The Rift Iceland Gravel Race

In February 2019 some of my friends from Michigan told me they were going to Iceland in July for a 200km gravel race. Within a minute they had me convinced to join them, even though I don’t really race any more. On the spot I told them I would likely join, and went home later that night to research what this event was all about. That’s when I learned all the details about The Rift Iceland Gravel Race that the crew at Lauf Cycling had created. What was I getting myself into?

A self-supported bikepacking trip in Iceland had always been a dream of mine, and this would be an excellent opportunity to do a long trip after the gravel race. It took very little convincing to get my friend Frank to join me for the bikepacking trip, and before we knew it, we were going to Iceland to race gravel and ride for more than a week in the highlands - the trip of a lifetime. This post will focus exclusively on The Rift Gravel Race, and I will cover the bikepacking trip in separate posts.

Arriving in Iceland with a bicycle is super convenient. Right outside the airport there is the Bike Pit - a shipping container converted to workstation for assembling your bicycle while protected from the weather.

Evan, Frank and I grabbed a few beers and took our time setting up the bikes before researching how to get the 45 miles from Keflavik airport to the bus terminal in Reykjavik, where a free shuttle bus was waiting to shuttle us to Hvolsvöllur. The Airport Direct Bus was affordable and accommodating. Upon arriving at the main station we bumped into mountain bike legend Tinker Juarez, who we would get to know very well in the coming few days.

We arrived at Midgard Base Camp mid-afternoon, found some viking hats and rose a few glasses of beer to celebrate our arrival in Iceland.

Never in my life have I ever seen anyone who can sleep while sitting upright and having a conversation, except for my friend Evan from Marquette, MI. Between the jet lag, the drive from Reykjavik and a few beers, Evan was taking one of his classic micro-naps right in the lobby!

A small dinner event was planned at the nearby Saga Centre, so we rode over there to check it out and have some fun with swords and axes along the way.

Iceland has an incredible overland vehicle scene. Just rolling around town we saw several vehicles with some of the biggest tires I have ever seen.

For context, my bike in the above picture has 29 x 2.8” tires and the frame is an XL. It’s a solid 32” step up into the passenger side door of this vehicle, and those tires appear to have a radius of at least 36” on 12” rims. Also, many vehicles have air lines running into the rims so air pressure can be modified while driving.

The next day most of the Michigan crew arrived. Unfortunately our friend Matt Acker and his wife Jenny were stuck in Frankfurt, and it was not certain they would make it in time for the race start on Saturday. We had one full day to adjust before the race, so we got together with the Michigan crew and rode for a few hours to check out the countryside.

The surface of the gravel roads we were on was quite coarse, and noticeably slower than a lot of gravel you encounter in the midwest. The terrain was exotic, and most of our crew were running the Teravail Rutland gravel tires.

It’s always fun to explore the food and drink of a foreign country, so after the ride we found a gas station to explore. Most of the packaging had indecipherable language, so it was gamble taking the first sips to see what these drinks tasted like.

It was the evening before the race, and the organizers planned “The Rift Games” in the field behind the Lava Centre in Hvolsvöllur. It was drizzling, Matt and Jenny Acker made it from Frankfurt, and everyone was in great spirits.

There was a tug of war contest while holding a beer in one hand, as well as a rock lifting competition that was quite popular!

The track standing contest while holding a beer was quite entertaining as well. Everyone figured out how to hold the beer glass in their mouth so they could keep both hands on the bars.

After the Rift Games it was time to head back to Midgard Base Camp, but not before grabbing a few hot dogs and posing in front of what appeared to be a hot dog factory with dancing cartoon characters on the outside.

The staff at Midgard were extremely nice, and threw a dinner party for all the race participants the night before. They hired local musicians to perform and a good time was had by all.

