The sun is low over Lake Vesijärvi, creating an orange glow on the faces of those I sit with on the harbour. A flock of birds flies in messy formation, their wings just black shapes against the backdrop of the peachy skies. The soundtrack to the scene is chatter, laughter and clinking glasses of Lonkero, Finland’s famous long drink, made from gin and grapefruit soda. At home in London, this would be the beginning of the end of the evening. Soon, the darkness would close in and it would be time to return home. But this is Finland, the land of the midnight sun. The place where, in the summer, the light does not fade and the drinking and socialising feels like it could go on forever.
Finland has been voted the happiest country in the world for six years in a row now, and even in just my four-day stay here, I’ve begun to understand why. Perhaps it’s because I’ve come from living in a city, but the air feels fresh and clean, travelling crisp and cold through the lungs. The people are friendly and inviting, the lifestyle relaxed yet organised.
The country is arguably most famous for the Christmastime magic of Lapland, but where I am on the shores of Lake Vesijärv is in Lahti, a city in the south of Finland, more than one thousand kilometres away from Santa and his reindeers. Here, the attractions may be a little less known than those in the province far north, but both places share a sort of ethereal and magical feel.
Everything in Lahti is shaped by water, and Finland has well earned its nickname of the ‘country of a thousand lakes’. The landscape was modified by the Ice Age and simply invites movement, whether that’s climbing high ridges or returning to the grassy banks of the lake. When the weather is warm, the gravel tracks that wind through the Salpausselkä Unesco Global Geopark are premium terrain for cycling. When the temperatures drop below freezing, it’s time to lock up the bikes and go cross-country skiing. It’s June now, so the water of the lake shimmers freely during the day and sunlight dapples on the ground through the gaps in the trees.
Above the harbour, the high ski jumps of Salpausselän kisapuisto – the Lahti Ski Stadium – eight-time host to the Nordic Ski World Championships, stand dormant in the yellow light. In the winter, this is where the sporting action is, but over the last few days, the now dry Nordic ski tracks have had a renewed purpose: setting the stage for more than a thousand cyclists to take part in the inaugural gravel event: FNLD GRVL. It’s a race created by Formula 1 driver Valtteri Bottas, who grew up in Lahti and who has developed a passion for cycling since he met his partner Tiffany Cromwell, a professional rider for Women’s WorldTour team Canyon//SRAM.
“The gravel bike has become an important tool for my physical and mental health outside of the race car,” said Bottas when he announced he was launching the event in partnership with SBT GRVL – a company which organises some of the biggest gravel races in the United States, with plans to roll out more events across the world in 2024. Bottas believes that his hometown of Lahti is a hidden gem for gravel riding, with untapped potential for cyclists.
The Finnish racing car driver still spends time training in Lahti during his busy schedule and is, unsurprisingly, well known in the area. This doesn’t mean any special treatment from the locals, however: “Here, Valtteri is just Valtteri,” a friendly man says to me as we watch the 33-year-old walk by.
A few days before FNLD GRVL, Bottas was vocal about how he is keen to give back to the community of Lahti, and bringing cyclists to the area to boost tourism is one way of doing that. He also now runs the Valtteri Bottas Racepark in the city, a development race circuit for kids who fancy their chances in F1 one day. But the accolades of a Formula 1 driver with a vested interest in bringing more tourists to the area meant that before coming to Finland, I wasn’t fully convinced that the gravel riding would compare to other places in Europe. It’s why I’d decided to make the trip over in the first place, to see if cycling in Lahti was really as good as Bottas promised.
So, despite the idyllic setting on Lake Vesijärvi as I sit on the harbour sipping my ice-cold Lonkero, I feel a slight discomfort coming from the ache in my legs, as just a few hours earlier, I’d finished the longest route of FNLD GRVL. I’d ridden 177 kilometres of gravel tracks that traversed the finest landscapes that Lahti had to offer. I was able to see for myself what the event was all about and if it was worth coming to, or if it was only Bottas’s name and the big-name sponsors that were fuelling the excitement.
The alarm went off at 7am, a shrill piercing noise that shook me suddenly from slumber. There was no struggle to remove myself from the warmth of the duvet this morning – my excitement for what was to come was enough for me to jump out of bed quickly and head down to breakfast. I shovelled in porridge and toast, acutely aware of the importance of fuelling for a race that would likely last more than five hours. Surrounding me on the wooden chairs of the hotel lobby were other cyclists clad in lycra, their numbers pinned, their excitement visible.
It was a ten-minute ride from the hotel to the start line on the harbour. The cold air was biting as I rolled through Lahti but my muscles began to warm up as I spun my legs, a product of the heat I was generating through the movement but also from the adrenaline that was steadily building in my body. I was competing purely for fun, a far cry from the professional riders who were out to win, but something about the bustle of race morning was instilling a surprising sense of competitiveness within me.
