Iceland by bicycle – practicalities and gear thoughts

Getting to Iceland

Ready to fly... Evoc bike bag at kit at Manchester Aiport
Ready to fly… Evoc bike bag at kit at Manchester Aiport

Iceland sits in the North Atlantic between the UK and Greenland. It takes just over two hours to fly to the main international airport at Keflavik, which is approximately 40km away from the capital Reykjavik.

If taking your own bicycle, you must check your airline’s current rules and regs for bike carriage. These can vary between airlines and it’s a good idea to take a print out of the rules to save any additional fuss at the check-in desk.

I flew with Iceland Air from Manchester. My flight cost a shade over £200 and I ended up paying another £100 to cover the cost of bike carriage both ways, all paid at the check-in desk. The airline also requests that you reserve a space for the bike in the baggage hold which I did separately by email. Continue reading

Iceland by bicycle days 11, 12 and 13 – the wild south west

Selfoss Church
Selfoss Church

I was in no hurry to leave Selfoss… having said that, I was in no real hurry to do anything.

I had some touring admin to sort – toiletries, new gas canister, food (always food!) – and was spoilt for choice. Despite the grim summation in the guidebook, I liked Selfoss. It was functional, yes, but a pleasure to pootle around by bicycle. It trundled around housing estates and backstreets in search of regular Iceland.

Panniers stocked again, I found a quite road heading south and to the coast. The sea would now be my companion for the remainder of the trip. I planned to head to the south west corner of the country before heading north and back to the cabins at Keflavik. The distances were not great and I had time to take my time.

I pedalled away from Selfoss into lonely fields. The road was quiet, the cycling perfect. I enjoyed he contrast to the challenges of the mountains. Even in my relatively short sortie around this fascinating country, I was gaining some semblance of its contours and colour.

I came across a fenced copse to the side of the road and ventured through the gate and to a small clearing. The ground was rough, moss covering shallow gnarly rootstocks, but in the clearing I found stone benches arranged around an elevated fire pit. I sat down… apart from the gentle hiss of the branches above, the spot was quiet, calm.

This was forestry association ground. It struck me that the sheltered oasis provided welcome protection for self-powered travellers in a country where most folk rely on the internal combustion for conveyance.

I pedalled on and soon hit the shore, my arrival marked by a heavy coastal fog that soaked my clothes and gave the journey a sinister edge – John Carpenter synth soundtracks jangled in my ears.

Workaday fishing villages dot this bleak coastline and the local authorities have tried to capitalise on Iceland’s tourist credentials with a range of interpretive panels.

It may lack the brochure appeal of the Golden circle, but I loved it.

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Iceland by bicycle days nine and ten – rest and the slow road south east

Gulfoss IcelandI liked the Hotel Gulfoss… most of all because they let me stay.

The guy on reception, who reminded me of Teutonic über domestique Jens Voigt, had initially boosted my confidence. However, his curious glance at my damp attire suggested he was no weekend rouleur.

I was offered a functional yet comfortable room and I quickly emptied my gear for an airing. A luxurious shower followed ahead of a superb dinner of homemade soup and well-cooked salmon. Looking out the Gulfoss’s huge picture window, rain continued to hammer against the glass. I’d made the right decision.

I pedalled out into an initially gloomy yet mercifully dry morning. The road was dotted with deep puddles as I pedalled back to the falls at Gulfoss for a proper look after last night’s wash out.

As I reached the car park, already busy with day- tripper monster trucks bound for the mountains. I parked Tango next to a pair of Surly Long Haul Truckers and headed along the boardwalk to a huge cloud of spray.

The falls at Gulfoss are one of three tourist honey pots of the so-called Golden Circle. I’d already visited one, the excellent Pingvellir, so the falls had much to live up to. The final destination was Geysir, a few kilometres down the road, where I planned to spend the rest of the day.

The falls were indeed impressive, but a fellow tourist gave them short shrift, claiming there were better in other parts of the country. I presumed he meant Dettifoss, far off my itinerary sadly.

I pottered around, trying to capture the grandeur of the cataracts on camera with limited success. I returned to my bike and found one of the 4×4 excursion drivers staring intently at Tango fully laden with luggage. I hung back for a while and watched him examine the bike while sipping a coffee. I think he was trying to establish where the petrol went. After some minutes, he slowly shook his head and wandered off.

Leaving Gulfoss, I pedalled into warm sunshine. My descent to Geysir was rapid, following the edge of lovely Hvita river valley briefly before it opened up into wide plains crossed by tributaries stretching off to the south.

I arrived at a distinctly American feeling resort: shops, restaurants and hotels surrounded a substantial parking lot.

While the scale was smaller than similar sights I’d visited over the pond, the US influence was palpable. I pitched at Geysir campsite, finding a comfortable grassy pitch next to steaming geothermal vents and in earshot of the ever-faithful Strokkur geyser.

Before joining the oohing and ahhing crowds, I had work to do. The Kjolur Gerjiiga had dislodged a few spokes on my rear wheel and a plinking and plonking soundtrack now accompanied every pedal stroke. The wheel was still pretty much true though, and half and hour with a spoke key soon silenced the noisy nipples.

The sun was now gloriously warm and any kit not dry after my night in the hotel soon would be. But my optimism was soon dented… I wandered to the loo only to emerge into a short lived but eager hailstorm.

I enjoyed some optimistically priced lunch at a restaurant and wandered to main attraction.

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Iceland by bicycle days seven and eight – Kjolur

KJOLURI enjoyed another wild night in the tent. While a broken pole during the pitch may have raised concerns (easily fixed by a Pole Doctor) a wind that screamed up the valley at midnight prompted a move.

