On the evening of June 21st, Sanne Hitipeuw stood on the start line of Den Store Styrkeprøven. Translating as The Great Trial of Strength, ahead lay a 540 km race from the Norwegian city of Trondheim to the capital Oslo; a tough enough proposition before even considering the requirement to cross the finish line in under 24 hours.
Driving up to the event from her home city of Amsterdam, Sanne admits to burying any thoughts of trepidation beneath her default position of ‘it will be alright’. But as the race unfolded and the worsening weather contrived with an unforgiving route to slow her progress, an overall time of 29 hours left her with a sense of disappointment rather than feelings of elation at completing such an audacious undertaking. A reaction to this epic feat of endurance that speaks of Sanne’s steely spirit but also an ongoing search for balance between a determination to meet self-imposed expectations and the happiness that riding her bike brings.
After studying a Master’s degree in Corporate Law, Sanne joined a large, international law firm in 2014; an adrenaline-filled, high-pressured work life that left little time for outside interests and not at all what she’d previously envisaged as a potential career path.
‘Even though I’d enrolled on the course I never seriously considered becoming a lawyer. But when I was still studying, my father got sick with a very aggressive form of cancer. 6 months later he passed away.’
‘My method of coping was to block all of this out and not focus on the emotional side of how I was feeling. Throwing myself into my studies which then resulted in a job offer; such a high-paced environment that I could easily work in excess of 80 hours a week. Keeping myself so busy, I guess, that I wouldn’t have to feel anything.’
It was at this time that Vincent Engel returned to the Netherlands after working overseas and challenged her to buy a bike and ride up Mont Ventoux with him. Conquering the climb after a mere two days of training, Sanne enjoyed the experience to such an extent that it prompted the purchase of a good bike and a determination to use cycling as an opportunity to reflect and discover another side to herself. A change in focus perhaps best illustrated by her decision to spend a couple of months riding in Jakarta and Bali before then planning a solo transfer ride between Amsterdam and Berlin.
‘After my father got sick and passed away I’d been focusing only on others. Trying to help my family and friends – feeling responsible for them – but in the meantime I was losing grip; rushing through life without being able to stop, enjoy and appreciate. Suppressing all my feelings didn’t help so I decided to take some time for myself. To try and find some peace of mind. To go riding.’
‘My trip to Indonesia and then Amsterdam to Berlin,’ Sanne continues, ‘was an extension of that. To focus on myself and get back to who I really am. Being alone on the bike; totally independent without anyone wanting something from me.’
Over the 800 km route to Berlin, Sanne discovered that the freedom of moving from one place to another and the new people she met on the road all gave her a real sense of living in the moment. But the ride didn’t come without its challenges.
‘There were minor mistakes such as telling myself that I couldn’t stop for lunch until I’d crossed the German border and then, after 180 km, being so tired I didn’t eat enough; decisions that with hindsight you realise were rather foolish. But there was also a navigational mishap that sent me down a gravel track into a forest; no internet connection to help me re-route and after flatting twice it started to go dark. You’re in an unfamiliar country, you don’t speak the language and it’s easy to feel lonely and scared.’
‘But looking back I now realise that overcoming these obstacles is something to be proud of and was quite an achievement. Rationally you might argue that you can’t afford the expense or the amount of time travelling but life can be short and my emotional side now says do it. That is what I learnt from my trip to Berlin.’
With such a gifted photographer by her side, Sanne has a wealth of captured moments with which to reflect on past journeys. Vincent’s images taken on a trip to Switzerland in which she’s pictured pushing her bike through heavy snow particularly resonating; Sanne feeling they have a pure quality that perfectly defines exactly what cycling means to her. The challenge of discovering places that are almost inaccessible but not quite enough to discourage a desire to see what’s around the next corner. Or the overcoming of obstacles that extends to the inclement weather which can be a feature of riding over winter in the Netherlands; the wind whipping off the North Sea and driving the rain almost horizontally across a rider’s path.
‘There’s this picture taken in the snow which we very rarely get in the Netherlands. That particular day we had a Code Orange weather warning which means you should stay indoors where it’s safe. But we decided to go out and enjoy the city from a whole different perspective. With a snow-storm blowing, my hands were burning with the cold but we still wanted to take that picture because it can feel good to meet the conditions head-on. Of course we prefer sunny days and feeling the heat on our skin, but life can be boring and monotonous and it’s not always a good thing to stay at home and wait for the comfort of easier times.’
