The Rift – 2021 Race Report (I mean….survival report)
Casey Cohenmeyer describes her brutal experience at The Rift in Iceland. The Rift is a 200 km (125 miles) off-road bike race through the dark lava fields in the Highlands of Iceland. It traverses the continental rift between North America and Eurasia - a rift that grows one inch every year. The growth is evident with vast lava fields all around creating a surreal landscape. A landscape that is remote, rugged and unpredictable!
The following account was originally published on Casey's blog, NoFcks Given Gravel.
Dire. Not the first word that one would typically hope to describe a “vacation,” but that’s not how we roll over here.
Dire. Fcks were given. Not quite all of them, there are a few off-brand Fcks left in the clearance bin, but most of the Fck store has been entirely decimated.
The Rift. Iceland. There’s a reason the adorable wild Icelandic Ponies (don’t call me a pony, I’m a grown-ass-man-horse) are hearty, low to the ground and seem to have a sense of humor. The landscape has a an ominous lack of trees. There’s a reason for that. This place is brutal.
“It’s awful, but you’re a sick b*tch, you’ll love it.” – this from my friend who did the race in 2019, she gave me her early access entry code, and from our shared experiences at The Rock Cobbler and Kansas, I figured I knew what I was in for. No. Nope. All the nope.
I signed up for 2020, then after a year of pandemic cancel/reschedule/cancel again I said “screw it” to most of 2021 except this one. I figured it would be a one shot deal. Then it dawned on me that my fellow “sick b*tch” and best friend of 20 years might want to go with me to celebrate our 20 year “frienpersary”. We had always talked about doing something epic to celebrate. For better or worse this fit the bill. I emailed the race director begging for a spot for Echo, and they got her in. Y’all might know her. She’s petite, sweet, a bit quiet, but she can ride the fck out of any dirt, is an expert scuba per, caves, wrecks, all the scary stuff, is a pediatric cardiac anesthesiologist, can quarter an elk, won Rock Cobbler in 2018 and is one of only a handful of women to Everest on a MTB four weeks before this. She is beyond gnarly in every way.
Just casually Wafering in 90 degree San Diego. Flamingos are tropical. They did not come to Iceland.
We had been watching the weather forecasts for the weeks leading up to The Rift and as we goofed off on Belgian Waffle Ride, Wafer version, we chatted about what gear rain we were packing. All of it. Oh man, am I so happy with the Wafer decision. If had done full Waffle with only six days between I would have ended up rescued by a snorkel enabled 4WD sprinter van for sure. Or ded in some lava. Just ded. Dire.
After landing, we checked into our super cute hotel, Hotel Ranga, built the bikes and then went splat. The next morning, a little shake out ride in the pouring rain and 20 mph crosswinds. Oddly, it was confidence building because at least we knew our rain gear was working, and our new wheels handled well in the crosswinds.
The morning of the race we hit the breakfast buffet and watched the sideways rain in horror. Maybe it won’t be that bad. Maybe. We slow rolled the 3 miles to the start and lined up in a sea of black rain jackets.
At the starting line. Beyond concerned.
Raining. 47 degrees. 8-10mph winds, gross but tolerable. The 9km neutral roll out was predictably not neutral, after a bit of trying to hang on, we eased up, felt like most of the 200 starters passed us, found our little group and rolled to the first dirt as a herd of horses ran side by side to us to see us off.
The first gravel climb was lovely, the rain minimal, wind gone, gorgeous rolling green hills and those cartoonish waterfalls you see on the Iceland tourism commercials. This gravel sector was a melee of riders changing flat tires. We arrived at the first major river crossing, and friends, this is a river, not the little creeks we are used to back home, like a hubs deep, 15 pedal stroke freaking river. Echo made it no problem, after making it through the water I got tripped up in the sand and had to unclip on the bank. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I had worried I was either going to fall in or have to walk most of the rivers. Confidence was building.
Echo being a badass
Then Echo hit the throttle, and we started passing riders. I would chirp at her so she knew I was still there as I followed her line. “I’m good mama bird! Chirp!” The climb to the highest point of the race at mile 43 was getting more and more technical, and we were loving it. The weather was fine, just some misting rain, the scenery was truly mind-blowing. I felt like we were in a Star Trek episode on another planet. We were making great time, not just riding on the side of a volcano, but INSIDE a volcano, across a caldera, down cracked black lava descents. A sign says “We’re not in Kanza anymore.” We came upon a left hand turn with three 4x4s and four volunteers urging us left. Turns out the front group had made a wrong turn there and ended up on the actual glacier, but they were the ones that missed out. The sector they cut was the best part of the day, a banked rolling, twisting black lava road with technical rocks and a glacier below. That’s when It dawned on me that these roads we are riding are built for fun, just for goofing off on 4×4, not necessarily for getting from point A to point B. The world needs more roads like that.
