Looking back through the blog posts I have made I can track a definite progression of my movement away from mass participation events toward more low key, intimate events. I guess this is mainly as these smaller events tend to be the most challenging. The tougher you make something, the fewer the number of people who are gonna show to suffer.
So, finding myself on a start line with less than 200 riders around me didn't feel out of place. But the fact that about 5000 had already started the event ahead of me that morning was mind blowing. Plus, another 6000 or so would be starting over the course of the morning…even more mind blowing!
Racing bikes affords me not only the opportunity to suffer with friends new and old, but also to fulfill my passion for travel. Nothing gets you more ingrained in a new place than being absorbed into a bicycle event. If you love the outdoors then at some point you will of been alerted to the huge potential Norway offers, a nation of outdoor sport lovers over all seasons. Norway has a lot to offer.
When I was contacted by Singletrack Magazine about a “gravel” race in Norway I was instantly keen to know more. When I found out there was the opportunity to travel with a photographer to cover the event I agreed to do it. Then, when I found out it was the largest mountain bike race in the world with an entry field of 17,000 I was stunned.
17,000 riders! The Birkebeiner bike race is truly massive!
The event is a 94km race from Rena to Lillehammer using the network of gravel roads. The trip started on the Thursday before the race with meeting my travelling companion, photographer Henry Iddon, and two hours of wrangling with check-in at the airport due to some confusion over the ticket booking (I had at the last minute replaced another traveler). Having not met Henry previously, we quickly eased into conversation with a mutual love for cycling, travel and general misadventure.
The Birken race organisation had sent one of the organisers, Jean Francois, to meet us at the airport and we were joined by two other journalists from Denmark and Finland, as well as a representative from Innovation Norway who look after the marketing of tourism and trade for Norway. Jean Francois took us to the town of Elverum where we would be staying some 30km or so from the start of the race at Rena. With time to kill, Henry and I took a look around the town of Elverum with its interesting bridges and immaculately presented town centre. The feel of a clean-living kind of place was very apparent.
Friday, we built up our bikes and there was time to go for a ride. A leg spinner was organised by Jean Francois on a local route of around 30km, led by the chef of the hotel we were staying in. We pedaled straight out of Elverum in to the forest that surrounded the town. The route was mostly gravel with occasional bike path, the weather was overcast but still warm, and the whole forest was absolutely silent aside from the sound of tyres rolling on gravel.
In the afternoon, after lunch, we made a trip to the forestry museum complete with historic chainsaw collection and a tracked tractor for log felling in the winter. The walls were lined with pictures of seriously weathered woodsman. Norway is a nation of people bred for the outdoors. After the museum we traveled to Rena, the town hosting the start, to sign on for the race, and it was here we got our first taste of the scale of the event and the organisation.
As we parked up on the freshly graveled car park we were told that in the last few years the weather had been bad and the car park had become a muddy mess. In the UK we would combat difficult parking ground by making sure the local farmer was on hand to pull people out, but the Birken organisation just bought a lot of hardcore and surfaced the 1000 car parking area!
The Birken team has a permanent staff of 20 organising a number of large events all through the year, the biggest being the bike race and the XC Ski event. The sign-on was in a warehouse they own. A team of volunteers distributed the race packs from rows of wooden racks to an endless stream of riders pouring in.
This is no fly-by-night race organisation. The set-up is permanent and a master class in race promotion.
Race day was, as always, an early start with another of our party opting for the first group off at 7:00AM, whereas I had gone with 8:30AM. Due to its size, the race offers 67 start groups at five minute intervals. My start time meant that Henry could start at 8.00AM, getting far enough up the road to find a good spot to set up for a shot of me racing.
