top of page

The Rift Gravel Race Iceland - a gravel race like no other, an adventure like no other

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

Nothing can prepare you for the spectacular nature that greets you in Iceland, to race through this landscape is a dream come true. Raylyn Nuss perfectly summed up the route, “it was definitely the prettiest, most scenic, beautiful race I’ve done in my life."

The race course starts out of a small town along the southern coast called Hvolsvöllur. This incredible shoreline stretches from the greater Reykjavík area in the west to the magnificent Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in the east. It is lined with countless natural wonders such as cascading waterfalls, black sand beaches, glaciers and volcanoes. Every July The Rift gravel race brings participants from all over the world to Iceland, this year the event sold out with 1100 participants, amazingly half of those entries were from the United States. This event is building a reputation as one of the biggest and best gravel races in Europe. The event began in 2016 and Olafur Thorarensen tells of how the idea was to bring people to the Icelandic highlands and show the best of Iceland’s nature and landscape.

Photo: Gravel Earth Series / The Rift

Now part of the Gravel Earth Series the level of competitiveness was a big step up from previous years. The best gravel racers were here to fight for that top step on the podium and the series lead. After having one and a half weeks off training due to illness just before the race my expectations were low, I wanted to enjoy the trip and race hard on the day with whatever I had.

I arrived on Thursday after an early flight and spent the rest of the day exploring the tourist sights. It was a rookie error only having half a day free though as there was so much I didn’t get to see. From day break to dawn your jaw is wide open in amazement of the scenery around you, the landscape is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

On Friday's short ride I rode about 2 hours of the race track including the out and back part of the track. The route is like a lollipop heading north before navigating around one of the most active volcanos on the island, Hekla. The final kilometres of the course are the same as the opening kilometres but in reverse. On Fridays short ride I got a good understanding of the mix of terrain on this 200 kilometre route. There was junky gravel, wide open smooth gravel, washboard gravel and a little tarmac, all traversing lots of big rolling hills with some super steep climbs.

Photo: Gravel Earth Series / The Rift

My bike for the race was the Lauf Seigla, a bike built for this race and this terrain. It is a gravel bike like no other. If you haven't tried one yet you should, your gravel rides will suddenly become a lot more fun! I ran 45c Schwalbe G One R tyres at 26 and 27 psi with tyre inserts, all mounted on some Strada Gravel Ultra Plus wheels. It was the perfect setup although the gravel was so rough in places I'd be interested to try a 50c tyre with even lower pressure. I’m not sure how anyone could complete this race without the Lauf suspension fork!

Race day dawned, another silly early start, but for good reason. The race began at 7am, there were still people finishing at bed time! The start line was buzzing with nervous cyclists, all packed full of carbohydrates ready for a massive day on the bike. Whether you were racing fast or just wanting to complete the distance this was a huge challenge. The beats from the stereo system make the floor vibrate but focused minds block out the noise. The start orders are given and the noise suddenly hits you again.

We are off! The first few kilometres are behind the car as we safely leave town. A left turn and we’re offroad, the pace gets faster and faster as we crest the first hills and head out into the highlands. We reach the first river crossings, here the race splits apart. Some people riding through the water, some running, plenty swimming! The river crossings were icy cold today with water coming down from the melting snow.

Pretty quickly there is a group of maybe 20 people at the front, we speed through the first feed zone and out onto the next part of the route. We pass through vast lava fields on narrow gravel tracks, ahead lay a series of climbs which get bigger and steeper each one you pass. This was the breaking point for the group. A fast pace saw people getting dropped off the back, then some attacks saw the decisive move happen. A group of around 8 formed at the front. At the 75 kilometre point we reach the unrideable climb, this towering monster can be seen from miles around, perched on top are the media teams waiting to capture the action. We are off running and the pressure is on over the top, my cyclocross remount keeps me in the group. The pace is high and the track is rough but I cannot stop looking around in awe at the surroundings, there is plenty to distract you from the fact you aren’t even half way through the race route.

Photo: Gravel Earth Series / The Rift

Without the media teams covering the race and the feed zones you’d feel very far from anything at many points in the race. We were lucky with the weather, I can see the race being very challenging on a wet and cold day. By half way there was seven of us together, all taking turns equally on the front to set the pace, we were working well as a group taking turns to set the pace on the front. We speed through the kilometres but it was becoming obvious this was going to be a 7 hour race rather than the 6.5 I'd prepared for. I could feel my energy levels dropping. My nutrition was all used up but I tried my best to hide my fatigue. I was very happy when the penultimate feed zone appeared, I quickly grabbed two gels and a bottle of energy drink which undoubtedly saved my race.

During the final 50 kilometres I expected the race to come alive but everyone was either on the limit or very confident of their sprint. Last year’s winner Nathan Haas tried to split the race at the final river crossing and onto the final offroad climb but we all regrouped. Onto the tarmac and it looked like a sprint would decide the win. Six of us came into town together, all on the drops, all ready to pounce. Who'd go first? I ended up on the front but used that to have a chance to react when the sprint opened up behind. We crawled into town and then it was go time! After 7 hours of racing we sprinted for the win. Simen Nordahl Svendsen had the winning kick but second to fourth was a photo finish with everyone on the same second. After initially being shown as third on timing I was bumped down to fourth once the photo had been checked. It was a shame not to podium but I have nothing but good memories from this trip to Iceland and The Rift.

Photo: Gravel Earth Series / The Rift

The men’s top six was Simen, then Ivar Slik, Paul Voss, myself, Mattia de Marchi and Nathan Haas. Carolin Schiff won the women’s race ahead of Raylyn Nuss, Serena Gordon, Svenja Betz and Hafdis Sigurdardottir. Simen wrote on his Instagram, “With blisters in my hands and some small wounds after a crash, I was able to celebrate across the finish line after nearly 7 hours on the bike. What a day.” Carolin Schiff summed up her raced by writing, “This was definitely one of the hardest gravel races I’ve done so far. Had it on my bucket list since I discovered gravel racing. Beautiful and very special landscape combined with bumpy, stony and sandy roads. A lot of crossings through icy rivers. A day I will remember.”

206 kilometres, 6 hours 57, 5994 ft of climbing, 6442 kilojoules, 304 watts normalized, a max power of 1140 watts in the final sprint. Some big stats for one massive day of bike racing! The fun didn’t end as we crossed the finish line, the post race party continued late into the evening welcoming home every last participant. Whether you were there to race for the win, or just to complete the distance, this was one day and one trip you’ll never forget.

Photo: Gravel Earth Series / The Rift

It's a dream to visit such amazing places and the participants of The Rift are privileged to not just have visited Iceland but to have explored areas of this country far away from the tourist trail that very few will ever see. Thank you Iceland, The Rift gravel race and the Gravel Earth Series for many memories I’ll keep for a lifetime. See you in 2024!

110 views0 comments


bottom of page