The Land of Fire, Ice, And Gravel

Photos and Words by Sami Sauri

I could always start my story with a random aside, something about Iceland being the land of Sagas and Vikings, breathtaking waterfalls, glaciers, and volcanoes, or just how lucky I am to have gravel racing taking me to amazing places.

The day you register for a 200km race in one of the most remote parts of the planet is an exciting day! Some people planned their trip months in advance, some others just winged it at the last minute. For me, this was a last-minute trip where I didn’t have anything specially prepared but I was ready to see the amazing landscape and great scenery.

I joined Neil Shirley and Jake Pantone from ENVE in the capital city of Reykjavik. Originally settled by farmers, the city now exudes charm and friendliness that makes you feel awake all the time, especially when it only gets dark three hours a day during the summer months. From Reykjavik, it was a 1.5-hour drive to the race venue in Hvolsvöller, home to the Lava Center that would act as race HQ.

On Friday we jumped in the Lauf/ENVE 50km pre-ride to get an idea of how it would be riding through lava fields and crossing rivers. It was uncharacteristically sunny and warm, so that made our afternoon a very pleasant one. We picked up our numbers, bags, and downloaded the route on komoot to be prepared for the next day.

After sleeping soundly despite the lack of darkness I found myself and 250 other riders at the start line of The Rift, what would be a 200km race in the southwest of Iceland, and basically a loop of one of the most active volcanoes on the island. There were four checkpoints that would save us from hunger and many river crossings that would keep us fresh (or freezing). It was raining a little bit, but not quite enough for a jacket, or was it? So I sat there, in the most beautiful scenery fretting about whether to start cold, or start warm and have to take my jacket off on the first climb. Bike racers are strange. I was excited to be on that start line and ready for what was sure to be an epic day.

After about a 10k pavement section at the start, we deviated into the gravel and the first of many river crossings. I was feeling good and tried to stay in the front group for as long as I could. The first 100km were pretty much uphill and had some strong crosswinds, so I decided to slow down and join the next group. The landscape was changing every 10km, it was truly stunning.

As soon as we approached the 100km halfway point, I was thinking about how nice the wind was going to be once at our backs for the downhill. It was the most pleasant time of the day. After the fourth river crossing, we enjoyed a long descent on snaking roads, although most of them had the most severe washboard I have ever experienced. Seriously, it was like holding a jackhammer. Once the course joined a paved road it was a reprieve, even if I was riding back into a headwind. There was both joy and sadness as I approached the finish, happy to be climbing off the back after a hard day, but not quite ready for the experience to end either. Once back at the finish, the vibes were high, everyone was stoked about the day and couldn’t believe the terrain they had just ridden through–it was truly stunning. I’m already planning for next year.