Aug

26 2015

From the moment the plane touched down in Iceland it was obvious that this trip was going to be unlike anything we’d done before. We’ve ridden our bikes in some pretty interesting places but this felt like we had landed on another planet altogether. Despite the fact that it was well past midnight, the sun was still in the sky and I could just make out the lava fields and ice-covered volcanoes from my seat next to the window. “Where the hell are we?” I asked Dave who had been lucky enough to stopover in Iceland once before. He gave me a reassuring nod as if to say ‘I told you so’. 

 Iceland really is a world of its own. Stranded at the top of the globe somewhere between the UK and the North Pole lies this under populated island nation, spectacularly crafted by ancient geological forces and fiery volcanoes. It’s a land of extremes and it can be quite confronting when you first arrive, armed only with a bike and a backpack. The howling winds, impossibly low summer temperatures and perpetual daylight is like nothing I have ever experienced. If you’re looking for a relaxing cycling holiday I honestly don’t think you could choose a less suitable destination. For us though, it was exactly what we were after. 

 If you’re looking for a relaxing cycling holiday I honestly don’t think you could choose a less suitable destination.

  

 

Ever since we started this blog a couple of years ago Iceland has been on top of the ‘to do’ list. We didn’t know a whole lot about the country but from what we had seen on Nat Geo documentaries it looked like the place was made for a cycling adventure. Empty coastal roads, giant snow-capped mountains, glaciers, volcanoes, bubbling hot springs to rest your legs in at the end of the day – what more could you possibly want?  For us, Iceland had always been the epitome of adventure. The only problem was that it was on the other side of the world but if anything, this just deepened our fascination with the wild land. All we needed was an excuse, and some money of course to make it happen.

  

  

 Dave and I make films for a living so when a client from London contacted us about a job at the end of the month we were overly enthusiastic from the outset. Iceland is only a couple of hours flight from London and we could just tell everyone that it was a ‘work trip’ so that it didn’t look like we were slacking off again. In the space of a couple of hours, the job was locked in and our flights to Iceland were booked with a 1-week stopover in London!

 Compared with some of our previous trips Iceland was completely unplanned. Amidst finishing off all of the jobs at work and preparing for London we didn’t have a spare second to think about the trip. Admittedly there was an unusual air of nervous excitement when we finally arrived in the country with absolutely no idea where we were going. It wasn’t until we got to our hostel in Reykjavik that we started going over maps and itineraries of fellow travelers who had been foolish enough to explore Iceland on their bikes.

  

  

  

Having skimmed over a few of the blogs there seemed to be some recurring sentiments from the writers, namely that ‘it was a once in a lifetime experience but they probably wouldn’t bring their bikes with them next time’. One cyclist’s appraisal was particularly reassuring. ‘The country is mountainous, and often very windy. If it rains, cyclists get plastered with sludge. If it is dry, they choke on clouds of dust. Cycling around Iceland is strictly for masochists!’ Maybe this wasn’t going to be the wild and fun adventure that we had envisioned after all. Despite the uninspiring comments, we mapped out a 2,000 kilometre loop along Iceland’s circuitous coastal roads and in the morning we set off on our ‘once in a lifetime experience’. 

  

 

“Whatever you do make sure you ride clockwise around Iceland. If you ride into the Easterlies you’ll never get back!” These words would come back to haunt us. It’s what the owner of the local bike shop told us just before we left Reykjavik on our 2-week ride around the country. We would have heeded his advice but we had already booked our first night’s accommodation on the east and to be completely honest, we weren’t that concerned about riding into a headwind for a couple of days.  How bad could it be?

4 hours and only 40 kilometres later we were cursing ourselves for not listening to the man at the bike shop. “Why do we even ride bikes? What is wrong with this country? Why did we bring film gear and whose idea was it to bring these stupid backpacks!?” There were obviously a few expletives thrown in the mix but that’s what made up most of our conversations on that first day. I should probably point out that the landscapes we were riding through at this point were absolutely phenomenal but regrettably, neither of us were in the mood to truly appreciate it.

  

 Just as we were about to collapse on the side of the road after our feeble 40 kilometre effort, we spotted a couple of older cyclists motoring towards us from the other direction. They both had smiles on their faces so large that you could see them grinning from 100 metres away! I’m still not sure if was the joy of seeing another human being or if they were just so relieved to finally be riding with the wind behind them – I assume that it was a combination of the two.

It turned out that these two 70 year olds from Canada had just ridden all the way around Iceland during the countries coldest spring in 40 years, and this was the final day of their journey. No wonder they were so happy to see us! In spite of literally being blown of their bikes and ‘nearly freezing to death up in the north’ they assured us that we were in for ‘one hell of a trip’. People like this are what cycling is all about. In their 70s and they’re still riding around with their mates and exploring new places. I can only hope that I’m still riding at that age. 

