Gustaf Håkansson had a falling out with his barber in 1933 and never had another shave, which is one way of saying he was a stubborn man. By the time he rode to the start of Sweden’s most punishing cycling race 18 years later, in 1951, he sported a lush white beard that would be the envy of old St. Nick himself.
Though he’d cycled all over Sweden for decades, the 66-year-old Håkansson didn’t look like anyone’s vision of a cycling champion. The organizers of the 1,760 kilometer (1,093 mile) stage race from Haparanda on Sweden’s northern border to Ystad in the south told him to get lost, more or less. Entries were limited to trained sportsman under 40 years old, and race officials thought the bearded grandfather far too old and frail to attempt the grueling Sverigeloppet.
Organizers had received more than 1,000 applications and accepted only 50—but Håkansson is the only one who refused to take no for an answer.
Undeterred, Håkansson pinned a big number zero to his chest and started along the race route, one minute (some sources say one hour) after the official start. When the peloton reached the end of the day’s stage and the young riders stopped to eat and sleep, Håkansson kept going. And going. And going. He put in a good 22 hours that day. It turns out the old man didn’t require much sleep. He wasn’t particularly fast, but he was steady.
Each morning the pack of young riders would race after him, eating into his lead. Then, when they stopped to sleep, Håkansson built it back up again. After three days he was about 120 miles ahead and the newspapers were full of stories about Stålfarfar, the “Steel Grandpa.” This is not what the race organizers intended.
The Sverigeloppet began as a promotional campaign sponsored by the Stockholm newspaper Tidningen and Husqvarna, the chainsaw people, who in those days made everything from sewing machines to bicycles. The company gave each competitor a bike equipped with Husky’s newfangled two-speed hub, on the assumption that one square-jawed young gent or another would appear each day in the sports pages, astride a Husqvarna bicycle.
A skinny old man with a flowing white beard did not fit the image they were after, and Håkansson’s application was swiftly declined. He wasn’t the only would-be racer turned away—organizers had received more than 1,000 applications and accepted only 50—but Håkansson is the only one who refused to take no for an answer.
The official entrants got those shiny new bikes and free train fare to the starting line. Håkansson received neither. He used his own bike, a venerable Kärnan outfitted with mudguards, panniers, and a generator light, and he didn’t take the train. Instead he pedaled about 1,000 miles from his home in Gantofta to the start. After riding almost the whole course in reverse just to get to the race, Håkansson thought officials would surely let him compete. They didn’t.
So, on the morning of the grand départ, the Steel Grandpa began riding after the other competitors had disappeared up the road. When the old man got up to speed, the wind parted his beard to reveal the hand-sewn bib bearing his self-appointed race number, zero. That was the picture that appeared in all the papers.
Before the registered racers were out of their beds on the morning of the second stage, Stockholm’s Dagens Nyheter newspaper had scooped their cross town rivals with the astonishing story of The Cycling Full-Beard (it rings better in Swedish), a retired bus driver who had worked since the age of six and raised 10 children with his loving wife, Maria. The newspaper reported that Håkansson was a deeply religious man, who had nonetheless left his Bible home in the interest of speed. His equipment consisted of a coat, a bottle of water, a pump, and patch kit.
Håkansson had been traveling this way since at least the 1920s, and not just on the flat coastal roads the Sverigeloppet followed. In 1927, after his children were grown, he biked from his home in the south to Sweden’s northern mountains to pick loganberries. Later he rode all the way to Lapland to see the midnight sun. Though they lived modestly, he told Maria, “All you need to see the world is a bike and two strong legs.”
The public was enthralled, and Dagens Nyheter quickly enlisted Håkansson as a correspondent (“Why not? The others wasted their time sleeping at night,” writer Frithioff Johansen rationalized in a recent Berlingske profile), though the newspaper’s Full-Beard moniker didn’t stick. As Håkansson chugged into view in Luleå, a mere 140 kilometers into the race, a young boy blurted, “Here comes Stålfarfar!” and the legend of Steel Grandpa was born.
While the official racers were fed and housed at every stop, Håkansson fended for himself, riding day and night, snatching an hour’s sleep beside the road or, as his fame spread before him, with hospitable people along the way. On the fourth day of the race, having slept a total of five hours since the start, he sat in a roadside ditch and jotted his dispatch for Dagens Nyheter. “I have never felt more comfortable in my entire life,” he wrote. “How can you get tired when you meet so much kindness?”
By that time, the official racers were more than 120 miles behind, and Sweden was gripped in Stålfarfar mania. At times police had to drive ahead, parting the sea of spectators so Håkansson could pass like some kind of two-wheeled Moses. In Söderhamn, about 500 miles into the race, he reluctantly allowed himself to be examined by a doctor. “Steel Grandfather is of excellent core wood. On the other hand, he lacks a watch,” the physician reported, according to Johansen and Google translate. To which Håkansson replied, “Time goes the same whether you measure it or not.”
He reached Ystad six days, 14 hours, and 20 minutes after he started, having slept a total of about 10 hours and crossing the finish line on a flat tire. He experienced his one and only puncture just a half-mile before the finish, and rather than dig out his patch kit he pushed the bike to within a stone’s throw of the finish, then remounted and rode across the line. He didn’t need a watch to know his lead was not in danger; the others were 24 hours in arrears.
Håkansson was greeted by a marching band, and then carried through the city in a golden chair. When the pack of young cyclists arrived the next afternoon, Stålfarfar wasn’t there. He was having tea with the king of Sweden.
In later years he became a sort of Sverigeloppet mascot, sometimes appearing at the start of the race, which was run a total of 10 times between 1951 and 1964. (The event was revived in 2017, and is open to anyone who fancies riding the length of Sweden in daily chunks of 200 or 300 kilometers). Håkansson had a brief run as an advertising pitchman, and leveraged his fame into a second career singing at folk festivals and retirement homes throughout Sweden. He released his first record, a 45 titled Stålfarfar Vals (Steel Grandpa Waltz), barely a month after finishing the Sverigeloppet.
Naturally, he kept on cycling. In 1959, at the age of 74, he made a two-wheeled pilgrimage to the Holy Land, traveling some 3,000 miles to Jerusalem. As always, he traveled light, in a rough and ready form of bikepacking that left plenty of room for happenstance and hospitality. When night caught him on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, he rolled up to a camp of Bedouins, who received him with great cheer despite a rather formidable language barrier. He stayed in the Middle East for a year before returning (by boat) to Sweden.
He continued riding until the age of 100. That same year he cut another record, this one an LP of religious and folk favorites that made him the oldest recording artist ever. Maria died in 1986 at 105, after 78 years of marriage. Steel Grandpa passed the following year. He was 102.
Top image: Gustaf ”Stålfarfar” Håkansson during Sverigeloppet 1951, accompanied by Olympic cyclist Sven Johansson, who was not in the race but became a great fan. Dagens Nyheter via Wikimedia Commons.