Iceland by bicycle – Day one and two, arrivals and departures

A cabin at the Alex Guesthouse
Tango built and getting ready for the journey ahead

Checking a bike in at Manchester airport was not without incident.

I watched the chap at the check-in desk become increasingly bemused as he bashed away at his terminal. He kept on looking at my printed ticket (yes, it clearly states I have a bike reservation) then at the screen, then at my ticket again before firing a searching glance in my direction.

This went on for about 15 minutes and the chorus of huffs and sighs from those cueing behind became more strained. And the summation of this effort?

”OK, all good, please take your bike to the oversized luggage area,’ he explained, with a palpable sense of relief, shared equally by those in line.

Now you may think my response a little daft but I ventured that, according to Iceland Air’s policies, I needed to pay a fee for the bike and a weight surcharge. Stupid? Perhaps, but I wanted to avoid further hold up and debate.

He shrugged… The computer obviously said no so I dutifully wandered off.

Lo and behold, within 30 seconds the computer had gone to Defcon one and my long suffering check- in clerk ran after me seeking dough. We returned to the desk and I paid my £52. I don’t object to this, save for the difficulty taking payment by card, I just wish the process was a little more straightforward so the poor folk at check-in don’t have to write their memoirs just to get my bum on a seat and my bike in the hold on a plane…

On the approach to Keflavik, Iceland’s international air hub, the landscape was curiously familiar from above. A bleak, Kinder-like plateau greeted my eager gaze, although distinguished here by the odd shapely, conic hill. The ‘bog’ revealed itself to be chaotic, moss-carpeted beds of lava though.

I gathered my bag and then searched for my bike – nowhere to be found. I asked at the luggage desk and they vaguely gestured to the far corner of the arrivals hall. Tucked behind a pile of baby seats, fishing gear, and battered cardboard boxes full of God-knows-what was my Evoc bag. Everything seemed intact. I zipped open the wheel pockets… All spokes present and correct. Happy days. 

I scanned the terminal for the desk of the Alex guesthouse… My digs for the night. I couldn’t find it. I asked at the information point, and they told me to ‘hang around’ and someone would arrive eventually. I rang and someone did arrive to ferry my gear, for 1000 kronur. Cheaper than a cab, it transpired.

The Alex guesthouse is the first building you meet outside the airport compound. It sits on a dreary lot on the outskirts of Keflavik. Previously allowing camping, the owners are no doubt attracted the greater revenues generated by the sheds which dot the lawns around the main complex.

Despite the rather grim first impression, I was given the key to a cozy, clean bothy which gave me plenty of space to get my gear sorted. I popped open my bottle of duty free Bowmore and got to work on the bike. An hour or so of assembly, test riding and tinkering passed and I stowed my bike bag and luggage in the Alex’s rather handy secure bike shed.

After a restful night, I loaded Tango and pushed my rig over to reception to check out. As is the norm, the weight of the bike felt slightly intimidating… and faintly ridiculous.

‘Hey! Can you give me a hand here please?’

I turned to the bike racks and saw a fellow cyclist half way through readying her ride for a bike box.

Stef, from British Columbia, had spent the last three weeks touring Iceland. Her pedals were resolutely stuck in the cranks. We chatted while I made little progress (read: no progress despite plently of manly grunts) on loosening the stubborn threads.

Stef had plenty of sound advice for tackling Iceland on a bike. She warned me about the winds… And the pretty dreadful Highway One or ring road which she’d battled with one too many times, deciding to catch a bus back to Keflavik .

‘So where you headed?’

‘Not sure, really,’ I replied.’ I really want to ride the Kjolur though. ‘

The Kjolur is a 200km track which cuts across Iceland’s bleak interior plateau. It was my chief objective of the trip and the road, if you can dignify it with such a moniker, had just opened for the summer.

I also planned to hit the streets of Reykjavik that afternoon and Stef rushed off to get me a map of the capital’s cycle lanes.

‘Don’t ride on the main road’, she said, ‘Use these. the paths are great and go right into the centre of the city.’

