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In Search of the Gotland Ring

Sweden. Home to Volvos and Saabs, Viggens and Vikings, preposterously expensive beer and – quite frankly – the most beautiful women on earth. ll in all, possibly the last place on earth that you’d expect anyone to build a brand new racetrack in Europe

We did a feature called ‘the Secret Circuits of Europe’. There at the top of the list was a place called the Gotland Ring. It looked fascinating. Built on the island of Gotland 50 miles east of the Swedish mainland in the frigid Baltic sea, the circuit is built on a limestone quarry, giving it a surrounding environment like the surface of the moon. The track and surrounding area draws its power from a windfarm, so a half-dozen towering windmills swoop majestically over the racing line. I’d never been to Northern Europe before, so loaded up my BMW R1200GS Adventure with leathers, sandwiches, a toothbrush, Visa card and passport, and arrived at the Channel Tunnel at 6am. Time to hit the road.

12 hours later we’re still grinding our way north. In fact we’ve got another 400 miles to go. To say I underestimated how far the east coast of Sweden is from Calais somewhat is today’s helping of silly talk. It’s absolutely bloody miles away. Fortunately, the BMW was built for trips just like this and we grind out 200 miles at a time, stopping for fuel and water only. It’s blisteringly hot across northern Germany, 33 degrees on the Adventure’s thermometer, and I ride in cargo pants and leather jacket unzipped to keep cool and to avoid sweating (and therefore dehydrating) too much in the baking summer sun.

Past Antwerp and into Essen, figure your way around the mess of motorways north to Munster and Osnabruck, keep pushing north past Bremen and through Hamburg. The once-mighty Autobahns are, for the most part, only dual-carriageway affairs and more often than not there’s heavy traffic, so blasting your way across Germany at nuclear speeds isn’t the option it once was. 100 octane petrol costs just over £1 per litre, and since we’re burning big miles I keep the BMW fed on the good stuff. At times the traffic clears and gangs of black Mercedes and Porsches hustle by, slipstreaming nose to tail, at 140mph. Lane discipline is absolute (it would be) so me and the GS lurk in the slow lane, cruising at 90mph.

North of Hamburg we catch the ferry at Puttgarden to Denmark. Ferries – you soon get used to them on this trip. After miles of endless traffic and unchanging roadside scenery, the Danes have empty fields and roads to offer the eye. Very flat, very straight, but the pace of life changes the moment you ride off the ferry and into the fourth country out of five that you have to cross to get to Gotland. Amazingly, within 100km I come within a gnat’s cock of running the Adventure out of gas.

This is quite a feat for a motorcycle that will return a genuine 340 miles fully laden, but the Danes have cunningly hidden their only petrol station out of sight off the ferry and I rode straight past it. A GS will do 20 miles after its range meter drops to zero, and that’s what I’m looking at right now. A quick call back to a highly organised chum in the UK, who’s sat in front of Google maps, reveals a garage nine miles away. The petrol station is there as predicted.

Past Copenhagen, cross the Oresund toll bridge into Sweden, the longest traffic bridge in Europe. It’s windy up there, as proven by the windfarms swooshing busily away out to sea and the GS is batted around like a moth in a sandstorm. If you were on something smaller, it would be terrifyingly lively up there. But we’re finally in Sweden, and I haven’t needed to show my passport once. The Swedes are evidently keen on safety, as even the single-carriageway A-roads have Armco between them.

Consequently, reasonable 80mph progress has to be maintained in slow lines of traffic by keeping your left indicator on and squeezing between the cars and the barriers. The Swedes don’t like this and let me know. I don’t care, and let them know that. At 9.30pm I call time on proceedings and stay the night in the town of Kristianstad. It’s been a long damn day in the saddle. The GS, naturally, is completely unruffled. It’s testament to the genius of its design that despite a 3.30am start this morning five countries ago, I am only marginally less so.

923 miles and one night later, I’m in Gotland. Fuelled by a diet of Ga-Jol liquorice sweets and cigarettes (I do like a stinky tab when the weather’s hot and I’ve got serious miles to cover), we’ve cranked it. Not in one day, much to my annoyance. The chaps from EVO magazine did the same route three weeks earlier in a fancy motor and I’d vowed to slash their time of 17 hours. In reality, the car boys rogered me senseless with their 150mph autobahn cruising and 500 mile tank range. But as the immaculate 30-knot ferry spills me out onto the port at Visby, there’s no other form of transport I’d rather be on than the chunky GS.

