Single tracks and troll trails: MTB Norway

By Pat Kinsella 7 February 2017
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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.

I DON’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 stone-strewn 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.

Mountain biking norway

Climbing out of a Norwegian wood during the UltraBirken. (Image: Henry Iddon)

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. 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.

Mountain biking norway

Supporters watch the main Birkebeinerrittet. (Image: Henry Iddon)

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 opportunity 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.

Mountain biking norway

A rider negotiates one of many sections of rock garden on the long, technical UltraBirken course. (Image: Henry Iddon)

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.

This article was originally published in the Nov-Dec 2016 issue of Australian Geographic Adventure magazine.