Steel Grandpa: Gustaf Håkansson

The content below is from Episode 142 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast


  • This week I recommend you watch the Banshees of Inisherin
    • Plot:
      • On a remote island off the coast of Ireland, Pádraic is devastated when his buddy Colm suddenly puts an end to their lifelong friendship. With help from his sister and a troubled young islander, Pádraic sets out to repair the damaged relationship by any means necessary. However, as Colm’s resolve only strengthens, he soon delivers an ultimatum that leads to shocking consequences.
    • The acting by Colin Farrell, Kerry Condon, Brendan Gleeson, and Barry Keoghan is a spectacle on its own. But the plot is so simple, yet pulls you in right away.
    • Colin Farrell’s character Padraig goes from being sad, to pathetic, to triumphant, to “dim.”


  • Follow me Who’d a Thunkers to a land known as Sweden
    • This mystical Scandinavian landscape shows beautiful glacial mountains, thousands of coastal islands, harsh winters, and gorgeous women.
    • Rewind back to the year 1951, Gustaf Håkansson applied to join in an endurance bicycle race that spanned the entire country… his application was rejected because Gustaf was 66 years old.
    • The 50 or so other racers competing in this stamina testing race were half Gustaf’s age.
    • But you see Gustaf wasn’t about to be deterred. What the race officials didn’t know was that he had ridden 600 miles just to get to the application booth!
    • So he said “shove it” to the officials and showed up to compete anyway. Yes, he did get rejected, but he figured no one was going to stop him (a Swedish citizen) from riding his bicycle along the same route as the race. When the official shot the starting pistol he was there with his rinkly bum on the bike saddle with mudguards, a headlamp, and saddle bags full of helpful goodies (food and water).
  • When the race began it was a mad dash. With so many participants, it wasn’t until about 20 seconds after the starting gun went off that Gustaf was able to cross the starting line. He was off to a rocky start, but no worries.
    • Once the wind started to hit his face, his huge majestic white beard began to part revealing a homemade racer bib. Unlike his competitors, he didn’t have an official racer number on his bib. No, he had written the number 0 on his chest as sort of a “take this” to the officiants.
  • It was 5 days and about 1,000 miles later that the officials saw Gustaf again.
    • Along with spectators, the officials waiting at the finish line saw a blur off in the distance rounding the corner.
    • The spectators rushed toward the mysterious would-be winner to offer food and drink to his exhausted body.
    • They expected a young fit man in his 20’s or maybe 30’s… but what they saw was a frail old man, a giant beard white as snow, nearing the finish line in his rusty old roadster bike teetering toward the finish line with no 2nd place racer anywhere in sight… Gustaf was a FULL DAY ahead of the other cyclists…
  • Now that is the legend, there is some more to the story.
    • Gustaf cheated.
    • Well, technically he didn’t cheat because the old geezer wasn’t even officially in the race. But he did ignore a major rule.
    • Other competitors had to meet and stop at checkpoints at the end of each day to rest. They were expected to wait at these checkpoints for a considerable amount of time.
    • Gustaf did not stop. Instead of getting a few hours of sleep, Gustaf kept trucking on through the night with his hazy old headlamp. While the rest of the riders were snoozing, drinking water, and recharging, the Steel Grandpa (as he would come to be known) would stop for just 1 hour each night then continue on into the darkness.
    • Gustaf was keeping at a 10-mile deficit from the rest of the pack, but after days of not resting while the others did, Gustaf has about a full day ahead of the rest.
    • While he did sort of cheat, he did prove his point without a doubt. He was rejected because the officials thought he couldn’t stand the strain of the race… well he did stand up to it, and even ignored the resting rules proving he was more than capable of beating it.
  • While the race was going on for those 5 days, people started to notice Gustaf was tucking alongside the other racers. Eventually, people became more interested in Gustaf’s plight than the official race participants. Some watched to see if the old man would pass out from exhaustion, others just wanted a good underdog story.
    • People knew he wasn’t stopping to sleep like the others and they figured there was no way he could keep going with virtually no rest.
    • At the 3-day mark, Gustaf’s 10-mile lag from the first day had turned into a 120-mile lead.
    • At this point, the police drove up to Gustaf and tried to get him to stop for a medical examination… but the Steel Grandpa laughed and kept pedaling.
    • Then on the 5th day, just about 800 yards from the finish line, as the officials and spectators saw him nearing the finish line, Gustaf had stopped. He hadn’t stopped from exhaustion as many thought, no, Gustaf’s trusty roadster steed had suffered his first flat tire of the race…
  • After he assessed the situation fully, Gustaf Håkansson the man who had heard towns folk chant “Steel Grandpa” as he rode through their streets for the past 5 days, decided a flat wasn’t going to stop him.
    • Unwavering in his pursuit to show those who rejected him for the race that he could do it, Gustaf got off his bike and started to jog toward the finish line. With only a few yards to go, he saddled back on his bike to cross the finish line at 2:15PM on July 7th of 1951.
    • The same officials that said he couldn’t possibly finish such a long and stressful race watched as he wobbled across the finish line on his rusty roadster bike with greasy hair, tangled white beard, and a flat tire…
  • The Guardian sums up the story well:
    • “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.”
    • He kept riding until he turned 100 and passed away in 1987 at the age of 101. His wife Maria lived until she was 104.