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.
Gravel races happen around the world, but Markagram, which was founded in 2017, is especially daunting. It’s self-supported, so riders must carry all the food, water, and extra clothing they’ll need for hours of riding through harsh conditions. They face chilling temperatures, uneven terrain, and the difficulty of finding a series of six checkpoints with no signed route or established track connecting them. Riders each carry a GPS and do their own navigation.
“It’s particularly mentally challenging because you’re in this forest that all looks pretty similar,” said Andrew Schaper, one of the race organizers and owner of Oslo’s Candy Mountain Cyclery. “You have to figure your way through.” Of the 20 cyclists to leave Oslo in 2019, only five would finish the entire course.
Such risk isn’t for everyone. But a thrilling undercurrent of danger has long been a selling point for travel, with tour groups tramping around active volcanoes and pedaling Bolivia’s “Death Road.” The premise of commercial adventure, of course, isn’t that you’ll really get hurt; the tours are a chance to flirt with risk while staying mostly safe.
The pandemic changed that. Today, even the most adventurous travel advertisement highlights elaborate safety and sanitization protocols. In my own community, those who leave home at all drive half an hour away, weekending in rentals that smell like bleach. Now safety—not danger—is a selling point. In a world where death tolls dominate newspaper headlines, I’d wondered: Would a dark ride through the icy woods lose its edgy appeal?
Markagram is inspired, in part, by Les Diagonales des France, a famed bike route that traces a six-pointed star across the country. In this race, the star is inverted: Markagram’s route is a giant pentagram, a symbol with resonance in black metal and the occult.
“It’s like midnight, maybe one, two o’ clock in the morning. It’s a big mental step to proceed, and if you’re not mentally strong, it’s easy to say, ‘No, I’ll go back.'”
Emanuel Verde, gravel rider
The theme offers a gritty contrast to the scenes at mainstream bike races, with big-name sponsors, generous aid stations, and finish lines crowded with cameras. When cyclists gather beside the starting line, they don’t pin on the race numbers that are a feature of more commercial races. Instead, race organizers distribute tarot cards and ink hand-stamped pentagrams on each rider’s forehead.
Many races, noted Schaper, put predictability above adventure, including the handful of nighttime races that already exist. “They emphasize safety, like you’d never be too far from someone,” Schaper said. “It’s like trying to keep you safe from the darkness.” To him, that’s a world away from the sometimes-painful allure of long-distance gravel riding, a sport that can mean extreme discomfort, isolation, and even danger. “As bike riders, you tend to go into a really dark place,” Schaper said. “We’re just emphasizing the darkness.”
As if to underscore the mental challenge of staying in the race, each of the six checkpoints is located at the bottom of a hill on the edge of the forest. They’re a constant temptation to wash out: If you want to continue racing, you need to pedal back uphill, deeper into the woods, away from the promise of dry clothes, warm feet, and other people.
“It’s like midnight, maybe one, two o’ clock in the morning,” said Emanuel Verde, a Norwegian gravel rider who completed the race in 2018. “It’s a big mental step to proceed, and if you’re not mentally strong, it’s easy to say, ‘No, I’ll go back.’”
While the details of the Markagram are unusual, it’s not the only race designed to distill cycling’s most essential challenges while stripping it of commercial hype. Among the most prominent self-supported bike races is the annual Transcontinental Bike Race, in which participants compete to cross Europe on a course that can be longer than 4,000 kilometers.
“A rider can simply pick up a bike, shake hands at the start line, and race thousands of miles for the sheer satisfaction of sport,” said Transcontinental founder Mike Hall, who died in 2017 after being struck by a car during the 5,500-kilometer Indian Pacific Wheel Race across Australia.
This year, none had traveled from abroad; they kept their distance from each other. With wry pandemic humor, the race was called ‘The Plague.’
Those experiences can be brutal, but for many, they prove rewarding enough to ride again and again. Juliana Buhring, who competed in the Transcontinental Bike Race in 2013, wrote for Outside Magazine that her own racing experiences have included broken bones, broken bike parts, and blizzards. “These races have also given me some of the best experiences of my life,” Buhring wrote, “and brought me into contact with others who share the same desire for self-discovery and determination to push limits.”
In October 2019, it was hours after the cutoff when riders began to reach the finish line, exhausted from a night spent pedaling a bicycle through the woods. At that latitude, even broad daylight is pale and wan. Winter in Oslo is a season of darkness, and by mid-December the night stretches for more than 18 hours. Each rider is just an icy slip away from a cracked skull; the trees waver when lit by passing headlamp beams, but they remain bone-jarringly solid if you hit one at full speed.
Exactly one year later, in October 2020, 13 participants lined up, once more, to compete in Markagram. This year, none had traveled from abroad; they kept their distance from each other. With wry pandemic humor, the race was called ‘The Plague.’ Organizers had spent the summer on solitary bike rides through the Norwegian forest, planning a new series of checkpoints hidden in abandoned buildings and shadowy caves.
They were even creepier than the old ones, said organizer Andrew Schaper. And the dangers of hard riding aren’t like the daily risks of navigating a world transformed by the pandemic. They’re personal, Schaper said. Riding amid trees on a private mission offers, perhaps a thrilling escapism for riders. It’s one he thinks will endure, and Schaper hopes that in 2021, the race will expand beyond Norway, offering riders in the United States a chance to compete in dark forests a world away from his Oslo bike shop.
“Now, it’s risky to be social,” Schaper said. “To create risk, in your solitude, in the woods? Maybe it’s refreshing.”