The Iceland Loppet
The Iceland Loppet, known locally as the Fossavatnsgangan, sounded both exotic and challenging – we mean tough. Caitlin and Brian Gregg mentioned using “spring events to extend our winter season,” and the timing of the Fossavatnsgangan is perfect. What el
How many Icelandic krónas does it cost to enter the Fossavatnsgangan, or to rent car, or to reserve a hotel room? Dinner costs approximately 6,000 krónas. The conversion to U.S. dollars was not that bad, so Dalia and I decided to register for the event.
We flew into Reykavik, Iceland and rented a car and drove the six hours to Isafjordur, near the race start. The trip was spectacular with beautiful scenery every inch of the way. We drove through tunnels, saw waterfalls, mountains and curved roads that opened up to spectacular fjords. There were expansive fields with horses that ran along the side of the road. It took several hours before we hit skiable snow. Along Routes 61 and 60, we saw snow-capped mountains, glaciers and cloud formations . . . then we found the sun and snow!
Birds, gulls and swans also entertained our eyes. This was the scenic Iceland we’d heard about. You absolutely cannot capture it in a photo, though we stopped several times to try. However, it’s like nothing like what you experience in person.
We drove to the race staging area two days before the 50km Classic main event to inspect the course and to watch the 25km skate warm-up races. Caitlin [Gregg] won the women’s competition and Brian [Gregg] was second in the men’s. We were stoked for them and David Knoop of National Nordic Foundation fame, who finished 11th overall. The top Canuck was Amish Morrell in 33rd.
Two days later when we saw that the sun was up and the winds were down for the 50km race, we were grateful and happy. The day before, the weather had been a completely different story, with rain, high winds and almost no visibility. Even going outside for a short time took some considering.
The ride up the mountain to the race start was made in a very comfortable coach bus, and the air buzzed as skiers from many nations chatted in their native tongue.
It was very casual at the race start, as you could seed your own place in the start gate given where you thought you might finish. This year for safety purposes, there is a new rule requiring one to wear a backpack containing additional clothing, though this didn’t seem to be an issue for anybody.
Everyone was friendly and supportive, and the race course was fantastic. There were long gradual climbs followed by long downhills for recovery. The grooming was excellent and the scenery stunning, with mountains in every direction. The Greggs stated that this was one of the most beautiful race courses they had ever skied.
We saw many people stopping in the middle of their race to admire the scenery and take photographs with their phones. We also noticed a high number of skin skis of every brand on many of the racers. The skins seemed to perform quite well in the varied conditions along the race course. At the finish line, there were post-race celebrations, as everyone continued to enjoy the warm sunny day.
Great appreciation must be accorded to the people who laid out this race course and to those who groomed this route. While walking to the start line, one could not help but notice the perfectly cut ski tracks. For Classic skiers, tracks such as these are like two feet of powder to an alpine skier or black ice to an ice skater. The grooming was consistent, a top-shelf product throughout the entire 50 kilometres. On the very long and fast downhills, there was not a wiggle in the tracks, nor were there any sharp turns, which helped to make it safe for everyone.
The open fjords in Iceland also allowed skiers to view the course ahead and anticipate and prepare for the coming uphills or downhills. The groomer was obviously a longtime skier. He received the largest amount of applause from all, including the top skiers at the seafood buffet later that evening.
Another impressive feature of Fossavatn-sgangan is its litter control. It was a big deal. A racer would be fined if seen dropping litter on the ground – the organization takes this very seriously. There is much pride and respect for the land here.
The Fossavatn-sgangan is also known for a post-race cake buffet put on by the race organizers, where you can enjoy local handmade cakes and coffee while the awards are handed out. Later on in the evening is the big Fossavatns party, which includes a grand seafood buffet, live music and dancing. This is a major event for the town, and everyone comes out to join in on the fun. We sit at long tables with other skiers and participants from all over the world and enjoy
delicious food. Then the live music starts and, amazingly, nearly everyone in the room is out on the dance floor . . . for hours.
Several days after the race, we sat down and chatted with Kristbjörn “Bobbie” Sigurjónsson, the current race manager, who is also a local ski-shop owner. He was Fossavatnsgangan’s race chairman for approximately 17 years, and though he stepped down a few years ago, he is still heavily engaged in the race’s production. The Fossavatnsgangan has been around since 1935 and began as a 20km race. It is now part of the Worldloppet series, something that Sigurjónsson worked very hard to achieve.
Sigurjónsson is originally from a town close to Isafjordur. He began cross-country skiing when he was in his mid-30s and has been immersed in the sport ever since.
He was most excited to talk about the success of the 2017 Fossavatnsgangan. “We are thrilled, it was fantastic, and beyond our expectations, especially the increase in participation,” Sigurjónsson said, smiling. There were many more participants this year, and the organizers plan on increasing the number of racers in the 50km. Isajordur is a smaller town, so while there are limitations within the infrastructure when it comes to supporting a large race, Sigurjónsson seemed confident that the Fossavatnsgangan could slowly increase its race-participant numbers over the next few years.
