words and photos by Kuuti Heikkila and Johannes Perkkio
This is an adventure of two Lapland-based mountain bikers Johannes and Kuutti. Johannes is used to be seen on enduro trails and more known for being able to wheelie on any bike than grinding on gravel roads. Kuutti is a curly surf style haired former ironman triathlete and likes to wear an aero skinsuit whenever possible. For both of us, gravel grinding was not the usual way to ride, but we are getting more into it day after day.
We are also running the Roll Outdoors company, which provides guided mountain biking tours and high-quality mountain and gravel bike rentals in Rovaniemi and Kiilopää up in the North, next to one of the best-known national parks of Finland. Got to say, we know every singletrack around Rovaniemi, but this time we will go a bit further and faster using “the big highways” of Lapland. For us, this is more about an expedition into a new kind of riding than into the surroundings of our home town.
In Finland, especially in Lapland, gravel riding is definitely not very common and still a “thing of the future”. Considering Finland has thousands and thousands of kilometers of gravel roads and ATV tracks perfect for riding, this is most likely about to change in the next few years.
The city of Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland, is probably best known for being the hometown of Santa Claus and is a very busy destination in winter. But after 6 months of snow, the summer eventually comes. Summer season starts properly around June as before that the one-meter-plus snowpacks and subsequent meltwaters play its tricks to nature.
The potential of doing all kinds of activities in summer is mostly unknown for everyone other than locals but for active people, the possibilities are very good. In the mid summer time the sun is shining 24/7 but still, the temperatures seldom rise over 25c. Getting overheated is rarely a problem in Lapland and you sure don’t have to stop because of darkness!
Our plan was to make a route around and fairly close to Rovaniemi, but still, be in the wilderness as much as possible. At Christmas time, you have to book your accommodations at least one year in advance, but in summertime, it is possible to get very high-quality accommodation easily. That’s why our plan was to rely on accommodation providers outside Rovaniemi city for the nights. The third idea was to make a route, which done in three days would be fairly easily doable. If you are a hardcore grinder, the sun is shining 24/7 so you can always link days and do the route in a shorter time!
Day 1 started quite late as we didn’t want to rush and had some adjustments to do. Our basecamp located at Hostel Cafe Koti (“Koti” means home in Finnish), right in the center of Rovaniemi. The day started with packing our gear and tuning the bikes to fit the upcoming journey. We decided to fit the bikes with a bit wider tires with tubeless setup as we had a good clue that those might be handy on our way. In the end, our weapon of choice was the WTB Resolute 650b 42 tires.
We thought those were going to be a good compromise between the long and easy parts and technical, rocky single tracks of the route. The tubeless setup gave us even more control over the tire pressures as you don’t have to worry too much about bottoming out the tires even with lower tire pressures. Before we started we had lunch, took a double-check of the maps and we were ready to go!
When talking about cities, Rovaniemi is a really small one. After 5 minutes of riding, you get to the forest and you don’t have to get out of it for a while. We headed from the city center towards the arctic circle and Santa Claus village which was our first destination. Already the first few kilometers gave us a bit of everything in terms of riding. Tarmac, gravel roads, singletracks and even a bit of off-roading. Good fun for sure! After a while, we also reached the Santa Claus village.
After Santa Claus village we got quite a few kilometers of tarmac. Already at this point, Johannes, our Mtb junkie, found his inner Tour de France instincts and took a fiery lead till the tarmac ended. The pace was good on our 3T EXPLORO rigs!.
Day one continued on the eastern side of Norvajärvi towards Tapionkylä. As the roads got smaller the riding got more fun. In the last bit, gravel surface was partly soft and partly rocky, but in general, riding was fairly easy going. Just very enjoyable gravel riding!
In the end, our stomachs started to be empty, but we had only a few km to go. We had booked a Mongolian yurt for ourselves, which we didn’t know much about. All we knew the place was just set up and one of the yurts was at the top of a hill. That’s where we were heading off course!
