The Italian cyclist, Omar Di Felice, is setting out across Antarctica in the ultimate test of athletic endurance and mental fortitude. In an interview with Italian daily La Stampa, Di Felice shares how he keeps himself going during the endless hours of total solitude as well as the activism that fuels his extreme adventures.
TURIN — Designer. Writer. Graphic artist. Promoter. Video-maker. Activist. At 42, Omar Di Felice has done it all and continues to do it all. But if his profession had to be given a name, it would be this: "Superman on wheels."
"Extreme cyclist," he suggests, but that wouldn't do justice to the past six years in which his deep love for bicycles has become his full-time job.
He has peddled 994 miles non-stop from Paris to Rome. He was the first person in history to cycle to Everest base camp. He completed the Arctic Tour in 2022 and won the longest and most iconic self-supported ultra-cycling race, the Trans America (4350 miles) last June.
His next great adventure began this week when he departed by plane for Chile, the first leg of a journey that will take him on the "most extreme and challenging adventure ever undertaken on a bicycle": crossing the Antarctic in winter, covering 963 miles of ascents, katabatic winds, and temperatures dropping as low as minus 40 degrees centigrade.
And to add to this: he's doing it all on his own.
Start of a journey
His passion for two-wheelers began at the age of 13: "I told my parents then and there: I wanted to be a cyclist. I had a bit of a shaky start, but in the end, I found my groove...".
Thousands of hours and miles later, in 2007, he turned professional: "But 'racing' wasn't for me: my true passion was endurance, covering long distances."
He left the pros and headed to university where he graduated with a degree in design, working in the field for some ten years: "I always did what I loved, even that job was very satisfying. At that time, I was training just for the pleasure of it, and perhaps to prove those people wrong who had told me, when I was a child, that my body wasn't suitable for cycling."
In 2012, he took five days off and cycled from Lourdes to Santiago de Compostela: "I made a small video of the experience, and Sky called me to ask if they could broadcast it. It was then that I understood what I was meant to be doing with my life."
Since then, Di Felice has accumulated thousands of miles worth of stories to tell, and has also found a way to raise awareness for an important cause.
"Climate change gave birth to the outreach project 'Bike to 1.5°C'. We go into schools, and we combine science and sports to send a clear, important message," he said.
"Every year, for example, I go to Iceland for a training camp. I train on the Forni glacier and, year after year, I see it shrink..."
Omar Di Felice charting his trip through Antarctica
Omar Di Felice/Instagram
Activism on wheels
Di Felice doesn't like the label "influencer": "I've got nothing against it, but that doesn't really capture what I am."
What about activist? "I suppose I am an activist , but not in the Italian sense. In Italy, we define 'activists' only as those who take to the streets, protestors: that's not how I raise awareness. Their form of protest is questionable, though it's done with the right spirit. I suppose we shouldn't judge young people fighting for a good cause: it's the politicians we should be berating."
When you spend so long in the middle of nowhere, totally alone, you learn many lessons.
Perhaps, he is both activist and influencer. "I set out, I pedal, I show those who follow me what I see," he says. "I highlight causes that, in my opinion, deserve more attention." Many of his stories seem to contain a fable-like moral, often directed towards societal issues.
"I got stuck in the Gobi Desert when the first pandemic broke out. Many families there live in tents and struggle to put food on the table for dinner, but they immediately offered me a bed and a meal. In Italy, we pick and choose who we care for: we should learn more from those who have far less."
He sends similar fable-like postcards back from India, Nepal, Greenland.
Omar Di Felice cycling before his trip to Antarctica
Omar Di Felice/Instagram
On solitude and failure
On November 12, he will attempt to cross Antarctica again, one year after his first attempt was interrupted due to personal reasons: "When you are there, in extreme conditions, you must not have negative thoughts. Otherwise, it's over."
His achievements have a lot to do with his athleticism — but even more to do with solitude and fear of failure.
"Today, no one spends time by themselves," he says. "Bombarded by the noise of the cities and always on the internet, we've lost the art of being alone. I simply do what humans have always done, in times when there was no technology. It makes me feel great."
And the fear of failure? "Some may say, 'A year ago, I failed, I gave up.' But I'm one of those people who thinks either I win or I learn. Young people, athletes and non-athletes, should erase this cult of wining and losing and talk more about the emotional journey of the challenges they go through. If I can't cross Antarctica this year, I will still have learned something new."
Ultimately, "it's about emotional growth," Di Felice says. "When you spend so long in the middle of nowhere, totally alone, only occasionally hearing the voice of your loved ones on the other end of a satellite phone, you learn many lessons. About life and about yourself."