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Project Sub-4: Wait, why are we going to Iceland?

Before racing for 4km in the heat of Mexico, we headed to misty Iceland for 100km of gravel racing. It was awesome.

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Editor’s note: This is part three of Project Sub-4, a column by Ashton Lambie detailing his preparation for his attempt to set a world record in the 4km individual pursuit. Spoiler alert: He just did. Enjoy this account, and stay tuned for the next installment of Project Sub-4. 

Training for me is often a balancing act.

On one end of the training philosophy, you could live a completely sterile existence. The precise meals and macros for peak performance, optimal recovery, and ideal body composition could mean the same handful of meals every day. You’d do the workouts every day, and spend the rest of the day recovering, or at least minimizing external stress. You’d monitor and optimize every body metric possible, from sleep to glucose.

On the other end, you could just ride your bike, eat whatever you want without any thought, and skip any day of training you didn’t want to do.

Fortunately for me (or unfortunately, if you’re at the other end), I tend to stick to a pretty regimented training plan. There’s comfort in routine and certainty, but a little flexibility and rule-breaking are what makes the rest of life exciting and worth living. Sometimes that flexibility is a cup of coffee after 2:00 p.m. (my own personal cut-off for coffee) and sometimes it leads you to a race like the Rift in Iceland!

Iceland has been on the list of places to visit since I saw the Sigur Ros movie “Heima” in high school. My partner Christina Birch and I are both sponsored by Lauf, a gravel bike company based in Reykjavik. Since we started with them in 2019, the Rift has been on our bucket list, and it was even better than we imagined!

The sub-4 attempt was still front and center on my mind, leading me to choose the 100k route as my endurance ride for the week, with gym and intervals on the road during the rest of the week.

From the moment we landed, to taking off a week later, Iceland and the Lauf crew didn’t disappoint. The crew consisted of myself and Christina, gravel stars Lauren and Mat Stephens, Chris Schroder, and Brittney Elizabeth, all part of the Lauf Legends crew. Shortly after landing, we found our way to Iceland’s oldest cafe, right next to Lauf HQ. We sat around and drank some burnt-tasting diner coffee next to a table of old, grizzled gentlemen, fresh out of their chilly morning dip in the pool.

Since we had locals to take us around, it really felt like we got some awesome tours, and they helped answer all our weird questions, covering everything from hot dog toppings to daylight hours. Fun facts about Iceland include:

Hot dogs are a popular food. They are better quality meat and casing than most hot dogs in the U.S., and are served with ketchup, a sweet brown mustard called pylsusinnep, raw onions, and remoulade sauce.

Pools are a vastly different experience from what we would consider a pool. The post-race bag included access to a small town pool facility that included a big pool, a water slide, two different temperature hot tubs, a cold bath, a sauna, steam rooms, and both indoor and outdoor showers. This was a pretty average Icelandic pool set-up.

We had constant daylight. It would get slightly darker, but only 3-4 hours a day were even considered “civil twilight.” You could walk around without a flashlight or headlights, 24 hours a day.

There is currently an active volcano on the island! I saw actual lava for the first time in my life, and it was just as epic as I could’ve imagined.

Lamb soup, hot dogs, and fish and chips are the go-to fast food around there. Go get some!

Icelandic sweaters are the unofficial (official) attire of the country. They look awesome, and they are insanely appropriate for the weather.

Speaking of the weather, it’s almost always around 50 degrees and slightly wet. It rarely gets a full dumping rain, but it is almost constantly drizzling

It’s the most beautiful country I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting, no contest. The scenery is otherworldly, and the people are nice enough to point you to the best spots to see!

The morning of the race was like nearly every other morning in Iceland, a shockingly consistent level of wind, rain, and 45- to 50-degree temps. We were all staying at a small horse farm outside of the town, a quiet stark contrast to the constant buzz of activity from the race HQ room inside a school gymnasium.

A majority of the riders were doing the 200k full loop. So, after seeing the rest of the crew off, I got to enjoy another coffee, and casually rolled out an hour later for the 100k course. I was on a solo training ride before we turned off of the pavement on to the gravel climb, and enjoyed every minute of it. Fellow gravel connoisseur Yuri Hauswald hollered as I rode past an aid station, and it was great to see a familiar face among the otherworldly vistas.

My old coach, Ben Sharp, used to call some days “soul rides,” where the goal was training, but also to just enjoy the course, weather, and riding your bike. If climbing up dormant volcanoes, riding past glaciers, and chasing sheep down rocky descents isn’t a soul ride, then I have no idea what is.

The 100k course was “just” a 50k out and back stick, but got to some of the bigger climbs on the course. We climbed out of the coastal forests and into the grassy highlands. As the vegetation grew less and less, the rocks also got bigger and bigger. The landscape became even more alien landscape as the grey and black hillsides were only broken up by occasional patches of neon moss.

A surprisingly late flat (through no fault of Vittoria or Zipp; I’m a terrible mountain biker) on the technical descent ended my hope for the overall win, and I’m not ashamed to say I got beat by a girl, Icelandic women’s road national champ Ágústa Edda Björnsdóttir! At the end of the day, I still got to drink beer out of a horn, and damn if that wasn’t the coolest podium I’ve ever been on.

My endurance ride was finished for the week, and the spirit and lungs were enjoying the change of scenery and temperature for a week. Feeling fresh, and more excited about riding bikes, I just had the final piece of the journey, the trip to Aguascalientes!