Our XPDTN3 trips are (usually tough) mini expeditions that fit in 3 days. They are meant to inspire everybody to go out and ride. Their stories (as well as expeditions that don’t fit into the 3 day timeframe) can be found in MY-XPDTN.
Luckily we got one final chance to do the expedition next week. The problem was we had only two days and one night to use. Can we ride the three stages in two days? We decided to give it a try!
This time the adventure heads up North, to Inari region, which is best known for the huge wilderness areas around it. The best-known sight is Urho Kekkonen National park (UKK national park), which is a vast wilderness right next to the Russian border. We decided to test how the gravel bikes are going to make it in the wild!
The starting point of the expedition was at Ivalo airport, which is surprisingly one of the busiest airports in Finland – but only in winter when people from all over the world come here to experience the snowy winter wonderland and the Northern Lights. Now everything feels like there is forever lasting siesta going on. Just four guys with gravel bikes.
Yes, this time we started the trip with a four-member team. Pasi on left is known to be involved in about all cycling route projects at Helsinki, the capital of Finland thousand kilometers to the south. Heikki on center is known around Lapland for his feet stronger than iron. There’s no uphill that could stop the man from hitting it hard. Next up is our Mtb man Johannes, who’s apparently losing his soul for gravel. Too bad! Last one, Kuutti behind the camera, seems to be the only one somehow enjoying the “grind” sections of gravel routes. What else could a curly-haired former ironman triathlete like than monotonous big gravel road segments of the ride on aero bike!
Heikki, Johannes, and Kuutti are also running a bike company Roll Outdoors. Roll Outdoors provides high-quality mountain biking and gravel adventures and bike rentals at Finnish Lapland. We opened a new garage to Kiilopää for summer 2019. We think Kiilopää region is maybe the best in Finland for mountain biking, but this time we test how gravel bikes can handle the wilderness!
Ivalo – Raja-Jooseppi – Aittajärvi
When our first scheduled start got canceled we had to make a hard choice. Either we ride the route in two days, we shorten the route or we don’t go at all. As we still got daylight enough for riding 24/7, we decided to link the first two days. That eliminates the need to carry overnight camping gear with us as we would have a place to sleep at Fell Center Kiilopää for the planned second night. With light gear, we could certainly make the link if we just take our time.
Finland is a land of forests. For gravel riders, that’s a good thing as there are thousands of kilometers of roads made for the forest industry. The bigger roads where you can get with wood lorries taking the cut wood out from the forests are usually in good shape. The ones which you drive with forest machines is a different story. Those are the paths to look for!
After a few km the big and fancy gravel road had turned to a forgotten old road from nowhere to somewhere. The road gradually turned skinnier and to worse condition. The worse the road got, the more fun we had! The pace was slow, but riding certainly interesting!
After a while, we reached smoother gravel again. This would lead us to asphalt road to Raja – Jooseppi, also known as a place for the border crossing to Russia. This time we drove almost to the border.
At asphalt road racing geometry of the bikes prowed handy as Heikki took a fast lead towards the Russian – Finnish border. For 15km of asphalt, our speed was around 34km/h. Not bad for bikes with mountain bike tires! With a four people group we could ride with a basic group riding routine changing the pacer regularly – Heikki in front for 10 minutes, rest around 30 seconds each. The pace was fast and kilometers were rolling in. That was good as the earlier a bit more difficult path had taken its time and we still had about 100km to go.
After a while, we reached Raja – Jooseppi and decided to turn back to the forest and stay at the safe side of the border. – And back to the small roads again. After getting through a reindeer fence gate a fun downhill section started towards river Lutto. We knew there’s no bridge and we would have to cross it somehow. Just hoping we don’t need to swim! As Lapland is known to have lots of water around, it is fairly common that the route goes over some creeks and rivers, often with no bridges and dry feet.
However, before crossing the river it was time for a lunch break at an old Sami village from ’40s. Three tiny houses built by indigenous people living in the wilderness, fishing and herding the reindeers.
After our short eating sandwiches type of sit down, we decided it’s time to take the challenge at Lutto River. There are many different ways to cross rivers, which are all fairly nice in warm weather and horrible if it is cold. This time the day was fairly warm though the water around here is about 10°C. So it was expected to have a bit cold feet. After examining the bottom surface we decided to minimize the risk of slipping on rocks and have our shoes on. So socks and insoles off, shoes back to feet and over the river we went. Ps. at this point is a brand new reservable wilderness hut, which could make a perfect overnight stay.
