A practised real tennis player, Kate Leeming fell in love with long-distance cycling while travelling through Europe. However, in more recent years she’s been employing her cycling abilities to raise funds and awareness for the underprivileged, culminating in her current campaign – Breaking the Cycle: South Pole.

Leeming, who was previously featured in Wild issue 149, has pledged to involve every continent as part of her education initiative in the lead up to, and after, completing a gruelling traverse of Antarctica. The expedition is also supported by a foundation of the same name, which raises funds for community development projects and awareness of poverty-related issues.

While The Breaking the Cycle Foundation is still in development, Leeming hopes it shall be up and running by the end of this year, in time for the Antarctic expedition.

Now on the final leg of the journey before heading to Antarctica, Leeming recently completed a trial in Greenland. Wild caught up with Leeming soon after the completion of her Greenland expedition, and the following is a transcript of her responses to our questions.

How did the Greenland expedition go? 

I flew to Constable Point in between Jameson Land and Liverpool Land in Northeast Greenland to make what we understand to be the first bicycle expedition through this region. The main purpose of the journey was to prepare for my Breaking the Cycle South Pole expedition, planned for the end of the year.

Kate Leeming cycles in Greenland.

Kate Leeming crosses the frozen tundra of Greenland.

Travelling with me was renowned Swiss filmmaker, Claudio von Planta, who came to film the expedition for a stand alone documentary, an episode for the Breaking the Cycle: South Pole series and to produce short teaser videos to garner support for the project as a whole. This trip was as much a test for Claudio to film in this extreme environment and test new equipment as it was for me to cycle. Logistical support was provided by Paul Walker and his Tangent Expeditions team. We learned much from our guides, Phil, Darren and Peter who accompanied us on snowmobiles for the various stages.    

I was expecting to face temperatures of between -5oC and -20oC, however Spring arrived early and conditions were unseasonably warm. Instead I had to wait for eight days before I could start the expedition due to forecast blizzard conditions, typical when temperatures are around 0C (give or take). As a result, I did not have an opportunity to make the extended physical test I had hoped for and conditions were generally softer than I will expect to find in Antarctica, and as the melt began, very slushy much of the time.

The seven days I spent out on the modified route were very testing and I believe have provided valuable experience for Antarctica. In that time I was exposed to a range of conditions, setting off into the teeth of a howling Arctic gale. The blizzard brought fresh snow that inland was unrideable, even for my all-wheel drive bike for much of the third day and I pushed most of the 24 kilometres up Klitdal and into Jameson Land.

Into the fourth day and conditions improved dramatically – the sun shone, the wind died down and I was treated to sweeping vistas as I pedaled for 50 kilometres, the length of spectacular Hurry Fjord which separates the volcanic peaks of Liverpool Land from the sedimentary geology of Jameson Land. In the distance, the high mountains on the south side of Scoresby Sund, the world’s largest Fjord formed a stunning backdrop. I really found my rhythm riding down Hurry Fjord and after the trials of the first three days, I started to feel fitter and stronger.

I turned away from Hurry Fjord, off the sea ice and over some hilly terrain towards Ittoqqortoormitt, Greenland’s most northerly habitable town. It was suggested that I would not be able to cycle most of this because of the steep climbs and soft snow, but the snowmobile track was compacted just enough for my tyres to grip the surface, and although heavy going, I pedalled the whole way. Dropping back down to sea level once more, the snow surfaces became extremely slushy, and as the path tracked along the lower slopes of the hills, the angle and soft deep snow meant I was constantly fighting to stay upright and to stop sliding sideways down the slope. Without my AWD bike, this surface would have been impossible to ride.

After spending a day around Ittoqqortoormitt, I headed for the final destination, Kap Tobin, the most southerly point of Liverpool Land. It was just a short 10-kilometre ride over the sea ice and back on land to the settlement. Pedalling all the way to the most southerly isthmus was like cycling to the end of the world… the end of my journey anyway.

