Norway’s capital city might not be at the top of your cycling bucket list but, quite frankly, it should be. At first glance, Oslo may not be the obvious choice for a company such as The Service Course to set up shop, as it did at the end of 2019, when compared with its flagship location in the pro team hub and cycling tourist mecca of Girona, Spain. Scratch below the surface however and it starts to make sense.

Words: Jack Hussey Images: The Service Course

Oslo is comparatively small but packs a punch. It’s a vibey, laid-back, creative kind of place, oozing Scandinavian style, charm and effortless cool. Perched on the Oslo Fjord (Oslofjorden), which connects to the North Sea, the real magic lies just north of the city. Rising from the suburbs, the Oslo Forest (Oslomarka) is a sprawling wilderness of unspoiled forests, the largest and most central of which is called Nordmarka—yes, North Forest. And just like those translated names, there’s a charming simplicity about Oslo’s vast natural beauty. If you’re big on trees and lakes, you’re in the right place. Big trees and big, beautiful lakes as far as the eye can see; and farther than you can imagine, with more than 300 square kilometers of lush pine forests surrounding the city, quietly waiting to be explored.

secret paradise
secret paradise

And the really good news? The forests’ huge network of gravel roads, trails and tracks is heavily restricted in terms of vehicle access, so you can enjoy the fresh air, beautiful views and peaceful vibes in the sole company of your fellow adventure lovers. And with all of this on its doorstep, it’s hardly surprising that Oslo is in no short supply of such adventurers, with a culture and lifestyle revolving around the great outdoors and mountain sports—snow or shine. You get the distinct impression that the recent boom in gravel riding around the world has caused some raised eyebrows here, and a few knowing chuckles among the cycling community, because they’ve been doing this their whole lives.

Indeed, the Norwegian gravel scene is in rude health, which we were about to experience firsthand thanks to our hosts, Jonas Strømberg and Anki Vu, who together spearhead The Service Course Oslo. Imagine, if you will, a particularly well-natured, gravel-riding, coffee-guzzling duo like Batman & Robin—with tattoos. They’re great mates, with fancy bikes and incredible riding. No wonder they seem to be enjoying themselves.

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the very best. Here we had, unquestionably, two of the greatest things in the world, combined. Sunset gravel riding through fairytale forest trails, followed by pizza—seasonal wild mushroom, since you asked, washed down with pitchers of cold beer and a glass or two of natural wine. Not a bad way to kick off our long weekend of riding, eating and drinking in the Norwegian capital, despite an aggressively early 4 a.m. check-in at England’s Manchester Airport. Fast forward to 5 p.m. Oslo time and we were outside The Service Course, listening intently to Jonas’ ride briefing. It was in Norwegian and we didn’t understand, but it felt good and we were ready to roll.

secret paradise
secret paradise
secret paradise
secret paradise
secret paradise
secret paradise
secret paradise
secret paradise

Since we had a pretty big group, about two dozen riders, we took the more direct route out of the city, heading north, with an unremarkable 5-kilometer road climb—a decent way to get the heart rate up for some exciting riding, though it was a shame not to make use of the excellent cycle paths that weave their way through the city’s green spaces, along the Akerselva River and deliver you safely to the edge of the Nordmarka. But this is Oslo, where you don’t need asking twice to get outside on a beautiful Friday evening, stretch the legs and enjoy the great outdoors. With joggers, strollers, swimmers, Rollerbladers and dog walkers, a cycle path was no place for a big bunch of cyclists. We took the higher ground, quite literally, and at the top of that opening climb we turned sharp left and “boom!” we were into the rough stuff.

Much like the forest itself, the route was quietly spectacular, getting better and better at every twist and turn. A 50-kilometer loop of fast, smooth and fun gravel, trending upward for 25 kilometers before swinging clockwise for a fast run back to the city, skimming the eastern edge of Maridalsvannet, Oslo’s largest lake and biggest source of the city’s drinking water. We lost count of the number of pristine lakes we rode past, shimmering in the evening light. Gravel paradise? Don’t speak too soon. We had a short, sharp and very, very steep climb to finish the ride up to Grefsenkollen, with views overlooking the entire city. Next stop, pizza, and we bombed down from the 400-meter-high lump above the city in a flash, swooping down the road together, grinning and arriving just as the sun dropped past the tree line.

Keen to squeeze every last drop of gravel goodness out of our weekend, Saturday featured not one but two rides. After a lazy start, we were back in the forest, loosely retracing Friday night’s route, but in reverse, with a few more technical detours, some intentional, some less so. But that’s the beauty of exploring Oslo’s gravel, with perfect blue skies and no real time pressure you can’t really get lost; you just end up exploring and enjoying more of the forest.

After a pitstop to freshen up, we were back on the bikes, joined by Jonas, Anki and an unofficial (but no less fearless, and friendly) third musketeer: The Service Course ride leader Tonje Overvoll. Shorts, tees, sneakers and shades, it was time to play tourist and see the city in the best way possible, hanging out with locals—on two wheels.