Visby is the capital of Gotland, and it’s faintly ridiculous. Surrounded on all sides by castle walls and keeps, it is so tidy, so cobblestoned and historically perfect that one expects to see knights in armour and knaves on horseback go clattering past. And then I see a knight in armour go clattering past. Seriously. As I look around, I realise that I’m surrounded by norsemen and Vikings. Fuck me, I’ve actually gone back in time. People are drinking wine out of horns, roasting wild boar on open fires, and there’s jousting going on in the village green.

It’s like stumbling across a live-action set of the final frame of an Asterix comic. You, boy. What the bloody hell is going on? “It’s to remember the invasion of Gotland in 1361 by the Danes,” says my informant, dressed up in a medieval juggler’s outfit (the fool). “Every year the locals get dressed up and live as we did back then to remember those who died.” I suggest that after the best part of 700 years, it’s probably best to forgive and move on.

Satisfied that Gotland isn’t, in fact, living in the dark ages but merely re-enacting a time when they did, it’s time to strike out north through the postcard-perfect town centre and find the circuit, the very reason for my being here. Passing a Lidl supermarket confirms that I haven’t arrived in the land that time forgot.

I don’t own a GPS, they’re brilliant inventions but I enjoy the old-school charms of map and compass. Besides, people who can’t turn right at the end of their street without programming their Tom-Tom make me puke. With the sun on my left shoulder I know we’re heading in the right direction and we crank a final 50km towards the circuit.

Everyone speaks perfect English here. “Excuse me, where is the Gotland Ring?” I ask a couple relaxing on their perfect pine decking in the 7 o’clock sun. “Back that way, 10km and turn right.” Shit, back the way I’ve come. Still no signs. “Excuse me, where is the Gotland race circuit?” “Back that way, 5km and turn left.” Gnnyargh! It’s not sign-posted off the main road, the A148, but finally we turn right past Kappelshamn, ride underneath massive mining equipment, and we’ve arrived. At 7.30pm on a Friday night, we’re at the circuit.

“Today, I think I’ll build a racetrack…”

Finnish fellow Alec Arho Havren is the brains and driving force behind the Gotland Ring. incredibly, He had never built a circuit before in his life…

“We used NCC, a local road-construction company to lay the tarmac and they’d never done a circuit before this, but they’ve learned fast. They had no clue about budgeting for laying down a circuit, even less idea than I, so we ran out of money halfway through building the first track! I’d taken them all to the Nurburgring and said, ‘look – we’re going to build a small version of this. A safe version where people won’t get killed. It’s very simple!’

I started the concept work on this circuit in 1996. It was originally going to be in Finland, but the sites became too compromised, so we started looking at Gotland. Okay, it’s an island but I liked the idea of doing something different. I used to come here all the time as a kid, and knew it could work. Everyone said I was crazy, nobody believed we could do it. But that’s normal for Finns and Swedes, they’re so negative about things! That’s when we started talking to the director of the limestone mine here, a Finnish guy. He loves rally and racing, so we hit it off straight away. We took the idea of building a circuit on the quarry site to the governess of the island. I had to sell them the idea of a race circuit on such an environmentally-conscious principality – not easy!

When we were planning this circuit we were walking through the trees with sticks, figuring where it would go. That was so much fun. We just crashed through the foliage, creating the route of the circuit as we went. After we’d planned it out we then put it through the CADS software and all that. What’s funny is that some corners did come out a bit different to how I planned them! I had to make some last-second changes with cones just before the tarmac machines went over it.

Money was always a problem in the early days. Getting people and banks to believe in this project was so difficult at the start. I had to make up costs that I didn’t have, but I learned very fast. You have to. To date, the whole project has cost around £3 million in total. That sounds too cheap, but we have a special lease arrangement with the mine, we get all our gravel for free on-site, and when the mine closes in 2012 we will have the total 600 hectares to develop. A good lap here is anything below 1m 30s.”  See www.gotlandring.com for more info.

Well this is a helluva sight in a place like this. Until now, Gotland has been Tellietubby soft, moats, slow driving and nicely-nice. But here, amid 2,400 acres of dazzlingly white open limestone quarry, lies a 2 mile ribbon of race tarmac. Twisting and dropping its way through pine forests, the track is watched by six enormous windmills, each well over 150ft tall and fitted with massive three-blade propellers that scythe overhead with a solid ‘whump’ every second.

A single building stands above the pitlane, gleaming in the setting sun with fresh paint. After the noise and hustle of the preceeding days, arriving at the Gotland Ring is like signing in at a health spa. I am instantly calmed. The place is deserted as white dust kicks off my boots. Fascinated, I peer down the start/finish straight, and that’s when I hear my name called. “John!” shouts someone with a slight American accent. “You made it, man!”

