Across-Iceland on a Fat Bike – Part 01

We had such grand designs, we had plans, we had the gear and the desire. Sadly, we did not have all of the luck. As a result, our trip didn’t quite go according to plan. Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Our original intention, that’s Jim and me, was to jump on a bus in Reykjavik and head as far north as we could manage, then ride from the northernmost point (Rifstangi) to the southernmost point (Kotulangi) via the interior highlands (the Spengisandur). A journey of about 600km on gravel tracks and dirt roads, with river crossings and the barren desolation of pure wilderness. That was The Plan.

Unfortunately Iceland has just been through one of the hardest winters and the coldest June on record. As a result, parts of our route were still under snow, and many of the river crossings (difficult at the best of times) were impassable by bike. After hearing all of this when we arrived, we elected that we’d start in Reykjavik that day, and try to loop our way around the Hofsjokull glacier via the Kjolur route, joining the Sprengisandur below the worst of the trouble. Plan B was a similar difficulty to Plan A but a little longer. However it avoided many of the blocked and dangerous areas. We reckoned that the extra distance could be covered by the time saving of not spending the first 24hrs heading north on a bus.

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Initially Plan B seemed like a good one. We set off from Reykjavik on the afternoon of the 16th July 2015, having first topped up our frugal supplies with salami and jelly sweets at a Bonus Pig. Here began my fixation with jelly-sweets. A day without jelly sweets was a bad day. To those who are thinking of creating your own Trail Mix with a balance of sweets, chocolate, nuts and dried fruit; forget it. We did that, and portioned it neatly for each day. The net result was that halfway through the day all I had left to snack on was the nuts. Top tip: don’t scrimp on the good stuff.

We rode out of town via a couple of parks and along river paths, it was sunny and peaceful and we were feeling fit. After a brief, and not wholly pleasant, stint on the ring road, we took the Nesjavallavegur road (no.435) east, with the aim of reaching Þingvellir (ancient seat of Viking parliament) 60km away to camp for the night. Unfortunately, without initially noticing, the road we’d taken was one which contained “many steep hills over 15%”, so by the time we arrived at Þingvellir at 9:30pm, we were completely done in. After an exceptionally cold shower and a bowl of instant noodles, and having been on the road in one way or another for 15hrs, we passed out.

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Day 2 dawned fresh and bright, and after an utterly vile breakfast of instant porridge we were ready to hit the road. Our aim was to finish the tarmac section that day at the Gulfoss waterfall and along the way take in Geysir (big hot water spout which gives it’s name to all of the geysers of the world). The route was a good reminder of how dreadfully inefficient mountain bikes are on tarmac. We rumbled along expending vast amounts of energy in noise and friction and presenting a huge frontal area to a freshening headwind. A significant highlight was stopping for lunch at the Geysir cafe and trying their beef balls. If there is a more dense substance in the universe I’d be amazed. These things bent light towards them. Eating one was like trying to slice through an anvil with a flip-flop, and for the next 10km I had a stomach like a wet bin-bag with a couple of bowling balls in it.

The Waterfall at Gulfoss is undeniably beautiful. I’d been there about 10 years before with my wife, and I recalled a small carpark, a fairly ramshackle little gift store and little else. How times have changed. Every few minutes a huge coach arrived to disgorge punters onto a wooden boardwalk, taking them on pre-determined route to a viewing platform. The shop, which many years ago seemed to sell a few postcards, the inevitable stuffed Puffin toy, and a few CDs of Bjork, Sigur Ros and some hippy whale music (really, it did); was now at the forefront of naff Icelandic marketing.

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Of course this is to be expected, after all we were on the most popular tourist circuit in the country (the Golden Circle), and just because we got there by bike, doesn’t mean we weren’t tourists too! But the sheer weight of visitors was astounding to me. Faced with this, I think the authorities have done a decent job of keeping everyone in one place and ‘off the grass’.

After being buffeted by passing tourist coaches for the 10km between Geysir and Gulfoss, it was a pleasant relief to head north-east out of the carpark and away from the traffic. It seems that for about 90% of visitors, Gulfoss is the end of the road. For us though, it represented the start of the proper ride.

We spent the second night in an empty tin hut 10km north of Gulfoss on a spit of land between two glacial streams. The setting was absolutely idyllic, with a glorious vista which included the Langjokull glacier and the snow-capped Blafell Mountain. Out of the wind, with the sun shining I sat on a grassy tussock and read my book; completely content. The hut was pretty basic, made from rusting corrugated iron and a couple of windows which looked like they’d been stolen from different buildings. The inside of the hut was festooned with cheerful graffiti from previous occupants. The most notable was from a guy who’d ridden across central Iceland on a Brompton (nutter). Inevitably, dinner was instant noodles.

