Swapping asphalt for dirt roads and trails, Markagram is a 250-kilometer, dusk-to-dawn bike race through the forest, starting from Oslo. Jen Rose Smith meets the riders who do things differently.

It was a scene from a Norwegian fairytale, the scary kind, with troll kings and ogres, the ones where children walk into the woods and don’t come back. Somewhere in the vast forest north of Oslo, long after nightfall, cyclist Justin Pitts was picking his way across churned ruts of icy mud. The thin beam of his headlamp flashed across the bare trees, distorting and twisting their trunks into looming shapes. His hands were freezing.

“It was fast and cold and dark,” Pitts told me. In October 2019, he left Oslo just after dusk with a handful of other riders, but the pack thinned out as the city lights faded into the distance. The darkness pressed in from the side of the trail, and his headlamp illuminated each puff of frozen breath. “It plays tricks with you, with your vision,” said Pitts. “It’s almost dreamlike.”

Along with a few dozen cyclists, Pitts was competing in Markagram, a 250-kilometer, dusk-to-dawn bike race through the forest that radiates from Oslo. Most of the race stays off the pavement; riders participating in Markagram are part of a cycling subculture called gravel riding, which shuns asphalt for dirt roads and trails.