Inside Iceland's biggest mountain biking event
The Blue Lagoon Challenge is a massive cross-country race across South West Iceland, attracting over 400 riders and counting. Find out why this spectacular event should be on any mountain biker's calendar.
Every summer, mountain bikers from all over Iceland gather at the country's southwestern tip for the Blue Lagoon Challenge, a punishing 60km cross-country race through the lava fields of Reykjanes (which means 'smoking peninsula', named for its highly volatile volcanic activity). Beginning in the town of Hafnarfjörður, the race traverses the entire peninsula, covering a wide range of terrain, from gravel roads to brutal inclines littered with slippery lava rocks. The route passes dramatic volcanic valleys and atmospheric rock shelves, before making its way coastward and passing through the idyllic fishing town of Grindavík. After a final sprint that's blasted by oceanic wind from the Arctic Circle, racers finish up at the world-famous Blue Lagoon, where participants receive warming soup and can take a well-earned rest in the mineral-rich, volcanically heated waters of the bucket list-worthy hotel and spa, and its variety of natural treatments. Not bad!
Icelandair were generous enough to invite us along to the 2022 race, which boasted a staggering 460 entrants. Given the sheer scale of the event (as well as the small number of inhabitants of the country), it's clear that this is by far the biggest cycling event on the Icelandic calendar, and with good reason. The race kicks off in the evening, which seemed to us like a strange decision given the sheer scale of the planned route, but that's no problem in the Icelandic summer because it's daylight 24/7! The sun does set here in June, but it never goes below the horizon, and the golden evening light stretches on throughout the night before rising high into the sky the next morning.
Weather and ground conditions for the race, though, can be hellish, with the country's highly unpredictable meteorological patterns often turning steep trail sections into a slushy deathtrap. This time, the weather was dry and windy, so many of the long ascents were dusty, slippery slogs up punishing inclines. Iceland's mineral-rich geology means the volcanic rock and sand is high in silica, giving the surfaces – whether dusty or muddy – an extra-slippery edge that causes tyres to skitter and skate off-line with greater regularity.
The Blue Lagoon challenge is a huge deal in Iceland – as its largest cycling event, the participants cover a wide range of age groups and demographics, as do their bikes. During the course of the race I saw retro builds from three decades ago pitted head to head against contemporary trail shredders, while fatbikes cruise alongside gravel bikes.
What's striking is that, while a number of people (like our friend Ingvar below) have their eyes fixed firmly on the podium, many enter this race simply for the joy of it, rather than to compete. Some ride in groups, even stopping to hang back when their mates are struggling on a climb or suffer a mechanical setback. Even the driver of our press vehicle couldn't help himself, and scrambled up onto rocky outcrops beside the track whenever we stopped to view the racers, bellowing joyful words of encouragement and clapping his hands as the racers struggled onwards up the side of a cold, dormant volcano. It was a truly joyful and inspiring scene, and I could't help but be swept up in the wonderful vibe of the whole event (helped, of course, by our one-man hype machine!).
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Support teams are stationed along the route, and the sense of community and camaraderie is like nothing I've seen before at a mountain biking event. Sound systems pump out heavy beats as a throng of dancing staff dish out water and snacks to the passing racers, as well as enthusiastically and joyously shouted words of encouragement.
2022 winner Ingvar Ómarsson gives us his take
At the podium, we spoke to Iceland's only pro mountain biker, Ingvar Ómarsson, over a bowl of traditional Icelandic meat soup (which was incredibly warming and revitalising even for me, who had spent most of the evening in the press car!). Ingvar is a super-dedicated rider who has raced in pro events all over the world and we've featured him in the magazine this year. He also happened to bag first place in the Blue Lagoon Challenge! Ingvar tells us:
"For me the race was as straightforward as possible, with a solo move very early on and a finish a few minutes ahead into first place, after just under two hours of racing. What makes this race special is the mix of mountain bikes and gravel bikes, with the general view seeming to be that gravel bikes are quicker on this terrain – but I'll find out about that when I try it next year! This time I used my mountain bike, but I discovered very early on that my closest competition were all on gravel bikes and, with a fast final section taking place on asphalt, I didn't want to wait for the sprint!"
Race and retreat
After a final gravel and tarmac sprint, the riders reach the finish line and find themselves at the bucket-list-worthy Blue Lagoon. We stayed at Blue Lagoon's luxury hotel, The Retreat, and experienced the secluded Retreat Spa and private lagoon area, which included ancient health-giving rituals involving exfoliation with natural silica and black lava sand, as well as Float Therapy, which… well, we can't easily describe it, but it simply has to be experienced by everyone at least once in their life! Be sure to check out the Blue Lagoon website for more information about the treatments and services, as well as professional travel advice.
The mountainous northern region of Iceland has a well-established reputation as a solid destination for spectacular trail/enduro riding, but more and more cross-country fans from overseas are heading to Reykjanes to experience the serious challenge of racing on the otherworldly moonscape terrain. With its gruelling length, serious elevation, unpredictable conditions, truly otherworldly location and dream-come-true finishing point, it's no wonder that the Blue Lagoon Challenge has become the most popular bike event in Iceland. If you'd like to take part in the future, check out the race's official website for more information.