With this love of adventure, Sanne prefers the thrill of discovering new places to simply riding a familiar loop. Choosing to pressure herself to reach the limits of her endurance in the knowledge that she can still dig deeper and carry on. Sharing her time with a close group of friends, exploring gravel paths, stopping for coffee; simple pleasures that riding a bike affords but a stark contrast to the challenge of Den Store Styrkeprøven.
‘Ever since I learnt about this Midsummer race I’ve wanted to give it a shot. It sounded impossible but I just couldn’t get it out of my head and decided to make it happen. I got talking to people with a view to riding with someone but no one wanted to do it. And when you consider the numbers then maybe they’re right [laughs]. But with every new challenge it’s not just about the thinking; there’s also the doing. And that’s partly why I travelled to Norway because it doesn’t always come to you. Sometimes you need to seek out adventure; to make life happen.’
In her friend Cyril Chermin she finally found someone who – according to Sanne – was crazy enough to agree to partner her. He’d cycled to Japan from Amsterdam so shared the same need to experience new places and both decided to treat the race as a journey that they could then write or talk about. As it turned out, they had plenty of stories to tell when almost from the off their carefully-laid plans began, one by one, to fall apart.
‘Our original idea was to form a larger group and take turns on the front. But this just didn’t happen and we ended up riding on our own. And the first 100 km is basically all climbing before the road plateaus across the top of a mountain for another 40 km; fully exposed to all that the weather was throwing at us and seemingly never-ending. We pulled into a feed station and everyone was wrapped up in those foil blankets. Not a good vibe and we still had such a long way to go. Mentally we were close to being fried as it was taking far, far longer than we’d imagined and I’ve never felt so up against it when riding a bike.’
‘But you re-group and carry on. I felt like crying at some points but the thought of stopping never entered my head. I did wonder how on earth we’d manage to finish but we were always going to finish. Vincent was following by car and taking pictures but never once did I consider climbing off my bike. And I do recognise in me this sense of perfectionism that doesn’t always make things easy. We completed the 540 km in a moving time of 21:59 but I’d set out to finish the ride with an overall time under 24 hours. I didn’t do it and I felt disappointed.’
‘In my family there’s a history of debilitating depression and it’s something that I also have to struggle with. Each day asking myself why am I alive? Do I like life and facing up to the responsibility of making those necessary changes if the answer is a no. And that’s why I push past my comfort zone. Why I still want to finish Styrkeprøven in under 24 hours.’
Although there’s still a sense of unfinished business, allowing time to fully reflect has also resulted in Sanne framing her experience in a sense of personal empowerment. Whether an individual decides to ride 500 km or 50, that it doesn’t have to be about the numbers because the experience is just as important. Maybe even more so.
‘Most of my life I’ve allowed my decisions to be dictated by my rational, ambitious side; following my head rather than my heart. That’s how I ended up being a lawyer which in the beginning I really liked but it reached a point where I felt I was rushing through life and becoming increasingly unhappy. Using work to distract from the grief of losing my father that I’d never really processed and still haven’t. So when I consider why I love riding my bike so much – even though sometimes I can be pretty hard on myself [smiles] – it’s my emotional self that’s been buried for so long at last being allowed to surface.’
Now working as a freelance legal consultant and project manager, Sanne’s professional life is by necessity hectic but she is trying to prioritise time spent on the bike and the balance in her life that this brings.
‘I try to live my life now – I owe it to my father – knowing that I don’t want to regret the choices that I didn’t make. Which is why, when I look at the images of the trip to the Swiss Alps that I made with Vincent, there’s a realisation that being in an environment where I can be with my own thoughts – exploring new places, taking on challenges and doing the seemingly impossible – is helping me put my feet back on the ground. That the sense of being I achieved pushing my bike through the snow made me feel alive again.’
‘Simply put, I need cycling to make me happy. It gives me the energy and drive to explore new places and plan the next adventure. That’s why I travel so much and take my bike wherever I go. I want to ride new roads and meet new people along the way. For me it’s all about connecting. But not only with others. Mostly with myself. Making me feel alive; helping me find peace on an emotional level. All of this, I guess, the reason why I ride.’
All images with kind permission of Vincent Engel