At the other side of the river, there was a small ATV track waiting for us. It gradually got wider to a small gravel road. This one we were cycling for the next 20km.
We decided to adjust our tire pressures, which is definitely useful. On a fresh new coarse gravel, a bit softer tires make a big difference! As we were heading fast towards Saariselkä, we saw few other cars and people on the same road. It has been a dry summer and cars were not always a nice surprise as the dust rose from the road. Luckily there are not too many cars or people this far north.
At this stage, around 20.00 after a bit over 70km we reached the crossroad to our planned first night camp. Aittajärvi, the campsite, is an access point to UKK national park from North and is a beautiful place for setting up a camp. Even though the night in the wild fishing and sitting on open fire seemed like a perfect choice, we had no other option than to continue for stage two.
Aittajärvi – Saariselkä – Kiilopää
At this point, it was clear that the evening is going to be a long one as we had still more than 60km to go, with the most technical parts of the route still ahead of us.
Sun was already almost down when we finally reached the road to get inside UKK national park borders and Saariselkä. This would be the final 30 kilometers through the national park to Kiilopää, and the road was to get way more technical + time-consuming. But to be honest, after a long grind on bigger roads we couldn’t wait for the rocky/rooty national park tracks!
At midsummer, the sun is shining high up in the sky for 24/7 but at mid-august it’s not like that anymore. There is still daylight enough for riding without headlamps and the night colors are almost always spectacular! Getting up to the fells right after sunset was once again as good as it gets.
Heikki got a small puncture in the final rocky sections but setting the tires tubeless paid off as for the fix pumping was enough. After a few minutes riding continued towards our soft beds at Fell Center Kiilopää.
Our final crux was the ascent over Kiilopää fell to the center. We had been talking all day long, that most likely it is unrideable with our gravel bikes gear setups. Well, that turned out to be about true except for Heikki. As usual, Heikki hit the uphill hard and waited for us at least 10 minutes at the top. He thought this is a bike for making records to the Strava segment at the same uphill. We did agree though Sram Eagle rear derailleur & cassette would have been useful! (Thanks guys for publishing Exploro Team Force Eagle a week after 😉
Kiilopää – Kulmakuru – Ivalo
Next morning the smiles were there, butts were “sensitive” and it was raining. What a perfect setting to start a new day on the saddle. We had high expectations for the days route as well as we knew this one is going to include lots of riding on very small paths and single tracks. The routes first part was to get to Kulmakuru, which is a huge canyon making a 90-degree turn in the middle. That canyon is a well-known destination for mountain biking; what a perfect test for the Exploros!
Right from the start, a path took us above the treeline to the first wilderness cabin of the route. Technically treeline goes a bit higher though as there is still Kiilopää birch growing. It is a bush-like birch which can only be found around Kiilopää area. Whatsoever the views were stunning right from the beginning, thanks to those tiny trees!
The trail turned down to the forest, which is hundreds of years old kind of dream-like surrounding. Few reindeer now and then made us feel we were seriously “ deep” in the forest even though we were not yet that far from civilization. At this point also rain started to calm down and the temperature raised well above 10 degrees celsius.
Our small gravel road turned to a fantastic single track through gold miners summer camps. This is an area, where people are still digging gold with their own hands. When Exploro met the gold miners, we felt like time travelers from the future.
There was at least 100 years difference in time.
After a while, our road got a bit wider for a while and kilometers were passing by one after another. It was nice as on the single tracks the average speed dropped partly to way below 10km/h. Everything above 20 km/h was well appreciated!
Once again the road turned to a path, partly very nice going and partly hard as hell. Quite miraculously the Exploros just kept on going and giving smiles for us. Before Kulmakuru canyon we climbed a very low gradient but around 4 km long ascent. Legs were showing some first marks of lactate acid for the whole team!
Kulmakuru showed us it’s majesty in the end. It was a big effort to get there, but easily worth it! this is a very interesting geological formation and even more an interesting ride! And the best part was still ahead! about 3km of perfect single track downhill to the shore of Tolos river. This looked like to be a perfect ride before next river crossing.
