- The Rift, a 124-mile race through Iceland’s Mid-Atlantic Ridge, might be the most beautiful gravel race going. If you’re thinking that this event needs to go on your bucket list, you’re right.
- I selected gear to travel to the race and complete it, with a focus on reliability and versatility. Thule’s excellent Roundtrip Pro kept my bike safe in transit.
- With rain, hail, the occasional sunny spell, and plenty of headwind, The Rift really taxes your wardrobe. I combined Velocio’s Luxe bibs with their other accessories to stay warm without overheating.
- Sign up fast for next year as start numbers are very limited. That goes for accommodations, too. I stayed at Midgard Base Camp, a hotel geared toward outdoor adventure.
Gravel cycling, which consists of long rides on drop-bar bikes over rough roads, is the fastest-growing part of cycle sport in decades. Gravel races take riders to remote places and combine the fitness and endurance demands of a century ride with the technical skills and backcountry adventure that we associate with mountain biking.
This year saw the inauguration of The Rift, a 200-kilometer (124 miles) gravel race across the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in Iceland. In addition to the spectacular vistas, incredibly steep climbs, and rocky descents that other top-tier gravel races offer, The Rift adds river crossings, lava fields, and near 24-hour sunlight.
If you’re thinking that this event needs to go on your bucket list, you’re right. I’ve raced every gravel race going, and nothing else compares to the unique experience that is racing at 25 miles per hour across black soil underneath a volcano. The ride was hard, incredibly hard, but it’s difficult to feel sorry for yourself when you look up and realize that you’re traversing a volcano on a bike for work.
Here is the cycling gear I used to bike across Iceland’s volcanoes:
Such a unique ride demands a unique bike, I built up OPEN’s U.P. frame especially for the event. The frame is a classic of the gravel genre and uses tried-and-tested standards (like a round seatpost that won’t slip and space for a double chainring up front to give enough gear for all those climbs). The frame performed flawlessly, with enough clearance for the thick gobs of river mud and a geometry that lends itself to high-speed shenanigans on rocky descents as well as it does to grinding out the long, flat, headwind miles that crop up in the middle of the event.
I assembled the bike with Shimano’s Ultegra Di2 groupset that allows for precision electric shifting even when you can’t feel your hands after a freezing river crossing. By using a road groupset, I was able to carry two wheelsets and use the OPEN as a perfectly capable road bike in addition to gravel racing on it. The gearing ( 50/34 on the front, 11/34 on the back) allowed me to ride up near vertical mud, but still travel at 30 miles per hour on tailwind road sections. As if this wasn’t versatile enough, I found some jumps in Iceland to ride the day after the race, and it soaked those up as well.
For terrain like Iceland’s Southern Highlands, you’ll want a big tire that can soak up the washboard dirt roads and rocky descents. I opted for Donnelly’s MSO 40 mm mounted to Enve’s robust, reliable, and lightweight G23 wheels. This combination got me through some really questionable line choices with air in my tires, and a smile on my face. Many riders were not so lucky. Had I flatted, I was well taken care of with Lezyne’s excellent mini pump, cages, and tools.
It’s pretty easy to get lost in Iceland’s barren and beautiful landscape, and as much as I might have wanted to go wandering and become the subject of my own saga, I had to get back to the finish line to enjoy some local beer. I opted for the Wahoo Element Roam GPS, which seamlessly gave me turn-by-turn directions, lasted all 200 kilometers of the event, and even used its LED display to tell me that I was really trying very hard on the steepest climbs.
I made sure to bring enough food and clothing for the long distances and temperature changes. Rather than loading my pockets, I relied on Ortlieb’s waterproof accessory bag. How waterproof is it really? Well, I floated my bike in a river and my sandwiches stayed dry.
With rain, hail, the occasional sunny spell, and plenty of headwind, The Rift really taxes your wardrobe as well as your willpower. I opted for Velocio apparel’s Luxe bibs, which are comfy enough for the longest days in the saddle. I combined these with the brand’s radiator mesh jersey and base layer, a pair of their arm warmers and trail gloves, and a vest. This kept me warm enough to function without overheating, allowed me to unzip the vest to cool off on climbs, and gave me access to six pockets that didn’t bounce or flap when stuffed with food.
On my feet, I opted for Shimano SH-XC9 S-PHYRE shoes. Like gravel bikes, they’re versatile, stiff enough for fast road cruising but robust enough for those steep volcano-side run-ups. Wool socks are a must as well; despite repeated soakings, I stayed warm in a pair of Pursuit Seven merino wool socks from Swiftwick.
A POC Ventral Air helmet kept me safe throughout the day, and the excellent venting meant I never overheated. ROKA CP-1X sunglasses not only allowed me to custom design some sweet frames, it also dealt with the dawn start, constant mud spray, and bright sunlight of the middle of the day flawlessly.
Most of our readers don’t live in Iceland (but if you do, lucky you). This means flying to and from the race. Thule’s excellent Roundtrip Pro not only keeps your bike safe in transit, it also helps to assemble it on arrival thanks to the included work stand. I also added Lezyne’s half-size floor pump because inflating tires with a tiny hand pump after a long flight is more stress than anyone needs.
Combined with Gregory’s Tetrad 75, I was able to carry a bike, wheels, all my gear, and have enough space for a climbing harness and shoes so my wife and I could climb in Iceland the day after the race. Thanks to the wheeled bike box and clever design of the Gregory luggage, I could put one bag on my back and pull the other along to check in and then simply unzip my backpack once my hold luggage was checked.
Iceland isn’t home to that many of the big hotel chains, but don’t worry. Instead of points and suites, you’ll enjoy the sort of hospitality that makes you feel right at home in the land of ice and fire. I stayed at Midgard Base Camp, a hotel geared toward outdoor adventure. Not only were the staff polite and friendly, they were also happy to help me clean my bike, lend me a climbing rope, show me trails, and even give some camping suggestions for a trip after the race. The hotel offers healthy food, a great breakfast spread, and private or dormitory accommodation. Book early though; they were sold out on race weekend months in advance this year.