Monday, March 3, 2014

Gustaf Håkansson, aka Steel Grandpa

An usual long post for The Beret project (but well worth reading!).
In 1951 Gustaf Håkansson signed up for an endurance race traversing virtually the entirety of Sweden, only for his submission to be rejected because of his age. It was determined that the 66-year old had neither the strength nor stamina to compete with the fifty other racers half his age. Nevertheless, having ridden 600 miles to get to the starting line, Gustaf was there on race day in the saddle of his roadster complete with mudguards, a headlamp (which is what eventually helped him emerge victorious) and panniers.
Due to the volume of racers, Gustaf crossed the starting line about twenty seconds after the race had started. He had donned a home-made bib with the number ‘0’, probably to indicate to the officials he wasn't joking and that he was indeed expecting to be treated as a participator. This was however dependant on them seeing the bib under the old man’s rather impressive long flowing beard.
Five days, five hours and 1,000 miles later, spectators waiting to cover the winner in eternal glory spotted a figure rounding the last corner. Amidst their cheers they went to greet him and offer him food and water, so exhausted he must be after such an arduous slog through Sweden. Expecting to embrace a twenty or thirtysomething slender man bending over the handlebars during the last push, the receiving crowd were understandably more than a little perplexed to watch a frail old gentleman wobble over the line on a rusty old roadster with a flat tyre, and a full day ahead of the next rider.
Truth is, Håkansson cheated. Well, he didn’t actually cheat seeing as he wasn’t an official competitor, but he did neglect one rule the others were enforced to follow.
Gustaf didn’t sleep. As part of race regulations, competitors were expected to meet and stop at a checkpoint at the end of the day to recharge and restart the next morning. Instead, Gustaf took an hour to rest before setting off again in the middle of the night. The time allowed him to make up for the 10 miles he was behind to put, after 300 miles, a 20 mile gap between him and the rest of the pack.
After three days and only five hours’ sleep, Gustaf was leading the field by more than 120 miles. At one point the police tried to persuade him to stop for a medical examination, but he only laughed – and pedalled on.
Eventually, with only 800 yards or so to go, ‘Steel Grandpa’ (as he became known by the folk of the villages he’d passed through) came to an abrupt halt. But it wasn’t sheer exhaustion that had stopped him – the old man’s bicycle had suffered its first and only flat tyre. Unperturbed, Gustaf dismounted and set towards the finish line where, with only a few yards to go, remounted to cross the line at 2:15 on July 7, 1951.

Despite the albeit unofficial victory, a subsequent audience with the King of Sweden and generally being showered in fame and honour, Gustaf’s greatest satisfaction came from proving wrong the doctors who had thought he was better suited in a rocking chair than he was in a saddle. The Steel Grandpa continued to ride bicycles until his death in 1987 at the age of 102.
Thanks, Stu

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