You say Iceland to any cycle tourer, no matter if they are a hard-core bike packer to a leisurely weekend road tourer, all will have some opinion of riding there; it is a country that appears on many a cyclists bucket list for one reason or another. I was no different. I had been captivated by the other worldly images of lunar landscapes, of volcanic backdrops shrouded in venting steam and of natural isolated hot pools. All these combined led me to book my flight for a four week trip to see what I could experience for myself.
This trip was unique for myself as it would be my first proper trip solo, Jess, who has been with me on every trip I’ve done by bike so far didn’t have the funds for this adventure, that coupled with a girls trip to Italy with her mum and sister meant I bit the bullet and went to see if I would enjoy a bit of solo travelling for a change.
With the trip being a shorter than my usual escapades some element of route planning was done, this subsequently went out the window as soon as I landed in Keflavik!!! I originally planned on bussing to Reykjavik; building my bike there and storing my bike box for my return, upon arriving I decided to save the extortionate bus prices as well as the crazy storage costs and to ride from the airport. You could say the trip started well, I had been told about how expensive Iceland was and here I am saving money on my first day!
I built my bike in the bike shed provided, a great facility out of the elements with basic tools to get your bike built, I shared it with 4 other tourers all with different aims and time frames for their Icelandic adventures. I rolled out and made it a whole 5 meters before a puncture made it a rather anti-climatic depart.
With my false start out the way I was off in search of food, this is where my previous planning came in, I knew there was a bonus supermarket in Keflavik and as any cyclist/ backpacker, in-fact, just about anyone you ask in Iceland will tell you, this is the cheapest place to shop. It was also at this point that I learnt my first lesson of solo touring. You don’t need as much food, nor can you carry as much. I also learnt that a bike-packing set up needs you to be far more tactical with how you store food, that means it was everywhere on my bike, looks like this trip is going to involve a lot of learning…
My first day was spent on tarmac making my way to a paid campsite, it always takes a little while for me to figure out the way of a country and on the ring road there didn’t appear to be many places to set up camp, I also didn’t have the luxury of darkness as it was light until about 12/1 am.
After visiting some sights I had had on my bucket list for some time; the plane wreck, the rustic open air swimming pool and the famous Skogar falls it was time to some of famous Icelandic gravel roads, from here out I would be spending most of my trip off the tarmac.
The route started well and before long I had left signs of civilisation behind. The mountains opened up in front of me and I slowly began to realise what all the fuss was about riding here. Eventually I came parallel with the Laudvager route and, when the river separating my route and the trekking route allowed, I crossed over and began taking on the Laudvager trek on two wheels.
This route entailed slightly more than I had bargained for, that and my first real experience of just how fickle the Icelandic weather can be made for some real type 2 fun. The real challenge come just after Alftavatan, the most horrific hike a bike I have ever done, not helped by the 10 days worth of food I had on the bike meaning I couldn’t shoulder the bike, I was resigned for pushing an unfavourable amount. It was also on this hike-a-bike that the notorious Icelandic weather unleashed on me. Snow, hail, wind and rain were the order of the day and after far too many hours of pushing I emerged at Landmanalauger for a much needed hot pool, no need to change into swim ware, I was as wet as I could be so opted to go fully clothed, we’ll call it laundry day.
After the punishing route in, with minimal views I opted to take an extra day in order to trek and revisit what I should have seen yesterday. I also managed to get some route advice off some cycle tourists coming the opposite way.
With a rest day of sorts in my legs it was once again back on the road, this time I would be heading towards the F26. A road known for is barren landscape and treacherous unbridged river crossings but after the Laudvager trek how hard could it be?!
The route out of Landmanaluger is phenomenal, the text book green and black volcanic mountains with gravel roads and minimal traffic. This is what I came to Iceland for. Eventually I hit the tarmac and made my way onto the F26; tarmac, pfft, this road isn’t all its cracked up to be. The scenery had become distinctively lunar, the greens and blacks had faded to every shade of grey you can imagine, and this is how it was to stay for the foreseeable future. The tarmac gave way to gravel but the riding was good, windy but dry, why is this road renowned for being so tough!
