MTB in Nor­way, plus a long-ter­mer up­date

Come take a ride in Nor­way’s wild out­back through a land of trolls and tor­tured trails on the Birkebeinerrittet, the big­gest moun­tain bike race in the world that you’ve never heard of.

Australian Geographic Outdoor - - Contents - Words PAT KIN­SELLA Pho­tos HENRY IDDON

IDON’T KNOW whether it is serendip­ity or stu­pid­ity that causes my crash, but ei­ther way, the spot where I lose con­cen­tra­tion long enough to fly over the han­dle­bars of my moun­tain bike just hap­pens to be one of the most eye-pop­pingly pic­turesque parts of the en­tire race course.

Un­tan­gling my­self from my ma­chine, I look up to see the dra­matic Jo­tun­heimen range on the hori­zon. Ac­cord­ing to lo­cal folk­lore, these moody moun­tains are home to trolls. Not the cute roly-poly ones in Frozen, but the tear-you-limb-from-limb kind that pop­u­lated Nor­we­gian mythol­ogy long before Dis­ney hi­jacked and sprin­kled them with sugar.

Both my body and my bike are be­gin­ning to re­sem­ble some­thing a troll has been chew­ing on. I prom­ise my­self and my steed a day of to­tal rest and re­lax­ation to­mor­row – af­ter 122km of this, we’ll both have earned it.

It de­mands to­tal con­cen­tra­tion, this kind of rid­ing. Get dis­tracted for a sec­ond and you bite the trail. I’ve just dis­cov­ered that, but be­sides los­ing a bit of bark from my knee I’m not hurt, and now I can re­lax for a minute and con­tem­plate my sit­u­a­tion.

I’m on the sum­mit of hill – a steep and ston­estrewn rise that I’d man­aged to pedal all the way up before meet­ing the rogue rock that had been wait­ing for mil­len­nia just to throw me off my mount. Raw Nor­we­gian wilder­ness sur­rounds me en­tirely. The only sign of humanity is the roughly scrib­bled line of sin­gle­track that I’ve been cling­ing onto with white-knuck­les and knit­ted brow for hours.

I’m per­haps half­way through the most ex­tra­or­di­nary bike race I’ve ever taken part in. So far the course has led me through dense clumps of Nor­we­gian pine for­est and across primeval plateaus and bar­ren peaks. The trail is a faint scar on an oth­er­wise vir­gin land­scape and, adding to the thrills and spills of the race, is the knowl­edge that it’s not just rough rid­ers who howl through this ul­tra-wild ter­rain.

Packs of wolves tear through these trees too, tak­ing down a moose a day ac­cord­ing to one farmer I spoke to. Bears are known to roam here as well.

IN A TRULY EC­CEN­TRIC TWIST, THE NUM­BER ONE RACE RULE IS THIS: ALL COM­PETI­TORS, EVEN THE ELITES, HAVE TO CARRY AN EX­TRA 3.5KG OF BULK

This is not a face of Eu­rope I’m fa­mil­iar with. It’s one that I barely knew ex­isted – but I’m not likely to for­get it af­ter this in­tro­duc­tion.

The Birkebeinerrittet tran­scends what most peo­ple think of when they con­cep­tu­alise a bike race. It’s more of a two-wheeled tra­di­tion in Nor­way. Some 20,000 peo­ple come to com­pete in this fat-tyre fes­ti­val ev­ery year, eas­ily mak­ing it the largest moun­tain-bike event on the planet, but few out­side of Scan­di­navia have heard of it. And it’s not just the stag­ger­ing size of the field that makes the Birken unique ei­ther.

Like its win­ter equiv­a­lent, the Birke­bein­erren­net ski race, the event com­mem­o­rates a mo­ment in Nor­we­gian his­tory when, way back in 1206, a royal in­fant – Prince Haakon – was smug­gled through these moun­tains by two skiers who were pro­tect­ing him from as­sas­sins.

In a truly ec­cen­tric twist, the num­ber one race rule is this: all com­peti­tors, even the elites, have to carry an ex­tra 3.5kg of bulk (over and above any food or drink they might con­sume dur­ing the race) to sym­bol­i­cally rep­re­sent the weight of the baby.

Rows of weigh­ing scales sur­round the start­ing line, with rid­ers ner­vously queu­ing to make sure they’re car­ry­ing enough bulk, with some adding hefty stones to their back­packs to make up the dif­fer­ence. I’m warned there’ll be spot checks at the end, to en­sure that peo­ple are still lug­ging their fair share of baby weight.

The Satur­day race is the big one – with 17,000 rid­ers tak­ing on a 92km course that rolls along dirt roads and dou­ble track from Rena to Lille­ham­mer. The field is so huge that rid­ers be­gin in waves, each con­tain­ing 250 bikes, with five min­utes space be­tween each one. The first wave starts at 6am and the last one leaves around 2pm. Un­usu­ally, the slow­est rid­ers are re­leased first and the elites last, so there’s lots of ex­cit­ing over­tak­ing. Spec­ta­tors line the course, cheer­ing rid­ers on, cooking on bar­be­cues, drink­ing beer and gen­er­ally hav­ing a mas­sive party.

But that’s to­mor­row. To­day, to­gether with 600 other fools, I’m do­ing the Ul­traBirken, a 120km ver­sion of the race. We’re re­leased with the first wave of an­other 4000 rid­ers (over­spill from the Satur­day race, who do the 92km course a day early), but af­ter about 50km, the Ul­tra route veers away from the main track to lead us along a much tougher and more tech­ni­cal course, which wends through the moun­tains along tight, twisty trails.

