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In Iceland, Metaphors about Volcanoes are not Figurative

August 08, 2023

In Iceland, Metaphors about Volcanoes are not Figurative

Why The Rift should be on your (gravel) bucket list

By: Chris Bagg
Photos provided by: The Rift Gravel Race

There is a much-maligned category of tabletop role-playing games (stop snickering, cyclists—you’re endurance athletes so you’re all nerds, too) called “earn your fun,” meaning that you have to do a lot of difficult and maybe not-so-fun grinding before the game starts to be enjoyable. As I climbed through the Icelandic landscape, a recently active volcano only a few kilometers to the west (Mount Hekla, which last erupted in 2000 but is one of the country’s “most active,” with at least 20 recorded eruptions since, oh, 1210, because we’re talking geologic time here), I found myself impressed with my surroundings but only in an intellectual way. Emotionally and physically I was having a hard time. The Rift is named for an actual seismological rift, the one situated underneath Iceland which will, eventually, split the land mass in two, but don’t worry, that won’t happen before next year’s race date. As you ascend the first third of the race’s 127 miles, you trace the path of that rift and, believe me, it feels like it. The road/trail/path is alternatively gnarly, rocky, sandy, loamy, and wet; the landscape has all the maturity of an emotional tween, except the pimples excrete lava.

Rift Gravel Bike Race Iceland Volcano

I have wanted to do this race for years, and in the middle of 2022, going through some life stuff, I registered for the race and booked a flight. Don’t fret, I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow of my day, except to say I got the race I trained for, as we all do when we sign up for and participate in endurance events. What I will say is that this race is a must-do for anyone who loves gravel riding and travel. The distance is manageable, you will never forget the surroundings, and several times during your day you will come around a corner or crest a climb, and the words “My god!” will escape your lips before you can stop them. This world is young, surprising, dynamic, cruel, and kind in equal measure, and riding here will forever shift your concept of what this kind of event can be like.

Rift Gravel Bike Race Iceland River Ford Bicycle

OK, here’s what to know if you plan to go. 2024 registration opens “soon,” so mark your calendars and get ready for some fermented shark.

Party up front, all business in the back


Rift Gravel Bike Race Iceland Volcano

You get more than half of this race’s roughly 6,000 feet of climbing out of the way in the first 43 miles, and while that may not sound like a party, you’ll catch my drift in a moment. After five miles of surprisingly well-behaved neutral riding, the lead car pulled off and things turned downright, well, racy. You charge up a two-mile climb, the leaders determined to make the selection happen inside the first ten minutes, and then settle into a long drag up through a green valley stitched with waterfalls. The course is beautiful, but alternatively rocky, sandy, rippled by washboard, steep in places and gradual in others, and you cross several rivers, the water coming up above your hubs. The glacier-fed streams are cold. Twice during this section you’ll be off your bike to push it up two unrideable pitches, and by the time you reach the high point of the race, 84 miles still to go, you may be wondering if this was a good idea.

Rift Gravel Bike Race Iceland Volcano

Don’t fret, however. As you begin to give up some of the potential energy you’ve stored, The Rift begins to sing. The surface smooths a bit, letting your bike run freely, and you drop into a wide, flat valley ringed with mountains. On our race day the sun actually came out. Touring motorbikes buzzed past me, and I rode through several campervan enclaves and trekking groups. Suddenly you’re in the pages of the Patagonia catalog. You complete the last river crossing you’ll see for several hours and arrive at Aid Station #3. Your spirits may be high—you’re about halfway through your day. The next section, though, is all business: rocky and mostly washboard, you’re pretty much done with climbing, and now it’s a long grind back to the south and to Hrosvöllur. Ideally you’ve stayed on top of your pacing, nutrition, and hydration, because for the next four to six hours, you’re just…riding your bike. Don’t get me wrong, you’re still riding it through unearthly beauty, but the difficulty of what you’ve attempted begins to dawn, here. The course designers, I believe, have made a course that is physically difficult in the first half, and then mentally difficult in the second (provided, again, that you paced, drank, and ate effectively—if you didn’t, well, then it’s mentally AND physically AND emotionally taxing—Yahtzee!). The next time I attend The Rift (and there will be a next time) I am glad I know this fact.

Make sure your upper body is strong


Rift Gravel Bike Race Iceland Volcano

Have I mentioned the washboard? I think I may have. It’s not just the washboard, though. There are many sections that are akin to riding across cobblestones due to the size of the rocks. Start early, probably four to six months out, and begin adding pushups, bench presses, pull-ups, and (for me especially) something to make your triceps stronger. Don’t worry, cyclists—if you do it right you won’t bulk up, and your chest, shoulders, and arms will thank you, after seven to twelve hours of…juddering. Juddering’s a word, right? Yeah, juddering is the right word here. But really, your general health will thank you, and you’ll have a better day out there. Twice a week, add three sets of pushups, three sets of 8-10 bench presses at a moderate weight, some triceps extensions, and three sets of one to three pull-ups to your regular lower-body lifting routine (you ARE doing lower body lifts, yes?). Build the weight as you progress, and eventually drop the reps down to three sets of three to five reps with big weights. You’ll get strong but not big.