The town itself is very involved in the race. Sigurjónsson described the community volunteer efforts as “outstanding,” and says approximately 3,500 people enthusiastically help to pull off the event. In addition to the ski racers, it seemed as if the entire town was at the post-race seafood banquet. “This event is the finale of the crosscountry-ski season in Iceland, so it is a very important to the community, and is always a well-attended event,” explained Sigurjónsson.
Sigurjónsson was also pleased to see the many Canadians and Americans attending this year, emphasizing how “easygoing” they were. He always enjoys hosting racers from other countries and stated that the highest number of international skiers this year were from Norway, whereas last year, they were from Finland. There were 28 countries represented at this year’s event.
In terms of snow conditions, the weather can change from day to day, even hour to hour. We lucked out with a sunny warm day with limited wind and good snow coverage. It was a klister-condition day, however, just a few days prior, Sigurjónsson was predicting a hard-wax condition. A relatively new course, just a few years old, its changes in conditions and elevation still take some getting used to.
The Fossavatnsgangan offers a 50km race in one loop, rather than repeated cycles throughout a course. This was an important factor when developing the route, as Sigurjónsson claimed that “every ski racer prefers that” rather than skiing several rounds of a shorter loop. There are views of impressive fjords, as well as mountains to ski. As there aren’t many trees in Iceland, the views go on and on. There are long uphill climbs, but also very rewarding downhill portions to recover on. There have been years when the conditions were such that these portions were really quite fast, and Sigurjónsson recalls clocking 65kph on some of these downhill sections in the past.
“Norwegian star Petter Northug, who won the 50km race, was very happy with the event and the race course,” added Sigurjónsson. Northug double-poled the entire race. This year, the course conditions were conducive to double-poling, but there’s a difficult hill toward the end of the race, which Sigurjónsson said can be quite a challenge. Northug stated that he was very tired when he arrived at the last uphill, though he still made it.
“This race is a great event for Elite skiers to begin their season training for the following winter,” said Sigurjónsson, and he said hoped that Northug enjoyed his time in Isafjordur and would return to the Fossavatnsgangan in the future.
Sigurjónsson said he’d travelled to the U.S.A., where he completed the American Birkebeiner, which he found to be “enjoyably challeng-
ing.” The Iceland Loppet had a booth at the American Birkebeiner expo to recruit racers here to this event, and he said he enjoyed the energy in the U.S.
We noticed that this was also a great time to visit Iceland, it being a slower time of year for tourists. It’s advantageous to stay a few extra days to enjoy the country. Without much traffic or line-ups, which can be the case during peak tourist time, we easily got around to see the sights. The days now were long, with many hours of daylight, so we were able to see and do a lot. We hiked trails, visited small quaint towns and saw gorgeous waterfalls. There are tours where one can experience glaciers, thermal pools, backcountry skiing, horses and birds. As Knoop stated, “The entire country is like one giant National Park!”
Another great thing about Iceland is its people, who are fantastic. Everyone was friendly, helpful and welcoming. It is a comfortable place to be, as you don’t feel like a tourist because the locals make you feel right at home. English is commonly spoken, which makes it easier for North Americans. You can easily get around most of the towns by foot, so park the car and walk to explore. We found this especially convenient during race week in Isafjordur. It was exciting to walk around the town and see people from many countries in their varied ski-race gear. It was quite the international scene!
The food is amazing, and if you love fresh seafood, add Iceland to your bucket list and enjoy it there as often as you like. Produce is grown in greenhouses, so fresh veggies with your meal is a given. Iceland has fantastic cheeses and yogurts as well, freshly made all over the country, so you are never without a variety of fresh delicious dairy food to eat.
We were always excited to see what the local catch was each time we entered a restaurant, and always enjoyed the salad options. There are certain local Icelandic foods that the country is famous for and are well worth a try: various breads, yogurts, as well as its many meat options. We suggest sticking with the fresh catch of day, as that is always a wonderful choice!
By the way, if you’re wondering how to say “ice” in Icelandic, we asked a few locals. It’s klaki.
Geothermal huts above Reykjavik harvesting steam for a huge hydroelectric power plant in the valley below.
Petter Northug interview . . . fans and organizers were stoked to have him onboard.
American Caitlin Gregg (c) took home the win at the women's 25km FR women's race.
Petter Northug celebrates his first Fossavatnsgangan 50km CL victory.
Petter Northug ( (l) l) and Brian Gregg at the start of the Iceland Loppet's 50km Classic.
Our trip to Iceland was spectacular with beautiful scenery every inch of the way.
If you love fresh seafood like Dan Clausen, add Iceland to your bucket list . . . and enjoy.
Clausen . . . and amazing adventure with memories of lifetime.
All smiles at the finish (l-r) Brian Gregg, David Knoop, Caitlin Gregg