We have seen quite a few accommodations around the world. Where we ended up was something unique! One yurt at the top and no one else anywhere. And the views… this really was a place to be for a good rest for the body and for the mind.
On the second day, we continued our tour around Rovaniemi. But first, we wanted to eat breakfast. Since the village restaurant is still under construction, we had to do a 13km ride to the nearest grocery store. Finnish people, especially in Lapland, don’t eat too often in restaurants compared for instance to central Europeans, where you can find a village after every 5km’s and always at least two taverns in any of them. As we really don’t have too many people living in Lapland, finding a restaurant or other services on our route is not an easy job outside the Rovaniemi city center. As proper Finns, we went for a grocery store breakfast.
Our fairly good guess was that the first half of day 2 would include lots of small roads, some of the favorite mountain biking trails of Johannes and everything in between. The second part would be a bigger gravel road from Sonkajärvi to Hirvas and in that perspective faster, but possibly not that interesting in terms of riding.
Around Rovaniemi, there are thousands of kilometers of snowmobile tracks in wintertime. Most of them have got some sort of trail in summertime which in the beginning we also rode. The only problem is that in winter, the tracks are easiest to take over swamps and lakes as those have most open space for snowmobiles. On summer though… well luckily quite often you can link the roads, ATV tracks and snowmobile tracks to make really fun and nice routes from point A to B. Sometimes you end up to totally unrideable tracks, but this time we found a good combination for the route.
Our insights proved to be right, the first part included some technical sections with up- and downhills, some loose sand, Slickrock and everything in between. At this point, the tubeless setup and a bit wider tires made the difference as we dropped tire pressures. The more we rode, the more we started seeing the usefulness of changing tire pressures based on the riding surface. Learning curve!
Our bet of the gear ratios was a bit optimistic though and a smaller chainring on the front would have been useful. Luckily the uphills are not too long we managed to fight through without pushing the bikes. All we could do at this point was to keep on riding and smile!
Riding half a day on singletrack started to take its toll. Finland is also called the land of thousands of lakes and luckily there were a few of them on our route. At Sonkajärvi (lake Sonka) was a perfect place for a break at the lake. Nice to eat snacks standing by the lake and enjoying the views. The break was sure needed as we were approaching the second half of the day, a long and possibly a bit monotonic gravel road from Sonkajärvi to Hirvas.
As the first part of day 2 the route went on and over hilly terrain, on the second half, the scenery changed quite a lot. There’s a lot of flat land with lots of swamps around Southern Lapland, and our route was about to pass one of these swampy sections. Luckily people can build proper roads over the swamps so the riding was easy and dry.
In the end, we reached our day 2 goal, Hotel Metsähirvas. The building is an old forestry school turned recently to a hotel. Besides comfortable rooms, here’s also a restaurant and a sauna by the river. So it was a perfect place to stay after a day on the saddle.
Day 3 Night 2 (49 Km, 488 vertical)
Have you ever taken a nap and woke up 2 hours later with a feeling that you are not going to sleep well this night. Well, that’s what happened to us. After a technical meeting we decided that as we probably are not going to sleep anyway, it’s the same to start day three. Or night two, whatever it was. So we started pedaling again at around 9.00 pm.
Day 3 started with the longest tarmac section of our adventure. A 15km tarmac road following the river of Kemijoki. Got to say this was still great riding to be a tarmac road. A little bit of civilization, nice views around and some easy up- and downhills. After tarmac ended we entered the final phase of gravel roads and single tracks leading to Ounasvaara-hill located next to Rovaniemi city center. At some point, we realized that we need to rush a bit if we wanted to be at the top of the hill when the sun is closest to the horizon. We had to make a hard decision to skip a part of the route as otherwise, we would miss the midnight photos. Usually, it wouldn’t matter, but this time we thought the views are most likely worth it. So our final rally towards the top of Rovaniemi started.