So many badass vehicles here
Next on a challenging descent where I let Echo get too far away from me to follow her line, I found myself in that line choice downward spiral where your every decision gets you in more trouble. I got to the point where I knew I had two options, crash or let both brakes go and hope the bike and tires would just figure it out despite me. They did. I was so happy to make it to the next water crossing with both bike and all bones intact.
We saw riders ahead walking up an extremely steep climb. Ah! There it is, the hike-a-bike we heard about. We decided to see how far up it we could get, I leaned forward, scooted up on the nose of my saddle and was shocked that I was still on Echo’s wheel, cadence of 38 but making it. As we congratulated ourselves, we were punished for our arrogance. Around the next bend and saw the actual hike-a-bike. Looks like Bakersfield I thought to myself, minus weird baby doll trash and spent shot gun shells. We hiked to the top and thought, that wasn’t so bad. Half a mile later…… THE hike-a-bike. Ok, that one was rough, but we are Cobbler trained, so unless you’re having to use a hand on the ground too, It’s easy.
Next another large river crossing, this one I couldn’t figure out and unclipped and safely walked across the knee deep water. Then a ten mile flat loop with an aid station, the wind is starting to pick up, but we basically feel fine. Still making good time, legs still good, we are wet but not cold. All is well.
Me being a safe-ass non bad-ass
We get back to the same river and as we approach it, I realize that this may be the one I saw on Instagram, and I just didn’t recognize it on the way out. I holler to Echo, “I’m gonna go right!” She says “No, I think left” we go opposite ways, and I can’t believe it, but the line is SO GOOD! I had walked this same river in knee deep water 90 min ago and now I’m riding eight or so inches deep. It’s awesome! I don’t see Echo, so I soft pedal for a bit and just keep going. Weird, where is she? Ok, more soft pedaling. AH! There she is! She slowly rides up to me and I chirp “Did you see me?!? Did you see me?!? I made it!!!” …… “No. I was too busy lying in the river.” Oh man, I thought I was going to get punched. She went in the drink, all but her left shoulder and head, big hip bruise too.
That was mile 60 and as good as the day was going to get.
I will have nightmares about the next 15 miles.
The highest point of the ride was at mile 43, we foolishly thought that we would now be rewarded with some downhill. No.
From mile 60 to 75 we rode nothing but the most miserable, sharp, awful washboards with the rain and wind picking up. Just frame shattering horror. Every time you thought you saw a better line it would disappear. The “gutters” were ten inch deep sand with fixed, sharp lava rock to punish you if you made the slightest error. The demon washboards had to be ridden. There was no way around it. Halfway through this sector I saw a sign that said “Stop crying like a child” and I did wonder if crying might make it better. Definitely the most miserable 90 min I’ve ever experienced on a bicycle.
We stopped to refuel at the mile 75 check point and looked in glee at the glorious pavement we would get to ride for the next ten or so miles. I remembered from other’s 2019 Strava that this was a sector that they averaged 20-22mph. Yes!!! and we turned left into a 20mph headwind. NO!!!! My body was shattered after the washboards and my mind needed a break. It was not to be. Two groups of guys passed us and yelled for us to jump on. I knew Echo could go, but I was so broken my legs didn’t have the surge to get on their wheels, but she stayed with me and we traded pulls for the next ten or so miles (at a 75% her, 25% me ratio). The rider in front would do literally almost double the watts of the the rider in back. We were averaging 13mph on a false flat downhill. The wind was awful, but at least it wasn’t raining…..
A not so quick pee stop for me at the next left turn (a nature break in full rain gear is such a pain if you’re female) out of the headwind for a second. As I’m stopped a woman in pink who looks like she’s probably in our “old AF” pision passes us. We get rolling and 0.25 mile gap she has on us starts to slowly close for Echo…… and I crack. In all the ways. Mile 93. All of the negative everything starts swirling uncontrollably in my brain. It’s so windy and starting to rain hard enough that Echo doesn’t realize how far back I’ve slid, she rides with the woman in pink for a few minutes and then looks back to me and slows until I catch her. I know I need her to get me home, but I also know that for sure she could have gotten a podium in our pision without me, and that maybe she still could if she leaves me at this point.
