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Before the first NASA astronauts were sent to the Moon in the 1960s, they were sent to Iceland, where the island nation’s volcanic craters and rocky landscapes let them rehearse operating on the lunar surface.

Picture a place so remote and unique that Neil (not Lance) Armstrong would train there for his lunar mission. Now imagine riding a gravel bike on the same surface. The volcanic terrain was truly remarkable, with views so out of this world that words and pictures can barely describe how magnificent it was. However, as beautiful as these roads are, they’re equally as challenging. From miles of sandy roads to 16-30% gravel climbs, one with an inclination so severe that everyone (even the pros) had to dismount to get to the top. There were multiple river crossings, with water coming up your legs so cold you’re reminded why this place is called Iceland.

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The Rift is Iceland’s first ever gravel race, and the perfect way to introduce cyclists to the breathtaking topography that Iceland offers to those who are willing to battle the elements. The race takes place near Hvolsvöllur, a tiny city with a population of only 600. Add to this the Rift’s 400 riders, and the town is transformed, holding the biggest party of the year.

There are various options for housing, with hotels near the event, camping and RV areas. It’s also just a 90 minute drive away from Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. Both in Reykjavik and near the start of the race there were great food options, from high-end restaurants to food halls. Also, due to Iceland's volcanic geology, hot springs and thermal baths are extremely common, their warm pools perfect for recovery after the race.

Surprisingly, the race itself is also very easy to get to from the US. I took a direct, 5 hour flight from Steward airport near NYC to Keflavik airport in Iceland, rented a car and stayed in Reykjavik, before heading to the race area on Friday for an early start on Saturday morning.

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The 200 kilometre race distance is the Rift’s headline event, as it circles around Hekla, one of the most active volcanoes on the island. However, there are also 100 and 45km options for those who want to stay within their abilities. All of these courses have breathtaking views of the volcanic area surrounding the race.

Weather was a big concern for us before the race, as in Iceland this can change extremely quickly and unpredictably, to the point where the race organizers don’t announce the start time until the day of the race. Luckily, this year the race was graced with ideal weather, starting with 50 degrees and a cool breeze, and ending with a sunny, 60 degree day, a rare and welcome sight in Iceland.

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The Rift is listed as a “self-supported” event, but despite this we were still greeted with 5 well appointed stops, with bottles of fresh water or electrolyte powder, energy bars, gummy bears, Gatorade and sandwiches for the mid-ride “lunch”. They also provide a bag drop off, where you can store a bag with pairs of dry socks and shoes, changes of clothes and your own food. Conveniently, this drop of point is located just after the event’s largest river crossing.

My bike of choice was the FiftyOne Assassin. Having taken the same bike to the UNBOUND 200 mile ride in 2022, I knew what the bike was capable of. The bike never disappoints, and with every ride I gain a greater appreciation for all the qualities that make it a fantastic bike for gravel terrain. We’ve built a few Assassins for clients at Signature, from Russel’s UNBOUND finisher, to Luis’ all black, “slayer of trails”.

In preparation for the Rift, I swapped the tires to something a lot chunkier than I’m used to, opting for the René Herse Manastash Ridge 44c. It was certainly the right choice, the tire provided me with great grip, even when out of the pedals on the steepest climbs, and gave great control in the sand traps and rockier sections of the race. I also switched up the gear ratio, opting for a 10-50t cassette and with a SRAM Eagle AXS rear derailleur and a 40t chainring. This proved a perfect ratio for those steeper gradients, with the bike managing to overcome all but one of the Rift’s numerous tough hills. On my recommendation, Eric also opted for a FiftyOne Assassin, racing a sleek all black configuration.

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So, how was the race? To be totally honest, I didn’t really come to Iceland to really race, I came along with a client and friend, Eric and his friend Garrick to push ourselves to the limit, test our equipment and enjoy the adventure of a lifetime. It was back in December when I shared my plans to compete in the Rift with Eric, and said that he should join me. He accepted the challenge, having just received his first gravel bike, he knew that this event would be great motivation to train up and give the bike the test of its life.

I’m happy to report that Eric finished his first 200k race with a smile on his face. Garrick also finished safe and sound, and was my partner for the last 60 miles of the race, all the way up to the finishing line.

Check out this video for more of a taste of what the ride itself is like.

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Overall, the Rift is a truly fantastic event, but certainly not for the faint of heart. One of the toughest of tough races, it’ll push you to the limit and give you an experience like no other. Our memories of this trip will stay with us forever.

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Girona Trip Round-Up