On the morning of the third day (after gagging down a small mountain of porridge) in brilliant sunshine we left the tarmac behind. The wind was still rising, having reached a steady 30-40kph at this point, and forward motion was becoming more and more difficult. As we crept over a 700m pass, the huge open plateau of the Kjolur lay before us. Our destination was still 70km north, the road was loose and gravelly and the wind was kicking up dust-storms far ahead across the desert. With dust goggles on and through gritted teeth, we battled into the wind, and then the rain, occasionally being passed by 4x4s and the odd off-road bus full of happily waving tourists (one group got out to cheer us up a hill, which was quite cool).

Incongruously, about halfway across the Kjolur, there’s a small shop selling a few dry goods, beer, knitwear, coffee and toasted sandwiches. We stopped here to warm up and get some hot food. At the same time we watched as a cyclist approached a river crossing and meticulously removed every last item from his bike before going backwards and forwards scores of times with his gear. It all looked very labour intensive, and not at all how I’d have imagined doing it myself. As he neared the end of his ordeal, the lady running the shop dashed outside to show him a shallow easy route about 5m downstream from where he was crossing. I wouldn’t like to say if she’d only just noticed, or spent some time bathing in schadenfreude first.

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Before we left, the shop keeper gave us a few dubious looks and issued a couple of dire warnings about the weather getting worse for the coming days. It was pretty clear she thought we were going the wrong way, and having spent the better part of half a day going 40km, it was hard to disagree. Nevertheless, we put our soggy waterproofs and gloves back on, and stomped outside into the teeth of a gale.

Only a couple of kilometers past the shop we met a cyclist coming the opposite way. Like most people, he immediately took an interest in my fatbike; squeezing the tyres and nodding wisely. Only unlike most people though, this guy was just a bit of a jerk. Unprompted he informed us that he was in part responsible for making my bike ‘famous’ by setting a some kind of a record on it. In fairness to him, that is fairly awesome, but as an opening statement to a couple of total strangers it’s a bit like saying “I’m really very very wealthy you know?”.

When we conversationally mentioned that conditions were pretty tough, he proceeded to tell us he’d been in Iceland for months and knew “never to ride north”. He then told me that I can’t have used my bike much, as there was so much tread on the tyres and his fatbike tyres were practically bald (we took his word on that). Maybe it was unintentional, but the impression we were left with was of a man who was determined to be that much tougher, more knowledgeable and generally cooler than everyone else he met. Perhaps in other circumstances he’s a great guy, but on this particular day I think his charm gland was misfiring. Interestingly, at the end of that day we were chatting to a Dutch cyclist who was telling us about this really annoying cyclist he’d met earlier that day…

Having politely disengaged from our super-impressive new friend, we set off north again. Our average pace was little more than 6-8kph, and on the poor surface we’d reached the point of pushing on the steeper sections. We were wearing every stitch of clothing we had, our faces covered with buffs, hoods up and pulled tight, but if we stopped for more than a minute or two we started to get cold very quickly.

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After about 60km we climbed into the cloud, and the already lifeless grey and brown scenery disappeared into a white veil of nothingness. Even the 4x4s and busses seemed to have stopped passing us, presumably turning off for Kerlingarfjoll 10km earlier. There was just us, a 500m visible ring of dust and gravel and the roaring of the wind through our hoods. We stopped joking, then talking, then we stopped communicating entirely. Each slipping into his own thoughts and getting on with the business of turning the pedals and moving painfully forward. It was a very hard day, but after nearly 13hrs of cycling over 80km we made it to Hveravellir, and the soothing warmth of its geothermal pool.

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That night the wind rose further still, efficiently dismantling the odd tent and leaving the occupants to scurry around chasing their belongings and getting cold and wet. Our intention for the following day was to continue heading north for 30km, before tracking north-east over a mountain pass to a hut for the night, and eventually (about 2 days later) joining the Sprengisandur as originally planned. We knew we’d have to make good progress to do this in the time we had, but when we set off from Reykjavik in the sunshine, it seemed doable. Now, with the wind some way upwards of 70kph and increasing flurries of snow, we could barely climb onto our heavy bikes, let alone make the distances we needed. What’s more, we’d been told that the mountain pass was still under snow (how much we didn’t know). The final straw was when Jim was blown off his bike after we’d made about two fairly horrible kilometres in half an hour. There was no way we could manage Plan B with the time we had.

So, reluctantly, we changed our plans (again).

End of Part 01 – to be continued…..

 

Author: Tom Vincent

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