 In spite of literally being blown of their bikes and ‘nearly freezing to death up in the north’ they assured us that we were in for ‘one hell of a trip’

  

 

Filled with enthusiasm after our encounter with the two Canadians, we pushed on into the 60 km/hr block head wind. The only thing that enabled us to keep going on days like this was our extreme sense of optimism, or stupidity, as some would suggest. It’s the optimism gene that so many cyclists are burdened with. If we didn’t have it, we probably wouldn’t have decided to ride around Iceland in the first place. Every time I approached the crest of a hill or turned a corner, I convinced myself that the final destination was just on the other side. Deep down I probably knew that this was unlikely but you need to be able to trick your mind in order to keep your body going. 

It was supposed to be the easiest day of the trip but I can honestly say that it was the most difficult 90 kilometres of my life. I’ve been on 200 kilometre rides and climbed some crazy mountain passes but nothing compares to riding into an Icelandic headwind. We finally made it to Laugarvatn at 10pm, just 10 minutes before they closed the kitchen at the local hotel. I daresay there would have been tears if we couldn’t find any food. We celebrated our survival with 3 homemade pizzas and a couple of beers, and agreed that tomorrow we would be heading to the west! 

  

  

  

We were awoken to the sound of the rain the following morning but even that couldn’t dampen our spirits. Our decision to go back towards the west meant that we would have a 60-70km/hr tail wind for most of the day and that we would hopefully be back on schedule by nightfall. We basically just rolled for the first hour or so until we reached Þingvellir National Park, taking full advantage of the wind at our back. Þingvellir is home to Iceland’s historic parliament but more interestingly it is one of the only places in the world where you can actually see the boundary between the North American and European tectonic plates. Apparently you can even dive in the crystal clear water that separates the plates but given the temperature, we settled for a ride along the boundary instead.  

 By mid afternoon we had already covered more distance than the day before and it felt like we could keep going until midnight, given that the wind kept blowing in the same direction! As we were approaching Iceland’s western coastline Dave even set up a wind sail contraption on the front of his bike in a bid to stop pedalling all together. Foolishly though we hadn’t been keeping an eye on our route on Google Maps and soon noticed that we were riding towards a 20-kilometre ‘car only’ tunnel that was supposed to take us to that night’s accommodation. Upon closer inspection of the map we discovered that we could still make it to our guesthouse if we rode the 65 kilometre detour all the way around the fjord to the to the other side of the tunnel. The fjords in Iceland are long & narrow inlets of the sea that are always incredibly beautiful but slightly frustrating when you’re trying to get to a town on the other side. 

  

 

  

 

It was lucky that we couldn’t take the tunnel because the roads that took us around the fjord were exactly what we were hoping to find in Iceland. With the ocean on one side, spectacular cliffs on the other and no cars or tourists to ruin the quietude, it really was one of those perfect cycling moments. In the space of a couple of days I had experienced some of my best and worst moments on a bike. This trend seemed to continue throughout the trip but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Iceland definitely has some of the most beautiful roads in the world but they wouldn’t have nearly the same allure if they were easy to find. The fact that you have to deal with the elements and travel so far just to reach them makes it so much more satisfying when you finally get there. 

  

 

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula

  

 

  

 

Over the next few days we started to get into more of a routine now that we knew what to expect. When the weather was bad, we would knuckle down and try to cover as much ground as possible and when the sun was out we would stop to take our photos and appreciate our obscenely picturesque surroundings. If the caliber of a ride can be measured by the number of times we stop for photos then Iceland would undoubtedly be on top of our list. It got to a point where we had to ban ourselves from taking photos for certain periods just so that we would reach our campsite by midnight! Even with these self-imposed limitations it was difficult to ride past giant waterfalls and glaciers without getting the cameras out, so we would often find ourselves riding into the early hours of the morning.

  

 

This is the problem with riding a bike in Iceland. The sun never goes down so it becomes so easy to ride all day and disregard sleep altogether. There was one occasion in particular where Dave decided that he wanted to check out a waterfall at 1am in the morning so we did a little 50 kilometre return trip in the middle of the night and then managed just two hours sleep before it was time to hit the road again. I usually wouldn’t be able to function properly with this amount of sleep but there’s something about the constant daylight and the fresh air in Iceland that provides you with an extra kick of energy. 

 "This is the problem with riding a bike in Iceland. The sun never goes down so it becomes so easy to ride all day and disregard sleep altogether."

 

After 5 days and 500 kilometres we had only reached Stykkisholmur, a charming little fishing village on the Snaefellsjokull Peninsula on the west coast. By this stage we were both suffering from serious ankle injuries (possibly due to the dramatic increase in cycling and the stupid amount of weight we were trying to carry) and were resigned to the fact that we couldn’t possibly make it all the way around Iceland’s coastline. We still wanted to see the Western Fjords so we decided to leave our luggage at the hotel and take the ferry across to the fjords for a day. The following day we would hire a car and drive all the way across to the east coast where we would resume our ride.