Matt arrived in time for the race, but United Airlines in true fashion, lost his bike. The crew from Lauf pulled out all the stops for race participants who traveled from North America and Europe for the event. They found Matt a bike to use, as well as a pair of shoes because his were with his bike. Lauf helped many people who had forgotten or lost gear in their travels to Iceland. They deserve a huge kudos.

The morning of the race had arrived, and pinning the number placard on always evokes a feeling for me. It stirs anxiety and tension, and makes me question what I am doing. It had been years since I entered in a race, and these feelings were hitting me again. While they were familiar from many years ago, I was exploring a new relationship with them, and therefore processing them differently. I wasn’t out here to “win”. For me, winning would be spending the day on a bike with friends, exploring a beautiful landscape, making some beautiful photographs, and simply crossing the finish line. At this stage of my life, competition means something very different from my years as a serious road racer. Here I was, in a “race” again, but with a new relationship to the terms and conditions.

We rode to the start line and searched for the back of the group. The world elite of gravel racing was here to race to reinforce their pedigree, and I had no business getting in anyone’s way. We were lining up with legends, and I found myself chuckling at just how ridiculous it was for me to be in this race. Before finding our place at the back, we said hello to Tinker and wished him the best. He would certainly be one of the top 10 in this event.

The start gun went off and we were rolling out of town, heading towards the hills on pavement. The pace was high, so we just rolled with it and settled in. There were 200km (125 miles) of difficult riding ahead, through rivers and over mountains that would test our physical and mental limits. After 5 miles, we turned on to the gravel and were immediately treated to the unique beauty of Iceland.

The relationship between human and bicycle is graceful and beautiful. Marshall McLuhan famously said, “the wheel is an extension of the foot.” This is what I love about the basic technology of a bicycle. The bicycle is a tool used to extend the possibilities of exploration with our feet, using natural self-propulsion. To see this happening in a landscape like Iceland is breathtakingly beautiful.

After the first river crossing it became clear just how far into remoteness this route was going to take us. The riding surface seemed to change every few kilometers, but always managed to be rugged and full of surprises. In classic form, the rain started, then the wind started, and it was head down fighting with the elements.

Our group slowly splintered as the hike-a-bike climbs started. Before long, the group was whittled down to Frank, Jenny, Jason and me. We were so far back that all the food was gone by the time we arrived at checkpoint one. It became a slog to checkpoint two, where we were receiving reports of there being no food left. At 65 miles in, with another 60 miles left, this was not good news.

Maybe it is because the soil is so young from volcanic activity, or maybe it is the microscopic shape of the dirt itself, but there was something about the saturated lava dirt that felt extremely slow. Perhaps it was the state of mind I was in, but I was struggling to keep going in a huge way. Usually when this happens I reach down for my bluetooth speaker and blast Rage Against the Machine for awhile, but the extremely rugged terrain had shaken my speaker right off my bike. It was hard to be upset in a landscape providing so many amazing views.

Eventually we arrived at checkpoint two, where it was cold and wet. It was a pleasant surprise to discover they had re-stocked the sandwich boxes and had food! I stood there for 5 minutes shoving sandwiches down my face and grabbing handfuls of soaked tortilla chips. Shivering started shaking my body as I looked down the misty road leading away from the food refuge of checkpoint two. Frank and I rolled out slowly, waiting up for Jenny and Jason, but we never saw them again.

There was a generous 20 mile descent on the north side of Mt. Hekla before turning east back towards Hvolsvöllur. Frank and I rode the last half of the race alone, with periods of sunshine and rain. We passed several people in the last 20 miles. At one of the river crossings, the west side of the river was ice cold, and the east side of the river was as warm as a hot tub. It was extremely difficult to push into the last bit of headwind before eventually hitting the pavement towards the finish line. We had been out on the bikes for more than 12 hours, but we managed to finish what many people described as the most difficult one-day gravel race on the calendar. It certainly was the most difficult one-day event I had ever done. Now I’m thinking about doing it again in 2020!

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