Words: Henrik Hågård. This feature was originally published in issue 368 of Cycling Plus magazine.
“If you were to ride 10,000 kilometres of gravel roads every year in Sweden, it would take over three decades before you had to ride the same road twice,” my guide Anton Persson, from event organizer Abloc, assures me as we roll onto the 93-kilometre route of the Gravel Challenge Bauerskogen event, just outside the city of Jönköping in southern Sweden.
With a population density 12 times lower than the UK, and forestry having been a key part of the entire economy, the extensive use of gravel as a road surface is unsurprising.
But despite this wealth of gravel riding, where you are often in more danger of crashing into a badger than a car, it was never taken for granted that the Swedish cycling community would see the gravel in their backyard as ‘epic’.
There were mixed feelings from the start, that any hype would have to cut through before the actual ‘epicness’ would be experienced – and before people would start referring to their cyclocross bikes as gravel bikes.
On the one hand, there were the road riders for whom gravel has almost been a thing of fear. The reason being that truckload after truckload of a particularly nasty type of gravel is strewn across urban areas here during winter – it’s almost a weaponised form of crushed rock. As if it was the result of a secret conspiracy with tyre manufacturers who want to up their sales of delicate road tyres.
Mountain bike marathon riders on the other hand – the second largest group of cyclists in Sweden – have been riding these gravel roads for many years. To this group, however, gravel is yawn-inducing, a necessary evil to take you from one stretch of singletrack to the next.
Despite all this, in some magical way, the gravel trend managed to find a way to explode here in Sweden.
And in an instant, we went from being a country where it often felt like we were imitating the sport we saw on Eurosport at the Tour de France, to a land filled to the brim with pure cycling treasure. So, gravel events have exploded… even if the pandemic has largely brought it to a halt again.
The one that got away
One of the very few events that actually took place last spring was the one whose route we are riding today, which Anton and his colleagues at Abloc hosted at the end of March 2020.
Gravel Challenge Bauerskogen took place in a way that is an illustrative example of the Swedish coronavirus strategy: fewer participants than intended, smaller groups, coffee outside instead of cramming a bunch of people into a café – but let the show go on. Sort of.
While most cycling events have been postponed here, people have still been able to train together and can go on group rides.
We are encouraged, but not dictated, to maintain social distancing when possible, especially to protect elderly people and high-risk groups. But lockdown appears to have been deemed an unsustainable solution, when nothing short of the much-discussed herd immunity (a term new to us all) can truly stop the spread. A wise strategy or not, only time (and statistics) will tell.
The 93 kilometres of riding that await us during today’s route is a mix of smooth and less-smooth gravel, tied together by narrow and undulating paved sections that wind their way through the landscape.
We start at the hostelry and conference centre BauerGården, which, just like Abloc’s gravel event, is named after the artist John Bauer, who famously spent a lot of time out in the deep forests common to the area. It was there he was inspired to illustrate the Swedish fairytale book Among Gnomes and Trolls at the beginning of the 20th century.
It doesn’t take long for me to start thinking that this ride might turn out to be a little tougher than I had envisioned. The road suddenly seems to go in a direction more or less unheard of where I live, two hours south of here near the city of Växjö – up!
My bike has gearing tuned for those endless flat and dense spruce forests back home, where you can usually hear farther than you can see. But 46-28t as my easiest gear doesn’t quite seem appropriate up here, and I enviously glance over at Anton’s well-chosen gear setup.
“Only 1500 metres left of climbing”, he says enthusiastically. “It’s going to be a great day!”
Excuse me? We officially do not have ‘climbs’ in Sweden, and my usual rides of the same length back home would have less than a third of this elevation. But when we later exit the forest and get out into the open agricultural landscape closer to lake Vättern, it will be obvious that we are in a region far hillier than most in this country. Most of the hills are rather short though, so I manage to grind myself up by waking up some lesser-used, fast-twitch fibres and tempting them to get to work with some refined breakfast.
After going up, one inevitably must go down, and soon we hit the first gravel descent. At first, it seems like Anton’s disc brakes are not working, despite them being God’s hydraulic gift to mankind. But I soon realise that he, unlike me, simply chooses not to use them, while I trail behind unaccustomed to the idea of my gravel bike pointing downwards. I guess my ancient mechanical discs force me to overcompensate and brake too much, that must be the explanation. And if not, then, ‘What a blessing to have such room for improvement!’ I try to tell myself, unconvincingly.
After roughly 30 kilometres we get to something that we agree, even by international standards, must be considered a climb. Two kilometres of gravel through fields of oak that let us gain 140 meters of elevation in one go – the most I have recorded ever on a ride here in Sweden.
“These trees were meant for building ships,” Anton tells me. Hard for them to know 400 years ago that demand for ship-oak would have plummeted by now, but they sure are beautiful standing there in a field of anemones.
