The Rift Race

I realized recently that I’d forgotten to post a recap of my trip to Iceland to participate in the Rift Gravel Race.  First of all a bit of gratitude; I’m grateful to have the fitness, the finances and the time required to pull off a 200K bike race across the lava fields of Iceland.

So there I was hanging out with my buddy Heikki when I mentioned that I was signed up for the Rift Race.  Two minutes later Heikki clicked a button on his laptop and said, “okay I’m in too.”  Okay well there you go, we’re a team.

My wife Melony and I decided to make the trip to Iceland both a bike race and a vacation.  We bought plane tickets with the arrival and departure separated by ten days and rented a campervan, everything else we’d figure out once we got in country.  The campervan was a great option, and I would recommend it to anyone planning a trip to Iceland.

Melony would have to deal with a nervous and neurotic Mike for the two days leading up to the race, but then after it was over I’d pack up the bike and we’d be on vacation.

Mel and I arrived in Keflavik Airport a bit past six in the morning and nothing, including our campervan rental office, was open.  After two hours of time passing we managed to get the office on the phone and they promptly sent out a driver to pick us up.

An hour later we were on the road heading towards the host town of Hvolsvollur.  The route from Keflavik to Hvolsvollur is an easy ninety-minute drive through the country, but as we rolled into the little coastal village I didn’t see any of the hoopla that normally surrounds one of these big events.  When you pull into Leadville, Emporia or Stillwater for an event the place is crawling with bicycles, bikes on the road, bikes on racks, bikes everywhere.  When we pulled into Hvolsvollur there was not a bike in sight.  I turned to Mel and said “holy crap do you think we went to the wrong town.”

We double and triple checked the location, yep we were right, I guess we were just a bit early.  We followed the race director’s directions and found a place to camp near a soccer field.  We were across the street from a public pool that offered free showers to the racers.  The only catch with our free camping spot was that it was first come first served, so if we left we didn’t have a guarantee that we’d have a spot on our return.  This had me worried.  Melony not so much.

I got my bike put together and went out for a short shakedown ride.  Everything seemed in order.

The next morning I met up with Heikki, his wife Paulina and their friend Anna, who was also riding the Rift.  We picked up our race packets and then took a risk and went for some sight-seeing.  Luckily there was still an open camping spot when we returned.  We had dinner that night with Heikki, Paulina, Anna and a couple of other friends.  I didn’t know it at that time but one of those friends was former world tour rider and current Director Sportif Jussi Veikkanen. 

I had a good sleep in the van, thank goodness Mel had bought us eye shades to combat the twenty-four-hours of sunlight.  Mel and I walked over to the start, I found Heikki and soon we were off.

The first few miles of the race are on pavement and the start was like a road race without the neutral rollout.  We were less than a mile into the 200k event and I was doing over 26mph.  I was barely surviving when we turned left and hit the gravel.

Pacing is super important for me on these long events.  I’d rather start slowish and speed up as the event progresses than start fast and die at the end.  Fortunately, the pace eased as we made our way up the first climb.  Soon after that came our first river crossing.  Despite being late July the weather conditions were more like Seattle in October, and I wasn’t super excited about getting my feet wet so early in the race.  Oh well what are you going to do.

We were now in some other-worldly terrain.  Lord of the Rings stuff.  The near landscape was barren jagged rock while the distant landscape was gray rocky peaks.  I felt a bit bad for the female riders as there was absolutely no place to go to the bathroom, no tree, no bush, not even a rock large enough to hide behind.

We were on what I guess is considered a road.  You could basically ride in one of the two narrow tracks made by truck tires, and it was challenging to make a pass as you had to go out in the rough to do so.  Eventually Heikki and I fell into a steady pace and we started knocking off the miles.

We passed what I assumed was some kind of off-roader camp where a half a dozen massively lifted vehicles known as Super Jeeps were parked around a few scattered buildings.  These super jeeps are huge, and as I soon learned leave behind huge washboard. 

We crossed a braided river and began a fifteen mile lollipop section.  This portion of the route was fairly crappy.  It starts out okay, but soon you’re riding over a lunar-like surface of softball-sized sharp rocks.  In my humble opinion they probably could have just left this out without deteriorating the experience one bit. 

After the lollipop the riding was pretty standard gravel with a long bit of tarmac thrown in.  The long day on rough terrain was taking its toll on my body by the time we reached the fourth and final checkpoint at 164km.  Okay so 36 kilometers to go, what is that like 22 miles.  The last four or five miles are on pavement, so okay like 18 miles of gravel.  Sure no problem.

Before the race someone told me that there is only one river crossing, but you cross it like ten times.  Dang this turned out to be true.  After the final water crossing, I knew we were getting close.  We were now backtracking the route I was surprised by the amount of climbing we had done at the start.  Finally, we hit the right hand turn onto tarmac and headed down the homestretch.  We were heading towards the ocean and had to fight a strong onshore breeze.  A final sting in the tail.

Heikki and I arrived back in Hvolsvollur not first and not last.  I had a beer and a hotdog while we waited for the awards ceremony as Heikki’s friend Anna, who we hadn’t seen all day, had taken third place.

After a shower at the Rec center, I boxed up my bike under the midnight sun, it was now vacation time.