  

  

  

  

 

The West Fjords

  

  

  

  

 

Although we only spent a day in the Western Fjords, it was easily the highlight of the trip. The northwestern corner of Iceland is the most breathtaking and one of the least visited parts of the country, making it perfect for cycling. We only had 7 hours before the ferry was due back to pick us up but that gave us plenty of time to explore the empty coastal roads and even ride up into the mountains where we found metres of snow still lining the roads. I think we both really wanted to stay in Western Fjords but we had to get back to the ferry so that we could keep to our original goal of seeing as much of the country as possible. 

  

 

The East Fjords

After a long 8 hour drive through the north of the island we finally arrived in Egilsstadir where we begun the final leg of our journey back down the east coast. The Eastern Fjords were much like their spectacular counterparts in the west except there were far more cities and more tourists making their way up from Reykjavik. With town names like Breiðdalsvík, Fáskrúðsfjörður and Neskaupstadur we quickly gave up on asking locals for directions and even resorted to referring to them by their first letter when we were talking to each other. 

  

 

 By the time we reached our 3rd fjord in two days Dave was becoming frustrated by the amount of time it was taking to move south. This fjord however had a tunnel that you could apparently ride through so we did a quick Rock, Paper, Scissors, to decide our fate: the 40 km gravel road that goes around the fjord or the 5 kilometre dodgy looking tunnel. Luckily I won and opted for the gravel road, which looked horrible to begin with but opened up into one of the most beautiful coastal regions we had seen on the entire trip. The road was carved high into the cliff so we had amazing views out across the islands and the vibrant blue waters of the Norwegian Sea.

  

 

  

  

  

  

 

  Once we had finally left the indirect roads of the Eastern Fjords behind us, it was all about exploring some off some of the famous sights on the way back to Reykjavik. Whilst we still had to cover 100km per day to get back in time, the winds were more favourable than earlier on in the trip so we could afford to have some time away from the bike. Iceland’s south east coast is packed with natural wonders so our last few days were easily our busiest. We camped on the glacial lake at Jokulsarlon, hiked up to the Skaftafellsjökull glacier, swam in Iceland’s oldest swimming pool, pitched a tent in the middle of Fjadrargljufur Canyon and visited some of the island’s most impressive waterfalls. Whilst this was all definitely worthwhile, the roads in the southeast weren’t actually that great for cycling. If all you want to do is ride your bike in Iceland, then I would head straight to the Western Fjords where they are far less cars and some mind-blowing stretches of road. 

  

 

  

  

  

  

 

When I woke up on the final day of the trip, I finally understood why those two Canadians were so happy. Although we didn’t complete the entire 2,000km loop that we set out to do, we still rode 1,300 kilometres through some of the most beautiful and challenge environments that I’ve ever been faced with on a bike. Whilst it was sad to be leaving this crazy world behind us, I couldn't help but feel happy and relieved that we were actually going to make it. 

  

 

 Travelling by bike is the best way to see a country – you explore all day until you you’re out of energy and then spend your nights trying new foods and recounting the day’s events over a couple of beers. Compared to travelling by buses or cars you get to experience the country on completely different level; the sounds, the smells, the people, even the way the earth rises and falls beneath your feet – all things that go largely unnoticed within the walls of a motor vehicle.

As we were riding back into Reykjavik, I realized that this was especially true for Iceland. The earth is literally alive in Iceland and there’s no better way to experience it that than on your bike. The crisp clean air, the sounds of glacial rivers rushing alongside the roads and the strong scents of hot springs and tiny fishing villages are what make Iceland such a unique and memorable place. Whilst there were some days when we wanted to throw our bikes into a volcano, Iceland also gave us the best roads and the most extraordinary landscapes that I’ve seen anywhere in the world. It’s definitely not for everyone, but if you’re after a ‘life changing experience’ and you’re prepared to work for it, you should definitely check it out.

 "The earth is literally alive in Iceland and there’s no better way to experience it that than on your bike. The crisp clean air, the sounds of glacial rivers rushing alongside the roads and the strong scents of hot springs and tiny fishing villages are what make Iceland such a unique and memorable place."

  

 

  

  

  

If you'd like to see more of our journey we also did a series of daily video posts that can be found here.

ICELAND

Start / Finish
Reykjavik
Category
Cycling
Distance
1,300 km
Max Elevation
974 m

Back us on kickstarter

LEARN MORE

More Journal Entries

  • BasL

    Awesome adventure and video’s guys. Do you plan to upload your pack list for Iceland?

  • Clem

    Yeah, this is a great question ! What was the equipment you were carrying ? Both outdoor gear and video/photo gear !

  • Pingback: Tracy Smith()