Iceland by bicycle – day three and four. Pingvellir and the gravel road north-ish

Not getting dark in Iceland
Half ten and it feels like three in the afternoon

I’d had my fill of the city.

Reykjavik is great and most un-city like in many ways, but a night of hearing Runtur revellers fall over their tents and slam camper doors had me yearning for peace. The ear plugs didn’t dampen this intrusion while the lack of darkness played havoc with my body’s nocturnal rhythms.

So, it was with some relief that I pushed out of the campsite early that morning into a soft mizzle as most campers nursed hangovers. Checking the cycle path map again, I had a hopefully pleasant exit planned from the city following trails through sculpture gardens, golf courses, along river valleys before picking up the road to Pingvellir.

A site of considerable significance in Icelandic history – the location of the first Alping or Parliament – Pingvellir’s geological credentials attracted me. Here, rather vividly, you can see where the Eurasian and North American plates diverge, resulting in a starkly defined rift. For me, this was no simple exercise in tourist tick-boxing. I wanted to spend a night in the rift, and then follow it on my bike.

Plotting a course through Reykjavik’s northern, and distinctly American-feeling suburbs, I found highway 36 heading east. The mizzle died away and I followed a valley of well-tended fields and pretty farmsteads.

The road soon started to climb and the landscape grew more barren. Fields were replaced with moorland and it felt like home. I could have been on a training ride in Saddleworth.

I overtook a couple touring with a toddler, their precious cargo comfortably ensconced in a trailer. Climbing into a nasty crosswind, I passed another cyclist who’d decided to push. His walk was accompanied by a cloud of irritating flies, a bug I would soon be calling friend.

Working against the wind, I eventually made the lay-by above Pingvallavatn, which promises an attractive vista of this huge sheet of water but was shrouded in cloud today. A mother and daughter approached me, the mum offering to take my picture with the bike. She was very interested in Tango and his luggage.

‘We overtook you back there… Perhaps next time we can cycle?’ she ventured to her evidently skeptical daughter.

After the climb came a wonderful descent into Pingvellir. Several campgrounds dot this area – a national park – and I pitched near the visitors’ centre and spent a very pleasant afternoon seeing the park’s sites by bike, blissfully unencumbered by luggage. My only frustration was that there was nowhere to lock the bike. Riding the flat roads of Pingvellir is far preferable to driving, but it’s an activity the park doesn’t want to nurture it seems.

There is an excellent network of walking trials, though, and I swapped the bike for sandals. The valley is beautiful, carpeted with low forest and lava fields, a product of shield volcano Skjaldbreiður up the valley.

Later, at the campground, I bumped into the couple with the toddler again. They had hoped for more provisions at the Pingvellir’s visitors’ centre rather than the expensive, although good, cafe.

After the tumult of Reykjavik, I slept well here. I dreamt of the ground moving where I lay while the cooler temperatures aided a more comfortable night tucked in my sleeping bag.

I awoke on Monday – a national holiday for Icelanders – although my buzz of excitement was not down to the day off work. Today I would leave the asphalt and head north along gravel roads, my first taste of the interior, albeit an easy introduction on the edge.

I enjoyed coffee and Hjónabandssæla at the cafe, an Icelandic cake which I’d make the acquaintance of many times on my trip.

The mizzle returned and, with an accompanying wind, a fine rain hissed on the windows of the cafe. The Icelandic flag on the cafe terrace was drawn into a shimmering rectangle pointing north. The wind would be at my back for at least half of the day.

A fleet of monster four-wheel-drives pulled up and tour groups spilled out for victuals. I slid away and turned right onto highway 550. Low basalt columns lined the route to the west describing the drop of the land as the plates move in opposing directions, while to the east snow-capped peaks emerged from the mist as the rain stopped once again.

Very soon, the crumbling Tarmac gave way to gravel marked by warning signs for motorists who fancy tackling these routes in their hire cars.

The gravel surface was largely sound and provided an agreeable static hiss under my tires. Although so close to Pingvellir, the roads were quiet. I didn’t see a soul for another 40 kms.

Getting to grips with gravel, and avoiding the loose sections, I was presented with a wall of hills and a seemingly minor track rearing up at an alarming angle to a pass. This, it transpired, was the road and the 15% climb got the blood flowing. I clicked down and ground it out, wheels slipping as I searched for the best line. In retrospect, and given what was to come later in the trip, this was pretty small beer. However, right there, right then, it was exhilarating. Like no riding I’d experienced before. I loved it.