Probably don’t have to say, there was not going to be a bridge built for us. Nor this time we were blessed with perfect weather for crossing the river. We saw a few different tactics for the crossing. Heikki was sitting on the saddle and pushing the bike with only one foot, Johannes took the risk of slipping on rocks and went barefoot. Kuutti and Pasi took the same approach as last time and took insoles and socks off, but kept shoes on feet. All tactics proved successful and the trip continued.
The “trail” got lost to the woods for a 100 meters of uphill right after the river, but after that, we were welcomed with a smooth gravel road. A nice change after 45 km of more or less difficult single tracks!
As we got back to the road, rain clouds started to roll over us. Luckily we took our waterproof gear with us and riding continued as usual under a heavy downpour. Luckily Ivalo could almost be seen already. Or that’s how it felt at least. We had been on the road already almost 9 hours. The road turned gradually bigger and the final few km, were asphalt. Once again we relied on our group riding routine with Heikki charging in front and we were hanging behind.
When we finally reached the airport and our car, we definitely felt like we had been riding three days in two. Pizza was well deserved! With the pizza in front of you, it was time to analyze the trip. We were all amazed about how the bikes performed even in the hardest places of the route. The ability to survive very rocky single tracks and with the same bike driveway over 30km/h average speeds on asphalt roads seemed like an impossible equation before. But it was clearly not!
Our route proved once again to be very versatile. every stage included a fair share of technically hard-driving, be prepared with sufficient skills and equipment for taking down many kilometers of partly (very) rocky and narrow paths. In this route, the good thing is, you still get to use all kinds of services at Kiilopää, Saariselkä, and Ivalo if you do your timing well. That is not usual for routes at the wilderness areas this north.
This won’t for sure be the last gravel route we do around the area! The possibilities for finding more or less demanding gravel routes are almost limitless if you dare to challenge the nature of Finnish Lapland.
Three riding days takes you to the heart of Lapland 300 km north from the Arctic Circle. Roads vary from silky smooth tarmac to small and demanding single tracks.
Kiilopää, Saariselkä, Lapland Finland
68km + 55km + 75km = 198km
1262m + 812m = 2074m
Midsummer to early autumn. On midsummer sun is shining 24/7 and roads are starting to be nice and dry. There will be some river crossings which might be difficult or even undoable in early summer or after heavy rain. Autumn colors can be extremely beautiful, but be prepared for below zero temperatures!
The terrain around Kiilopää is mostly forest, open fells, and some nice lakes and rivers. On singletracks and smaller trails, the trails are often a bit rocky.
You can expect about everything between +30c sunshine and -5c snowfall. Weather can change very fast especially on fells without tree coverage. Weather forecasts are usually pretty accurate for the next few days.
Even though there are no extremely big climbs, semi-easy gears will be needed for the technically harder ascents. 34-40t front chainring with a 10 or 11/40 on the rear could be somewhere there depending on your fitness level. Sram eagle AXS Mtb derailleur with 10×50 cassette would most likely be the dream choice.
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. High volume offers flexibility on pressures. We chose to use WTB Resolve 650bx42 tires and felt comfortable with them, though you could have even wider tires with good results!
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. Cell phone coverage is not available in many parts of the route, prepare with traditional paper maps and equipment not requiring cell phone network.
Ivalo airport. The route starts from the airport (can be started also from Ivalo town)
Basecamp before and after the trip
telephone: +358 16 688 111
Fell Centre Kiilopää, Hotel Niilanpää
telephone:+358 16 6700 700
Note: This is an amazing place to stay for some days between the fells, rent a mountain bike and explore some more technical trails of the Urho Kekkonen National Park
GALLERY, ROUTE, AND COMMENTS
Below you will find more photos, the GPS routes we took on the WAHOO on KOMOOT, and don’t forget to leave your comments and questions below that!
Enjoy the rest of the PHOTO gallery here:
The routes at KOMOOT:
THANKS to all our partners for making these amazing trips possible! 3Tbike, WTB and KOMOOT.
Our friends at FIZIK, PEDALED and BUFF are currently onboard with the XPDTN3 team but this trip was shot before they joined the project, hence the different gear used by our guests Kuutti and Johannes!