The river crossings are NBD, but the weather can be a BD


Rift Gravel Bike Race Iceland River Ford

Having read several other race reports ahead of traveling, the river crossings concerned me. One report read “some riders tried to cross, with varying degrees of wetness.” I had resolved to take a page from the cyclocross book, which counsels you never to try something you aren’t 100% sure of being able to do. I bumped into fellow Oregonian Serena Bishop Gordon the morning of, though, and she waved away my fears. “They’re fine,” she said. “Just keep riding straight.” She was right, of course. The river crossings can be deep, but the streambeds are consistent: as long as you keep your bike pointed towards the farther shore and keep pedaling, you’ll be fine. Give it a practice, though, especially if you use electronic shifting. I’m sure I dunked my AXS derailleur several times and it shrugged the water off, but maybe test your setup at home by trying some crossings that are at least 24 inches deep. Your feet get wet, but there’s a fresh sock station after Aid #3, where you can retrieve a set of socks you dropped off that morning. Then there’s only the insult of the final crossing at mile 120 or so, which feels a little mean.

Rift Gravel Bike Race Iceland

The weather, however, can be a big deal. I got lucky on my Rift, with temps never lower then the high 40s and never higher than the high 50s. Last year, though, apparently it rained most of the day, and you’re much more likely to have precipitation than not. I would travel with several different weight baselayers, short- and long-sleeve jerseys, a wind vest, knicker bibs, arm warmers, knee warmers, normal bibs, a headband, a light rain jacket, a heavy thermal jacket, a thick cap, and several different pairs of gloves. OK, bring one of everything, really. Oh, and socks. Lots of socks. I ended up doubling up two pairs of normal cycling socks and that worked great. For race day I went with normal bibs, no knee warmers, light baselayer, short sleeve jersey, arm warmers, and thin gloves. I carried a wind vest and a headband with me. If your forecast calls for rain, I’d go with a medium baselayer, knee and arm warmers, long sleeve jersey and vest or light rain jacket.

THICC and chonky, and bring some lube

Tire choice! Picking the right rubber and pressure can determine a lot about the quality of your day at The Rift. I think I went a little slender and firm, with a pair of IRC Boken 40s at 30 PSI, which is my preferred tire and pressure for fast rolling light to medium intensity gravel, similar to what you might find at Unbound or a few of the Oregon gravel races. The tire gurus at IRC wondered aloud if maybe I should go with something beefier, and they was correct. 42s are a minimum, I’d say, and 45s aren’t out of the question. A pair of Boken Doublecross 42s at 25-28 PSI would have been perfect, I think. That would give you enough side knob to grab the sandy, rocky, loose stuff that’s everywhere at Rift, but also give you some fast rolling on the flatter sections in the back half of the race. I’m 175-180 pounds, so adjust your pressure accordingly. Having a tire that can run a lower pressure but still roll fast will be crucial to your day, because you’ll need something to soak up the washboard and the constant judders.

Rift Gravel Race Iceland River Crossing

Make sure you bring some chain lube with you, or have some way of getting support out there. The repeated dunkings in the river plus the dust and grit will have even a well-lubed chain oil-free by Aid #3, and my chain began falling off every ten minutes or so. I rectified the problem at Aid #4, due to some helpful Germans, but I sure wish I’d been able to fix this problem on my own.

“The Rift has been on my watch list for a few years and the wait made it all the sweeter. The race was incredible; challenging, remote, and with severity of topography that could not be reflected in the course profile. The various surfaces and terrain (paired with some Schwalbe G-One Overland tires) suited my strengths and provided a day that was physically demanding and mentally engaging from start to finish.” —Serena Bishop Gordon, 3rd Place Elite Field

 

For Thor’s sake look around

It can be easy, during these latter days of social media, to think about athletic experience as fodder for our Instagram and Strava feeds. Certainly many athletes struggle to give value to a ride or a race if they don’t have some kind of record for it. “If it’s not on your [bike computer] it didn’t happen!” goes a particularly unfortunate only-half-joking refrain in the endurance community. I’m as guilty as this as the next athlete, and when my bike computer died 4.5 hours into the race, I experienced some feelings of which I am not proud. Not only that, but losing the constant reminders I have set up to eat and drink (plus a very poorly managed placement of those two Snickers bars I picked up at Aid #3) led me into a familiar cul de sac of bad athlete decisions. As a result I was a bit of a Grumplestiltskin during the last 3.5 hours of the race, during which I only covered about 45 miles. Talk about a slow down. The Rift is one of the most beautiful and striking events you’ll ever do, as the images attest, and I think that if I had stopped worrying about my bike computer and that dry chain that kept wanting to fall off I would have been able to stay in the experience more and less in my head. Looking around and drawing inspiration and power from your surroundings is a tried-and-true method of returning a wandering athletic mind to the present, but aside from that it’s just darn amazing country. Doing well at ultra-distance races requires a strange mix of focus and letting your attention wander, and the landscape in Iceland wants to help—stop worrying about the ‘grams or your position and just soak it up (even the cold water suffusing your socks). You may not get this opportunity again.

