I was late to the hype, but in the spring of this year, I finally downloaded some episodes of Netflix’s Drive to Survive episodes to watch on a flight. Besides growing up in the Netherlands and Germany during the Michael Schumacher heydays in the 90s and early aughts, when he and his Ferrari team became household names, I knew very little about Formula 1 racing.
But between the show’s storytelling and illuminating insights on the athleticism and sportsmanship of motorsport, I was quickly hooked, binge-watching every episode and suddenly catching myself googling F1 race results over my Monday morning coffee.
Of course, being a cycling journalist, I’d seen mentions of Tiffany Cromwell’s famous F1 driver boyfriend and his appearances at cycling event in the past few years, and was a tad irked to see her mentioned simply as “Valtteri Bottas’ girlfriend” during her Netflix show cameos. The Canyon-SRAM rider is a well-respected athlete in her own right, after all, with World Championships, Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games appearances to her name.
She’s also the reason behind Bottas’ entry into the cycling world — both as a gravel racer and event owner — and, ultimately, why I found myself in Finland in the middle of August to explore the Alfa Romeo driver's favorite gravel roads.
Introducing: FNLD GRVL
In May 2021, Bottas and the organizers behind the highly popular (and vowel-less) SBT GRVL event announced their partnership and aim to create the ‘premier gravel event in Europe.’ While the U.S. has been leading the booming gravel trend for a decade now, there is no doubt that the fire for off-road drop-bar riding and racing has been sparked the world over.
Bottas has been using the bike for cardio training for many years, and with the endless gravel paths and dirt tracks littering his native Finland, he’s no stranger to the scenic and peaceful joys of gravel riding.
Bottas is also a fierce competitor and when Cromwell introduced him to the world of bike racing in 2020, it wasn’t long before he started vying for the podium.
At the 2021 SBT GRVL, he bested some 500 riders in the 64-mile race to end up in fifth place overall and third place in his age group. At Belgian Waffle Ride San Marcos this past May, he took second in the 72-kilometer event and, returning to SBT GRVL earlier this month, he narrowly missed out on the overall podium, finishing in fourth overall and first in his age group in the 64-mile course.
Speaking to me about getting out sprinted by ‘some young guy who didn’t do a lot of work in the break,’ it was clear that missing out on that podium ate at him.
“I do it for fun but I am competitive and I go full gas,” he said.
Full gas and all in on gravel, Bottas was so impressed by the organization, racing and community aspect of his first SBT GRVL that he wants to bring it to Finland, where he already organizes a small, annual off-road Duathlon for charity.
“I’ve been riding gravel around my hometown of Lahti for years, and discovered SBT GRVL in 2021,” said Bottas. “I was impressed with such a world-class event. When Amy Charity and Chris Lyman reached out to me about partnering on a race in Finland, I saw it as a tremendous opportunity to build something similarly special in Lahti.”
This August, I was among a small group who joined Lyman, Charity, Bottas and Cromwell as they travelled to Lahti to test ride the courses, meet with city and tourism bureau officials and explore the region’s cultural offerings.
Lahti, Finland: a sporting destination
Bottas was raised in Nastola, a formerly independent municipality in Southern Finland that today has been incorporated into the city of Lahti, which lies just 15 kilometers to the west and around an hour’s drive north of Helsinki.
With undulating terrain and surrounded by lakes, Lahti is a well-known sporting destination and host to numerous world-class events ranging from ski jump world cups and MotoGP, to the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships and RedBull 400 uphill sprint races.
“Lahti has the infrastructure to handle an event this size, so we knew this was the right spot for people to discover, but frankly were blown away by what we saw. It’s safe to say the stoke is high, and we can’t wait for people to experience it for themselves,” commented Lyman, who himself was a first-time visitor to the region.
While Bottas lives in Monaco, he still owns a lake house in Lahti, where he comes to escape the stressful world of F1 racing with the calming nature, a sauna, training and playing time.
Lahti gives him out-the-door access to ski, to ride bikes, to run, to skidoo or to simply “see nobody for a while,” he said.
And it’s easy to see the draw. While Finland may lack some of the dramatic mountain and fjord vistas of the other Nordic countries, there a sense of calm that comes from the ever-present nature.
