Green forest, thousand lakes, country farms, summer weather, and American racing in the Nordics. FNDL GRVL was something you shouldn’t have missed. If you weren’t there, put it on your calendar for next year.
SBT GRVL is the organizer of one of the biggest gravel races in the US, and this year wanted to test out the Nordic ground, inviting riders all over to Lahti in Finland.
I have been racing in Lahti twice, and this spring in the US, so I felt homely as arriving Finland. I was companied by Anders Salomonsen, a rider I coach from Sandefjord. The third and last Norwegian in the race was Thorbjørn Røed, a strong Asker rider in Colorado, US. I don’t know why not many countrymen and women took the short flight from Oslo to Helsinki, as it also was convenient to get from the airport to Lahti by train. However, FNDL had riders from all over the world and lots of US citizens.
Many of the premier gravel riders were there too, and names as Toms Skujins, Peter Stetina, Petr Vakoc, Brennan Wertz, Nicolas Roche, Ivar Slik, Jasper Ockeloen, Kiel Reijnen, Paul Voss, Tiffany Cromwell, Carolin Schiff and more were among riders to line up with me for the 177 km race.
Next to them, you had another 260 riders for the longest Midnight Sun route and another 250 for the shorter versions.
It was forecasted 20°C and sun – perfect riding conditions!
Let’s jump into the race day of FNDL GRVL.
READ FIRST: Nordic Gravel Series Lahti
A week after Unbound and with jet lag, I expect many riders to have some dip in their form. It doesn’t look like it.
It’s a sunny morning and we are flying up the first hill.
I feel good and try to make my way through traffic to the front of the peloton. Its speed is high, but natural selection is happening already.
I think it’s Toms setting the pace. He has an impressive Giro behind him and should be in shape.
I am stoked to be racing these riders on my Nordic home ground. The course looks similar to the one I did in NGS 2021, where I was 2nd and lost the win by mistake in the last corner.
Could this be a day of revenge? I probably wouldn’t be up with the best, but a top 10 would be in range if I had better luck than in my last races.
But I am jinxing it.
I am on the wheel of Ivar Slik after the first steep climbs. There are about 20 riders left.
Then I hit a bump in the downhill, and my chain jumps off!
Oh no! Not again!
I had issues with the chain dropping before, but it shouldn’t happen on SRAM Axis. But it does. I try to get it on while coasting, but no chance. I have to stop. Sh**!!
I jump off the bike and try to be quick. Riders after rider are passing. But it’s never good to stress, and I need a few tries to get it on. There finally!
I stop for 43 sec and lose 50 places. I have to chase back. I pedal hard and push up the hills on the rollercoaster course. But I know the lead group is going fast, so I must be prepared for a long chase.
I can’t see the first, but I bridge from chasing group to chasing group.
When we get on a more open field, I finally glimpse the first group. I estimate they are about 60 sec ahead now.
We are connecting a group, and more riders are working to keep the pace up. I feel pretty desperate, but I know the gap is too big to close myself at this speed, so I have to play it cool and use the other riders as long as they are fresh.
Usually, most riders will be happy to contribute when they are fresh at the beginning of the race, and it’s not the time for me to use all my gas. But when people eventually get tired and the speed drops, I must give it a go. Hopefully, the front group also will slow down at one point so I can close the gap.
So I make a plan; at around km 70, I have to try. The pro riders are discussing whether to stop at the aid station at km 99, so that’s my only chance is to close the gap there – if they stop.
My group is about 30 riders as we come into km 60. Then the road opens, and the speed slows down. I have been sitting in the back of the peloton for a few km, but now I can’t wait any longer.
I go to the front and hammer. I get some help initially, but soon I am driving the pace alone. A few km later, I am all by myself. Nobody follows.
I go into full TT mode and plan to go as hard as possible until km 100. If I can’t catch the riders up the road, I can slow down and rejoin the others behind. I got to give it a go.
I love riding fast on gravel; these roads are some of the best you’ll find. It’s narrow forest and tractor roads. They are dry and fast to ride on. I feel like I am flying. I know I exceeded my limit, but I am too eager to go fast, so I don’t mind hurting.
I am in no man’s land. We are passing 80 km. I have been chasing full out for more than 30 min. Then, finally, see riders up the road. I am closing in, but they are keeping a good pace. Is it the first group?
As I close in on them, I see some main contenders, such as Kiel Reijnen, but I cannot see Skujins, Stetina, Vakoc, or the Dutchies.
