I’d never considered Iceland as a place to go and ride my bike. In-fact I knew very little about Iceland other than how far North it is (on the North-Atlantic Ridge in-fact), how siesmic it is and how it came to unsavoury financial prominance 2008, which sparked global headlines for the wrong reasons. I was however, aware that it was a rugged, beautiful and challenging country to ride, the latter oweing to the number of man-made vehicle pathways that criss-cross the Icelandic Highlands.
In late 2018, some friends of my partner proposed the idea of riding from the North to the South via the Highlands, passing West of the Vatnajökull National Park and sleeping in refuges, in order to reccy a possible route for their cyclo-touring business. The ‘reccy’ part particularly grabbed my attention! I’m not one to follow the crowd, in-fact I don’t enjoy crowds generally and tend to seek out places where I can ride and enjoy cycling, away from the masses. We agreed and began to plan!
Whilst Jemima had done some bike-packing before in Malaysia, Thailand and Laos many years ago, being largely a road cyclist these days, I didn’t have any experience of bike-packing, so we began investigating the sort of bags we would need to carry on our bikes. We also began testing the different packing strategies needed to be self-sufficient for a week, whilst trying to envisage the right balance between being prepared over-thinking it.
Pingeyjarsveit, the Highland Glaciers in the Distance.
Flying into Iceland gave the first clues as to the sort of landscape we may be encountering as we stared out of the window on our flight. Our first experience when we arrived after a scenic bus journey to our first nights accommodation, was the city of Reykjavik. We didn’t have any particular expectations of Reykjavik but it wasn’t anything like I could have imagined. A quaint, quirky and beautiful city with a Scandic feel, the architecture is similar some respects to Norway, but with it’s own style and deffinately a unique feel. There are many small, privately owned cafe’s and bar’s and the city is very friendly. A place I’d like to go again to simply enjoy the city, without a looming endeavour for distraction.
After sampling the local cafe’s, we got to the task of unpackinng and assembling our bikes for the following day. A day that would be split in two halves; firstly our Icelandic guide Oscar would drive us North-East from Reykjavik to Sauoarkrokur, followed by part deux, the start of the first day’s ride. Stage 1 would be a relatively short 45km to get us on the way and test the bikes.
Something we didn’t need to carry with us, were evening meals as we had packaged these up for the 6 days in advance. Oscar drove the route in a GIANT OVERSIZED 4×4 landcruisder, a day ahead of us, stopping in each refuge and depositing our food for us ahead of time. We equipped him with a nice bottle of Scotch, which we understand he enjoyed nightly in the hot springs at each refuge! Speaking of hot springs, there lie another phenomena we had not appreciated! On the drive to Sauoarkrokur, I asked why all the vehicles were adapted to such an extent and he said ‘you’ll see when you reach the first river crossing’.
Hot springs are geothermal natural pools that bubble up in the seismic areas mostly around the west and south west of Iceland and along the tectonic plate lines. They vary in size from small pools in which 5-10 people might cozy-up, to vast springs such as that in Landmannalauger, which we enjoyed prior to the last and longest leg of our epic ride.
When I think back to Iceland, my memories are mixed. Never before have I experienced a country that can get inside your head quite like it. The route and terrain brought frustration, irritation, exhiliration and scenary that is hard to describe. The first leg we encountered in the North was stunning and offered inspriring riding from Sauoarkrokur, but this soon turned to a very different type of terrain and emotion on day two. The early views of volcanic vast and endless land mass were quite something at first but soon became a monotonous, frustrating and never ending grind. I never really fully understood why the gravel roads were so tough to ride but I’m lead to believe they are ‘corrugated’ from the effects of 4×4 vehicles pounding them over and over again and compounded by the powerful winds that sweep the terrain. The former a sign of how much man’s need to concur the most vast corners of the earth, can impact its natural beauty. Like Mount-Everest for example, there sometimes comes a point at which the earth’s most intruguing places reach their peak of exploitation. Thankfully, Iceland is a far-cry from these levels, so far.
There is a sweet spot of speed and cadence on a bike, with the right tyre pressure and effort that enables you to glide over gravel if you pick your lines well, much like nordic-skiing or snowboarding. When you are in the zone, it’s magical and motivating. In Iceland, this is often not possible for long stretches. Imagine trying to ride fast over a giant wash-board, the bike bouncing around and losing traction with each pedal stroke. It is truly energy sapping and in conjunction with aggressive, intimidating volcanic landscapes that span your horizon for hours on end, makes for both a mentally and physically challenging experience.
Some of the scenary was truly staggering, which made the physical element more palatable along with the sense of epicness. There are rivers that require crossing, all along the North-South devide, twenty-one riders to be precise. Some of them are rideable, albeit at the risk of gettign wet feet and more. A problem not entirely to be taken lightly as the weather can change dramatically in this land of fire and ice. The last thing you need when the temperature drops suddenly and heavy sustaind rainfall arrives with hours left to ride, is cold feet! For this reason, many of the river crossings require the sensibility or discipline, to dismount, remove your shoes and socks, then cross the river in sandals before re-dressing! Something I managed for a while before my frustration with the fighting terrain, got the better of me and I began to rampage and power across the rivers! Yes it was faster but I paid for it later in each day when the cold started to hit me in the extremities. Glacial rivers are not friendly when it’s cold.
Oscar was also right about the vehicles.. it became clear why they are all customized and supersized! I saw what were obviously experienced Icelandic guides, achieve river crossings where much of the vehicle dissapeared under the water briefly! A skill I cannot imagine how one acquires without risking your life at the first attempt. ‘Its about reading the flow of the river and positioning the vehicle such that the water directs it for you’ I am told. I was pleased to not be in one.
As we progressed further South each day, the terrain became more rideable with less frustrating. However, two things also changed; firstly the scenary became softer on the eye and more refreshing, more green, more waterfalls, snow-covered mountains and glaciar’s, then secondly; the wind became stronger and the rain became heavier! Day four in particular was 110km with a bloc-headwind of 50kph and 1100m of climbing, often beyond 21% in gradient and on technically demanding slopes.
With multi-day challenges like these, the strangest thing is that whilst you go through a physical roller-coaster, your body often gets stronger and you start to adapt positively to the intensity of the riding. By day five, the spirits were higher and we were hitting some amazing, long fast stretches and covering the ground faster. The balance of hard work versus elation was swinging to the latter as we headed closer to our destination of Vic, on the South Coast.
Our final leg to Vic, followed an evening at Landmannalauger, a big refuge with campsite, a bar and even a cafe! Landmannalauger is popular mostly with hikers but we did see a small number of fellow riders passing through. Albeit the longest leg at nearly 130km and once again, over 1100m in altitude gain, it was surprisingly the most fun. For the latter 30km after turning west towards Vic on the coast, we felt the joy of a tail wind finish which represented a pseudo-race as we rode full-gas to the line!
The previous 50km on the Kerlingardalsvegurtrail was the toughest section of the whole adventure though. It featured a strong cross/headwind in one direction! Hence our absolute joy at finishing the final stretch with an almost tailwind! All in all, our experience of Iceland was superb. As cyclists, it represented everything that you want in an adventure, high points, low points, a physical test and that feeling that you are on the moon when you dare look beyond your handlebars and glance ahead from time to time! I now describe the experience with hindsight, as a must-do bucket list experience for any gravel rider. It has taken some time oweing to the toughness of the experience but as we reflect back on it now 2 years later, there is a desire to experience it again and embrace it.