Polar-ice-cycling: ExWeb interview with Daniel Burton

Posted: Feb 26, 2014 07:53 am EST


(By Correne Coetzer) This 2013-14 Antarctic season we have seen three different approaches to cycling from coastal start points to the South Pole. 


Maria Leijerstam (UK) rode a recumbent tricycle on the Leverett ice road (505 km as the crow flies), with a truck driving along, carrying all her gear most of the time. As Maria was traveling on the compacted vehicle road, she was able to cycle all the way, without having to push or pull her tricycle. She completed the route in 11 days on December 17, 2013.   


Spaniard Juan Menéndez Granados and his fatbike started from the classic ski start point at Hercules Inlet, 1130 km from the Pole. He was solo, unassisted and unsupported, pulling all his gear from the start to the end in a sled. As this route is not a compacted vehicle route, when the terrain was too difficult to cycle, Juan opted to put on skis and pull his bike on his sled. He completed the route in 46 days on January 17, 2014. 


American Daniel Burton has also chosen the Hercules Inlet start point. He had four resupplies on the way and completed the route in 51 days on January 21, 2014. When the terrain was too tough for cycling, he walked and pushed his fatbike. He also sledge-hauled.    


With polar-ice-cycling an emerging sport, skiers have approached the task differently and  emotions have flared as to what's the right way. Explorersweb checked in with the participants for their different point of views. Today we speak to Daniel Burton and next we check in with Juan Menendez Granados.


Explorersweb: You claim to have cycled the whole route; in fact, to have been the only one who has been [quoting you] “riding a bicycle 100 percent to the South Pole" this season. What about the many (hundreds) kilometers that you have pushed the bike? Everybody who has done the Hercules Inlet route knows that the ice conditions and the weather over that long distance won’t allow anybody to ride all the way; given also the 2 month time frame to complete the journey. Or does pushing a bike counts as riding? (I mean, if I take my bicycle, push it to town, pack my shopping on it and push it back, can I claim, riding to town and back?)


Daniel: I think you have to decide what is biking what isn't. Before I left Union Glacier I decided that the definition I would use was that I would never put my bike in the sled and pull it. Anyone that has ever done any serious snow biking knows that sometimes you have to push. After I got going I added another requirement on myself that I would have to do in order for me to feel comfortable saying that I biked the whole distance. I had to ride everyday. 


There were plenty of times that I considered that it would be easier to what I thought would be cheating and throw the bike in the sled and pull it, and there were times when my broken wheel made me think I might fail on the riding everyday but I worked hard at keeping the rules I set for myself and was able to complete the journey in a way that I feel I can honestly say I biked 100% of the route. I do not say I rode the whole distance because I did push a lot. However, I made a very conscious effort to ride as much as I possibly could, and to push when I had to.


As far as I am concerned I believe that pushing a bike at times is part of biking, skiing is not. The reason I feel this makes sense is: Riding is always going to be preferred to pushing. So if I am pushing the bike and the conditions are such that I can ride I jump on the bike and ride. If someone is wearing skis and something is ridable they continue to ski because you can't pedal with skis on you feet. Skiing is not part of biking.


ExplorersWeb: Reading your blog, you were very much occupied with Juan in your daily dispatches, about how much he cycled and how much he skied. Juan was clear from before the expedition that he would ski if conditions were not good for cycling. You claimed to have known (calculated?) exactly how much he has cycled and skied. How did you do that? At Patriot Hills you were heading west towards Thiels to pick up your two resupplies, while Juan headed straight to the Pole. Later, closer to the Pole, when the routes merge, you said you have daily traveled close behind him and followed his tracks (his navigation). Right?


Daniel: It was a mistake for me to talk about Juan as much as I did. I know how much Juan rode vs skied because we used the same route. Except for about 10 miles before Patriot Hills and the last 30 miles we were on the exact same route. Juan said in his blog that he skied the first 10 days which includes the 10 miles before Patriot Hills. So from Patriot Hills until the last 30 miles I saw his tracks the whole way. I have never said I know exactly how many miles he biked, but I do know he biked less 120 nm. 