I looked at her troublesome pedals again and noticed how badly rusted the threads were… a product of riding the coast. I grabbed the can of WD40 from the bike shed and sprayed liberally. After a couple of minutes, the pedals were free. The blue can triumphs again.

We swapped emails and went our separate ways; me on Highway 41, Stef to the Blue Lagoon. ‘It’s a tourist rip off, but I think I’ve earned it,’ she said.

On the move, and man did it feel good. The start of a tour is a heady mix of excitement and an apprehension. I’d been blasé about my ambitions for the Kjolur with Stef, but I was wary of the weather on the plateau. Would have the physical and mental strength to handle it?

That would have to wait. I’d read web forums bemoaning Highway 41, the main route from the airport to the city, but I found it to be ok. It has a reasonable shoulder and the traffic wasn’t too busy on this Saturday morning.

I rode into heavy drizzle, Tango’s paintwork cutting quite a contrast against the dark lava beds and grey sea and sky.

I soon reached the outskirts of the capital’s conurbation, an area most Icelanders call home. I unfolded Stef’s map and found a route to Harfnarfjordor, allowing me to approach the city from the south along the coast.

Looking for huldufolk in Harfnarfjordor
Looking for huldufolk in Harfnarfjordor

Rolling into this southerly satellite of Reykjavik (whose residents are the butt of distinctly unfunny jokes from city types) I stopped for coffee and a sandwich at the Café Aroma. Scanning the guidebook, I discovered this functional looking town had a high concentration of huldufolk, or hidden folk.

Although Icelanders may believe in the existence of elves and dwarves (I didn’t think it the best conversation starter), the huldufolk only reveal themselves to certain people. I went outside to see if I had the ‘second sight’. Sadly not. Perhaps I needed some Brennivín – Iceland’s devilish schnapps – to expand my consciousness?

I pressed on to the city and followed the superb network of cycle paths. As helpful as Stef’s map was, I’m pretty sure it would have been possible to hit the city by just following my substantial nose as the network is comprehensive.

Under lightening skies I spotted the shapely form of the Hallsgrimskirkja standing proud above Rekjavik’s low skyline. City folk enjoyed their Saturday rides as I continued to follow the coast before obeying the map and turning in north of the main city’s centre and to the campsite. Despite the bad press, riding into Reykjavik was agreeable and a great introduction to the country.

Checking in, I quickly pitched the Hogan, locked Tango and headed out to the city.

I took in the sights and spent a good four hours pacing the city’s attractive streets. I spent time contemplating the beautiful Solfar and its perfect aspect, the bewildering Harpa concert hall and the sinuous, concrete lines of the Hallsgrimskirkja.

Heading to the old harbour, I enjoyed a medley of Icelandic food, including char, salt cod, lamb fillet and guillemot. All delicious and not as expensive as you might think. The beer was though, the equivalent of £9 a pint in this restaurant. The duty-free Bowmore would not doubt come in handy.

I love harbours and Iceland’s rich fishing grounds meant there was plenty to see. Reykjavik’s fishing fleet vie for attention alongside tourist tripper vessels, the most curious and perhaps alarming juxtaposition being whaling boats sitting alongside whale-watching craft. At the entrance to the harbour is a very effective display underlining the perils of fishing these waters using interpretive panels to detail craft and, sadly, crew lost over the decades. Sobering stuff.

Feeling tired, I headed back to the campground via a supermarket to stock up on road provisions. Hunger got the better of me later and I tried one of the many hotdog stalls dotted all over the country. It was doing a roaring trade even at the late hour.

The ‘dog was rather good (with everything and potato salad). Better though was my conversation about Manchester with the excitable girl behind the counter, who was very keen to extol the virtues of my home city.

‘I love Manchester… Such a great city. I was there last year. It’s beautiful!’

It sounded like a spurious, gushing review on Trip Advisor. Really? Beautiful? I’ve heard it called many things, (and I love it, warts ‘an all) but beautiful ‘aint one of ‘em!

Chewing over the eye-of-the-beholder adage as I munched the hotdog, my new friend then adopted a more thoughtful pose.

‘I went to Blackpool too,’ she recalled. ‘That I didn’t like… No, I didn’t like it at all. ‘

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