Maria Leijerstam’s Journey to the South Pole

This month we’re highlighting Maria Leijerstam. Maria is an adventurer with numerous expeditions under her belt. She even has a Guinness World Record.

In 2013 Maria Leijerstam became the first person to cycle to the South Pole from the edge of the continent. Her expedition was named the White Ice Cycle and the bicycle was called the Polar Cycle. Click here for details on her bike used in 2013. Her bicycle was a custom-built recumbent trike. It was made by Inspired Cycle Engineering (ICE). During this trip, Maria set a human-powered speed record that still stands today. At the time of the 2013 journey, Maria had two male competitors that left for the South Pole two days before her and she ended up getting to the South Pole first. This was a grueling 10 day trip in extremely harsh conditions. Some days, Maria cycled up to 17 hours. And she had to endure temperatures as cold as minus 40 degrees Celsius. Maria spent years planning the South Pole trip. Click here for Maria’s website that cover her trip to the South Pole.

When we asked Maria what her daily routine was like, here’s what she had to say “Basically I cycled between 12-17hrs per day. I slept/dozed for between 1-4hrs per night. It took me about 3 hours every stop to put up my tent, melt snow and ice to make water to drink and to rehydrate my food, eat, to tend to my alignments, such as my knee injury and get myself sorted to sleep, then to take the tent down and get going again. During the day I would cycle for 10k then have a 2 minute stop. I was able to eat and drink on the move as well as take photos/film. This is the benefit of recumbent cycling that doesn’t need much steering!  Having said that once I got to the sastrugi section on the polar plates I was having to navigate large boulders of ice which required a lot of concentration.”

Obtaining a world record from Guinness is a very rigorous process. Every detail of the trip needs to be documented as well as getting signatures from people along the way.

Cycling to the South Pole wasn’t a new idea, others have tried before Maria and failed. Maria was in top condition physically and this gave her an advantage. Her day job is running different adventure races in South Wales teaching people to be active and stay fit. Maria once ran 6 marathons in 7 days across the Sarah Desert. Maria also competed in the Black Ice Race in Siberia. Thirty people started this race and only 8 finished and Maria finished second. Some of Maria’s training for the South Pole trip included spending a day in an industrial freezer all day on the Polar Cycle at temperatures of minus 30 degrees.

She did made this incredible trip on a custom made tricycle called the Polar Cycle.

The bicycle for Maria’s 2013 expedition to the South Pole was completely her idea/design. Here’s Maria’s words on the 2013 bicycle; “The polar cycle was conceptualized by me and I drew up a user spec after lots of trails with normal 2 wheeled bikes on snow and ice.. It was then handed to Inspired Cycle Engineering who made it all in Falmouth in the UK. We went through a year of trail and testing and made multiple changes until we developed what is now the Polar Cycle. This was a name I created. ICE now have their version of it called the Full Fat, which is in full production selling 10-20 of them a month, mainly in the US and Canada. We have a special edition version of the FullFat coming out this year to celebrate my 10yrs of reaching the South Pole on it. It comes with my signature on it as well as a signed copy of my book and a few other things. It comes either as an electric or manual version. I still have the polar cycle but don’t ride it anymore as it’s too precious. I take it to talks and allow children to sit on it in schools. One day I will place it in a polar museum or a museum of British History.” From Maria’s idea/concept for the bike, it took 2 years to complete the custom build. One of the unique features on the Polar Cycle was an oval sprocket. This oval sprocket allowed Maria to have the power when needed and it gave her an easy stroke when that was needed.

You can read more about Maria’s incredible journey in her book Cycling To The South Pole.

Maria considered 2 wheel bicycles for the trip, however, they would have needed some sort of stabilizer system. And without enough knowledge on the subject or a suitable manufacturer, a 3 wheel bicycle became the better choice.

Maria said she was lucky her trip with regards to repairs on her bicycle. She only need to put air in the tires from time to time. And she had a brake freeze. She had no major repairs to make or major breakdowns. While in Iceland testing the Polar Cycle for the expedition, she had a chain break. While testing the bicycle, Maria and her team did make several minor changes. One was adding studs to the tires for traction. They also tried skies, however, they decided these were not a good idea.

The permit process and planning for the 2013 trip started a year in advance. Maria had numerous interviews in London and eventually was issued a permit to land on Antarctica.

Navigation for the South Pole trip was simple Maria said, it is just due South. Of course she had some minor deviations to avoid crevasses. She said most crevasses have been marked by the South Pole Traverse. However new ones can open up at any time. Maria did use GPS for the trip as well. Maria said that climbing the Leverett Glacier was challenging because she had to deviate a lot to avoid crevasses.

For most of the 2013 expedition to the South Pole, Maria carried all of her own equipment and supplies (55kg of gear). This included her food, camping supplies, cooking fuel, etc. Once she got onto the polar plateau, cycling conditions were much more difficult so she decided to use a support team to assist with her gear and supplies.

Here’s Maria with her custom bicycle after just arriving at the South Pole in 2013.

In December 2023, to commemorate her 2013 trip to the South Pole, Maria Leijerstam cycled from the east edge of Ireland all the way to the South Pole Inn on the west side of Ireland. She did the 320km trip in just under 27 hours. Here are some of Maria’s major points along her 2023 expedition across Ireland: Waterford, Cappoquin, Mallow, Newmarket, Castle Island, Castlemaine, South Pole Inn. Click here for some information on Maria’s bicycle used the 2023. Here’s Maria (pictured right) on her 2016 Scott Scale 910 Carbon Mountain Bike while on the 2023 expedition across Ireland. Maria used Komoot and Google maps for the planning of the actual trip/route for the Ireland trip.

Here’s Maria in 2023 celebrating her successful 2023 expedition with a glass of Guinness at the famous South Pole Inn in Ireland.

When we asked Maria “What is your next adventure?  Any more world records in the making?”, here’s her reply “I’ve always got more ideas!  In fact as the years go on and I watch other cyclists attempting to reach the south pole or do a full Antarctic crossing, but fail, it makes me think I’d like to head back to Antartica to do a Trans Antarctic crossing as I know how it could be done successfully! Chris Hoy, world famous professional British Cyclist was hoping to cycle to the South Pole but didn’t make it and this year Italian professional cyclists Omar De Felice tried for a 2nd time to cycle across Antarctica, but  didn’t make it. It goes to show you don’t have to be world famous or a professional cyclist. It’s all about having the right idea, equipment and willing to try something new! Becoming the first person to cycle across Antarctica from coast to coast is very appealing to me but this time I’d need sponsorship. I’m also very busy providing adventures for other people, in particular families with children. It’s Called the Burn Series and is modelled on the sport of Adventure Racing which I love so much. “

We asked Maria if the Polar Cycle may be used for her possible Trans Antarctic crossing and her reply was “Hi, no I’ve got some other ideas for a bike…. It’s the bit I love the most creating, designing and testing! It’s such a diverse project with so many elements to it.”

Maria also had this to say regarding future adventures, “So I did have a crazy idea of cycling across the Atlantic also, which you’ll read in my book.  It’s still somewhere in the background for the day when I get sponsorship and can really focus on doing world firsts without having to worry about everything else!”

In addition to her job at Burn Series, Maria stays busy with speaking engagements. She will do between 4 to 5 corporate talks per year as well as speaking at schools, sports clubs, and other related events. Be sure to follow Mari’s adventures on her website.

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