In Nor­way, back­coun­try trails like this – en­joyed by cross-coun­try skiers dur­ing the win­ter and used by hik­ers and bik­ers once the snow re­treats – are called trol­løype, lit­er­ally mean­ing troll trails. They take their myth­i­cal mon­sters very se­ri­ously here. Al­most as se­ri­ously as they take their rac­ing.

I’ve never ob­served so many moun­tain bikes in one place as I see this week­end, but there’s barely a dodgy one amongst them. Ev­ery­one’s kit is top shelf. Many are eye­ing a much-cov­eted mer­ket – medals awarded to those who fin­ish within a cer­tain time (cal­cu­lated by av­er­ag­ing the times of the first five rid­ers across the line in a com­peti­tor’s class, and then adding 25 per cent). Those who nail it, I’m told, of­ten men­tion mer­ket re­sults in their pro­fes­sional CVs.

The only medal I’m af­ter is a fin­ish­ers’ pin. And, af­ter 120-odd-kilo­me­tres of in­cred­i­bly var­ied rid­ing – which in­cludes a sec­tion that sees us do a whoop­ing de­scent of the Haf­jell World Cup downhill course – Lille­ham­mer looms into sight.

One last su­per-steep grav­elly de­scent de­liv­ers me into the arms of the Win­ter Olympic sta­dium, where a beam­ing Birken vol­un­teer presents me with my hard-earned pin. “Well done,” she en­thuses. “Now you can have a beer!”

But adren­a­line is rac­ing dan­ger­ously through my veins. Serendip­ity sees me bump into one of the race or­gan­is­ers, and stu­pid­ity makes me open my mouth to ask whether there’s still time to en­ter the Satur­day race too.

Be­hind ex­cited white eyes, I’m all sorts of muddy and bloody. “I can ar­range that,” he grins, look­ing me up and down. “If you’re re­ally sure you want to cy­cle an­other 92km to­mor­row…”

Of course I’m sure. How of­ten you find your­self armed with a bike and pre­sented with the op­por-

tu­nity to ride in the world’s big­gest MTB race, through a trolls’ tor­tured-but-beau­ti­ful back­yard? Beer, rest and re­lax­ation can wait one more day.

DO­ING THE DOU­BLE

Grap­pling for the alarm at 5am the next morn­ing, I roll out of bed and stum­ble to my feet, try­ing to ig­nore my legs, which are shriek­ing in in­dig­na­tion. In the cor­ner of the room my still-mud-splat­tered bike looks mourn­fully at me. What, re­ally? We’re do­ing all that again?

My steed is ac­tu­ally in for a much eas­ier ride this time around. All but a few kilo­me­tres of the main race is on fast dou­ble-track and un­sealed gravel roads. Which means the field is go­ing to at­tack it like a bunch of ram­pag­ing Vik­ings right from the off – bad news for my weary pins.

First, though, I jump on one of the buses con­voy­ing thou­sands of rid­ers to Rena. There I join the long queue to check my back­pack is heavy enough to tip the scales – cru­elly, the rudi­men­tary weigh­ing de­vices don’t tell how much your pack weighs, they just con­firm that it’s over 3.5kg. Full of cam­era gear, mine em­phat­i­cally drops the arm.

I’m re­leased in a wave at 8am. My mus­cles are re­ally not happy, but they warm up dur­ing the stiff climb out of Rena, and I man­age to work my way through the slower waves un­til I find a group go­ing at a speed I’m happy with. Then it’s a mat­ter of hang­ing on.

The sun is out and the tracks are lined with spec­ta­tors and party peo­ple. The at­mos­phere is in­tox­i­cat­ing, and any re­grets at do­ing the dou­ble have long-since evap­o­rated. I’ve never ex­pe­ri­enced any­thing like this on a bike before – I have no idea what all these peo­ple are shout­ing and scream­ing at me from the side­lines, but they look happy and I feel like I’m rid­ing le knob­bly-tyred Tour.

The one piece of tech­ni­cal track we en­counter takes a bite out of the pack, with nu­mer­ous rid­ers hit­ting the deck in a series of wipe­outs. Although they’re all on good bikes and look to be in good shape, with a field this enor­mous, there are in­evitably some very in­ex­pe­ri­enced moun­tain bik­ers around me, and it gets messy for a sec­tion.

With a mix­ture of luck and judg­ment I man­age to avoid get­ting tan­gled in the worst of the car­nage and jump on the back of an­other train charg­ing to­wards the fin­ish. The ap­proach to that fi­nal sketchy de­scent into the sta­dium is fa­mil­iar now, and the bike seems to feel the lines mag­netic pull.

Weirdly, the vol­un­teer that presents me with my sec­ond Birkebeinerrittet fin­isher’s pin in as many days is the same woman as yes­ter­day and, even more im­prob­a­bly, she re­mem­bers me. “You again!” she laughs. “Now you’ve re­ally earned that beer.”

No ar­gu­ment from me on that point. I head to the bar, but first an of­fi­cial grabs my bag and weighs it. Turns out I’ve been lug­ging 7kg of baby weight. Twins! Great. Some­thing else to cel­e­brate.

Clock­wise from main Climb­ing out of a Nor­we­gian wood dur­ing the Ul­traBirken; ham­mer­ing down the berms on a sec­tion of the Haf­jell World Cup downhill course built into the Ul­traBirken route; sup­port­ers watch the main Birkebeinerrittet; speed bumps dur­ing the Ul­traBirken.

Clock­wise from main A rider ne­go­ti­ates one of many sec­tions of rock gar­den on the long, tech­ni­cal Ul­traBirken course; it's a big day for spec­ta­tors too; locals line the route cooking on bar­be­cues; and they sink a few beers while re­gal­ing rid­ers with cheers and jeers.

Pat with his sec­ond Birkebeinerrittet fin­ish­ers' pin in two days.

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