Following in Juan's ski tracks, and knowing he is claiming to be biking when he isn't and I am, and being alone for so long I let that get to me. When I called in to ALE they would ask how the biking was going and I would tell them, and then I sometimes asked if Juan was ever going to start biking. They told me he didn't like the conditions. As the conditions improved I couldn't help but wonder how he could expect the conditions to be any better. 


Finally, one day he took his bike out and tried it. He rode less than .1 mile before he went back to skis. This was in an area where I was killing myself by riding for short distances getting stuck catching my breath and going again. Juan continued to not even try to bike many of the days, and when he did bike it was always for less then a mile. Finally it got to where I was able to get long distances without stopping to catch my breath. You can see where this was looking at my daily mileage, as this is when I started getting 15 miles and more per day. At this point biking was more efficient that skiing and when I called into ALE they would tell me I was getting more miles than any of the other expeditions. 


I would continue to see Juan put in only a mile or two a day. I found myself hoping he didn't discover how well the biking was working and as bad as it is was glad to see that he would never spend much time with the bike. Then the last two days before Thiels Juan started getting more miles in on the bike. One day he biked 5 miles, which was the longest I saw him bike on the whole expedition. Given that he traveled more that 15 miles that day it was still less than 1/3 of the days miles. 


After Thiels Juan and I followed the tracks left from the Arctic Trucks and from ALE's van that had driven from the Pole back to Union Glacier. Juan would continue to bike a few miles a day, and I would be riding for most of the day and pushing occasionally when I had to. I was getting reports back that Juan was claiming to be biking most of the time. I could see it wasn't true and I let it bother me. 


Near the end we had some bad whiteout and a fair amount of snow. The soft snow meant that I was running very low pressure in my tires. I saw that after the snow, Juan tried to ride, made it about 30 yards, and then gave up. He just didn't have the traction. I was still able to ride because I lowered the air pressure. Again it bothered me that he was claiming to be biking when I could see he was skiing and I was doing the work to actually ride.


ExplorersWeb: In your opinion, what did Maria do? Seems like you say on the Internet she didn’t cycle? [Note: we are not talking here about the fact that she had a truck driving with her and carrying her gear, and taking the a route half the distance of yours on the compacted ice road - this has to do with the Rules of Adventure.] Or does the support truck means anything to you as a cyclist?


Daniel: As far as I know Maria did what she said she did, and is the first to cycle to the South Pole. I think the differences are as you stated in your question. Also riding a bike vs a trike in Antarctica is really a different thing. A lot of people will not see the difference, but when it comes to riding through soft snow, keeping balance, and going through sastrugi the two vehicles are not even close to the same thing. I think Maria did an awesome thing. (I also think what Juan did with no resupplies is awesome) However as the Rules of Adventure state her ride cannot be compared to the expeditions that pull their own gear. 


I actually got a chance to talk to the driver of her truck as we crossed paths at Thiels. I didn't get to talk Maria because she was asleep in her tent at the time. Cool cycling event.


ExplorersWeb: What advice do you have for future cyclists?


Daniel: When I started I had no prior polar experience. A lot of people said I should not be doing it because I had no polar experience. While I did learn a lot at the beginning, and it was in part why I started out so much slower than the other expeditions this year, I think I did a great job of using what I knew and applying it to where I was. So I have a lot of things I now know that I could help someone else preparing to bike in Antarctica. 


I guess the biggest thing would be do realize that biking in Antarctica will be harder than you can possibly imagine and to be ready for that. I knew that going into my expedition, but of course you never fully understand until you do it. But I think knowing going into it that it would be harder than imaginable prepared me to continue on in spite of the difficulty. 


This is a bit off the question's subject but I think it is possible that the most efficient way to get to the pole using human power may be to ski and bike. Ski when it is more efficient and bike when it is more efficient. In an email from Juan he told me that it wasn't his fault that I wasn't doing what was most efficient and not using skis. My effort was to see if it could be done with a bike not what was most efficient, but it would be interesting to see if someone could set a speed record using bike and skis. 