Alec Arho Havrén is the owner and manager of the Gotland circuit. Annoyingly good-looking and a youthful 42 years-old, he bounds over and we shake hands like old friends. “We’ve been expecting you all day,” he says. “There was a trackday on today but everyone left an hour ago. Do you want to calm down a bit after your journey and get something to eat?” I reply that no, actually what I need to do is get out on his circuit and take pictures if that’s okay. “No problem, the track is yours,” says Alec, but before I go out on the bike he takes me for a few laps in a Saab sports saloon.

It’s been a while since I’ve passengered in a seriously quick car driven by a seriously quick driver round a circuit, and had completely forgotten how hilarious the whole experience is. With the turbo whistling and fluttering, Alec plunges the Saab around the track, the tyres howling in protest, the car sideways, the braking points surely far too late. “If you look over there,” he points with his right hand as we broad-side around an off-camber left hander, “you can see where the second part of the track will be built.” I’m laughing and nodding yes, of course I can see it. Passionate people are great people. 

I learned very little from those four laps other than Alec is clearly a jolly good driver and could cut perfect laps of his track with his eyes closed. The Gotland Ring is sinuous, tight, twisting and very technical. Think of a short-track version of Oulton Park and you won’t be too far off. We take the panniers off the BMW, drop 0.5bar out of the Michelin Anakee 2 tyres front and rear, click the electronic suspension into Sports Mode and at 9pm on a Friday night, while normal people are lashing into their 3rd pint or sitting down to a chicken Jalfrezi, I’ve got a racetrack all to myself.

You wouldn’t think a BMW Adventure would be particularly enjoyable around a circuit you’ve never seen before, but the Gotland Ring and GS get on like a house on fire. Over the short start/finish straight in 5th, you’re hard on the brakes and down into 3rd for a compressing right-hander that drops away from you. Back up the hill, instinctively duck as the blade of a windmill propeller swoops overhead, push the bike wide and stop it dead in 2nd gear for a flowing hairpin.

Out along the back straight, through a left-hander that looks 90-degree tight but can actually be taken very fast, keep the throttle pinned in 5th through the next left-hander, the bars waggling in protest as we slap her into a right-left-right complex that sees first the cylinder head, then the bullbars deck out on the ground. That’ll be the limit, then. Up over another crest, down the other side, haul her right over until you come back on yourself, left-right flick and that’s a lap. Short, relentless and utterly thrilling, the big BMW and I get to grips with the circuit over 15 laps or more, riding hard into the failing light. As the sun finally sets over the Baltic sea at 9.30pm I come in with a big grin plastered over my face. Alec’s track has been worth the ride.

We get drunk that night in Visby. Properly pissed. The weather that had been so hot across northern Europe remains so on Gotland, and the island is full of stunning 20-somethings from Stockholm getting riotously drunk in bars and nightclubs. Alec knows everyone in town, he’s obviously a major player in these parts. “I’m sorry John, all the pretty girls have left,” he shrugs. Er, yeah. So you say. I feel like a dad who’s come to pick his daughter up from the school disco, and at 2am (when everything shuts) grab an organic chicken and rice kebab and consume it slumped over a perfect mahogany bench. I sleep that night in the most comfortable four-poster bed in the world.

The next day is my whistle-stop tour of Gotland island. Head north past the track to Faro island (20min ferry), loads of funky rock formations. Back across and you’re riding on the beach, the GS kicking up a sandstorm as it blasts across the talculm powder dirt surface. Several German tourists wind their car windows up and complain as we blast past. This pleases me. Across the middle of the island, past countless perfect log cabins and sleepy seaside fishing villages.

Stop, amazed, in the middle of the road by the sight of three black sheep that are actually standing on the shoulders of their companions for no apparent reason whatsoever. Gotland is an extraordinary place, and the perfect setting for Alec’s visceral, unusual racetrack. As a destination to plan for your next summer riding holiday, this ticks all the boxes. Just make sure you leave yourself plenty of time for getting there and back. The ferry leaves at 3pm and I’ve only got another 953 miles back to Calais. Outstanding.

Gotland: Getting There

If you go the way I went you deserve your head kicking in. The smart people will take the overnight ferry from Harwich to Esbjerg in Denmark or from Newcastle to Stavanger in Sweden. From there it’s merely a 500 mile drive across to either Nynashamn or Oskarshamn, where you jump on a £35, three-hour super-ferry to Gotland. One thing Swedes aren’t lacking is money, so budget accordingly. Hotels are around £60 per night, food is £20 for an evening meal and allow double that for beers. Petrol averages around £1 per litre but that’s for the good stuff. Best times to visit are in June-July, when the island is bumping with beautiful people on holiday.

Go to www.dfdsseaways.co.uk and also www.destinationgotland.se for more info

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