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Is riding gravel in Iceland worth the hype?

Gravel races and gravel bikes are cropping up across the sparsely populated nation that's known for inclement weather. This is what I experienced at Grefillinn, one of Iceland's newest gravel races.

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When I wake up on the morning of the Grefillinn gravel race, I hear waves crashing outside my hotel window. I love sleeping near the ocean, I think.

Then, after my jet lag–addled brain has time to adjust I remember that I’m not next to the sea, I’m in Reykholt, a tiny settlement in West Iceland. The waves are not water but wind, blowing at a steady 40mph with up to 60mph gusts. When I pull the curtains back the sky is approximately one half robin’s-egg blue flecked with wispy clouds and one half impenetrably purplish-greyish-black.

Maybe it’s moving the right way, I think.

Icelandic gravel culture

Word is out that Iceland is an … interesting place to ride gravel bikes. Even though The Rift only debuted three years ago, it’s become a bucket-list event, and a handful of American pros travel to Iceland every July to race it. Set in dramatic landscapes along the southern coast, the race has participants duke it out for 100km or 200km for the prize of a coveted Icelandic woolen sweater (that they will undoubtedly need to put on after the race).

In June of this year, The Westfjords Way Challenge joined Iceland’s line-up of gravel events. For four days, an intrepid bunch rode 906 kilometers through one of the country’s most remarkable — and least inhabited — landscapes.

Gravel is a universal language (Photo: Grefillinn)

Perhaps the coolest thing about the Westfjords Way is the requirement that riders are required to go fully immersive — every stage has two mandatory ‘cultural connection’ stops like soaking in a hot pool, visiting a natural wonder, or stopping into a museum.

Grefillinn — the race I’ve traveled to Iceland for — debuted in 2021; this year the event has a a new host community in West Iceland and starts and finishes at the Krauma Geothermal Baths.

Despite its fame for being Europe’s most sparsely populated country and also having one of its harshest climates, Iceland not only has a robust gravel bike culture, but it also gave birth to a gravel bike.

And, that bike actually started as a suspension fork.

Can you spy the Lauf fork? (Photo: Grefillinn)

In the early 2010s, two friends and mountain bikers from Reykjavik, Benedikt Skulason, an engineer, and Gudberg Bjornsson, an industrial designer, hatched the idea for a lightweight suspension fork. Skulason had been working with high-performance composite materials in the prosthetics industry and thought his knowledge could translate into a lighter-weight suspension option.

The Lauf fork soon followed, an innovative twist on the leaf spring suspension concept, one of the oldest suspension systems in wheeled transport. In 2013, local racer Helgi Berg rode the funny-looking Lauf fork on his hardtail mountain bike at a local race and won. The 100 people at the race (of the 315,000 people in the country) took note.

With the True Grit fork making its way onto bikes across Iceland and gravel becoming a discipline unto itself in North America, Skulason and Bjornsson then busied themselves with a new question: how could Lauf forks best complement gravel bikes?

Why wouldn’t you want a little front suspension? (Photo: Grefillinn)

More questioning and more tinkering ultimately led them to the creation of a new bike: the Lauf True Grit, which debuted in 2017. With the bike came a new and improved True Grit SL fork, and a new brand name: Lauf suspension forks became Lauf Cycles.

Currently, the brand offers three complete bikes: the OG True Grit, the Anywhere, and the new Seigla. All are meant to move smoothly over rough terrain at varying weights and with different tire clearance. There are now four Lauf suspension forks: the True Grit, the Carbonara (for fat bikes), the TR boost (for XC and plus-size), and the non-suspension JAF.

Can you guess what lauf means in Icelandic? 🍃

In the parking lot before the start of the Grefillinn, I notice that nine out of 10 people are on Lauf bikes or have Lauf suspension forks on their bikes. I am fortunate to have one, too: Icebike Adventures has loaned me a Lauf Anywhere for the event. However, I’m less concerned with my bike or anyone else’s and more with what I am going to wear.

I keep adding layers.

The night before race day, we got an email from race directors Andri and Maria saying that due to forecasted winds, they’d changed the 200km course entirely, cutting out the part I’ve been told is the best — the highlands section — and repeating two laps of the 100km course. Iceland is known for wild weather, so this must be epic, I think.

I drop to the 100km, and at the start, the sky still half blue, half greyish-black, I am happy with my decision.

I had initially worried about knee deep river crossings. These were the least of our problems. (Photo: Grefillinn)

Living in the mountains, I’m pretty used to wind. Having done a few gravel races in my day, I’m also attuned to its vices.

As we pedal out of the parking lot I realize that my usual way of going about things (ie. starting with a group then eventually getting dropped because I don’t like the pace) is not going to work today. In fact, riding alone would pose an actual safety issue. Even the Icelanders think this wind is totally f*cked up.

Fortunately, I find a groove with a group of five, four guys and a woman named Rakel Logadóttir. In addition to working as a soccer coach, Rakel is actually the manager of the Lauf store in Reykjavik. She teaches me that the correct pronunciation of the brand name is actually Luhf rather than the Lauwf we tend to say.

Rakel also says this is her longest ride ever, and yes, this is really, really windy, even for Iceland.