I see she has made the decision to stay with me, not that she ever actually considered leaving me, so as I slowly closed the gap up to her I remind myself that she’s made her call, isn’t going to leave me so I resist the temptation to say “JUST LEAVE ME FOR DEAD, GO ON WITH OUT ME” I don’t say it. I don’t say it….. don’t say it, don’t say just leave me. I get up to her and she looks me dead in the eyes and over the wind yells….
“I don’t need you to pull. I just need you to pedal”
She’s made the call. We are in this together. We are making it to the end……and then the weather got bad. Like biblically, Plagues of Egypt locusts and frogs bad. In the next minute it went from “JUST LEAVE ME FOR DED, GO ON WITHOUT ME” in my head to “PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME OR I’M GONNA DIE”. Have you ever ridden in rain and wind so fierce that it hurts your eyeballs behind your sunglasses? Have you ever stared at the wheel in front of you knowing it’s your only lifeline? Have you wondered if you’ll ever ride a bike again after this day?
As bad as the next hour was for me in the back, it was even worse for Echo in the front. We crept into the mile 102 checkpoint and now that I knew we were about to make a left for a bit of cross/tailwind, I could feel like tiniest bit of joy creeping up. Those highs and lows that come on a day like this, you really need the highs, so I actively maximized it. After another agonizingly long nature break, I got all my clothes back on and went to the aid station and ate I swear the best cookies I’ve ever had, threw three of them bare in my bag, filled my bottles and took stock in the fact that we only had 21 more miles to go. Then I see her, up the road 20 feet, clipped in and staring at me. Fuck. I’m in trouble, she’s cold and angry, but I NEED these potato chips. I pour a mountain of Lays onto my puffy rain-gloved hand and get them into my body the fastest way I know how. I open my mouth as wide as I can and repeatedly smash the massive pile of chips on my face to break them, stuffing my cheeks like a chipmunk while a ten year old volunteer stares and me with his mouth agape. He had apparently never seen a crazed American potato chip savage.
I finally roll up to Echo, who I didn’t know it at the time, but she was in her darkest hole of the ride as I was murdering the chips. She later said she was ready to just call it, but knew I wanted to finish, and she wanted to get me to the line.
The next ten miles or so are a blur of straight line gravel followed by an absolutely hellish two miles in a riverbed at mile 113. Riding that surface, where staying seated is required is absolute misery this far into an event like this. Next a final river crossing where I made faces and sounds I don’t think I’ve ever made on a bike, but I rode it. By now I’m basically drooling on my stem, just following Echo’s line, not noticing all the sharp fixed rocks, but somehow not flatting. Jesu-Cristo, does she ever stop pedaling? I. Just. Want. To. Coast. For. A. Minute.
But seriously. Look at this face I’m making. Dire.
We descend the last gravel sector and get to the final 5 miles of pavement. She stands up in front of me and gives the universal sign for “get on my wheel and let’s go”, the two smack self-ass-slap, and minutes later we cross the cold, wet, miserable finish line. We ended up 118th and 119th out of the 200 men and women starters and 3rd and 4th in the masters women’s pision, but it was clearly never about that.
This ride was not a test of our friendship. It was a testament to it. We got to share 60 miles of amazing, and 64 miles of hell. She pulled me for 85% of the day, and in getting me across the line, didn’t quit herself. We got each other home. What a perfect celebration of our 20 years.
Now can we all just chill for a while?
We finished it off with a quick trip to the Blue Lagoon and a business class ride home….. ‘cause sick b*tches don’t Fck with coach.
Nope. Not windy at all.
The key gear
- Open Upper
- SRAM eTap mullet, 40×10-50
- IRC Boken Double Cross 38mm
- Spinergy GXX Wheels
- Eliel bib knickers
- Source Endurance Coaching
- Ridge Supply wool socks
- 124 miles
- 6500 feet
- 11 hours 19 min
- Flats – zero
- 4507 kJ (Echo had more from pulling all day)
- TSS 537 (higher than all other rides I’ve done except Kanza and than damn Ben birthday ride in Santa Ynez)
- On bike laughs – few and far between
- Rap lyrics sung – none
- It was dire.