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Vitamin G

Smashing gravel in Sweden on the Dalsland Runt

Story by Sunday Echappée June 8th, 2016

‘I’M DOING THAT SWEDISH GRAVEL THING.’

‘What Swedish gravel thing?’

That was the first time I heard of the Dalsland Runt. It was late April and Andy Ainger and I were heading back through Kent after a couple of hours trying to drop each other in the Ashdown Forrest. Andy mentioned that it was coming up and he was hoping to feel ready for it. He told me all the details that he knew, that it was a long ride with a lot of gravel, rolling through Sweden and glancing Norway and the crew that he would be riding with and I simply added that if he changed his mind, I would probably be keen.

Fast-forward a month and Andy Matthews, part of Ainger’s prospective crew on the Runt had unfortunately suffered a broken collarbone and offered his place to friends. I jumped at it. Why not? It was cheap, a great chance to get to know some riding friends better and a good way to build up some more confidence on the bike after my broken collarbone at the start of the year, plus the timing of the end of the runt fit perfectly with my girlfriends plans to be in Sweden to visit her family. Great.

As the Runt got closer and closer I started to feel a little bit panicked. What are the accommodation plans? Will my bike be suitable? How far are these rides? Where do I get a bike Box? I invited Steve and Andy round for dinner the Tuesday before we left, after the weekly Crystal Palace Crit. Well, Steve won the 3/4’s that night and the adrenaline was clearly running high while we ate. I had a good evening congratulating my friend and chatting about the Runt but I still felt a real sense of unease about the whole thing. A few days previous the organisers had announced the routes for the three days and they were big. I knew that with my riding partners there would be no option to take the ‘lazy’ shorter route on either of the latter two days so with our planned ‘transfer’ ride from Göteborg to the start of the Runt we would be covering 600km in three days. I had only ridden over 200km in a day four or five times before and I knew it wouldn’t be easy. - Tom

Born from the love of cycling in your own back yard and the expansion into sharing that with others less familiar with an area north of Göteborg, the Dalsland Runt entered its 5th year. My discovery of the event was found through the ever more familiar Instagram, it displayed endless gravel and stunning scenery with a sense of remoteness and exploration. - Neil

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Borrowing a bike box from a friend and packing all my things the night before, I left my house on Thursday feeling excited. We arrived in Göteborg the afternoon before so spent the evening talking about what was to come, building bikes and eating and drinking. - Tom

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This is the first time I’ve taken a bike overseas, and on a plane. So I had the initial worries of it going missing and being thrown around at the airport and receiving it at the other end in a mangled mess, but our bags arrived promptly and in a bike like shape, fear over. Onwards!

Arriving at the small cottage in Gothenburg, where we would stay for our first and last night. We began putting our bikes together; Todays plan was plenty of Fika (coffee and cake tradition in Sweden) and generally checking the bikes over.

A few things had gone a bit AWOL on the flight. Steve’s bag was now completely caked in embrocation cream after the lid had worked loose, Tom’s bike had been “serviced “ by customs, leaving the headset in bits. And my front tubeless had blown leaving me with a bag full of sealant. - Andy

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Bikes assembled we made our way into town. We found a trampoline and goofed around on it before sipping back a cold beverage beside the river. The sun now setting, we made our way back with a stomach full of pizza. Finding a boat that had been re-purposed as a multi-story carpark to explore, this is where Neil decided to leave half his knee on the top deck after his gravel tyres gave way on the shiny surface. Blood began to stream down on his new socks. Ruined. Bummer! - Andy

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#roadtodalsland

90km | 810m

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The next morning we ate breakfast, made a little sandwich for the road, stashed our bike boxes at the hostel and set off. - Tom

Off to the start, bike fully loaded. This was also a new experience, getting out the saddle was interesting, as I was greeted with a few weighty wobbles. 95K seemed to pass pretty easy though and I soon felt right at home on the new steed, already super impressed by the scenery and lack of cars. - Andy

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The bar bags and saddle packs that Andy, Neil and Steve had brought didn’t slow them down and once out of the city we flew along for 100kms of fairly flat, ‘Essex-y,’ terrain only stopping to draw the Sunday Echappée logo and write my name in a small bus shelter and for a nature break. This was the first and not the last time that I was surprised by the pace and the sense of urgency set on a ride and after pushing on for 100km with a big backpack I realized why my friends had brought bar bags and saddle packs.