It was one of the most spectacular places I have ever been to. Around the cape, the turbulent ocean currents were constantly shifting the icebergs and ice debris; swirling eddies causing ice blocks to collide or scrape past one another. Occasionally a chunk would sheer off and flip over to reveal its aquamarine underbelly. Although the seascape was constantly in motion, the atmosphere was tranquil and the icy waters perfectly clear.

Apart from a few minor issues, the brand new Christini all-wheel drive polar bike (mark II) held up beautifully. It really came into its own on rough surfaces such as sastruggi where the front wheel drive grips and helps me climb over the lumps and bumps. The AWD system makes it possible to ride on more difficult surfaces than a regular fatbike.

I was impressed with most of my component selection, in particular, the wheels. The Vee Tire Company’s Snowshoe XL tyres are made of a new silica compound that sheds snow. The combination of the tubeless tyres and HED carbon BFD rims made for very light, strong wheels, an advantage in the soft conditions. My 45NRTH Wolfgar boots (the best extreme cold cycling boot, good for -31C) were a success. The cleats often iced up in the warmer than expected conditions, but I think this will be less of an issue in the drier, colder Antarctic conditions. Being attached to the pedals meant that I could focus on the upstroke and have a more even pedalling action rather than bouncing deeper into the snow when I only push down. Revelate’s Expedition Pogies (handlebar mitts) and Mountain Feeder bags were invaluable.

Were there any specific lessons learned that will help when it comes to Antarctica?

One of the biggest issues I have is with controlling the perspiration. In the relatively warm conditions, I just used a base layer and outer shell, custom designed by Mont Australia. Even opening the various vents, it was never long before I became saturated and so any time I stopped, I would very quickly get cold. My down jacket was never far away. Skiers are more easily able to control this problem by simply slowing down, but on a bike, my effort tends to be all-or-nothing. If I stop pedaling, I stop all together. The removable liners of my 45NRTH Wolfgar boots also got damp pretty quickly. I believe that wearing vapour barrier socks may be the answer in this case. Conditions will be colder in Antarctica, but I need to improve this aspect.

I’ve learned that I the need to get my body used to consuming the kind of diet that I will need in Antarctica before I start (high fat and protein, regular carbohydrates). It took me a few days to get the calorie intake right. Constant hydration is also paramount. I found myself thirsty most of the time because I was losing so much fluid through perspiration and breathing. Once I started to load up with water and weak hydration drinks before I started for the day, it really made a difference.

I can be confident that my body is capable of responding to the extreme workload. I hadn’t done a serious expedition workload for three years, just general training. This expedition was about testing my ‘match fitness’ Fortunately I have built a high based level of fitness over the years and was really pleased that, after a three days of struggle, my body responded very well, my permanently damaged knee held up and I started to feel really strong.

How’s your gear holding up? What products other than your bike are your most important and why?

  • Julbo Aerospace goggles – These are a revelation. The lens clicks out to separate from the frame to allow airflow, so my goggles did not fog even when I was working so hard.
  • Revelate’s Expedition pogies – these are undoubtedly the business for keeping hands warm in extreme conditions – like putting your hands into a kangaroo’s pouch!
  • Mont Hydronaut outer shell and down jacket – with a few more tweaks in the design of the vents, my Mont custom made outer shell should be perfect to keep out the wind chill.
  • Hilleberg Keron 3GT tent – withstood a week of blizzard conditions with ease before we even started. The tent is incredibly spacious with generous vestibules at either end, and we found it really fast and easy to pitch.

What’s in the rest of your training and prep schedule between now and the final expedition?

This Greenland training expedition has reconnected me with the reality of how tough this Antarctic bicycle crossing will be. It is helping me to fine-tune my preparation physically and with all the key equipment and systems.

My training while in Melbourne needs to include more time on the bike, long, steady resistance and hills, some sand work and trips to Mount Buller/Mount Stirling in the winter for some more work in the snow (even though the conditions will be different to Antarctica. I need to continue my work in the gym focusing on core strength and interval training.

I have two trips planned for altitude training in the Indian Himalaya, in June I am leading a journey along the Manali Road for World Expeditions and if I can find the funding for Antarctica, I will return to do a more intensive journey in September.