Best ever Birkebeinerrittet?
Cyclists race through rugged terrain in the world’s biggest mountain bike race to celebrate Norwegian history
Norwegian American Weekly
Traveling the 92 kilometers through forest and mountain terrain from Rena to Lillehammer, thousands of cyclists participated in the 23rd annual Birkebeinerrittet. The ample sunshine and satisfied cyclists made the August 29 race one of the best yet.
Along with the Birkebeinerrennet ski race and Birkebeinerløpet running competition, this race commemorates the successful 13th century journey of the Birkebeiners to deliver the young heir to the Norwegian throne, Håkon Håkonsson, back to safety.
From the first race in 1993 with 1,327 participants, Birkebeinerrittet has developed to become the largest mountain bike race in the world. This year, 14,136 signed up for the main event with almost 20,000 participating in at least one of the weekend’s races. In addition to the Birkebeinerrittet, there is a series of races the day before: the FredagsBirken of the same length used as a seeding race, the 44km HalvBirken for cyclists wanting a less-arduous race, and the 122km UltraBirken for those desiring even more adventure. Participants must turn 17 by the end of the year and carry a bag weighing 3.5kg on their backs, which symbolizes the weight of the young heir.
The recreational men’s classes kicked off the main event at 7:00 in the morning, separated by age class. With a time of 2:58.20, Lars Erik Koritov was the first cyclist to cross the finish line on Saturday. “I was damn tired and had a cramp at the end. But it was incredible when I was the first to reach the finish line,” said Koritov, who has been training at least five hours a week to prepare for the race. He was closely followed by Per Bergsjør and Geir Nysveen.
Next up: the women’s elite class. In her first experience with the Norwegian race, Swiss Ariane Kleinhans won the women’s elite class with a time of 3:10.59.
“I love the Norwegian landscape! It was absolutely beautiful cycling over the mountain today,” said Kleinhans to NRK at the finish line. “It went very fast and I was a little shaky. But I had control.”
Kleinhans currently lives in South Africa, and noted the differences from the races she rides at home: “It’s very fast. It’s basically like a road race on gravel. It’s a little bit different from what I normally race in Switzerland or South Africa, but it’s got its own character, and I think it’s a great race for so many people.”
Swedish Jennie Sterhag followed just a second behind and Norwegian Hildegunn Gjertrud Hovdenak came in third.
The recreational women’s classes ensued, followed by the final group—the elite men—at 3:30 in the afternoon.
It wasn’t clear who would take the win for most of the race, until Carl Fredrik Hagen pushed hard down the final hill to come ahead of the pack. The Norwegian won the elite class with a time of 2:40.17. Right on his tail were Danish Søren Nissen and fellow Norwegian Åsmund Løvik in second and third, respectively.
“I knew that if the Dane got ahead of me there, I would not win. I was prepared for it to be a very difficult race, and it was exactly as I had anticipated,” said Hagen to E24. “To win Birken is huge. I have had a fantastic season with both the Norwegian Championship and the Birken victory, and I cannot help but to be very satisfied with it. For me, Birken is a very big race to win,” he added.
Following the races, a prize ceremony is held outside of Lillehammer’s Håkons Hall. In addition to the prizes for the top three cyclists in each class, the Birkebeiner of the Year award goes to the top competitor who competed in all three Birkebeiner races throughout the year. All-around athletes Arne Post and Anne Kristine Nevin were crowned the Birkebeiners of 2015.
The chance to become the Birkebeiner of 2016 starts in less than 200 days with the snowy Birkebeinerrennet in March!
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 11, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.