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From the moment you arrive in Bergen, you can tell it’s a little odd. The first thing you see upon exiting the airport is a sign built into the side of a mountain ridge that says, “Bergen?” (yes, with the question mark) in gold letters the size of pick-up trucks.
I asked a handful of locals why the question mark and got a handful of responses:
- “I think it’s supposed to be funny.”
- “I don’t know; we’re weird.”
- “It’s art.”
- “To make you think.”
- “Maybe they just had a question mark they wanted to use.”
Located on the southwestern edge of Scandinavia, Bergen stands out like a sore thumb. Scandinavians are supposed to be humble, reserved, and content. They’re some of the happiest people on earth despite some of the worst weather. Bergen has also produced two of the current top triathletes in the world.
At the Tokyo Olympics, men from Bergen, Norway, finished first, eighth, and eleventh. It was a remarkable achievement for a relatively small city—especially given that there wasn’t a single triathlete in town 15 years ago.
How did that transformation to a triathlon Mecca happen?
Fourteen years ago, a recruiter for a local sports high school noticed a 14-year-old kid named Kristian Blummenfelt win the overall title at a small triathlon in western Norway, and he had the crazy idea to try to turn him into a medalist by the 2020 Olympics.
Two years later, a youngster named Gustav Iden was accepted to the high school to train with Blummenfelt, followed by Casper Stornes, and the rest is triathlon history (that’s still being written). Asked what’s so special about Bergen that’s made it produce so much world-class tri talent, Blummenfelt, Iden, and Stornes are all sure it’s more about the people and less about the place.
Get to know Bergen
At around 300,000 people, Bergen is Norway’s second-largest city and is proud to be very different than Oslo. That includes miserable weather, with an average of 240 days of rain per year, making it one of the wettest cities in Europe. And that’s given Bergensers a Norse brand of toughness and humor. Much like the Brownlee brothers—who hail from Leeds, England—triathletes from Bergen can’t use the weather as an excuse not to train. If they did, they wouldn’t get in many workouts.
Not that the best triathletes from Bergen spend much time training here anymore. Blummenfelt and Iden currently spend no more than four or five weeks per year in their hometown, mostly because of that weather and the lack of altitude locations. They prefer the French Pyrenees or Sierra Nevada Mountains of Southern Spain, where they can have high mountains, world-class facilities, and a reliable climate.
Iden seems to miss his hometown quite a bit more than Blummenfelt. “I definitely love Bergen a lot more than [Kristian] does,” he said. “He’s looking forward to moving away; I’ll always have a place here.”
Blummenfelt, who lives close to the city, contends that there’s nothing he misses about his hometown when he’s gone from basically mid-January to mid-December. Iden, who lives up and over a mountain 20K away, misses riding and running in the mountains, where he spends a lot of time training solo when at home.
What about the city itself that produces triathlon gold? It’s as neat and beautiful as any in northern Europe—once you get past the fact that it’s always raining. It’s reminiscent of Vancouver, built around a harbor with mountains shooting up out of the Ocean in all directions, but much smaller, cleaner, and older. Nearly half the streets are cobbled, and a majority of the buildings are painted in bright pastel colors, which standout against the usually-gray backdrop.
As one of the original trading capitals of the Viking empire, Bergen is nearly also 1,000 years old and yet has been relatively unscarred from war throughout its long history. Some 67 buildings are listed as UNESCO Heritage sites—oddly, making it one the region’s cruise-ship capitals. There are, it appears, plenty of people who want to visit, with up to five massive ships moored in the harbor and thousands of non-tri tourists cramming the sidewalks around the wharf.
As you might expect in that part of the world, the infrastructure is very pedestrian-friendly, even if most locals complain about their trains being stuck in the last century. (It takes more than six hours to take a train to Oslo and more than 10 hours to get anywhere in the north of the country.) Biking, running, and walking around downtown is easy and safe, as long as your shoes/tires have enough traction to deal with the occasional section of wet cobbles. A factor that should make things interesting when World Triathlon hosts a World Cup in Bergen for the first time on Aug. 27-28. (The high-profile duo have said they’d like to race their hometown event, but haven’t yet committed in a busy schedule.)
If you choose to visit Bergen, it’s certainly the kind of place you can see in just a day or two before heading north to most of the fjords that have made Norway famous. It’s also one of the few places on earth you can eat whale without being judged. The fishmongers at the wharf will be happy to grill you up a piece with fries for about 150 Norwegian Krone ($15 USD). It’s like tough bison with little flavor or fat. Not fishy at all, because it’s definitely not a fish.
Just don’t expect to find any special secret that will unlock your next level of triathlon potential.
“I think, for us, it’s just the right group getting together at the right time,” Iden said, when asked how his hometown is now producing so many top triathletes. “It’s not like Bergen made us the same way, because Kristian and I have such different personalities. But, for whatever reason, people from Bergen have this confidence that’s always very high.”