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Travel Guide: Challenge Copenhagen

Looking for an iconic iron-distance race? Challenge Copenhagen may be just the event for you.

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Looking for an iconic iron-distance race? Challenge Copenhagen may be just the event for you.

This article was originally published in Inside Triathlon magazine’s 2012 special issue, Tri Guide.

If you stroll through the center of Copenhagen during rush hour, you’ll understand why it’s known as “the city of bikes.” With 37 percent of residents biking to work—expected to be 50 percent by 2015—the protected bike lanes are filled with a constant stream of cyclists riding in suits and dresses, carrying everything from children to musical instruments. The cycling culture has become a huge part of Copenhagen’s identity, and the infrastructure is often seen as the model for urban planners who aspire to create their own bike-friendly cities.

This embracing of bikes made it easy for Challenge Copenhagen race director Thomas Veje Olsen to design—and get the OK for—one of the only iron-distance triathlons in the world that runs through a major city.

“Copenhagen wants to brand itself with bike culture,” Olsen said. “When you go to politicians and say, ‘We want to close down the road for bikes,’ they say, ‘OK!’”

Olsen was inspired to create his own distinctive event in Copenhagen after experiencing the excitement of racing through the middle of cities at Ironman Frankfurt and Challenge Roth. He and his business partner created a plan for their ideal race and brought it to Challenge Family chief executive Felix Walchshöfer in December 2008. Walchshöfer loved the idea, and in 2009 they held their first event with more than 1,600 competitors. Approaching its third year, the Challenge Copenhagen team expects 2,400 participants (including relays) on Aug. 12, 2012.

The Challenge Family’s focus is creating “spectacular races in iconic locations,” as evidenced by the backdrops of their 13 events: the Southern Alps in New Zealand, the thriving city of Barcelona and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, to name a few. Challenge Copenhagen is no exception to the motto—with a course that showcases the serene Danish countryside and the space-age modern architecture of downtown in one race, it’s a unique way to experience Denmark.

What makes the Challenge races different than, say, Ironman races is that Challenge events are set up to be family-friendly races that are meant to be enjoyed in themselves, whereas Ironman races are often about one thing and one thing only—qualifying for Kona.

Unlike with WTC events, children and spouses can run across the finish line with a competitor, and all participants receive a “Welcome to the family!” greeting once they cross the line.

“For many years, triathlon has been about Kona,” Olsen said. “Whereas when I did Roth, I raced there and it was about that event—I think that’s the strength of the Challenge brand. It starts to become something else. I hope to build a race that is legendary like Kona is, like Roth is, something that everyone knows and that people want to travel to—one of those great races that you have to do.”

The Course

The race starts with a one-loop, 2.4-mile swim in an artificial lagoon often used for kayaking and other water sports. It’s perfectly suited for apprehensive swimmers: The water is calm and only three meters deep, there are wave starts of only 250 to 300 people and spectators cheer from three bridges on the course.

The two-loop bike course weaves briefly through the city before heading out to the coastal “Whiskey Belt,” the Beverly Hills of Copenhagen, home to the most prominent politicians, businessmen, athletes and music stars. The course then traverses over small rolling hills through the picturesque Sealand countryside, dotted with groups of families enjoying breakfast while cheering you on outside their farmhouses. Throughout the course there are “hot spots,” including one hill where spectators gather in Tour de France fashion. You’ll even ride over a brief patch of cobblestone before heading back through the city.

The waterfront run is a four-loop flat course that passes some of Copenhagen’s most famous attractions, including the Little Mermaid, a bronze statue that sits on a rock in Copenhagen’s harbor, and Amalienborg Castle, the winter home of the Danish royal family. And more than 125,000 spectators line the streets of Copenhagen as you make your way to the finish line in front of Christiansborg Castle, the Danish parliament building.

Know Before You Go

• It’s easy to get to Copenhagen with direct flights from Los Angeles, Atlanta and New York City.

• Forget the rental car—the user-friendly, safe public transportation network can take you (and your bike) wherever you need to go, and the airport is conveniently just six miles outside of the city.

• The vast majority of Danes speak excellent English, so it’s easy to communicate and get around. The most important word to know is “tak,” which means “thank you.”

• In the last decade, Copenhagen has really stepped up its culinary game—it now boasts 11 Michelin star restaurants, including Noma, voted best restaurant in the world two years in a row by Restaurant magazine.

• August is the warmest time of year in Denmark, with temperatures averaging between 68 and 77 degrees F.

Course Tips from the Race Director

Watch sharp corners. Be careful for the first 10K to 12K of the bike course going through the city, Olsen advises. There are a lot of sharp corners and the roads might be wet from rain.

Get your spectators on board. Public transportation makes it easy for spectators to get around on all three courses. The trains going north make it possible to see the athletes at two or three hot spots and still have time to make it back to the run. A day pass for the Metro is about $15, depending on exchange rates.

Give back to the fans. “Enjoy the atmosphere on the run course,” Olsen said. “More than 125,000 people are out there to cheer you through to your greatest achievement. Don’t forget to give something back—a smile, a wave or a high-five is all part of the Copenhagen feel and will come back to you tenfold.”

Registration for the 2013 Challenge Copenhagen triathlon, set for Aug. 18, is now open. Visit to learn more.

PHOTOS: 2012 Challenge Copenhagen