was a kid, my parents used to take me to see races. One time at the Giro del Lazio, when it finished in Rome, I plucked up the courage to ask Gianni Bugno, who was happy to give me one. I met Marco Pantani once, but on that occasion, there was no chance to ask for an autograph.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

I’d like to have the gift of ubiquity.

If you could change one thing in this world, what would it be?

Indifference. One thing I discovered during my adventures around the world is that  even people who have nothing, the people who are in far more difficult circumstances than you are, do their best to lend you a hand when they see you arriving hungry and cold. The less someone has, the more they tend to share it with others.

What’s the most bizarre encounter you’ve had on your cycling trips?  

In Mongolia, I stopped at a tent in the middle of nowhere. The people who were there didn’t have any water, but they were adamant that they wanted to offer me some home-made vodka. There was no way I was leaving without trying it – and taking some with me in my bidon. Is that strange enough?

Do you remember how you felt when you achieved your first big goal as an ultracyclist?

The first time I arrived at the North Cape by bike in 2014, the overwhelming feeling was satisfaction. I had cycled on ice, in freezing conditions, and at that time no one had dreamed of doing things like that.

What is the fastest speed you’ve reached on a trip?

Coming down from Alpe di Pampeago I hit 110 km/h. I can also tell you the lowest: in Greenland, when I was dragging a sled on the back of the bike, I managed to travel no more than a couple of kilometres an hour.  

What’s the difference between being a professional racer and doing what you do?

Unlike a pro racer, I cannot afford the luxury of focusing solely on the performance. In my case, the performance has to be explained, you have to describe it. You can’t  just say what happened, you have to make others feel what your feelings are, so that they understand your state of mind. This brings with it the pleasure of disclosure, and that extends to your surroundings. For me personally, I started by telling stories about what I felt and what was happening to me and ended up explaining what I was seeing around me, too.

Three tips for cycling in the cold?

One: learn to love the cold. Two: don’t be afraid of being cold. Three: dress well. The right equipment is essential.

How many kilometres do you cycle every year? And how many kilometres do you cover by car?

I do around 35,000km every year on my bike and unfortunately, just as many by car. I have an electric model, and I try to travel as much as I can by train, but the train is only good between cities and due to my work, that means it’s not always practical.

Coffee or tea?

Coffee in the morning, herbal tea in the afternoon.

Tubular, clincher or tubeless?

Tubeless for life.

Bars, gels, or apple pie?

Apple pie.

Do you have a dog?

I don’t have any pets. I think humans are okay within the confines of walls, and animals are okay outside in nature. Let’s just say I don’t really like the idea of having a dog at home.

What has cycling brought to your life?

In addition to joy, it’s given me the tools to face life. It has helped me grow as a person; cycling is a great training ground for life.  

If you weren’t a cyclist, are there any other sports you would like to compete in?

Definitely some other kind of endurance sport. I really like cross-country skiing, and recently I’ve gotten really into all different kinds of skiing, from ski-mountaineering to adventure skiing. But beyond it being just a sport, I’d like to know how to ski the way I ride a bike, to use the skis as tools for exploring and for learning.

What was the ‘penny-drop’ moment of your cycling life?  

I became a cyclist the day I saw Marco Pantani on TV, standing up on the pedals and  sprinting up the Mortirolo, back in 1994.

If you could have all the money in the world, what would you use it for?

I don’t care about having money and I don’t care about wealth. I made the choice to have a life full of experiences. I’m more interested in happiness. I hate luxury and I’m not interested in excesses. I’d like to carry on my science projects, and I care about climate change, so I’d spend it on that.

Happiness is...

For me, it’s pursuing my dreams. I like working towards my goals, and happiness is a path. As a child, I dreamed of becoming a professional racer, but instead I’m about to start my Antarctica Unlimited project and I will try to cross Antarctica via the South Pole. Let’s hope I succeed.

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