A Journey through the Rift
This summer, Christoph Döttelmayer headed to Iceland to race the infamous Rift, a 200km route through the highlands of Iceland's south coast.Facing multiple river crossings, washboard roads, dreaded rocks, and far-out views, Christoph recounts his experience completing the race and what it took to get to the finish.
Words by:: Christoph Döttelmayer
Photo by:: Gabor Nagy
Having been to Iceland three times there has been a reason why we returned so often. Literally the landscape is out of this world. No where on earth have we felt so distant from what we know on our planet. Iceland is one of the most versatile countries in our world and often times you really feel like you are on Mars or the Moon. For the fourth time I finally wanted to bring my bike and tackle one of the races which have been on my list since I know about gravel riding; THE RIFT. The Rift is a 203km gravel race with 1950m of elevation through the dark lava fields in the highlands of Iceland – taking place on the tectonic split between North America and Eurasia. An ever-growing battlefield that grows an inch every year. The battlefield sculpted by volcanic eruptions is vast, rugged and unpredictable – making the Rift a challenge of endurance, mental fortitude and most likely the bare elements. And in the end – a gravel battle between the continents!
My training this year has been amazing. We moved right into the mountains in April because we wanted to live in the mountains. This brings a whole new daily playground for road, gravel and trail riding. Although not raced as much as I wanted I was physically prepared for the big take on this race and also mentally I knew this was probably going to be the hardest race I would have ever done. Comparing the times of the winners from the previous years gave me an idea of what I excepted from my race and my goal was to ride under 9 hours.
With my new partner 1OF1 Austrian bikes I had the amazing opportunity to custom design the artwork of the bike. Designing a bike for myself is one of the harder things I have done but I wanted to get the spirit and feeling of Iceland onto the frame. The artwork has a lot of small design details that tell a bigger story. The frame I was riding is the best when it comes to gravel and racing. This machine just brings you all the joy on uneven terrain and allows for such a variety of riding styles and fits my style of riding fast perfectly.
The weather is also always something special in Iceland which can change 4 times a day it´s that unpredictable. I packed everything from deep winter gear to just jersey and bibs. July is the best stable summer month but come race day we still had 12C but no rain. That was all everyone could wish for. Riding short/ short with a vest and arm warmers was all that was needed
Travelling wit h the bike was a nice experience on this trip as everything worked out as planed. There was a small get-to-know-groupe ride a day before the race and after riding on a very though gravel section someone said that this will be the most rugged part of the course tomorrow. Good thing I knew then what was going to come. This was my first time riding a bike in Iceland. It felt special. Amazing but also vulnerable. Afterall a big mechanical problem in the middle of know where is what I feared the most.
Of course I get nervous before the start. I think if you don´t it´s not that special to you. It was a nice feeling standing just behind some of the biggest names in gravel racing. The course starts out of a small town along the southern coast called Hvolsvöllur. After 7km of neutral tarmac there is a left turn where you enter gravel for the first time and the race officially kicks off. And off it did, after this turn it felt like all hell was breaking loose. Dust, rocks flying around, people just pounding their pedals. You know you are now racing quite quickly and so I was ready for the shreddy without fully knowing what will lay ahead.
Just after 11km there are the first two river crossings and due to having some problems with my electronic shifting the day before I did not want to risk it riding through the water and if you fall into the water you are going to have a different problem anyway so I ran through instead of riding. Crispy cold glacier water will wake up your feet in an instant and you become super focused.
I saw the front pack riding away but I am being honest I am not an pro bike racer and I knew I was not able to ride with them. I am an amateur athlete who loves what he does more than anything and still I need to find my time training and racing next to a full time job. Dreaming of a pro career at 36 years of age is nice and I still do but maybe this way I get to enjoy it a bit more and afterall everything I am doing on the bike and to my body is from a pure self decision because of passion and the fun for it.