One hundred and forty metres of elevation also happens to be exactly the same as another nearby climb that we will not ride today, Klevaliden. It is the only climb in Sweden to ever feature in anything resembling an international road stage race. But the pros riding Postgirot, which ran up until 2002, had to do it six times during the queen stage of the race for it to really sting.
We spin along, sometimes on fine gravel roads, sometimes on ones that are grittier, and sometimes on tarmac. But the tarmac bits are absolutely wonderful from a cycling standpoint, and do not seem like they were included just to tie the gravel together. Rather, they are there because you would not want to miss them when out on an multi-surface ride in the area.
About halfway through the route, it is time for a well-deserved coffee stop at Gårdsrosteriet, a local coffee roastery and a go-to place among cyclists in the area. They go not only because coffee is free for cyclists, but also because of the beautiful location and the fact that the inspiring owner Ingo Deters is very devoted to cycling. Today he tells us he also has ordered himself a new gravel bike, before giddily educating us on the ideal roasting temperature for different coffee beans.
Laughing, he also mentions that he accidentally stole the Strava King of the Mountains crown on the aforementioned Klevaliden climb, driving his car. He was flagged in an instant though, his achievement sadly deemed unrealistic by ever eagle-eyed Strava competitors. Many of Sweden’s best cyclists actually live in Jönköping, among them Tobias Ludvigsson of Groupama-FDJ, who also happens to be a regular at Gårdsrosteriet.
With the delicious coffee proving to be a predictably reliable natural blood-booster, we start pushing the pedals again. At this point in the route we are snaking our way through a more open agricultural landscape, at times overlooking the enormous lake Vättern that dominates the views around here and which, at 738 square miles, is the sixth-largest lake in Europe.
At one point the route takes us all the way down to the water, where we take a breather in an old harbour strangely void of boats. Vättern also dominates the landscape in terms of Swedish cycling, as the main event for most sportive riders in Sweden every year is the 300 kilometre long Vätternrundan. Its route takes the 23,000 participants on one lap around the lake, and it is more or less to Swedish cycling what Christmas is to Christianity.
But compared to the route of what is said to be “the world’s biggest cyclo-sportive”, the loop we are on today is a pure celebration of cycling joy, despite them crossing each other’s paths several times. Narrower, twistier, more up and down, and cars that are very, very few and far between. But then again, you could not really put 23,000 riders on our route without causing a bit of a stir.
Before we know it we are on the home stretch, and we start talking about organising events like the Gravel Challenge Bauerskogen. Abloc’s events have three key ingredients: one, a long beautiful ride in good company; two, a grandiose coffee stop; and three, a chance to let out your inner racer on well-chosen segments.
It is no coincidence that neither Abloc’s events nor any other gravel event that we know of in Sweden is classified as a real ‘race’. Granted, gravel in general is a bit more about experiences and camaraderie and a bit less about being competitive, but in reality there is more to it than that.
“Sweden is a country where your rights and your opportunities to go out and experience nature are the most extensive in the world. You can ride your bike, go camping, pick berries more or less anywhere out in the wild. But organising cycling events on roads, that is a very different story,” Anton explains to me.
This is illustrated by the fact that our national championships, scheduled for 20-23 June  in Lindvallen had to be moved not because of coronavirus, but because the Swedish Transport Administration stopped the event based on their traffic data. Considering the event would have been held at a ski resort during summer, one can expect that in reality there would not have been that many cars who would have had to wait a few minutes for the racers to pass.
But if the result of this is that we get more events like Abloc’s Gravel Challenges, that are both social and have some competitive elements, then I do not feel too bad about it. Especially when they are held on routes like the one we are on today.
By now I’ll admit that my legs are starting to feel a bit mushy, but at least the final kilometres are upon us. This also means that we are back in the dense kind of forest that inspired John Bauer to draw his famous trolls and gnomes a little over a century ago.
We didn’t see a single troll today, though I was close to riding over both a snake and a squirrel, and I saw a moose and a deer lurking in the distance. Maybe I was just not looking close enough.
- Distance: 93km/58 miles
- Total elevation: 1,270m
- Grade: Hilly for Swedes, less so for anyone else
- Download: Komoot
Where to stay
We started our ride at BauerGården (bauergarden.se), which is located 30 kilometres northeast of Jönköping. This is a very nice place to use as a base for cycling in the area, whether you prefer road, gravel or singletrack.
Where to eat and drink
Sweden is a country obsessed with coffee. We have the finest coffee at Gårdsrosteriet’s coffee roastery (gardsrosteriet.se), which is the go-to place for many cyclists. They often serve pastries to fuel your legs for a few more hours as well.
How to get there
Jönköping has an airport, but you might be better going to Gothenburg and then proceeding to Jönköping from there, by bus or by train.
Abloc organises rides, camps and, on occasion, races. Abloc has also been contracted to build public trail systems. Find out more at abloc.se
Other riding in the area
JKPG.COM is a very good resource to discover other routes and information on cycling in Sweden.