In late November, Omar Di Felice set out on a gruelling journey that would push him to his mental and physical limits. Paradoxically, though, the Italian adventurer has found it just as hard to come home.
“The most difficult part has been to acclimatise to civilisation,” he chuckles, speaking to The Saturday Paper from his base in Italy. “I’m not so able now to live with the timetable, the schedule – because I spent over 50 days just living to my needs. I wake up when I don’t feel asleep, then I ride my bike for as long as I want to ride my bike, I stop when I want to stop, I eat when I’m hungry.
“I spent such a long time just looking at nature and speaking to myself,” he says. “Now the most difficult part is to start again being in civilisation, speaking to other people, respecting daily timetables and working plans and so on.”
Di Felice, an ultra-endurance cyclist, has recently returned to civilisation after cycling more than 700 kilometres across Antarctica, from Hercules Inlet on the continent’s western edge towards the South Pole. Challenging weather conditions stopped Di Felice from reaching the Pole, but his 48-day journey represents the second-longest distance cycled in Antarctica alone and unsupported. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he says.
Cycling through ice and snow has become possible in recent decades with the development of “fat bikes” that have particularly wide tyres. Since the first cycling journey in Antarctica in the early 2000s, a handful of hardy travellers have attempted long-distance feats on the continent. A few have reached the South Pole, some with support, some with a mix of skiing and cycling.
When Di Felice first planned an attempt in 2022, the Italian wanted to go even further – aiming to reach the South Pole, a distance of some 1200 kilometres, and then continue onwards to Leverett Glacier to complete the first coast-to-coast crossing. Di Felice has pedigree: he has won the Trans Am Bike Race, an almost 7000-kilometre journey across the United States, and ridden through northern Norway in winter, Alaska, Canada and Mongolia. But a coast-to-coast Antarctic crossing would represent the pinnacle of ultra-endurance cycling.
Di Felice’s first attempt was derailed eight days and almost 100 kilometres into the journey, with a family emergency requiring his return to Italy. A year later, in November 2023, he set out again – flying from Chile to Antarctica and then setting off with just his bike and supplies for company.
“The first days were the toughest,” he says. “I needed to break the ice, as we say in Italy – to move the first steps. But then day by day I started feeling better, I put myself in the process – ride my bike, set up my camp, sleep and repeat, day by day. After five or six days, I really started to enjoy the experience.”
Di Felice’s journey was hindered by weather, with temperatures ranging from minus 10 degrees Celsius to minus 25 and ferocious katabatic winds. Some days he had no choice but to remain in his tent; others he could only manage a few kilometres.
“It’s Antarctica – it’s never easy,” he reflects. These challenges were compounded by his choice of transport. “In the last few weeks there was lots of fresh snow, which I couldn’t ride my bike through – I just had to push it through, which was very hard. Some days I could barely manage 700 metres per hour.”
On an average day, Di Felice would rise at 6am (he says it took him a few days to adjust to the almost-perpetual sunlight). First order of business would be melting ice to make coffee, followed by some muesli. Subject to the weather, Di Felice would then pack his gear into a pulk, a sled-style device he pulled behind him containing his belongings. The cyclist would then ride for as long as possible, finishing up after eight or 10 hours and setting up camp for the night. Each day, after dinner, the Italian would try to relax and take in his incredible surroundings, before listening to classical music to nod off to sleep.
Di Felice says he came to appreciate the unique solitude of his journey. “The most amazing part of the journey was the human experience – this was not about sport, it was about life,” he says. “We live in cities, with a lot of people, a lot of traffic, we are not used to spending time alone. But when you are in Antarctica, you are completely alone. I was alone – just me and my thoughts and nature all around me.”
After slowly traversing his way across Antarctica – his team would post a daily update on Instagram, with his position marked by a dot on a map, inching towards the South Pole – the end came quickly. Five hundred kilometres from the Pole, Di Felice’s logistics company advised that weather changes and the impending end of the summer season meant it was too dangerous to continue – he risked being stranded in an area where recovery would have been near-impossible.
Di Felice was required to backtrack to an airstrip near the Thiel Mountains and return to the edge of the continent and then back to civilisation. He was given the option of flying to the South Pole but decided it was against the spirit of his mission. “I wanted to end my adventure in the same way as I started – with a bike and with my human power,” he says.
“But it wasn’t easy to make quick decisions after 50 days completely alone, and then I received a call and suddenly I had to make choices.”
In addition to his cycling, Di Felice is a climate activist – he has a project, Bike to 1.5ºC, and attended COP26 after riding to Glasgow from Italy. His Antarctica journey was undertaken in partnership with a number of scientists and the Italian Climate Network, to raise awareness about the impact of climate change on Antarctica. Ironically, his journey was directly affected by the changing climate: at times the weather was unseasonably warm and snowy, which delayed his progress. “It is a sign of a planet that is changing, unfortunately,” he says.
Next month, Di Felice is hoping to visit Australia to participate in an Antarctic education project in schools, in collaboration with the Italian embassy. The finer details are still up in the air because Di Felice is contemplating whether he could coincide his visit with the Indian Pacific Wheel Race, or Indy Pac, a historic 5500-kilometre bike race from Fremantle to Sydney that begins in mid-March.
Most people, having just spent almost two months pushing their physical and mental limits, might want to enjoy a holiday. But for Di Felice, there is always another adventure on his mind. “It’s hard for me to holiday without a bike,” he says, laughing.
The ultimate adventure, his Antarctic expedition, still lingers. When Di Felice set out, his goal was to first reach the South Pole, and then go coast to coast. Despite falling short of that stated aim, the Italian says he is nothing but proud of his achievement.
“Every metre I did, I did just with my human power – I’m proud of that,” he says. “The original goal was to reach the South Pole, but I understood that it didn’t depend just on me. When you move with a bike on a difficult surface, everything depends on the weather conditions, the snow conditions.”
But Di Felice is not ruling out another attempt: “Maybe I can come back in the coming years and try again.” He is philosophical. “I know that even if I do my best, maybe I do more kilometres, but there is also the chance that I do less than this year – it doesn’t just depend on me,” he adds. “Right now my experience in Antarctica has come to an end, but who knows – maybe in a year I will start thinking about it again. I cannot say 100 per cent that I would never come back to the South Pole.”
Until then, Di Felice will need to continue adjusting to the timetables and demands of everyday life – a world away from the serene isolation of Antarctica. But whether or not the cyclist returns to the southern continent, he says the journey will stay with him forever.
“I feel calm, I feel relaxed,” he says. “Antarctica taught me a lesson – to stay calm, to spend my life in a more delicate, peaceful way.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2024 as "On ice".
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