Cycling in Iceland – trip report
I didn’t feel as though I knew enough about Iceland to have any real opinion of what it might be like to cycle around it. It conjures up certain images, a place covered in whiteness, and temperature suited to all year winter. I had a few conversations with friends, and all gave their opinions of what kind of place it would be. Part of the attraction of Iceland is, breaking a small piece of mystery with some first-hand experience.
The main draw of Iceland was the promise, or even romantic idea of long roads weaving into the wilderness, satisfying my urge for adventure, self-reliance, and isolation. The trip wasn’t just about a wild place but a belief in the knowledge and skills I have acquired over the past few years. Part of this experience was building a bike specifically for the ride, this added to the experience but also added to the risk of something going wrong.
Building a bike was part of the journey for me, I needed to do it for my sense of achievement, understanding the machine that would carry me into some hard terrain. The bike was also a necessity I needed something sturdy and comfortable that could handle the rough and unforgiving roads. For previous trips, I had only tinkered with my bike and never assembled one from scratch. When you put together a bike you have the benefit of creating exactly what you want, however, it can be easy to get it completely wrong. I was still dealing with many issues in the weeks before leaving, firstly on an early test ride the crank arm fell off the bike which caused me a certain amount of anxiety. Going out again the seat clamp snapped causing the seat to fall into a rather uncomfortable riding position. All in all, I thought I was heading for some kind of severe mechanical failure somewhere in the center of Iceland.
On this trip I was also testing out a trailer for the first time, I knew the weight of the panniers would take its toll on the bike so I opted for an Extra wheel trailer to take the weight off the rear wheel of my bike. It seemed like a good idea and certainly something I would use again but it did cause a few problems initially. Again like most of the preparation for the trip, I only managed to assemble the Extra Wheel a few days before. I had limited experience with the trailer before heading out to Iceland.
Having been dropped at the airport by my dad I was lugging a rather large bike box including trailer and pannier bags. I was feeling apprehensive about the trip but also simultaneously excited, later that day I would be In Iceland. I was still feeling unprepared as the route I would cycle was still a working progress. This was to get more firmly pinned down when my flight was canceled and rescheduled for the following day.
All those on the delayed flight would be put up for the night in a rather nice hotel, I lifted my bike onto a trolly and wheeled it into the lift, and up to my room. I proceeded to get my maps out on the floor of the hotel room and spent the next few hours deciding what direction my journey would take me. In some ways, it was a welcome delay.
On the plane my thoughts turned to the next few weeks, looking out the window every question was running through my head along with the usual ‘what ifs’. What if the bike brakes, fell off, I wanted to stay positive, it had been a journey just to get to this point. As we descended towards Keflovick a smile came over me, I was becoming increasingly excited at the small tracks crisscrossing beneath the plane. The landscape looked perfect and wild I couldn’t wait to get out and test the bike on some wild Icelandic terrain.
I would, however, not be cycling away from Keflovick as one of my fears was realised early on. While assembling the Extra Wheel trailer the rear quickly release sheared off causing one or two angry words to be directed at this cheap bit of metal, this added a further delay to an already late arrival. 20 minutes later the bike was back in its box, I was sitting on a bus heading for the capital city wondering if this was how the next few weeks were going to be spent.
Thankfully It wasn’t to be. The next day a trip to a local bike community saw me pick up a standard quick release, not long enough to attach my trailer, but good enough for me to attach my rear wheel and allow me to cycle to a local bike shop that just reopened. Meeting the owner of the bike shop he couldn’t help me with the extra-long quick release I needed. Also shipping the part in would take far too long. What he suggested involved a trip to the local DIY store and a meter of threaded steel allowed me to have my extra-long rear quick-release custom cut for the ride. Adventure back on I reluctantly packed up my bike. I had now gotten used to a bed and friendly people, it became hard to leave and cycle off into the rainy and surprisingly windy afternoon.
The miles didn’t fall away as I hoped, the initial busy roads made for slow progress, and even my tiny island had traffic to battle. I made it onto the ring road still battling against the wind and rain. Heading south towards Selfoss and my route off the ring road my only repetitive thought was, if Iceland is going to be like this how will I survive the next few weeks, how will I dry my clothes out? I stopped at the first cafe I came to I had had enough for the day I was starving and I hadn’t even been that far. I knew I was out of shape but the elements, humiliatingly showed how unprepared I was. I stuffed my face. 7 small croissants one sandwich, two Marsbars, and 4 cups of coffee, almost dry I was reluctantly ready to head back out into the weather once again.
Leaving the diner it was still early but I needed to camp. A combination of the weather and large trucks flying by was becoming mentally tiring I was checking along the side of the road for a place to dive off for an early one. Not far up the road I pulled off and went down behind some mounds where I put my tent up for the night. Surprisingly I was only a few metres from the road but the landscape I was looking out over was rugged and the adventure felt like it had started.