Rift Gravel Bike Race Iceland

What to know before you go

Traveling to a foreign country can always be daunting, and the stress of the unknown is something that can get to an athlete. Iceland is a fairly easy country to travel to and to get around in (tourism is a very big part of their economy), but for me having many of these questions answered beforehand allowed me to focus upon the race. I used Notion as a travel planner, and suggest you do something similar—it was so great to have all of my travel information in one place.

  • First of all, Iceland is expensive, and if you’ve done any research about the place you know this already. My trip, all told, cost $4791. That includes race registration, flights, lodging, travel in and around the country, food, and incidentals. Here’s a basic breakdown:
    • Flight $1100
    • Lodging (Airbnb + two hotels to cover the eight nights I was in Iceland) = $2310
    • Race registration = $225
    • Bus tickets = $190
    • Food and incidentals: $966
    • Don’t forget your foreign power adapters, as that was one of my incidentals. They’re cheap, sure, but I’m guessing you’d like to save as much money as possible. Iceland uses the European model of outlet.
  • Renting a car or a camper van is probably the easiest way to get around, but see bullet point number one. It is expensive. And it’s not necessary! I didn’t rent a car and never felt trapped or stressed. The bus system in Reykjavik is extensive, and the “country” routes are reliable in the summertime. I hear they are less reliable in winter, but that’s not applicable to this article. Your best bet to get to Reykjavik from Keflavik Airport is one of the services such as Flybus, operating by Reykjvaik Excursions. You can book ahead of time, each leg costing around $25, and the buses leave pretty regularly. They’ll even try to get you close to your AirBnB or hotel, simply ask the conductor when you board and they can help you out.
  • Once you’re in Reykjavik, if you don’t have a car, you’ll be using the bus system. Use Straeto to figure out which line you’ll need and which stop you’ll have to get to, but don’t try to use the app they suggest, as it can’t send confirmation numbers to US phones. Since you won’t be using the app you’ll need to pay cash, and a ticket is 570 ISK. I had to get cash out at the bus station in Reykjavik, buy some pizza at an Icelandic Sbarro’s (oh, the irony) and ask for correct change. Annoying for me, but if you know that’s coming, you’ll be better prepared.
  • If you’re not renting a car, again, you’ll be using Straeto to get to the race site. I stayed at the Stracta Hotel (I’ll get to that in a moment), but Straeto can drop you off in Hella, where Stracta is, or in Hrosvöllur. I saw riders simply ask the bus driver to make unplanned stops and they obliged, so if you’re staying at the Ranga Hotel, midway between Hella and Hrosvöllur, you can just ask. These country buses leave from the Mjodd Bus Station in Reykjavik, and you just pay for your ticket (usually 3900 ISK, or around $30) when you get on the bus with a credit or debit card. They leave PROMPTLY on time, so do not cut it close. The drivers had no problem with me stowing a packed bicycle (in a bike bag) under the bus. The Straeto website says that they cannot take assembled bikes!
  • Lodging options: the race website lists the various hotels with “five minutes out,” or “ten minutes out.” They mean by car. I almost found myself in a difficult situation when, checking the location of the Stracta Hotel once I was on the bus to Hrosvöllur, I discovered it lay 13km (eight miles) from the start! I had assumed that “five or ten minutes out” meant that the hotels were within walking distance. I quickly emailed the hotel and got a snappy reply (Icelandic customer service is top drawer for the most part), telling me to just jump off the bus in Hella. I did and easily wheeled my bag across the highway to the hotel, which—like many things in Iceland—was perfectly lovely and quite expensive. Stracta is the middle-priced option of the three hotels on The Rift’s website, with Hotel Ranga playing the luxury option and Midgard Base Camp the budgetary one. If you can book early enough, Midgard is the place to stay, at around $110 a night or 14,000 ISK. It’s more of a hostel but it does have private rooms, AND it has laundry services, which would have been a godsend on my particular trip. No shade on Stracta—it was a really nice place to stay, but I would have loved to have spent a little less, been a little closer to the race, and had access to laundry. Oh, and the 13km headwindy ride home after the race was…challenging. You can also choose to camp right across the street from the race site, which could be a great option if you’ve rented an outfitted campervan for your trip. There are plenty of sites that can set this service up for you, but www.campervaniceland.com does a nice job of displaying prices for different tiers of service right up front.

Rift Gravel Bike Race Iceland River Crossing on a bicycle

Conclusion

It’s exactly one week since I flew home from Iceland, and other than the culture shock (the United States is so…messy!), what I’m mostly feeling is a hunger to go straight back. There’s something about The Rift gravel that just…feels like gravel racing. The vistas are vast and wild, the distance is challenging, and the surface is by turns magical and brutal. The 207km sits in that nice middle distance of gravel racing: neither absurdly long or road-race short. The racing is good (if you want to race) and you can also just enjoy a long, amazing day on the bike. This author’s final verdict? I’ll be going back to race again, which is really all you need to know.



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