I set up camp with an obstructed view of snow capped mountains and glaciers and settled in to sleep. Around 2am I was awoken by the wind, praying for a tail wind a rolled over in the hope it would blow it self out. By 8am I had given up with sleeping, the noise was too much, the concept of cooking breakfast in such an exposed spot wasn’t very appetising either. I did my best to pack with a plan to find some form of shelter for breakfast. (This is also where I realised just how useful it is to have a travelling partner, trying to pack a tent on your own in the wind in no easy task.) My day only got tougher. The wind only got worse, at its best I could just about ride, at the worst I was pushing downhill. The longer the day went on the tougher it got, the lack of shelter meant for a limited breakfast and sitting wasn’t much pleasure either so lunch was a rather sorry affair, this wasn’t helped by a passing Land Rover experience trip. I was curled up behind a rock trying to hold onto my socks after crossing yet another river. They came through in their posh cars, got out in their super thick warm jackets to take some photos of their group coming through the river behind them. They then jumped back into the luxury 4x4 and drove off smiling and waving. It was at this point that I didn’t want to be here anymore.
Wind in the UK can be bad, but there is always a lull, a brief moment of peace, I didn’t get that out here, from 2am it had been noisy and it hadn’t stopped. I was still pushing and dragging my bike at 5pm; I hadn’t passed a single spot that I was able to hide from the wind never mind try and pitch my tent. I knew there was a mountain refugio some way ahead, I was just praying that: 1 – I could make it there and; 2- They would have some form of sheltered camping. I eventually hit a sign post that told me I was close to the refgio, what I hadn’t realised is that the road had one more river crossing left in store for me, by now I’d been pushing for about 9 hours and I had made less than 30km, this river crossing was tipping me over the edge. The white horses were wiping up off the water and just taking off my socks and shoes I was getting soaked from the spray coming off, not only did I have to negotiate a river but I had to do so in a wind that was making it difficult to walk on a normal path never mind through a glacial river.
Eventually, in a pitiful state I stumbled into the refugio, by this point I’d taken to lying down in the stronger gusts and just holding onto the bike. This by far was one of the toughest days I’ve had in the outdoors. The refugio warden took pity on me and made me a cup of hot chocolate and let me dry out and recover, she then showed me to the pitiful camping shelter they had, it was at this point I handed over my credit card and opted for a night in the refugio, after this day I was over camping. I shared the rufugio with some long distance hikers and a family who were touring in their rented 4x4 it was a toss up between who was th most hardy out of the cyclists or the walkers, I still think the walkers are pretty insane in Iceland, they would be on the f26 for roughly a week, if it wasn’t for the current weather I was experiencing, it would only take me 3 days, and even that would have been slightly tedious. The refugio was a welcome brake and relative peace and quiet, the ability to cook on a real stove rather than huddled in my tent was also rather nice.
All night we could feel the building shift and flex as the storm raged outside, it was also at this moment that I began to regret not locking my bike to anything. In the morning the storm hadn’t eased, in fact it had gotten worse. The park rangers came to our humble abode and gave us the latest forecast and explained that she couldn’t stop us leaving but she was asking us to stay put due to safety concerns, to be honest, the moment she said same wind direction increased speed I’d already resigned my self to another night in the pent house suit. At this point she explained that the road had been closed to all vehicles trying to venture into the interior, another reason to stay put.
As my second day drew to a close I went back to the ranger to check the weather forecast, not sure my credit card could take another pent house hit, I was reassured that tomorrow the wind would be dropping and there would be no rain, ideal, tomorrow I ride!
Well, she wasn’t lying, the wind dropped over night and there was no rain, she did fail to mention that snow was on the forecast! Slightly unnerved after my ass kicking in the wind I left the refugio rather reluctantly. One bonus of the temperature drop was that the glacial rivers were a lot lower than normal, the lack of wind was also a pleasure to ride in. After only 15minutes of being back on my bike my nerves were gone. I was loving life, and the fresh white makeover really improved the 50 shades of dull that I had become accustomed to. I was having so much fun I opted to take a small back road that would lead me to Asjka. The road warned of remote passes for only specialised off road vehicles. Sounded perfect.
