The most punishing bicycle race in Swedish history was about to end. At any moment the first cyclist would appear in sight after five days of pedaling 1,000 miles from Haparanda near the Finnish border in the north to Ystad in the south. Thousands of people were lined up along the colorful main street of Ystad on that day in July 1954. Brass bands waited for the signal to play. A welcoming committee of civic officials were ready at the finish line.
As the leading cyclist rounded the distant bend in the high street, a great roar went up and the cheering crowd surged forward into the road to greet the winner. A lithe young man in neat shorts and singlet on a sleek racing bicycle? Not a bit of it. The cyclist first over the line was an old man with a fluffy white beard that reached halfway down his chest and almost covered the figure "O" on his vest. Moreover, he was mounted on a lady's heavy-framed bicycle with a large hamper at the front and a flat tire at the rear.
The event had been heralded as the "killer race," a test of strength and human endurance that only superfit athletes could hope to survive. Yet here, winning the race, with his nearest rival 23 hours behind, was a retired truck driver turned amateur cyclist, 66 years of age, father of 10 and grandfather of five. As a result, the name Gustav Hakansson became the most celebrated in all Sweden.
Hakansson was over 60—61 in fact—when he bought his first bike and proceeded to practice long-distance riding. Back home in Gantofta, in southwest Sweden, he came to be regarded as something of an eccentric, but no one could deny his exceptional stamina, particularly after he pedaled from his home right up across the Arctic Circle into Lapland and back again—a round journey of more than 3,000 miles.
When old Gustav heard in 1951 that the Stockholm newspaper Tidningen was sponsoring a race from the top of the country to its southernmost point with a $1,000 prize for the winner, he promptly sent in an entry form, as did some 1,500 somewhat younger Swedes. All the entrants were told that they would have to pass a strict medical examination before they could be accepted for such a severe test of strength and stamina. This compulsory test whittled down the number of competitors to a mere 50, and Gustav was not among them—not officially at any rate. A huge crowd was gathered in Haparanda to give them a rousing sendoff. The greatest excitement of the crowd came, however, 20 seconds after the start when a lone, bearded figure in overalls shot over the line and set off in pursuit of the 50 powerful young racers. Hakansson, riding his lady's bicycle, had made his unofficial challenge.
Out on the open road, Gustav settled down to a steady pace; it was not spectacular, but Gustav, tortoise like, knew that he could maintain it for days. After the first 50 miles he was a full 10 miles behind the leaders, who were all bunched out in the lead. After 300 miles, however, he was still cruising along at the same rate—but now 20 miles in front.
The old man's remarkable progress was explained by one vital difference in his racing strategy. He cheated. Unlike the other riders, he did not observe the rule by which competitors were required to stop each night at check points and restart in the morning. After an hour's rest on the first night, Gustav was back in the saddle, plodding on alone through the darkness. Still, since he was not an official entrant, one could hardly complain that he was taking an unfair advantage.
Official or not, the eyes of the whole country became focused on Gustav's progress, which was both astonishing and appealing. Could the old man maintain such a pace without reasonable sleep? Might he not collapse and even suffer irreparable damage as a result of such a strain on his heart? As the miles were covered, the race itself became of secondary interest. What mattered was Gustav. Shrewdly, the sponsoring newspaper's competitors splashed Hakansson's story and pictures all over their front pages, and the whole nation came to marvel at the gnomelike figure with the 18" beard, crouched over the handlebars of his antique lady's bicycle.
As all Sweden followed the mile-by-mile account of his journey, Gustav became a national hero. They called him St�l Farfar (Steel Grandpa). At every town, village and hamlet through which Gustav rode, people lined the streets to cheer him, slap his back, pelt him with flowers and present him with food. After three days he had had only five hours' sleep, but he was leading the field by more than 120 miles. At one point the police tried to persuade him to submit to a medical examination. But he only laughed—and pedaled on.
The old Steel Grandpa loved his new fame. He was so besieged by reporters seeking interviews that he set aside half an hour each day—almost as much time as he allowed himself for sleep—for press conferences. During the race his life story was told and retold in newspapers and magazines and on television.