Upon reaching the minor pass, this excitement was amped again as I sped down a descent to Sandklufavatn. At speed on an unsealed road and carrying 20kg plus of gear, Tango felt very assured. I definitely had the right tool for the job.

I stopped at the bottom of the descent and drank in the scene. Wind buffeted me as I gazed at the bald hills and grey waters of the lake. It was other-worldly and, just for a moment, I felt what I can only describe as exposure that grips me when clambering over pathless Scottish hills.

The road followed a barren valley and I pedaled on with a grin. This was exactly why I’d come to Iceland… and Iceland was delivering in spades. Empty roads and mildly scary scenery! As I write these words now, the grin is back.

I pushed on and the rain returned with a renewed zeal. Not mizzle now, but heavy drops that were a product of the surrounding peaks.

As my road climbed I had a decision to make. I bumped into a highways worker at the campground in Reykjavik who said the continuation of 550, the Kaldidular, was not yet open and progress would be very tricky. Consulting the highways map on the excellent roads service website, I’d noted this while route planning.

Climbing to the junction, a lonely and desolate place today, I opted for the easier route and headed west along 52. In retrospect, this was the wrong call and my overly cautious nature – a useful ally when in the hills alone – got the better of me.

That turn put me on an even more unkempt road though for a short while and my wheels fought for grip as I spun the pedals, trying to gain ground. Heart pumping, I stopped for food and water having neglected these fundamentals since leaving Pingvellir.

Seeking shelter from the savage wind behind a boulder, the cloud broke and the sun illuminated my surroundings – a parched, mountainous basin – crowned by remnants of the winter’s snow.

I embarked on a long descent back to civilisation and learnt two lessons of riding these gravel roads – fortunately with no ill consequences. First, my rear derailleur started jumping. On inspection, the mech was crammed with dust and small stones. I gave it a mild pressure wash with my bidon and cleared the gunk. This continued to give me problems whenever I ventured off sealed surfaces.

Second, as I sped down my glorious, sun-soaked descent, I approached a bridge and hit a huge pothole in the gravel before the concrete deck. This almost catapulted me over the handlebars and the consequences could have been grave. I skidded to a halt, shaking with adrenaline. Inspecting the hole, it was clear that it was a product of the junction of the sound deck of the bridge and the loose, unsealed surface. I found similar holes at other bridges en route and treated them with caution. I’d urge you to do likewise.

I pedaled on, calmed down, and enjoyed my ride along yet another beautiful valley of farms and fields. Here I encountered another experience that would prove to be a motif of my time in Iceland – Redshanks loudly demonstrating their disapproval of my presence and following me, for a short while, along the road.

Hitting Tarmac again I reached a junction with highway 50 and had another decision to make. After chickening out of the Kaldidalur, I could head to Borgannes, which promised to be busy and not that appealing, or continue my ultimately northerly trajectory towards the head of the Kjolur and find somewhere to camp on route.

My first route decision was very sound I followed another quiet, if rough, gravel route (510) heading to highway one. The ring road was not so peasant, though, and after half an hour or so I found a petrol station and grabbed some supplies from its meagre stocks. With time ticking on, I consulted the map and spotted a campsite at Varmaland. I was covered in dust and my face was lined with the tracks of sweat. Nice… no wonder I received a slightly alarmed look when I asked the pretty girl at the petrol station when the campsite was.

She pointed me in the right direction and I pedaled off, soon finding the campground after swerving around a pack of excitable dogs which, it seemed, had been waiting for a stupid cyclist to bark at and torment all day.

Varmaland campsite in the grounds of the village’s geothermal swimming pool felt very closed on this holiday evening. I pitched only to discover there were no showers. Bugger.

I made the best of a bad wash and collapsed on my sleep mat and immediately dozed off.

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2 thoughts on “Iceland by bicycle – day three and four. Pingvellir and the gravel road north-ish

  1. lovely piece – somehow the grammar of the writing has a Gulliver’s travel feel to it (“I came around a bank and found…” etc, etc), just the kind of escapist reading I needed on a bleak early Friday morning (and it seems lonely planet is wrong when they say Icelanders are introverted and judgemental!)

    1. Hi and thanks for the comment. I wish I had more time to spend on this. I usually bash out these posts while on the train back from London on an Ipad. I’m usually tired and the predictive nature of that keyboard drives my nuts hence the strange typos which I’m still trying to filter out 🙂 I have two main observations of Icelandic folk which’ll emerge in later posts. Very best wishes, NW.

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