Up early the next morning pleasantly surprised the weather had cleared up, for a short period I even managed to take off my waterproofs (Cycling in waterproof trousers is not fun). By now the time on the ring road was wearing thin. Shortly I would turn off up towards Gulfuss and Route 35. I hoped this would fulfill the dreams of isolation I was looking for.
The road was slow moving, and the surface was good, but the wind was not. Again each push on the pedal saw me fighting as I struggled into a headwind. It was early in the ride but already my patience for the wind was wearing thin. Only the second day and I was thinking about a shorter route. My ambitions were reduced to the idea of just cycling around the Reykjavik area. When you have battled to get your bike on the road and indeed flown it from the UK there is an overwhelming urge to make it a worthwhile trip’ whatever that might be.
If my mood begins to dip the first thing that never fails to help is a quick stop and as much food as I can munch through. At the next bench, I stopped I wasn’t feeling overly impressed so far. The scenery was average it was slow going. My newly built bike wasn’t moving through the gears well and this was adding to my frustration. I sat staring into space, feeling contemplative, eating Rivita and some squeezable mushroom tofu paste.
Not feeling like talking to anyone a family pulled up, unloaded, and walked towards me. Setting up next to me I was hoping they wouldn’t talk to me I was not in the mood for small talk. I stared down toward the floor, I then heard ‘hello’ and the conversation started, and what a great bit of human contact, and how desperately I needed it. They offered me some lovely flatbread with smoked meat. We talked about the local area, and where I was from, and they offered suggestions about where I should ride and what I should go and see. It wasn’t the first Icelandic folk I had spoken to but the family were indering and the kind gesture changed the way my thoughts were heading. They renewed my excitement for the route I had chosen. Pointing out the places to stop along the way.
I left the bench, still moving slowly, still with my bike skipping gears. It wasn’t causing me any major problems as I hadn’t encountered any sizable climbs but something I shouldn’t be putting up with. I just wanted to cycle not mess around with the bike. I paid for a campsite of sorts. It gave me a chance to dry my shoes from two days of rain, charge my phone, and have a shower at a local swimming pool (All heated through thermal energy). Most importantly I took the time to correct my rear derailer so I could change gears without the change skipping, it felt good, no idea why it took me so long to do it!
The next day I felt I needed to enjoy my riding a bit more and I did, a great waterfall and a visit to the touristy but impressive Stokker. And eventually, to Gulfuss it was busy and very touristy. In a rather overly dramatic way, it felt like the end of something easy, and doable and the start of something lonely, hard, and worthwhile. Things were about to change. I approached a sign saying: “Only four by fours from this point on, two-wheel vehicles will not be insured” Looking down the road it looked intimidating, remote, and real.
I was thrilled to get down to business, I seemed to be the only one heading north. For most other people it seemed to be the end of their route, eating cake, having a coffee taking in the magnificent waterfall then heading back to Reykjavik after their day trip had ended.
Cycling down the road I thought this didn’t seem all that bad, windy as always but the road was good. Quite quickly the isolation set in. No longer were there several cars or trucks flying by every minute. It was great, I had the place to myself. I had never been anywhere like this before. In such a short space of time, the change was what I had been searching for since the planning of this trip.
After a few miles, the tarmac came to an end. I flipped the remote lockout on my folks to take the edge of the uneven road, feeling quite cocky, I had the perfect bike for the terrain. I looked out at the landscape. It was baron, reasonably flat with a boulder-strewn look, almost desert-like. I started to think about where I would set up camp for the night. This wasn’t an imminent problem as It wasn’t that late. My head down I was having to work hard to avoid the big stones and the rutted holes all over the road, stopping for a moment, looking up I saw another cycle tourer on the road.
A middle-aged, he turns out to be a Dutch chap. He stopped, and we greeted each other. Seeing another person experiencing the same place at the same time as me comforted me. It makes you feel less crazy and less alone. He had been on the road for 3 years and had visited Iceland numerous times over the last few years. He mentioned how the route had changed since his first visit, we joked one day this would be a motorway with hotels every few hundred meters. The first time he passed this way the single weaving track had now turned into a much larger dusty road.
We talked about our plans to camp, he pointed out a climb followed by a descent into a small valley, over a bridge, and off to the right, there, there would be a grassy area. Slightly protected from the wind but lacking and flat ground I thought it would be the best I could do. I spent an hour locating the flattest, driest place to pitch my tent. Camping on a bog I did have a few thoughts of waking up in a puddle but I thought it was worth the risk. I cooked dinner, and noodles again, and set about getting into my sleeping bag. I was wearing most of the clothes I had brought by this point as it was a little colder than I expected, my sleeping bag is more for summer than two or three hundred meters up in the Icelandic interior. I lay down snapping a few pictures of the sun setting as four sheep circled my tent waiting for their chance to get closer and lick up any scraps I’d left behind from dinner.