As the eerie twilight became another clear, crystalline morning in the mountains, the scene from the tent door was benign, betraying the previous night.

Breakfasting and striking camp quickly, I pushed off and retraced my route for a couple of kilometres before stopping for pictures at the head of route 35 – the Kjolur.

The Kjolur is one of two main routes across the stark interior of Iceland. It is regarded as the easier and, at 200km, is shorter. Largely gravel road, passage is made easier by the pipe bridges which cross rivers en route. The longer Sprengisandur involves fording braided glacial rivers… maybe next time.

Leaving the Tarmac once more, I began my journey south proper. The first section followed the lovely valley of the Blanda and as the road climbed the head of the valley the scenery became increasingly wild and barren. As it did so, the road slowly deteriorated and I soon learned why the Kjolur remains a challenge for the cyclist. The passage of 4×4 rakes the gravel into ridges – a washboard. These humps look pretty insignificant at first but they are arranged in such a way to cause maximum discomfort. My memory of A-Level maths is hazy at best but I’m sure it’s possible to prove that the ridges of the Kjolur are set at the optimum frequency to shake a bike to bits and dislodge a few fillings… and brain cells.

Avoiding the ridges can be tricky. It may be possible to find a better line on the edges of the road and sometimes at the centre, but rocks and soft sand are the main hazards away from the main tyre tracks. My two- inch Schwalbe Marathon Extremes were no match for the sand.

Fully engaged in my riding, I soon reached the Afangi mountain hut, one of a handful of welcome stop offs on the main Kjolur promising refreshment, a flattish place to camp and a bed in a dorm if you need it.

I heaved Tango across the rough driveway and tried a door… locked. I searched its prefabricated frontage in vain and hunted round he back where I found a small terrace and ubiquitous hot pots. The entry was, of course, obvious and I found it eventually. The exertions of the morning were evidently taking their toll.

I walked into a modest yet welcoming dining area and joined just one other traveller, a motorist, taking a break from the rattling progress of the road.

My requirements were simple: coffee and cake, and lots of it please. My host – a lovely, chatty Icelandic woman – delivered. I was pleased to see Hjónabandssæla was on the menu so I ordered a large portion with whipped cream. A huge coffee urn was placed on my table and I helped myself with relish.

I polished off the cake at an equally embarrassing rate. However, seemingly impressed with my enthusiasm, my host offed me more on the house. ‘If you can eat it, you can have it,’ she said.

I could, and I did.

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Iceland by bicycle, day five and six. Let the wind blow

Face says it all... f??@ing traffic and wind. The joys of the ringroad.
Face says it all… f??@ing traffic and wind. The joys of the ring road.

A night in a dancing tent concluded with the most curious sound. I could hear a strange buzzing noise outside the tent. At first it sounded as if it were immediately outside, before abating. Then it would sound distant, then immediately above and perilously close to the tent roof.

A little bleary eyed, I stuck my head out the door and saw nothing. Then, that noise again… this time above. I looked up and saw a bird scudding high above, engaged in energetic aerobatics.

This, I later discovered, was a snipe and this strange, almost mechanical, buzzing would accompany my camps for the next couple of nights. The buzz is the result of two wing appendages that can just be seen protruding from the tail. Why the bird has them is not clear, but naturally it does not rely on stealth to feed.

It’s beyond me to describe this sound, so thanks to the wonders of the interweb, here it is.

Consulting the map at Varmaland, I realised I had a couple of transitional days. I would be riding the ring road which, based on previously experience, was a prospect I wasn’t relishing.

However, the map indicated that the road would climb a pass before dropping down to the north coast. And the wind that had animated the tent all night would largely be at my back. This would be a day for bagging some miles.

I retraced my wheel tracks from last night and picked up yet more Corny Bigs (other chocolate bars are available) but avoided loading my panniers too heavily as the map indicated there would be other grocery opportunities on my route.

I rolled onto the ring road and traffic was mercifully light and those motorists I did see were courteous to say the least, pulling over to the far side of the road to overtake – UK driver could learn much. I appreciated this gesture and didn’t tire in offering a wave of acknowledgment each time I was passed.

First port of call on the road was Bifröst, a handy take off point for some impressive hiking. A rather unremarkable hotel and resort served as a stark counterpoint to the tumult and chaos of moss dappled lava beds that choke the valley floor.

The road bisects this stark, unforgiving terrain, and provides relatively easy passage. A few Kms on and the road followed the course of the Nordura.

Then the climbing began. However, this was climbing at its best. A steady incline through wonderful scenery bathed in warm sun. I slipped into my usual high cadence, low gear rhythm and ground it out. Later, I pulled off the road to take on water and refill my bottles from a gorgeous mountain stream, boiling the water as a precaution.

Yet again, the scene reminded me of the Pennine roads of home, albeit amid grander mountains and distinctly un-Pennine weather.

I climbed on, the road sometimes snaking across the terrain and depositing me into the teeth of the wind, which had largely aided my progress earlier on the climb.

After a few too many false summits, I reached a layby occupied by an Italian couple touring on mountain bikes with trailers. Their English was about as good as my Italian, but through the universal lexicon of sign language we shared route and experiences…namely the ferocity of the wind.

Our game of Give us a Clue ended – Italy won – and I looked north. A stunning view opened up before me leading to the deep blue inlet of Hrútafjörður. The distance was deceptive given the clarity of the air but I had some way to ride in order to reach those waters, all of it glorious descent.

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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.

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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.  Continue reading