FNLD GRVL Review – The Forest Route, 2023 – Brightening Care

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I feel slightly spoilt that my first experience racing* gravel, was in such a beautiful location and at such an epic event – the inaugural FNLD GRVL in June 2023.

*I feel racing is a strong word for my participation though. With 10% of the field of riders being professionals, they might have been racing but I was there purely for the experience and to soak up the vibes of what Finland touts as the ‘happiest gravel in the world’.

FNLD GRVL is the newest kid on the block in gravel racing which took place in Lahti, Finland. The event is described as being “the brainchild of Formula 1 driver Valtteri Bottas and team behind SBT GRVL“.

FNLD GRVL 2023 Routes

There were three distances offered for riders – The Midnight Sun Route (177km), The Lakes Route (77km) and The Forest Route (40km). Whilst the professionals battled it out to win a portion of the 20,000 Euro prize pot, the rest of us enjoyed a more chilled out vibe, taking in the sights and (thankfully) stacking up the sunshine.

So, Where Is Finland?

Located in Northern Europe, Finland shares borders with Sweden to the west, Norway to the north, and Russia to the east. Despite its proximity to the Arctic Circle, Finland has a diverse landscape that includes thousands of lakes, dense forests, and rolling hills, making it known for its natural beauty.

Lahti is a city located in southern Finland approximately 100 kilometers north-east of the capital city, Helsinki. The city lies on the shores of Lake Vesijärvi and is surrounded by picturesque forests and hills, but is easily accessible by road and rail.

Lahti is also home to Ironman Lahti part of the prestigious Ironman series of triathlon events. Ironman Lahti made its debut in 2020 and has quickly gained popularity among triathletes.

Getting To Lahti, Finland From The UK

The most convenient way to get from the UK to Lahti, Finland is to fly direct to Helsinki-Vantaa Airport (HEL) in Helsinki, Finland. We ended up flying to Helsinki with easyJet and back to London with Finnair.

From Helsinki, we continued our journey to Lahti by train which required one change in Tikkurila. It’s pretty easy to travel with bikes on Finnish trains, however, on certain trains you are required to pay to take the bikes on the train whereas on others (commuter trains), they are free.

After figuring out how we would get to Lahti, the next biggest decision was whether to fly bikes over to Finland or whether to hire them. The easiest option would be to hire to save ourselves the faff of travelling with a bike / bike box.

Being so last minute though, I couldn’t find what we needed available so we ended up flying one bike (my Liv Brava) and borrowing another from Liv Cycling Finland (massive Thank You to them for that!).

Where To Stay In Lahti, Finland

We made the decision to head out to Lahti for FNLD GRVL maybe 4 or 5 weeks before the event itself, so it was kinda last minute. Plus with two of us, and trying to stick to a budget, it was more cost effective to rent an apartment.

I got super lucky and found this two bedroom apartment in Lahti, not too far from the station and also the race village. Quite a few people stayed at the GreenStar Hotel Lahti, which was next to the train station and little further away from race village / start line.

But Lahti isn’t a massive place, so I don’t think you can go too wrong with wherever you choose to stay.

FNLD GRVL Weekend Review

With the main rides taking place on the Saturday, the days preceding the event were jam packed with group rides, sponsor led events, yoga, food and more.

Arriving on the Thursday afternoon, the first task I had was to rebuild my bike before dinner ready to take it out for a spin to check everything was in working order.

We started our first morning in Finland with a walk down to Lahti Harbour, also the start line location, to get our bearings, then headed back to our apartment to get our bikes and sign on at the FNLD GRVL expo.

FNLD GRVL Weekend Review

Friday actually turned out to be a really fun day; we sauntered around the expo and checked out all the sponsor tents. I also got the guys at Shimano to take a look at my back brake which seemed a bit off, who gave it a quick clean and I was good to go.

That afternoon was also the riders briefing, followed by a panel with some of the pro riders at FNLD GRVL. It’s a long / funny story how that ended with me getting a selfie with the legend himself, Valtteri Bottas.

We then spent the rest of the afternoon touring Lahti as part of the Strava Scavenger Hunt, including a quick pedal up to Radio Tower Hill, before grabbing some lunch.

Your Gravel Cycling Kit List:

FNLD GRVL organisers made it really clear that the weather in Lahti could be unpredictable. I’d been keeping an eye on it in the weeks leading up to race day and noted it was going to be considerably cooler than the temperatures we’d been having in the UK, and rainier.

They literally said to pack 3 pairs of gloves… one for every season and I did that.