The track was well marked and wound its way between old lava flows. The fresh falling snow making for an even more atmospheric ride. I saw only 4 people on this route, 3 trekkers and one German cyclist, it was at this point that I realised my set up was far better suited than that of a normal touring set up. He explained how he had been pushing for the the last 7 hours as he was unable to ride in the current conditions. I was able to ride most of the way to the shelter with relative ease, I was enjoying the riding compared tot he suffer fest my German friend had been experiencing, this was definitely down to our set up rather than riding skills.
Askja is a main tourist stop and I saw more people at he campsite than I had seen for a long time. Riding solo means I’m usually overly keen to chat, taking the extra days also meant hat food was starting to dwindle, I was expecting to be in Akureyri by now but the rough going and challenging weather had put me behind schedule. It seems that mother natures ass kicking had earned me some karma points, these were cashed in in the form of NASA. They had a team out monitoring the latest volcanic eruptions, their trip was coming to an end but their food supplies were not. For an evening I was fed an array of deligths and then loaded up for my remaining days on the road. They even packed me off with a grilled cheese and lamb sandwich, which I must say is still the best meal I’ve eaten in a very long time. I’m not sure if NASA read blogs but if you happen to stumble upon this, thank you, you made a real tough stretch of my trip that much better.
With the bike at bursting point I rolled out of Askja with the sun, my 2nd day of sun so far this trip! From here it was onto Akureyri via the ring road for a resupply.
After a day off the bike and now stocked up with basics I rolled out of town in search of more mountainous roads, gluten for punishment I know but the ring road just didn’t hold any appeal, even after my ass kicking. The forecast was once again for dismal weather but with time on my side I could afford a few shorter days and stop early if the weather was particularly foul, and if the wind direction stayed the same as it had been I would be experiencing an amazing tail wind… (first rule of cycle touring- never expect a tail wind it only make the frustration of having a head wind all the worse)
Before long the familiar sound of wheels on gravel returned and the noise of close passing cars was but a distant memory. The road was a gradual climb taking me closer and closer to the blanket of cloud that engulfed the surrounding peaks. The next few days were riding with limited views and intermittent rain, but when I did get the brief glimpses of what I was riding through it made it all worth it. Taking shorter days meant the wind wasn’t beating me up too much and I always seemed to be able to find some form of wind break in the evenings so my nights weren’t too hectic trying to sleep through the barrage of wind.
I had refreshed and soaked in the hot springs at Hveravellir and was feeling good, I opted to take a smaller trail away from the f35 as the forecast was respectable and the trail looked intriguing.
Quickly I was riding single track trails with only the occasional hiker for company, I had struck gold, this is what people came to Iceland for – blue skies, epic scenery and good tracks. This lasted half a day. The weather turned and it was back to full water proof getup and the occasional scream of anger as the winds played me. By the time I was back on the F35 I was cold and soaked. I decided some more hot springs would make me feel better so pointed my wheels and pushed hard.
I made it 3 hours towards my end goal before coming across a café- cold and soaked I de-layered in the entrance foyer doing my best not to flood their floor, I failed. A bowl of 15 pound mushroom soup and home made bread sat next to a radiator did a lot to lift my spirits and after a few hours of asking myself why I was here and what I was doing and I was ready to hit these hot springs. 6 hours riding in rain I arrived at the camp site to be told the hot springs are a 3 mile hike along a muddy path. I gave in. I had been cold and wet, I didn’t want another hour of it. I sat in the kitchen and once again began the process of drying off my sodden kit.
The rain didn’t relent, my leaving the next day was delayed as long as possible but eventually I was back soaked and riding. By now I was pointing my wheels towards Reykjavik and If I really needed to, and the weather didn’t ease, I could be there in under a week. Luckily the rain did give in and I found my self once again being tempted by small side tracks to take me away from the ever busy F35. I wound my way on quiet back roads enjoying the peace and the scenery before hitting the main drag into Reykjavik. From here it was time to find a bike box and to recuperate after an amazing ride.
Although I got my ass kicked in Iceland it really is an amazing place to ride. The winds are relentless at times but it almost makes the good days all the better. There was a lot of type 2 fun on this trip, especially doing it solo but its one I don’t regret doing for a second- well not now that I’m back home and recovered!
Danny and Jessica living the nomadic dream.