I manage to close the gap to this group which is group 2, after the first 13 riders.
I am relieved to make it up to them, but I was planning to keep going full out until km 100. I am left with a dilemma to stay in this group or grind. I will probably not get away from them, so I will then pull them along, and if we manage to get to the first, it will only mean I get toasted, and they get an easy ride. So I decided to hydrate, take a gel, and recover in this group.
The speed isn’t crazy, but it’s steady. I talk to one of the riders in the nine-men group. Diederik Deelen, a Dutch friend living in Girona. He is surprised I made up the ground and ask me if more riders will come from behind. I doubt it; it was a long effort at 300w for 40 min to make it.
I might be in the best form of my life, and it’s a bummer I am not in the first group. I want to be there! We are passing the aid station at km 99, but everyone has their hydration pack, and nobody needs to stop. However, the good pace has slowed, and I am eager to keep up the pace. I go to the front and make a 15 min effort at 307 NP to keep the speed up.
I’m not worried about the result, I just want to ride hard. But the time gap to the first is growing. We get some messages from the roadside, saying we are about 10 min back. What? They must have been going crazy fast up there. The message is demotivation, and I lose my eagerness to chase as we will never catch them.
Bike racing has ups and down, and this course has too. I am not into the last 10 km and chasing as hard as possible to return to my group mates. I probably made a little tactical mistake, as I decided to go hard from the bottom of the last climb and kept the pace also on the middle section, which was flatter. The other riders could freewheel for a bit and were fresher into the steep Strava-climb. It’s not a long one and takes short of 4 min, but enough so I lost the rider’s wheel and had to chase back.
What a long day it has been. I am feeling it now. All-day chasing has now caught up with me.
I love the last 10 km, as it’s roller-coasting to the finish. If you are fresh, you can get the flow and keep the momentum up these short 30 sec kickers, but if you are toasted, it’s like coming into a wall. I am in the last category and lose ground to the rest of the 10-men group.
Behind me, there is one more rider. He passed me in the steepest climb, but I keep him in eyesight. I have done this final before and know it’s not done until you pass the line. The rider is Mikey Mottram, a talented Brit. He has about 5 sec on me. Into the last kicker, I pedal as hard as possible into the hill to keep my momentum up the climb. I almost close the gap to Mikey and keep pushing over the top and into the last 300 meters downhill. It has two tricky hairpin turns. I know this final, and I catch Mikey, pass him, slide around the last corner, and sprint to the line. 23rd!
FNLD GRVL was amazing—a day to remember for all the great gravel and good atmosphere among riders.
In the evening, we had a post-race party in the harbor, where you could try the sauna if you wanted! STB GRVL knows how to put up a well-organized event. I caught up with my Finnish friends and American racers and met more people with a common heart for gravel.
In a stacked field, 23rd is not bad, and the group I managed to get up to were riding for 14th. I know I could have played my cards better and managed to stay with the group, but my goal of the day was to be in the first group, and when I didn’t, I didn’t care much if I would be 14th or 23rd.
READ ALSO: Unbound Gravel 2023
I am happy that my form has been great lately and stronger than ever. At the same time, the mechanical issues I had in the last races are demoralizing, and I feel I haven’t got to prove my full strength yet.
I hope more luck will come later, and I am returning in 2024 for revenge!
Thanks to FNLD GRVL, Valtteri Bottas, Ryan Steers, and his team for organizing. Great to meet my friends in Cycle Service Nordic who were at the expo and were helping me with the bike.
American gravel is coming to the Nordic and I am stoked about being one of the ambassadors of the event in Lahti. I races there three times before and I know Lahti has some amazing gravel trails.
SBT GRVL is also known as one of the best organizers of gravel events, so I know it will be a very well-organized and fun weekend in Finland.
Come join me you too!
READ MORE AND REGISTER: FNDL GRVL website (external link)
The inaugural FNLD GRVL is set for June 10, 2023, in Lahti, Finland, when we’ll introduce our vision of a world-class gravel event to Northern Europe. As the brainchild of Formula 1 driver Valtteri Bottas and the team behind SBT GRVL, the event will feature three-course distances with a 20k Euro pro prize purse and is expected to attract 1500+ gravel riders from around the world.
Just like SBT GRVL, FNLD will be a one-day race wrapped in a four-day event. Starting June 8 and rolling through June 11, a full weekend of activities and entertainment for all will include social rides, an expo, and a packed schedule of events and will be tied to advocacy efforts including environmental sustainability & climate change.