Last week, I got back from a trip to my home country, Finland, where the inaugural FNLD GRVL gravel race took place. The prestigious event filled the city of Lahti in southern Finland with gravel bikes of all kinds, bringing together gravel enthusiasts from all over the World. Despite being first and foremost a gravel race, for many the event was much more than that - and this is my experience from the event.
The rather unknown but underestimated gravel roads that surround Lahti, and more widely the whole scarcely habited country lent themselves excellently to the event, which very much resembled a US gravel race. Hence, it was no surprise that among the cycling enthusiasts who flocked to Lahti was a very professional group of pro gravel riders. About a third of the participants had flown across from the US and, in total, the event attracted riders from 27 countries.
You might think 'That's a long way to travel for a race' - but there was definitely an incentive to attract the pros beyond the beautiful lakes and forests of Finland. FNLD GRVL offered a total prize pot of €20,000 equally split between the women's and men's podiums.
That meant lining up for the longest available distance, the 177km Midnight Sun route included the women’s Unbound winner Carolin Schiff, Trek Segafredo pro rider Toms Skujins - who won the men's race - and, of course, Canyon SRAM rider and the event's partner, Tiffany Cromwell who dominated the women's race.
The 77km middle distance route was the one which arguably the event's biggest star - Valtteri Bottas - was racing. At this point, you might be wondering what is it with all the sevens. Well, 77 is Bottas’ race number, so that is the reason why we saw a lot of the number at the event. The whole event is in fact the brainchild of the F1 star: Lahti is his hometown and, by partnering up with a US gravel event organiser SBT GRVL, Bottas decided that it’s time to show the world what you can achieve when you take the vowels off words and bring US gravel to the scene to Finland.
Jokes aside, the 77km route wasn't’ the last distance that was on offer on the event day. It was the shortest, 40km course option, that I was about to tackle. The Forest Route, as the organisers had named it, had no podiums or equal prize money for the winners. It was rather about completing the route and having a good time. This is the first time I’ve chosen to ride the shortest available distance at a gravel event, and there is a reason for it: I was doing the event with my sister.
Despite the Finnish cross-country skiing trails lending themselves so well to gravel riding, gravel cycling isn’t necessarily a discipline that the Finns know well. This was quite evident from the event coverage in the local media, which kept referring to the race as a “mountain bike race”.
And indeed, even though I had thoroughly briefed my sister on what we were about to do, “What exactly is this ‘gravel cycling'?” was a question she asked me on the evening before the event. But, after FNLD GRVL my sister had for sure developed her very own definition of the discipline.
Celebrating completion and competition equally
One of the distinguishing features of gravel cycling is the ‘spirit of gravel’, something that even academics are now trying to define. Often, we see it being a sort of chill, inclusive atmosphere that surrounds gravel cycling and gravel events, where completion is as - or more - celebrated as competition.
For our ride, completion was the main goal. The 40km ‘Forest Route’ of FNLD GRVL was to be the longest distance my sister had ever cycled in one go. It’s needless to say we both had some nerves mixed up with excitement about sharing the experience when we met up at the hotel on the evening before the event.
2023 FNLD GRVL Suvi & Miia 2, by FNLD GRVL
Handing over the Argon 18 Dark Matter gravel bike that was to be my sister's ride, I was nervous that she would end up hating gravel cycling, and would never want to see another gravel bike in her life.
My fears were not necessarily too unthinkable, as it was only the evening before the event when my sister first rode a drop-bar gravel bike on the little lake-side test loop. The test ride was successful and meant that on the following morning, we were lining up at the start line of the event among the other 40km riders.
Our group was easily the smallest of the three at the event, consisting of about 50 riders. This was not the group that was smashing it up the first climb or any of the ones following it - and yes, there were plenty to follow. The FNLD GRVL routes knitted together a lot of the cross-country skiing tracks of the area, making the riding quite roller-coaster-like with repeated fast descends followed by punchy climbs.
FNLD_GRVL_2023_RACEDAY_COURSE_50.jpg, by FNLD GRVL
My sister and I embraced an easy pace riding through the smooth forest roads, a little bit of singletrack, and perfectly paved cycle paths. Most of the time, we were sheltered from the sun by the pine and birch trees which filtered the sun through the leaves ruffling in the slight wind that was present that day. The crushing of smooth gravel under the tyres wasn’t too obtrusive in volume or technical to navigate to prevent chatting about everything - including my sister's ever-increasing interest in cycling as a sport.
Although I am no pro gravel racer, I have done enough gravel events and long rides to say that the 40km with my sister was more special on multiple accounts than any of those long, gruelling rides. In the last six-or-so years during which cycling has transformed from being an interest to my full-time obsession and profession, it’s taken over my life rather completely and my family has, so to speak, witnessed that from the sidelines.
FNLD_GRVL_2023_RACEDAY_COURSE_297.jpg, by FNLD GRVL
I now spend most of my free time out on the bike, find it hard to not drop in cycling-related topics into every conversation and my family knows that when I don’t reply to their messages for a day (or two), it likely means I’m out doing some “silly long cycle”. Riding the FNLD GRVL route was an opportunity for me to showcase why I love cycling to someone very close to me. The ride, and seeing my sister smile while rolling over the finish line were memories that are permanent with me now.
But could we have not just done a gravel ride outside the event? Yes, we could have ridden the course outside the event and simply packed our snacks to have at the halfway point instead of stopping at the pit stop. But would it have been the same?
The competitive nature of the event is a little bit of a double-edged sword. Prior to the event, my sister certainly expressed her doubt about "fitting in" with the WorldTour pros that were popping up on the event's social media. But afterwards, she said competitiveness was the aspect that pushed her to complete the ride.
Being part of an event also means that no matter what your experience and whether you're riding alone or in a group, you know you have someone there guiding you through the route and keeping you fed and hydrated - and sometimes during the ride you can make new friends.
Gravel events do have that special spirit around them, making the atmosphere full of racing buzz but simultaneously relaxed and I believe that there is more inclusivity in that spirit than in that of, for example, road racing.
As well as sharing the ride with my sister and experiencing what the US gravel events can be like, FNLD gravel made me see the country that was my home for two decades in a different light - and I agree with Bottas that Lahti and the surrounding area are pristine grounds for the discipline.
FNLD GRVL definitely offers a lot to anyone who enjoys exploring places, spending time in nature and challenging themselves in one way or another. I have no doubt it will grow to be even bigger in the coming years attracting riders of all levels.
For some, that means completing a 177km cycle in a little more than five hours, and it means simply achieving pride in completing the event. Perhaps next year the 40km distance riders can get their very own podiums as well, celebrating the ride they've completed.
FNLD_GRVL_2023_RACEDAY_AWARDS & PARTY_83.jpg, by Suvi Loponen
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