The next day I appreciated the place I had stopped. The proceeding climb was torturous, the wind gusting into my face, slipping on the road the tires I had chosen were not providing sufficient traction. My legs struggled with the incline, it was hard but I enjoyed being the only one out on the road. Quiet and still I was the only one, thankfully no one was there to see me struggle with the incline. It took an age but finally making it to the top I felt like the king of my little Icelandic world.
Freewheeling down was awesome fun, all of a sudden the surroundings took on a different vibe, one of extreme beauty. I had time to take in the scenery and quickly forgot my morning struggles. I was flying at top speed avoiding the potholes in the road, this was amazing fun although the downhill part never seemed to last long enough. Before I knew it I had crossed a bridge over a glacial stream grabbed a few quick pictures and was struggling uphill again. The next few hours were spent pushing into the wind dodging more inconveniently placed stones with the odd off-road bus flying by me. I stopped at a café, it being the end of August the lady didn’t have many supplies.
I bought a pack of cookies and pushed on asking her advice on the best place to camp. She pointed but it seemed in these conditions further than I was capable of. I wanted to stop right there and then but I knew I had to cover more miles that day. I cycled on making slow progress. I was craving a cup of tea or coffee as the odd car passed by and I wondered if they knew how hard I was finding it. As these thoughts passed I decided to stop for a quick break, a four by four pulls up, the window is wound down. A warm voice says, are you okay? I didn’t want to just say yes, but couldn’t help it. I said I was fine just hungry, the lady immediately jumped out and handed me a cup of warm tea and a packet of cookies. I don’t think she will ever realise what that did for my morale at that moment.
I said my goodby’s climbed back onto my bike all the time looking around for potential campsites, it worried me a bit, it was so windy and there didn’t appear to be much shelter around. The track was squeezed between large glaciers on either side, as the sun began to set the wind became biting. My pace began to pick up I tried several times to pitch my tent with no luck. I kept on telling myself around the next corner I would find the perfect bit of grass to set up the tent for the night. Every corner became a disappointment. As the sun set over one of the glaciers the perfect opportunity had not presented itself to me, I needed a place to sleep before it was dark. Panicking a little I tried everywhere. I saw some signs for a bed or some sort of hut. Picking up the pace as it was two or three kilometres away I came across a flatish banked area.
I dropped my bike down ran over, crouched, minimal wind, result! I pushed my bike over and got out my tent, the pegs were useless but six heavy rocks later and the tent was up and holding in place. The relief was tangible. I lay in my sleeping bag shaking, hungry, I hadn’t eaten anything in a while let alone put on any extra layers. I was on a massive adrenalin comedown.
The wind was hitting the tent but I didn’t care, sleeping well I woke up later than I wanted to. Not looking forward to another day like yesterday. Packing my tent it was still cold but the sun rising. Back on the track it was warmer, the sun was out I was feeling relaxed. I wanted a different day. Cycling on I pulled off the road to a cann and took a few pictures. I didn’t want the mad rush of the last few days. Feeling the need to rest I came to a crossroads left and headed a few kilometres of route to Kojour. That equals rest, a chance to take some photos, and mentally recover. I felt bad for taking a half day but I didn’t want to torture myself. The weather was great, even still so it was hard to turn off when the going was so good, it had to be done though.
It was a beautiful place full of opportunities to take great pictures and regain some focus for the next few days of riding. Starting the next day again the weather was fairly good, even sunny there was a slight breeze but not as bad as the previous few days. Pushing on I passed a fellow Russian tourer, and another couple from Germany both looking well kitted out for their kojour experience. Both times I stopped and shared some information about the route and a little catch-up around the challenges. Our bike and personal journeys are the common ground. Feeling good now the worst was probably behind me I found my legs delivering vast amounts of power. Reserves had been built up, the hard days followed by rest now meant I was speeding along. Zooming along the flattish road I saw a silhouette in the distance. As I gained I started to guess what it could be, I thought maybe a sheep on the road, or even another cycle tourer. It turned out to be a hiker. Interestingly she was walking across Iceland.
I stopped, and we started to talk, as the conversation deepened we decided to take a break and eat lunch together. It was great to have a conversation it was a while since the last. After lunch we walked together for a while longer, it turned into another relaxing day, more walking than cycling. As the evening drew closer we decided to wild camp near a large lake. A truly awesome place to set up the tent for an evening of talking about our different adventures, and plans.
That night we camped and Klara a filmmaker, showed me how to better utilize the features on my camera. We played around with the camera taking images for a few hours. Klara was filming her documentary about her Icelandic adventure.
The next day I felt the pressure to finally get up to the north I knew at some point in the day I would come to a dam which would signal an improvement in the road, and signal the end of the challenge. In a way, it was sad to think I would be heading to busier roads and a load more people. The isolation was hard at points but also rewarding. The scenery was unlike anything I had experienced before. I reached the ring road and hurried along. I didn’t relish this for a small island with a low population it was too busy for my liking.