If they were to try this I would say make sure your sled hooks to your bike and not your body. I think that was part of what made biking so difficult for Juan. I stripped the nut for my quick release on my rear wheel and tried a few different ways to pull the sleds. I tried pulling them with my body like Juan was doing. It was the worst of the methods I tried. Having the sleds attached to mounts on the rear axle was the best. Also panniers like Eric used were terrible. The sled was much better than the panniers.


ExplorersWeb: What was the worse of your trip?


Daniel: I really thought I would finish sooner than I did. Towards the end I had worked so hard for so many days I just wanted to be done and to be able to go home. However when I finally got to the last half of the last day I found myself feeling sad that it was almost over.


ExplorersWeb: What did you enjoy?


Daniel: I didn't do this thinking it would be fun, and for the most part it was work not fun. However there were times I had a lot of fun. I left my shovel behind one day and had to go back and get it. Dumb thing to do, but I was glad I did because it was fun to ride across Antarctica without the sleds. 


Also when I quit following the vehicle tracks during the last 30 miles and was going where there were no tracks ahead of me I had a lot of fun navigating in a whiteout. It was a very hard trip but I will always be able to look back and say I did it.


ExplorersWeb: Anything else?


Daniel: There is so much more: It was great to be able to meet so many amazing people. Richard Parks and I crossed paths just a few minutes before I fell into the crevasse, it was great to meet him. There were a lot of great people at Union Glacier that were amazing adventurers. I was so glad to have been able to meet Vesa at the South Pole. He was the friend I needed when there was nobody else around. He was also a great friend when we got back to Union Glacier and were the only non ALE employees staying there while the camp was getting taken down. 


The first part of the expedition from Hercules Inlet to Patriot Hills was very difficult. I had to push most of it but was able to ride each day. Sometimes it was so steep and so soft I had to push with my whole body just to move forward. I crushed the GPS that was in my coat pocket from pushing so hard. 


They haul fuel from Patriot Hills to Thiels which packs down a "road". The hope was that once getting out of Hercules and to the road that things would be easier. However when I got tot he road it was filled in with soft snow drifts and did very little to help me. However as time went on the sun hardened up the snow and it got better. 


The first few days after hitting the road and I was still not getting decent miles I figured I would not make it to the Pole. I was determined to go as far as I could, but I really did not think I would make it. When I got 15 miles for the first time, because the riding conditions finally got to where I could ride more than a few minutes without sending my heart rate to the max I figured I could make it. 


Then the middle half of the expedition worked well. I was getting 18 to 24 miles in a day. I destroyed my free hub at this point and had to wire the cassette to the spokes. I broke the wires and had to re-do it two more times. In the end I broke 4 spokes. The amount of force I had to put into that rear wheel was far beyond what it was designed to handle. Amazingly I only had one flat the whole distance and it was when I was about 12 miles from the Pole. 


It really was an amazing journey that tested my ability to come up with solutions to many problems, and tested my strength, my endurance, and my will to continue on. I am just an ordinary person, not one of the great athletes that many of the other people doing expeditions are. I made it because I did not give up. Someone younger, stronger, and with more experience could do it much faster than I did. It will be interesting to see what biking expeditions follow.



At AdventureStats, polar expeditions bringing a vehicle are classified motorized even if members ski or bike. 


Biking is classified human powered (in the same category as skiing/walking) at this time. Should new technology make biking easier/faster than skiing/walking on ice, it will be split into a new class similarly to ice-kiting.




Daniel Burton and his bicycle at the South Pole


ExWeb South Pole kick-off interview: Daniel Burton, return cycle journey


ExWeb interview with Eric Larsen (about South Pole cycle attempt 2012)


ExWeb post South Pole interview with Fagan couple


ExWeb interview with Antony Jinman, flying a drone at the South Pole


Daniel Burton’s South Pole Blog


Daniel’s South Pole expedition on Facebook


South Pole arrivals and False Record Claims



#polar #danielburton #southpole2013 #southpole2013-14







Daniel Burton at the Geographic South Pole with his fatbike; arrival January 21, 2014.
courtesy Daniel Burton, SOURCE