As it turns out though, the rain subsided after Thursday and we got to enjoy plenty of sunshine especially as by June, Southern Finland gets 19hr of daylight on average each day.

Here’s what I ended up packing and using on race day:

  • Gravel / cyclocross bike
  • GPS device
  • Helmet
  • Cycling clothing (warm layers)
    • padded cycling shorts 
    • base layer and jersey 
    • wind / rain jacket
    • casquette / cycling cap / ear warmers 
    • socks
  • Cycling gloves 
  • cycling shoes
  • Water bottle with sports cap
  • on bike nutrition (as required)
  • Sunglasses (photo-chromatic or changeable lenses) 
  • Sun cream (full guide here)
  • Bar bag (for snacks, tools etc)

Riding The Forest Route – 40km

“Well, that was a blast 💥 what a beautiful, challenging route! The climbing felt relentless, the downhills needed bravery and the flat… someone forgot to include any flat parts 😝”

– Me, Strava

It’s hard to sum up 40km of gravel cycling in words, but the course was a beautiful variation of gravel, tarmac and everything in-between. Although there was quite a small number of riders signed up for The Forest Route, there was rarely a moment that we felt completely alone.

The route started from the Harbour and within about 1-2km, we were off the beaten track and headed into the forest. With the route on my GPS I could see the climbs / elevation that was coming allowing me to pace myself.

I made a huge effort to tackle as many of the hills as I could but it was difficult sometimes to take your ideal line when other riders were choosing to walk, even downhill.

I’ve noticed that when less experienced / confident riders are together, they’ll generally follow the consensus of those ahead of them. It makes sense – you can see what line to take and how much effort you might need.

Personally, I felt like the event could have shared a little on etiquette in the race packs (maybe they did, and I missed it?!) to avoid situations arising on the course. With mass events like this, group riding skills go a long way – warning others of hazards, making riders aware you’re overtaking and on which side etc.

The Second Half

Anyway, we managed to avoid any drama or incidents and made it to the aid station at the halfway mark where I fuelled up with a complimentary double espresso and topped up my water bottle.

On the second half of The Forest Route, I made sure we took in the views, even stopping for photos by the lake a couple meters off the course. This second half was also a little quieter than the first, which meant at one point, we did manage to go off course but thankfully figured it out before we went too far.

The FNLD GRVL ‘Finnish’ Line

The FNLD GRVL Finnish Line

Just when we thought we had tackled all the climbing, came the finish line which if I remember correctly is one of the ski slopes in winter. From the bottom, it looked vertical and I knew that trying to walk up was gonna be harder than trying to ride.

I stopped at the bottom and spent what felt like an eternity staring up at the climb. I had to ride a couple circles at the bottom to get into the right gear to tackle the climb. Then I figured now was the time to put into practice the tips on the blog for tackling hills. The only way was up.

The support at the finish line got me up that climb to be honest. I needed and appreciated it. That final climb went straight through the finish arch where once through, we could collect our finishers cap (not a fan, lol) and some refreshments.

“I’m proud of myself for some of the hills I tackled. I’m ready for the short sharp stuff when cross comes. But some of the hills did get the better of me… but I’ll call that training for getting on and off the bike for cross season in autumn.”

– me, Strava

CHECK OUT THE FNLD GRVL FOREST ROUTE ON STRAVA:

The great thing about riding the 40km Forest Route is that we were finished by lunchtime and still had plenty of energy. After grabbing some food (included in entry) we were back at the finish line to see the pro riders from the longer courses coming in and to support other riders.

“I made a huge effort to look up from my handlebars, take in the views, make memories and take pictures. The route was worth the hard work, hands down” 

– Me, Strava

It felt good to finish the event feeling good, despite not having had time to put in any training.

Post ride was the after party which definitely was hyped up more than it delivered but it was great to get out for our final evening in Lahti and stretch the legs a little. We didn’t get to make it for the final ride on Sunday morning as we had to head back to Helsinki for our flight to London, but if I make it to FNLD GRVL again, I definitely would stay an extra day or two to get to do more of the activities on offer and see more of the area.

Plus, I’ve got plenty of time to prepare and step up to the 77km… right?!

So, does FNLD GRVL sound like the kind of event you’d be up for taking part in?

Elle

p.s Massive shout out to Strava for hosting us at FNLD GRVL. Also Thank You to Liv Cycling UK for the gorgeous kit (I’m a Liv Cycling UK Ambassador) and for connecting me with Liv Cycling Finland who loaned us the beautiful Devote for the weekend.

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