No one is smiling (Photo: Grefillinn)

For the first dozen kilometers or so, things are OK and we’re all chatting pleasantly, albeit sort-of yelling. But when the course arcs to the west it becomes pretty dismal. During the worst of it, I find myself blowing across the road. A guy ahead of me loses both wheels going uphill and crashes in slow-motion. It’s very unpleasant. Rakel is strong and tries to shield me, echelon-style.

One guy says he’s bailing at the first aid station and I am pretty convinced I’m joining him. “It’s supposed to be fun,” he says, which I take as an omen — I just wrote a story about that very concept.

When we get to the aid station, a table of bars and chocolate and assorted drinks, manned by angelic volunteers in huge down-filled parkas, I realize that I’m not going to quit. I’m in Iceland. I can ride 60 miles. How much worse can it get?

Shortly after the aid, I lose my group.

Misery loves company: me with new friends, including Olympian Nordic skier Einar Olafsson

My plan for the day had been to talk to people and take pictures — basically, to document the Icelandic gravel experience during the race. I’m failing at all of it. It’s legitimately too windy to stop and take pictures and even the ones I take have a mildly unsettling feeling. They’re not out of focus but give off that vibe. Even a rainbow, arcing over a wide, flat braided river, barely registers on the LCD screen of my camera. Whatever.

A few guys straggle up the hill behind me while I’m trying to take my rainbow picture. We don’t know each other at all and have barely exchanged a few words. In an act of the strange intimacy born of doing hard things together, we somehow wordlessly pose for a selfie.

Podium robes and good people

Somehow, the wind starts to die down with about 10 or so miles left to go, right around the descent along the glacial river Hvítá. I can finally lift my head up and look around. I stop to pee and eat some chocolate. I find a little gang of Icelandic ponies, and I stop to take pictures and pet them. This is what I came for.

Less frantic weather gives me the space to reflect on the course, which is actually pretty incredible. The gravel in Iceland ranges from so smooth you’re not sure if it’s gravel or pavement to chunks of slate hike-a-bike. Grefillinn did a great job linking it all together. West Iceland isn’t necessarily vertiginous, but there are a few steep kickers to keep things interesting, long descents for relaxing, and mostly lots of pedaling.

The hype about Icelandic ponies is real (Photo: Betsy Welch)

With just a few miles to go, two guys from the stranger selfie come up behind me. “I thought you were ahead of me!” I yell (everyone in Iceland speaks beautiful English). “We got lost!” yells back Angel, who is actually Mexican and has been living in Iceland for years where he works as an oceanographer.

We spend the final miles speaking in Spanish and English about gravel, travel, what it’s like to be a Mexican transplant in Iceland. We finally cross the finish line, which is just outside of the Krauma Baths. A huge plume of steam rising from a fissure in the earth marks the spot for the post-race burger, beer, and soak.

Welp, I made it, I think. I look at my Strava and chuckle. The mileage and vert are nearly identical to the course I did at SBT GRVL the weekend before. Grefillinn took me two hours longer.

Standing in line for the post-race libations, another guy from the selfie comes up to me. “Now you can say you raced with an Olympian,” he says coyly. It’s Einar Ólafsson, who skied for Iceland in the ’84 and ’88 Olympics. We AirDrop each other our windy, shitty photos and head to the changing rooms to take off bike clothes and get ready to soak.

For the next three and a half hours, the warm waters melt the wind-burn away. This is easily moving to my top three post-gravel race party scenes, up there with hanging out among giraffes in Kenya at the Migration Gravel Race and hippie dancing in the park after the Sprit World 100 in Patagonia, Arizona. Throughout the afternoon, riders arrive, order a beer, and soak.

Honestly, there was no better redemption (Photo: Betsy Welch)

I chat more with Einar, who has skied all over the world but always chosen to return home.

“Do you realize how beautiful it is where you live?” I ask him, and everyone in the pool really. They laugh and say, of course, you have to remind yourself sometimes. But yes, we do.

When the 200 kilometer racers arrive, the pools erupt in applause. Doing that loop once was enough, we all say to one another, gratefully taking another sip of beer.

Ingvar Ómarsson, Iceland’s multi-time national champion, comes in at 7:41:49, just over two hours after me. Legend!

Eventually, Maria, one of the race directors, comes over to me in the pool. We want to do the podium ceremony right now, is that OK? She has brought me a robe.

It’s me in second, Elsa Gunnarsdóttir in third, and my strong friend Rakel from Lauf in first. We pose for a picture, Elsa and me in robes and Rakel with her podium pickaxe.

Robe podiums are my favorite podiums (Photo: Grefillinn)

Grefillinn, the name of the race, is an old Icelandic word for pickaxe. Also, according to the the event’s website, “hver grefillinn is a mild swear word, kind of like ‘What in the blooming hell!’ which signifies possible exclamations from participants when tackling the course and experiencing the view.”

The weather makes riding gravel bikes in Iceland a crapshoot, and I can promise you more than ‘mild swear words’ came out of my mouth during the windiest 60-mile ride of my life. But, were the views, the camaraderie both on and off the bike, the hot springs, and the window into how another culture does gravel worth the hype?

Well, shoot, I think I’ll need another trip to Iceland to find out 😉 .