We got pretty much every possible surface underneath our tires on the final 25km of the route. Gravel, sand, rocks, roots, grass, technical singletrack and easy-going ATV tracks. This is a 25km of dream grinding. On the hilly trail from Pöyliövaara to Ounasvaara we raced as fast as we could towards the top of the hill. That was fun, and our legs were burning on the last climb of 130 vertical meters!
In the end, we reached the top at around 01.00am, just in time with the sun setting behind the hills in the North! At that point, it all felt worth of all the sweat and lactic acid. The sun burning the sky in red and purple, the golden river and the moon right behind us. Freezing arctic breeze, and burn-in legs. It was all there!
After spending a while at the top there was the final bliss of the route ahead of us, serpentine rally all the way down to Rovaniemi city center. At this point, the air temperature dropped almost to zero, which is fairly common even on mid summertime. It was a good idea to pack insulated jackets for night time activities.
As we had planned, this turned out to be a perfect expedition for riders beginning their multi-day ride careers and in general a good introduction for gravel in Lapland. If you are a hardcore rider, you can also ride this with fast and light single push or you can easily do some extra loops to your route. -With no worries about getting dark, but just about to get lost in the wilderness.
If planning a gravel ride in Lapland, remember to check the planned accommodations, restaurants, etc are open. They might be closed for summer/low season. We did this ride fairly self-sufficient in terms of food. We had lots of different snacks with us and one warm expedition food for the evening. Expedition foods made possible for very fast and light tactics with cooking gear, we had one 1l kettle and a very light gas burner with the smallest possible gas bottle. Generally, Lapland is not for the place for riding from tavern to tavern, but more like adventuring into the unmanned wilderness. It is advisable to have some reserve food for rides at the roads heading to the middle of nowhere. And don’t forget the navigation devices and maps!
For us two it was mind-opening to ride with gravel bikes instead of searching single tracks with mountain bikes. Not only we learned a lot of riding with stiff and fast gravel bike but also we found the boring places with mtb very fun with these bikes! And the places best suitable for mountain bikes still doable with gravel bikes! This was our first proper multiday gravel experience around our home town, but definitely not the last one!
Three riding days takes you to Laplands forest at the Arctic circle. Roads vary from silky smooth tarmac to small and demanding single tracks. For most of the quite short technical singletracks, it’s easy to find easier detours.
Trip Location: Rovaniemi, Lapland Finland
Total Trip Distance: 3 DAYS: 55km + 72km + 49km = 176km
Ascent in Metres: 502m + 546m + 488m = 1536m
Best time to Travel: Midsummer to early autumn. On midsummer sun is shining 24/7 and roads are starting to be nice and dry. Autumn colors can be extremely beautiful, but be prepared for below zero temperatures!
Type of Terrain: Terrain around Rovaniemi is mostly forest or swamps, small hills, and some nice lakes and rivers. On singletracks, the trails are often a bit rocky.
Expected Weather: You can expect everything between +30c sunshine and -5c snowfall. Weather can change fast, though weather forecasts are usually pretty accurate for the next few days.
Gearing guidance: Even though there are no big climbs for your Exploro, semi-easy gears might be needed for the technically harder uphill trails and heavy adventure packages on the bikes. 34-40t front chainring with a 10 or 11/40 on the rear could be somewhere there.
Tire Guidance: Semi wide tires are a good idea in general. The route includes fare share of soft, or technical, or a bit coarse gravel roads where wider tires get to use. The going is generally fast though at times can be rough. High volume offers flexibility on pressures. We chose to use WTB Resolute 650b 42 tires and felt very comfortable with them.
Don’t forget A waterproof and some warmer clothing. Have long clothing for breaks, which can resist mosquitoes (usual riding spandex etc can not…). Even though mosquitoes are not a big issue in general, there might be a lot of those nearby swamps and open waters. Pro tips: mosquitoes are most interested about “moose colored” dark clothes, so yellow jersey might hhelpa little bit.
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