Lahti is situated on the edge of Finnish Lake Country, a region defined by more than 55,000 lakes that dot a forest-covered plateau. Despite being home to the highest point of Southern Finland, the region lies at low elevation, topping out at just 223 meters (732 feet) at the very peak of Tiirismaa. This means that, unlike Steamboat Springs - home of SBT GRVL in Colorado, USA - which sits at a lung-busting elevation of 2,103 meters (6,900 feet) above sea level, breathing comes easily and hard efforts can be sustained.
The lakeside city is home to approximately 119,000 residents and offers all the restaurants, cultural venues, transportation and other conveniences of a metropolitan city in a small package surrounded by nothing but nature and strewn-out farm and logging lands. Endless gravel roads and dirt tracks weave through the city, around its nearby lakes, and up and down the region’s rolling terrain, which make for endless route combinations.
Yet somehow, our gracious tour guide, Sami Kajander, seemed to know them all.
A geospatial engineer by trade, Kajander knows a thing or two about maps and finding one’s way. He seamlessly weaved us through the city’s parks and tunnels, over ski trails that double as singletrack in the dry months, and across sprawling logging roads — offering up little historic tidbits and beginner Finnish lessons along the way.
From urban cyclocross complete with a dirt BMX track, to sandy tree-lined paths or long farm-country gravel stretches, Kajander showed us the varied and dynamic riding the region has to offer.
While no pump track will make its way into the three FNLD GRVL courses —50k, 77k and 177k— I can confidently say that FNLD GRVL participants are in for a treat.
With its rollercoaster, forest-covered terrain and varied surfaces, FNLD GRVL will offer something quite different from what you’ll experience at say, Unbound, Belgian Waffle Ride or SBT GRVL.
Whereas Midwest U.S and Colorado gravel events are characterized by the vast, expansive plains on coarse gravel, at FNLD GRVL, you won’t know what awaits you around the next corner.
One minute you’re swerving through the trees, bouncing over roots, and the next you’re given an opportunity to put the hammer down for a sustained effort before you’re back in the trees on your way to the top of Tiirismaa mountain.
In general, however, the surface is pretty smooth and my 40mm Schwalbe G-One RS tires with minimal knobs were sufficiently grippy.
Personally, I loved the varied surfaces and dynamic challenges of the courses. Sometimes technical, definitely punchy but all-around fast, the courses feature a little bit of everything: a variety of gravel, dirt and asphalt, exhilarating descents and steep climbs.
It’s a real smile-inducing rollercoaster of a ride, fitting for the world’s happiest place.
From a racing perspective, however, I do think it’s going to be harder than what we’ve been seeing in the U.S. so far. It’s fast yet punchy and quite twisty-turny in parts, including the start and finish. Drafting and group riding is unlikely in those sections and there’s a lot of potential for “out of sight, our of mind” solo breakaways.
“It’’s definitely faster [than SBT GRVL],” agreed Cromwell, who’s set to race the long, 177-kilometer course in June 2023. “It's good they have done the mixture of gravel and forest roads and some harder section but on average it’s pretty fast.”
The Coffee Culture
In addition to happy people and great riding, Finland's third selling point as a cycling destination may be its coffee habit.
While Finland isn’t particularly known for its coffee culture, the Finns are the world’s biggest coffee drinkers. The average Finn consumes 3 to 5 cups of kahvi a day, totaling up to 12 kilograms of coffee per year.
You won’t, however, see coffee shops on every street corner like you do on the American Westcoast, and I had one hell of time finding any coffee shop that would open before 9 a.m. when I went looking for a much-needed jet-lag pick-me-up, but coffee culture sure is there.
A Finn through and through, Bottas is quite well known for his passion for coffee as well. You’ll make him happy with a flat white or a well-pulled espresso, and unlike his Red Bull and Monster energy drink consuming colleagues, he drinks coffee 45 minutes before every race.
At the test event, Bottas proudly brought us to Kahiwa Coffee. A coffee company he co-owns with a hip, modern café attached to its roastery that would be equally at home in Portland or L.A. as it is in Lahti.
Come June, Kahiwa will on deck to keep riders caffeinated.