My nuts hurt. - Tom

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DALSLAND RUNT DAY 1

105km | 650m

Once in Vanersborg we had a couple of hours to rest, don slightly warmer kit and eat while we waited for the other riders to arrive. It was great seeing people show up, smiles and handshakes exchanged and a really broad range of bikes brought along. - Tom

On arrival to Vanersborg and initial roll out on to the evenings ride towards the weekends accommodation, it could be mistaken for an Instagram event, where people cared more about vanity, taking photographs to share to the internet, than actual challenging riding. This was however not the case; from the start it was led by what I assume Johan’s initial aim was, which is to share sportgrus (gravel roads) with friends of old and new. With 515km of undulating roads to cover in 2.5 days, there was no easy ride. Yes, throughout the days there was copious amounts of photographs taken by everyone, but how could there not, the stoke for the landscape and event never dropped below boiling. - Neil

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More Fika, combined with a bit of perving at the bike porn now on offer we loaded the bags onto the trailer and lined up at the start. We were off, and at some speed. It soon became clear this wasn’t a social club run, but a full on smash fest to basecamp. - Andy

As we set off I was once again surprised by the pace, the gas was on and everyone wanted to show off. We were happy to sit on wheels and enjoy the ride out to the accommodation for the weekend. A group of over 100 riders strung out riding a hard tempo, the group swelling to four or five a breast before shouts of,‘BIL! BIL!’ (‘CAR! CAR!’ in Swedish) forced riders to flow into a safer formation. ‘this must be what a road race feels like,’ I thought. We hit the first gravel section and the group didn’t ease off. A roar of tyres and a swell in the group as we hit gravel at 35 kilometers an hour. A couple of bunny hops were vital to keep me out of potholes as riders up front seemed relaxed with their hazard calls.

After around 50km and feeling shocked at the speed of the group I decided to ease off, drain the main vein and then chase back on, surely there would be a lot more steadier riders coming past in dribs and drabs. I sat up in the bunch, pulled to the side and in a couple of seconds the group was gone. I looked behind and there was no one to be seen. ‘Could I chase back on?’ I thought as the last rider in the front group got smaller and smaller in the distance. Realistically, no way.

This was why I should’ve put the routes on my Garmin. Shit. I had a little paper route card, do I try and get signal on my phone and pay for Euro data? Am I going to get lost?

Sure enough, within a couple of minutes another group rolled by and I jumped on, happy to take a turn on the front of this steadier group, I introduced myself to the riders around me, asked people questions about where they were from and the kind of riding they normally do and was happy to be riding in a beautiful part of the world. This became a standard for me all weekend, introducing myself to the rider that found themselves beside me as a personal challenge to remember as many people as possible. - Tom

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Conversations were brief with fellow participants, I missed taking in most of the amazing landscapes as I remained fixed on keeping the wheel in front, my shoe lace had worked loose 10k in and I already regretted not taking a nature break at the start.

Smash, smash, smash, the group had been reduced massively after a few tough climbs. I had made my way up to the sharp end. I was really enjoying this, but the bladder was starting to get painful. Neil was suffering the same dilemma, stop and roll in, or pray to make it to basecamp and hope we don’t piss ourselves. We decided to stop, chat with a few of the Muckers.cc boys and roll in together. After all, they did say it’s not a race anyway. - Andy

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Once we arrived at basecamp, three large traditional looking red wooden buildings full of bunks and one more building housing the kitchen, dining room and more bunks, I was greeted with smiles from my friends, who had arrived about half an hour earlier with no idea that everyone else had had a little feed stop. I’m okay with not finishing in the fast group if it meant I got some snacks and water on board. - Tom

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At dinner the organisers were obviously struggling after the first lot of food had ran out. The chef had called in sick so as the queue grew as riders got themselves back and showered we rolled up our sleeves and helped with clearing tables and washing up. It was a great way to meet some more people and put some names to faces. It’s no small feat to organise an event like this so I was really happy to give something back. - Tom

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dalsland runt day 2

Queen Stage!