As we had time to kill while waiting for out start, attention turned to our respective pack weights. An added element to this race is the requirement to carry (throughout the race) a pack weighing at least 3.5kg. This pack weight is a homage to an epic journey in Norwegian history made by the original Birkebeiners who carried a child to safety travelling on dangerous tracks via skis. Obviously, Henry with his equipment was well over the limit. Thomas the Innovation Norway representative was about to embark on his first race so had nervously over packed, while the Finnish element to our group Petri had brought weights from his training belt. My bag, however, seemed a little on the light side and with a possible DNF on offer if I didn't pass the finish line weigh-in I grabbed a cobble from a ditch and shoved it in my Alpkit Gourdon pack for good measure.
The start of the race was textbook. Nervous energy aplenty meant the early pace along the first few kilometers of tarmac was high…too high for my singlespeed gear. I was quickly dispatched toward the back of our start group until we reached the bottom of the first long climb. As tarmac turned to gravel I found it harder to turn the pedals. Fortunately, so did everyone else in the group and I soon saw myself climbing past and beyond the riders I had started with, sighting the stragglers from the group in front. As the climb continued the weather deteriorated to low cloud and drizzling rain.
The end of the climb was followed by an extended period on the flat before descending. With no gearing to push on, I was forced to just sit and spin and it wasn’t long before the hum of tyres on gravel could be heard. I was passed by what seemed like a constant stream of riders. Damn!
When the descending was loose and fast I had no defense against the faster geared riders, and when a little more care was needed on the descents I couldn’t afford to use any.
Every time we would reach a climb I could turn up the speed having some resistance on the pedals to push against and I would reel in rider after rider, though I knew that once I had ridden over the 60km mark, then the course trended downhill to the finish, and I would again be helpless against cassette and derailleur.
The course was on the whole a tree lined gravel affair but it was constantly punctuated by groups of supporters who had turned out, even in the poor weather, to offer shouts of support, cook up some meat on a grill, and generally have a good time.
As I passed more and more ‘km to go’ signs, a nagging pain in my lower back grew and grew. I would normally expect some temporary discomfort racing hard on these long climbs as you try to muscle the singlespeed gear, but this wasn’t shifting, and decided it must be down to the pack weight I was carrying.
With 5km to go we passed a XC Ski course and not long after we rode beneath the impressive Lillehammer ski jump, its height and severity of slope testament to the lunacy of ski jumpers. Directly after the ski jump we rode into a wide, steep and loose gravel descent. My brakes hadn’t felt great for the last 20km and as much as the marshal waved his flag with ever-increasing panic as I rode toward him, I needed all the run out beyond him to make the left hand turn. A few loose turns later I was done, the finish village was huge with already thousands of finishers and spectators enjoying the food and drink on offer.
Parking my bike up in the secure bike park I was in real discomfort as I rushed to undo my pack and get the millstone from round my neck. As I lifted the pack from the point of my back where I felt the most pain I could feel the shape of my last minute pack edition…the cobble! The stupid thing had been nestled in my lower back the entire race!
After a few trips through the finish line feed station and a shower, I was back to normality and able to enjoy watching the elite mens race on the large finish line screen. The exciting finish of the elite race unfolded as a lone solo rider who had broken away early was caught as he did his best to steer a bike with a flattening front tyre down the final loose descent, and was eventually relegated to third place.
A huge thank you to the Birkebeiner organisation and Innovation Norway for facilitating this fantastic experience. I got to ride an event I may never have entered, and not having experienced it would have been a real shame. I met new people and made new friends. I got to be a part of the cycling spectacle which is the 17,000 riders of the Birkebeiner.
Even with poor bike selection, less than perfect weather, and a poorly placed cobble, I am enthused about this event and already looking at the possibility of taking part in the Ultra Birken. The Ultra Birken takes place the day before on a 120km course, that is much more technical and exposed to the elements. Sounds perfect.
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UK born and bred, Paul Errington came to riding bikes as a hobby, which soon evolved into an all-consuming passion. Riding fulfills a desire to challenge himself and explore adversity. An endurance bike rider above all else, the ever-progressive sport keeps him enthused. Every day on a bike is a good day. shoestring-racing.blogspot.com