Quickly after the river crossing this rough section starts where you come back to after the big long loop and have to ride it again and the whole riding experience turns into something really new. Super hard for me as the bike was moving, shaking and jumping all over the place even though the tire pressure was pretty low it was all due to the underground and it´s big rocks. You try to ride behind one another as close as possible also look out for what line they are riding to find a smooth passage through the tricky stuff. Heading out on this loop also brings a drastic landscape change. The type which made me fall in love with Iceland in the first place. Everything turn black and green and the hills and small mountains start to appear. That´s where I feel most comfortable as riding up and down mountains is what I can do best and what I love the most about riding a bike. The gravel starts to become a bit smoother and the speed in the pack picks up but it´s one tricky thing as the gravel often turns into sand from one second to the other and you are either fast enough to escape or you get sucked in and crash and that happened multiple times to some riders next to me.
At kilometer 50 you reach the first aid station. After refuelling there is another river crossing and you literally ride into the highlands. That´s where the actual fun started. Up and down on super gravel. Breathtaking landscape make it hard to push as it´s almost too stunning. You ascend some super steep hills, some of them are too steep to ride so the only option is too walk. Finally I was thinking; YES that´s what I imagined this gravel race to be about and then around kilometer 80 you get out of this remote place and end up on the F208 road, F roads in Iceland are only permitted by a special 4x4 vehicle that can drive through hard terrain and river beds. Hence I knew the fun was about to be over and over it was. You would image a gravel road but it was a gravel road full of washboards. Washboards are small grooves on the ground which are formed by the wind and rain and seriously look like an old metal washboard. If you imagine the feeling riding over this now multiply it a couple of times with all the vibration in your arms. This is something you can not prepare for especially not where I come from in Austria.
All that shaking definetely took it´s toll on my body and made me realise that this was going to much harder than I ever imagined. I was prepared for all sorts of weather. Wind, rain, snow. Every weather I train at home with wet cold feet just to get a feeling for what Iceland could through at me but those hard gravel roads make every Austrian gravel road feel like the Autobahn. It was my first time that after riding half of the race I wanted it to be over but I also knew that my internal engine which runs on all those carbs had a lot more to give and it´s mostly the second parts of a race where all the training comes through. Two of my carb pouches exploded inside my frame bag which eventually transformed to some sort of super glue and it made it almost impossible to open the zipper at the aid stations.
After 127km you finally hit the pavement again and things started to be familiar with my road riding. This was a big relief for the body to shake out and relax a bit at least until the hard side cross wind made riding us 5 across two lanes just to get some slipstream from one another. After another gravel section to tarmac to gravel we finally hit that “hardest section of the race” at 172km. I knew what was coming and tried to push as fast as I could. By that time our group was down to only 3 and after the last 2 river crossings where I had to dismount again the two guys rode away only for me to later catch them on the last 7km back to town and the finish. As always you think when you ride this stretch back the wind will come from back which it never does so the three of us rode together to the finish to end the race with a 3-rider-bunch-sprint and congratulating and cheering one another after we crossed the line.
I crossed the finish line after 08:48h with a 27th spot from 420 riders. What a feeling. Personal goal achieved. Totally f…..Never have I been that destroyed after a race. Never have I looked so much forward to dying next to my wife and meeting up with her and my brother from another mother Gabor. Happy. More than anything in the world.
After I finished the race the first thing I said was “I am never racing this again” but now some months later my desire to explore this amazing route again and riding even faster has already settled in my head. Gravel racing is growing all over the world and especially in Europe. I will try to get more fast stuff to Austria as there is so much potential and it´s such a different experience than a road race. It´s a lot harder that´s fore sure.
The saying “ Never say never” definetely has it´s meaning and so my adventures continues to explore this world, my body and soul. What I take away from Iceland is ones again a memory which shapes my life. A memory deep within and these visual help underline the deep sensations I can achieve on the bike. I am grateful for experiences this and cannot say thanks enough to my partners and friends.