236km | 3,170m

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The next morning I was reminded of sharing a room with my brother. Clothes all over the room, snoring and the smell of farts. No fingers pointed, we went for breakfast (I ate for two people and then added one more jam sandwich knowing I would be on my bike for at least eight hours), and the queue for coffee was followed by the daily deliberating of what kit would be best suited for the day. - Tom

At this point we should mention that the coffee really was rather good! I guess that this is one of the benefits of the ever more blurry relationship between cyclist and coffee snob. - Steve

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We headed off with a group of guys from Belfast that Steve, Andy and Neil had met the day before. We were all in good spirits and pushed on but pretty quickly I started to feel daunted by the size of this undertaking. I had 235kms to ride by the end of the day and I was counting the k’s as we were getting closer to the first feed stop, 70km in. so from there only another…. Yeah still a very long way to go.

The beauty of the rolling landscape, with its constantly changing configuration of small red wooden house, gravel track, idilyc lakes and thick forest made the riding so enjoyable. We stuck together with the guys from Northern Ireland for most of the day with other riders joining and leaving as we passed different groups, and then they passed us. Every corner, the crest of every hill brought a new vista for us to share. - Tom

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Immediately we were off the road and onto the good stuff, now christened ‘Vitamin G’. We had decided to ride with Muckers boys, but being more of a social ride and one everyone wanted to get through we found ourselves in the company of various riders from all over Europe. It was rad getting to hear other rider’s stories of previous years. We all took our turns on the front of the bunch and steadily knocked away the kms. - Andy

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The landscapes of Dalsland in May could be summarised as rich and green. The sportgrus we found ourselves riding most of the day rolled and wound its way through dense forest, punctuated by serene lakes, summer houses, small villages and the odd field. There is a certain feeling here that this land is largely untouched. Woodland used to cover 75% of the UK and over the last 6,000 years this has been whittled down to a measly 12% and the land divvied up and fragmented by hedgerows and dry-stone walls in all but the most remote corners. There was certainly a sense of wilderness to be found here in Dalsland. - Steve

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The mysterious car cemetery near the Swedish border, countless sections of one or more of the three different grades of gravel (1.pretty much like tarmac, 2.fine but watch out and 3. damn close to unrideable,) that bridge where we all stopped to remove leg and arm warmers and the frites stop where many riders bathed in the sun and they screwed up the orders broke up the rolling roads into digestible and exciting chunks, all made that little bit more manageable by Neil acting as a kind of energizer bunny domestique, very experienced at doing these kinds of big days after completing the transcontinental race last year, checking up on me with a smile and pacing me and any other riders seemingly going in reverse, back onto our group. - Tom

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Into Norway we rode, passing some hillbilly car graveyard, stopping at the only food stop for miles, we decided to stay together and make the ferry crossing before it changed departure times. - Andy

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The last 25kms of this huge ride really stand out in my memory, after catching a large number of riders at the last suggested feed stop, a small groceries store and filling up pockets with junk food, myself, and new friends; Patch, a designer from the states who has been living in Sweden for years now and his long time riding partner Otto had a sort of unspoken agreement to ride very easy, reflect on the day and take photos of the beautiful surroundings in the dying light. Despite this, the final climb and the only memorable climb of the three days was something you have to experience to understand, a gravel beast with a whole host of different gradients and surfaces, starting from a sharp corner, making it impossible to carry any momentum to ease your struggle. Hard, but a fitting end to a truly memorable day of cycling. - Tom

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There is a certain feeling that one can experience in cycling that can only be achieved through the longest of days in the saddle. It is the simultaneous feeling of extreme fatigue coupled with boundless energy. You feel as though you could pedal forever but would probably loose the plot if faced with tying a shoelace.

Harnessing this feeling, Neil, Skeeto and I took flight. Three up, straight through and off, homeward bound! Sometimes you have to make sure you are right at the bottom of the tank when you finish. - Steve

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Dalsland runt day 3

175km | 1,850m

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The final day we lubed chains on filthy bikes and packed our bags, laughed about whether Andy or Steve was the louder of the snorers and headed over to breakfast. It was clear that sense of dread was hanging over the dining room. The rain had been pouring all night and didn’t look like it was stopping.

