FNLD GRVL ride report – 177km of pristine gravel in the land of the midnight sun

Peter Stetina leads a group at the FNLD GRVL race
(Image credit: Wilhelm Ohman)

The huge ski jumps of Lahti Ski Stadium (Salpausselän kisapuisto) stand dormant in the summer sun, yet Finland's dry, dusty Nordic ski tracks and unpaved public roads have a new purpose, hosting Europe's inaugural US-style gravel race FNLD GRVL. 

I find myself amongst every type of gravel rider, from moonlighting off-road World Tour Pro to have-a-go party pace hero. We shuffle forward under the FNLD GRVL arch, with gravel bikes lined up the tensions build as the announcer hypes the riders, counting down to the start of the first FNLD GRVL Midnight Sun race.

Valtteri Bottas and Tiffany Cromwell lead a group of gravel riders

FNLD GRVL is co-owned by US racer Tiffany Cromwell and F1 driver Valtteri Bottas (Image credit: Wilhelm Ohman)

The US spirit of gravel comes to Europe

FNLD GRVL came about after Formula 1 driver Valtteri Bottas took part in his second SBT GRVL back in 2021, finishing first in his age category on the Red course. Based in Steamboat Colorado, SBT GRVL has grown to be an important fixture in the US gravel scene. The event must have made an impression on Bottas who expressed interest in holding a similar US gravel-style event in Finland. Co-founder of SBT GRVL Amy Charity reached out to Bottas which set things in motion, Tiffany Cromwell (Women’s World Tour racer for Canyon-SRAM) then joined as co-owner of FNLD GRVL alongside her partner Bottas.

The events tagline 'the spirit of gravel' sets out their aim, to create a gravel event in Europe that wasn't just a race, but also a fun experience and attract riders from all over to visit Finland. It's obvious why the area around Lahti, a city 100km north of Helsinki, was chosen too. The Finnish terrain lends itself perfectly to the fast gravel racing associated with the premier US gravel races like SBT GRVL and Unbound.

The proceedings spanned four days with plenty of shakedown rides, yoga, and other activities. The main event would take place on Saturday and consist of three route options, the 40km Forest loop, a 77km Lake Course, and the 177km Midnight Sun race. The latter is named after the almost constant sunlight that shines on the Finnish regions above the Arctic Circle in the summer months.

With an equally divvied-up prize purse of €20,000 for the Pro men and women, as well as prize packs for the top three riders in all categories, including non-binary and para-cyclists, for both the 177km and 77km routes. With that in mind, a lot of riders were raring to go as the 177km riders were corraled under the FNLD GRVL start banner.

The start line of the FNLD GRVL Midnight Sun gravel race

Riders lined up ready to tackle the FNLD GRVL 177km Midnight Sun gravel race (Image credit: Ville Kaskivirta)

It's a race

It was clear from the start this was definitely a race, as very quickly the riding was flat out as racers jostled for positions on the first climb. I managed to get away with a fast group, strong pulls kept the pace high and we averaged almost 35kph over the undulating twisting Nordic ski paths that neighbor the Lahti Sports Center. It was nervous though as riders struggled to stay tight on the wheel in front over the challenging turns and frequently unpredictable surfaces.

I did a pull through a particularly rough section before the route opened up to quintessential smooth Finnish gravel roads that make up much of the local infrastructure. At this point, the group started to find its equilibrium and a shallow descent saw the pace skyrocket. I was holding on for dear life, barrelling along in my biggest gear while trying to recover as best I could. I knew staying in this group would be my best shot at a decent time, although with my average heart rate at over 170bpm for the first 30 minutes I was starting to have doubts that I could hold on for much longer.

Gravel riders ride as a group through the dust

Racing was fast, furious, and very dusty (Image credit: Ville Kaskivirta)

Dropped

My worries about getting spat out the back were all for nothing though as my chain decided to save me the embarrassment. The course took a sharp right-hander into a steep incline around the 25km mark, an aggressive front shift dropped my chain and it became well and truly jammed between the small ring and the frame. There was little more I could do than watch groups ride past as I tried to wrestle it free.

After five minutes of frustrating fiddling and the chain was back on and I was moving. I rode solo for around 20km with a bunch tantalizingly in sight just up the road before getting scooped up by a chasing group. It was a bit disjointed but some strong riders pulled hard shifts to keep things moving along nicely. It finally fractured as the front riders kept the pace high up a small climb, shedding any hangers-on before two riders attacked on the approach to the 100km feed. The group splintered yet again as some hydration pack wearing riders continued on and others stopped at the 100km resupply point. With my bottles hastily filled, I set off with a rider called Tõnis from Estonia before picking up a third member just up the road, our trio kept a nice pace and we chatted on the less demanding sections.

