My First Ultra-Distance Gravel Race

by Louise Philipovitch

When planning a vacation, rare are those who think embarking on a 960 km gravel race with 11,500 metres of elevation gain is a good idea… That's exactly what I did a few days ago, as I took part in the Arna Westfjords Way Challenge in Iceland, an event organized by Cycling Westfjords.

Why this race?

How did I end up participating in such a challenge? There's a great "women empowering women" anecdote behind this story. It all began a year ago, during the race’s first edition, which I learned about because Lael Wilcox was among the firsts to experience it.

Lael is an ultra-distance cyclist with multiple wins under her belt who keeps inspiring more and more women to take up cycling. Last summer, during an 8-day European rally organized by Komoot, I was lucky enough to cycle across the Alps with her. It was then, after a long day on the saddle while enjoying a cold beer on top of a mountain that she said to me with her famous enthusiasm and contagious smile: “I won't be able to attend the race this year, you should take my spot!”

The gear

Summer does not necessarily mean warm weather in Iceland, quite the contrary actually. With sub-zero temperatures, strong winds, lots of rain and, above all, highly variable weather, I opted for the well-known onion layering technique and packed several layers of different kinds of clothing. I prioritized warm and technical pieces that can keep me nice and dry all while drying super quickly.

Without going into all the details, here's what I’m bringing: The Cycling Gilet ; The Gravel Cargo Bib; very handy with its cargo pockets ; The Signature Thermal Jersey ; The Short-Sleeve Signature Jersey; for when the sun comes out.

Also: A performance gravel bike, which can handle technical terrain and has a very good ratio allowing me to tackle the steep climbs: the the Katahdin from Panorama Cycles. I got my bike fitted at Studio Maglia Rosa, so I'm as comfortable as possible when riding for long hours. High-quality waterproof and resistant bikepacking bags from Arkel to store all my essentials.

A one-of-a-kind race

These ultra-distance races, also known as bikepacking races, are usually done with very little sleep, riding through the day and most of the night. It is an intense physical and mental performance, which often prevents racers from being fully aware of their surroundings and learning about the local culture.

To avoid this, the Arna Westfjords Way Challenge adopted a unique format : the race is divided into different stages, and all participants must start at the same time every day. Plus, every day, there are at least two mandatory stops called Cultural Connections, which are great opportunities to learn about Icelandic culture and share with locals. From hot springs to a local café with Icelandic waffles, and from sheep farming to a museum of witchcraft and Icelandic myths, there's plenty to choose from! The time spent visiting these places is not accounted for in the race’s final timer, which allows the participants to fully enjoy the moment.

The preparation

When it comes to physical preparation, I still have a lot to learn!

I started cycling in 2018, and immediately, I had a preference for longer rides. Quickly, I started going on 100 km rides without really knowing how to manage my efforts and energy levels, often leaving the house without any food. Fortunately, I've learned a lot since then, and accumulated a few long-distance experiences of more than 24 hours on the bike.

That’s the kind of challenge that I love; when I feel like I'm entering an active meditation stage where my thoughts are clear, my body is functioning well, and I feel connected to the elements around me. Of course, as with any endurance sports, there are difficult moments when I have to dig into my physical and mental resources, but I like to explore those limits and learn to play with them, remembering that they are flexible and can always be pushed a little further.

This year, my coach, Marcos Gutierrez Costa, helped me learn how to be more consistent in my practice; we mostly worked on my relationship with the sport and training sessions, which wasn't always very healthy, and I'm looking forward to continuing the work with him now that the foundations are set!

I'm excited to take part in the race, and I’m going into it with the idea of learning from this adventure. As my first long-distance race experience, it is the perfect time to test my limits in order to make progress for the future. Above all, it's a fantastic opportunity to explore Iceland, discover its unique culture and brave the elements!

What’s next ?

Since I’m flying to Iceland, I decided I might as well take the opportunity to stay a little longer. After the race, I'll be bikepacking for a week with a friend whom I met last summer at that rally in the Alps. Our itinerary hasn't been decided yet, so we'll see where the wind will carry us (an expression that takes its literal meaning here, with gusts of 150 km/h)!

Words: Louise Philipovitch

Photos: Alexandra Racine & Louise Philipovitch

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