Velotoze and rain jackets were donned and I took it upon myself to be the positive one, rain wasn’t going to stop me enjoying this and if I could get through the first part of Saturdays ride then this was going to be fine. 1 km down the road we were so covered in spray from the saturated gravel track leading to the accommodation that I couldn’t read my Garmin to count down the k’s. Somewhere in the first half hour of the ride, as the rain eased off, we realised that Johan and the rest of the organisers had had a lot of fun with the days route. We found ourselves in a quarry, the only way out a grassy track that was far beyond any of the terrain we had ridden before over the previous two days. Puddles up to your axles, winding descents with thick mud and roots, crawling along, manhandling the bike to keep it upright, feeling that you could blast through and over it on an MTB. It was such a fun way to start the day and to get the body feeling really confident and relaxed on the bike but it certainly didn’t do much in the way of passing the k’s quickly. - Tom

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We spent the day riding solely with the crew from Northern Island, working together to take turns in the wind. The landscape felt more remote, less picturesque, greyer and harder than the previous days, possibly contributed to by the lack of sun and the lack of riders passing or being passed.

I felt good on the bike. I knew I didn’t have the same power as most of the others in our group but I made sure I was eating and drinking a lot, I dropped my tyre pressure a bit for the gravel and all-day comfort and I had no niggles or aches bothering me. We quickly worked out that very few other riders had taken on the task of the big ride today, opting for something shorter than 175kms after seeing the rain over breakfast. More frites, coffee and coca cola kept our energy levels up. We hardly saw a car all day. - Tom

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Knee pain came and went, and we plodded on. I kept my legs gently ticking over and reluctantly sat at the back. Getting to the feed stop we engulfed a sausage and mashed potato concoction. More painkillers. We settled in, with the aim of ticking these miles off at a decent pace. Some amazing, but sketchy down hills later, we realised we weren’t making great progress. The Muckers guys had come equipped with road tyres, which meant a puncture seemingly every 5km. - Andy

Now I think its time that I mentioned ‘the P-word.’ Punctures. They were the bane of Skeeto’s life on the final day. I think he got six, but he didn’t let it get the better of him and it was often a welcome opportunity for laughing and joking with the crew, taking a nature break, some photographs and a moment to rest the legs. Tyre choice, pressure and lets be honest, probably the deciding factor, luck are all things you have to have in your favour on something like the Runt. - Tom

With the sun now sitting a little lower in the sky, Steve and Neil drove this train of broken and puncture wounded guys to the finish. - Andy

As we roared into Vanersborg covering the last few k’s once again I couldn’t believe we were forming a fast pace line nudging 40kms and hour with that many kilometres in the legs and I suppose that is what the weekend came down to for me really. Realising that I can ride my bike much harder and for much longer than I ever expected and that there are great people out there that want to do it to. - Tom

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Heading home

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Fika, coffee and a bit of a bike wash. It seemed like a perfectly fitting end to such a great weekend. Old friendships confirmed, new friendships cemented and legs slightly more tired than when we started.

I found myself inspired by what Johan and friends have achieved with the Dalsland Runt. I can relate to their sense of adventure, exploration and a desire to push the capabilities of themselves and what it means to ride a ‘road’ bike. But also their willingness to share this with others, bringing such a diverse and yet likeminded group of people together to enjoy the simple pleasures of riding a bike.

Long live the Dalsland Runt, I will be first in line for next year! - Steve

This was a weekend that showcased cycling at its finest, not just through medium of photography but it is rare for a sport to be able to bring together strangers, both guys and girls from all over Europe to participate in something, even if it is what they love. There was no competition, just exploration. It allowed people to appreciate new locations but also push many to ride further then they have down in the past. It was apparent from the start that there was always a new face to offer up a wheel to keep up with a faster group, wait whilst you repaired a puncture or just discuss all things life. For this there cannot be enough thanks to Johan and the pivotal people enabling something like this to happen. - Neil

All in all this was one of the best weekends on the bike, and it was amazing to be back in a country I’d spent some of my younger days in. See you next year Dalsland! - Andy

Footnote: Words and photos by Andy Ainger, Neil Phillips, Steve Revill-Darton and Thomas Slater. Bikes provided by Brother (Steve) Donohou (Neil) and Bowman (Andy)