Gravel riders ride as a group along a Finnish gravel road

Finding a fast group that worked well together was the key to success (Image credit: Wilhelm Ohman)

The group broke after 20km, the following feed station proved too tempting for my new Estonian friend before the third member of the band admitted he had little more to give and willed me to carry on without him. I jumped over to another pair, the woman of the two was on a mission out of the feed station and with another larger group on the horizon, I was optimistic that we could bridge to a larger group. We both burned a few matches but much to my dismay it didn’t work out again as sugar rushes faded and their pulls became shorter before some climbing separated us.

Back on my own, there was another attempt at a three-up group as the chap from the previous pair had caught me back up, along with another rider but no one was willing to put work in and it split three ways.

A large group of gravel riders in smooth finish gravel roads

Gently rolling and beautifully smooth Finnish gravel roads are suited to fast gravel racing (Image credit: Wilhelm Ohman)

Neverending gravel roads

I rode by myself for a long time with hardly another rider in sight. Quaint wooden houses painted either red or yellow were dotted along the course, their occupants at the side of the road waving and cheering riders on as they passed. 

The champagne gravel roads seemed to endlessly roll through the lush green Finnish farmland and woodland, very different from the rugged and harsh, heather-lined Scottish gravel tracks I am accustomed to. Progress was fast but the sheer vastness of the landscape skewed distance and time. Looking at my Garmin did little to help either as the numbers seemed to tick by slowly no matter how hard I pedaled. 

An impromptu feed station stop for an irresistible can of Pepsi and a water refill reinvigorated me for a short while, although I was starting to become properly unraveled on the flat roads. Out of nowhere, another group swept me up.

A welcome respite from my own struggling legs and mind, they pulled me out of no-man’s land and I would stay with this group till the return of the undulating ski trails. Kicking straight into a very steep incline, one of the front riders dropped a chain stalling the riders behind. I managed to sneak around the side before settling into a rhythm on what would be the longest climb of the day. Halfway up, the official Strava segment started although the steep loose surface meant I couldn't do much more than just keep spinning at a good tempo and hope the climbing wouldn't last much longer.

The last 15km returned to the rolling ski trails that we had ridden flat out in the other direction at the start of the day. This time I was on my own but the punchy climbs and technical corners lifted my spirits and I had a great time ducking and weaving through the forest, although they could very easily punish wearier legs and trip up tired minds.

The iconic Lahti ski jump soon loomed over the trees, a welcoming sight and signaling that all I had to do was roll down to the finish. I crossed the line dusty, battered, and exhilarated in a respectable 6hrs 3mins.

Graham Cottingham at the finish line of FNLD GRVL

Very ready for a cold beverage (Image credit: David Sear)

I wasn't the only one that had gone hard, as it was clear a lot of riders had given it their all as tired bodies milled around the finish area, inhaling their post-race meal and exhaling stories from the road. 

The picturesque smooth gravel tracks may have been technically easy to ride but the almost constant false flat effect of the very gently rolling course had been deceptively demanding, it was the perfect stage for an out-and-out race though. The Pro category had been stacked and it was hard to comprehend the Pro fields finishing times, Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo) rolled over the line at 4hrs 46mins with Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM) bringing it home for the women 5hrs 14mins.

FNLD GRVL has officially made its mark on the gravel racing circuit and could be a catalyst as the US becomes even more of an influence on European gravel, and the gravel racing scene as a whole. One thing is for sure though, if you are after flat-out gravel racing FNLD GRVL is fckng fst.

Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo) holds his bike above his head at the finish line

I wish I looked as fresh as Toms when I crossed the finish line (Image credit: Ville Kaskivirta)
Graham Cottingham
Senior reviews writer, Bike Perfect

Graham is all about riding bikes off-road. With almost 20 years of riding experience, he has dabbled in downhill, enduro, and gravel racing. Not afraid of a challenge, Graham has embraced bikepacking over the last few years and likes nothing more than strapping some bags to his bike and covering big miles to explore Scotland's wildernesses. When he isn’t shredding the gnar in the Tweed Valley, sleeping in bushes, or tinkering with bikes, he is writing tech reviews for Bike Perfect.

Rides: Cotic SolarisMax, Stooge MK4, 24 Bicycles Le Toy 3, Surly Steamroller

Height: 177cm

Weight: 71kg