First up was Supreme Roastworks, one of Oslo’s best coffee shops, with a simple set-up, super-friendly service and excellent coffee. Loaded on caffeine, we began our cruise through town, and shortly arrived at Eff Eff, an oyster and wine bar. It was a little rough around the edges, in a good way, with a kitsch TV fishbowl and a ’90s hip-hop soundtrack setting the tone for a thoroughly enjoyable seafood snack.

secret paradise

Onward to the waterfront, but not before wetting the whistle at Fuglen, a classy coffee and cocktail bar, served with a vintage twist. We blasted through the crowds, stopped to look at the boats and took pictures—we’re tourists, after all. The sun was starting to fade but we still had the ride’s biggest climb ahead, a punchy 22-meter ascent to the top of the Opera House. This is what the city guide says: Norwegian nature is free for everyone to walk in, and The Oslo Opera House, which opened in 2008, was built as an extension to this idea. Usually, you are likely to be arrested if you walk on rooftops. This new building in the very epicenter of the capital of Norway feels like the complete opposite of the usual “Please don’t touch” culture tourists are often met with worldwide. The subtle variations in the structure of the marble-embellished roof is signed by Norwegian artists Kristian Blystad, Kalle Grude and Jorunn Sannes, and is truly a beautiful surface meant to be stepped on.

We were still not sure if we were allowed to ride up there, but we definitely had fun. The sun was shining, we were tipsy and we don’t remember getting arrested. After another beer to watch the sun disappear, we were racing each other over Nordenga bridge and wrapping up the evening at our final two, aptly named, stops—Illegal Burger and OsloVelo—for veggie burgers, beers and putting the world to rights. Best ride of the weekend? Could be the Negronis talking….

By now, we couldn’t believe our luck with the weather. Oslo simply doesn’t do clouds, we half-joked over coffee on Sunday morning before joining another bumper-edition shop ride, with more than 25 riders in tow. After another (presumably) rousing ride briefing from Jonas we were headed back into the forest. This was the weekend’s longest ride and started with 20 kilometers of nonstop climbing. The “lively” pace of the group came as a shock—so thank goodness for the chirpy company of Henrik “velochef” Orre to help distract from tired legs and keep the spirits up.

Our mid-ride stop was at Kikutstua, a fantastic bed-and-breakfast cabin with huge lakeside views, where we tucked into waffles and jam, ice creams and plenty of drinks. It was a hot one! This is where The Service Course hosts its monthly Microadventures, two days of riding with an overnight stay and Henrik taking charge of the cabin kitchen. For the previous month’s edition, Edvald “The Boss” Boasson Hagen, Norway’s former national champ across multiple disciplines, joined the group to shake up his training ahead of racing the 2020 Tour de France with NTT Pro Cycling.

On this Sunday ride stop we had more movers and shakers. Aksel Lund Svindal, one of Norway’s most decorated and celebrated alpine ski champions, was cheerily chatting with Olav Bergene, lead vocalist of 1349, one of Norway’s best loved black metal bands. Look him up on YouTube, if you dare. Enough of the name-dropping; we had a gravel loop to get done and a barbecue to get back for. The rest of the ride was a game of two halves—the first was fast and felt good, the second was fast and did not. The climbs were getting spicier, the terrain more technical and the group was starting to fall apart. It was everyone for themselves, and Henrik’s famous spiced-carrot vegan dogs were on the lunch menu!

delightful as the company

As delightful as the company had been, sometimes the moments riding alone were the most memorable. Caught in no-man’s-land, somewhere between the front group and those that had completely blown up, I had a particularly picturesque 5-kilometer stretch to myself, bouncing from one lake to the next, followed by a long, sweeping descent. As we returned to civilization, Anki was kind enough to pretend that he was tired and soft-pedaled the final 10 kilometers on the road back to The Service Course with the last of the stragglers.

Back at the shop, the hard work done, it was time to relax: Henrik on the sausages, Jonas blasting country-and-western hits, better halves and kids joining the afternoon festivities, with ice-cold beer kindly provided by Ken Bloomer, ENVE’s head of shred, and Olav holding court. It was as wholesome as it gets. Although he denied it, my money was on Anki being responsible for the graffiti scrawled across the shop exterior. “Feel the Vibes” in baby blue paint with a love heart flourish had Anki written all over it.

We were shattered but somehow mustered the energy to squeeze in another two more rides before our flight home at Monday lunchtime. That’s how good the riding was. You just wanted to be out there the entire time. On Sunday evening we cruised out to a lake with a musette of beers to enjoy the sunset before returning to, you guessed it, Friday’s pizza joint, just in time for last orders.

On Monday morning, we didn’t have long, so we simply popped up a small climb in the city to get one last look at Oslo from above, glistening under the summer sun. We were looking out from Ekeberg, one of the two climbs featured in the 1993 world road championships, the pros’ 14 laps of an 18-kilometer loop around the city being made famous by a 21-year-old Lance taking the title in treacherous conditions. Maybe it rains here after all.

secret paradise