A huge banner signified the start area and over a thousand riders from more than 27 countries huddled together to wait for the flag to drop. Shoulder to shoulder with amateurs on makeshift gravel bikes were WorldTour professionals, the likes of Toms Skujiņš from Trek-Segafredo and Tiffany Cromwell among them. There was a unique beauty to this – Skujiņš took selfies with fans and Cromwell did interviews just minutes before the race kicked off and I’m hard-pressed to think of another sport in the world where this would have been possible.
But this was a bike race, and race they did. When the start was given, the speed was furious and fast. For those who wanted to secure a good result, it was about fighting to the front of the bunch to give themselves a clear run at it; others could sit back and let the racers get ahead, content with enjoying the views and experience. We sped through the forests that make up the Kintterönsuo conservation area, surrounded by the green and earthy tones of pine trees that kiss the blue skies.
The gravel tracks constantly bounced up and down – it was like being on a roller coaster, carrying speed through the descents which catapulted us up the ascents that came afterwards. The nature of these paths meant that the average speed was high – it wasn’t the long, arduous slog that can come with rougher gravel or muddy paths. We went on like this for some time, the route sometimes emerging through the trees to offer expansive views of the vibrant countryside or glittering blue lake.
Locals stepped out of their quaint, fairytale wooden houses to cheer us on: “Hyvä hyvä!” they shouted. It didn’t matter that I was now miles behind the front of the race, they encouraged us all without even a sense of discontent about us rampaging through their area, they seemed happy to see us, happy to share the hidden beauty of their landscapes.
I stopped for food midway through the route, with aid stations offering the usual energy gels and bars, but also some local delicacies. I tried Salmiakki, a salty, liquo- riceesque sweet that Finnish people had been raving about since I arrived. My face scrunched up as it hit the back of my throat – an acquired taste, for sure. By this point, I’d found a group of three women to ride with. None of us were looking to do the course in any particular set time, but we all wanted to make it to the finish and knew that it would be much easier, and much more enjoyable, if we did it together.
We took turns on the front in between chatting, and the kilometres ticked down quickly. The battery on my gears ran out and one of them lent me their spare. I felt a deep sense of community – this was very different from the road events I’d done in the past. As the time ticked on, the temperatures rose and the course led onto singletrack sections which sheltered us from the sun. These were a technical challenge, but a welcome distraction for the mind after kilometres of the wide, rolling gravel tracks.
Each time we emerged from the forests and were treated to a taste of the views Finland has to offer I felt a surge of understanding about why the people from this area are so proud. The landscapes are not stunning or dramatic like the high mountains, but they have their own kind of beauty: a sort of calmness, comfort and safety. They have a feeling of being closed off from the hardships of the world, untouched and natural, spanning as far as they eye can see, the green fields and high trees greeting your eyes like a warm hug.
At some point, my Wahoo head unit ticked over the 100 mile mark and I knew that the end of the race was nigh. We had a final stop and stuffed in some crisps and peanut butter sandwiches, as well as taking a quick Polaroid picture to commemorate the moment. My legs were aching at this point, but the end of the route was going to be the toughest part of the whole day. “Come on!” a marshall standing at the side of the road said to me as I took a left turn onto the final section of the course. “One last push!” I looked up and understood why he was offering me encouragement. The path ahead kicked up in a steep pitch and I couldn’t even see the top.
I shifted into an easier gear and took a deep breath, rocking and rolling over my bike to haul it to the summit. Our group disbanded. Everyone was coping with the fatigue differently and there were only a few more obstacles until the finish. It was about making it there at whatever speed you could manage. Once the hills were tackled, the end of the route passed the high jumps of Lahti Ski Stadium and the final few kilometres filled with steep descents and technical corners – the same route as the finish of the Nordic Ski World Championships in years gone by.
More than an hour before I crossed the line, Cromwell had celebrated winning the women’s race and Skujiņš the men’s. They’d gone as fast as they could and had impressed with their times and racing prowess. That was just one part of the event, though. The rest of it was about people like me, who had completed their longest ever ride, who had experienced the beauty of a new country, who had fallen in love with Finland and its friendly people and culture.
I understood, then, why Bottas wanted to share this. I felt grateful too, that he’d invited us all to his area and had given us a little window into Finnish life and culture, one that I would never have got otherwise. Lahti wasn’t a place I’d heard of before FNLD GRVL and I wasn’t aware of its beauty, or how much I was missing out on by never having explored this part of the world. The trip served as a reminder of how much is out there to find if you give yourself the time and space to look.
In Finland I found a magical place, where the darkness didn’t set in, where the trees spread onwards forever and the lakes were blindingly blue. A place where it seemed as if you could walk for miles and not see another person, while it was also a country that felt alive, like it had its own beating heart. And, of course, there was simply no better way to explore it all than on two wheels.