In 2012 I spent about a week cycling round south west Iceland; the below account was originally published on my old blogspot.
Arrow straight the ribbon of tarmac rolls out to a vanishing point, flowing over green gently undulating farmland, in the middle distance a line of green hills; further the horizon is broken by mountains with ice fields clinging to their upper slopes. Far down the road a car appears to crawl towards me, seeming to make little progress against the panorama; tiny below the blue sky.
In such idilic conditions it’s easy to sell cycle touring, the open road, big skies, leisurely km of smooth tarmac disappearing beneath the wheels of the bike as you feel the ebb and flow of the landscape. On the bike the view changes slowly, morphing as you move through it, giving time to enjoy the subtle changes in angle as different aspects of the land are brought into focus or profile; not the blink and you miss it snapshots you get from the car.
Then there is the feeling that your earning every experience; the buzz at the end of the day that those hard won miles have come as a result of your own efforts makes the experience of travel all the more rewarding. The journey becomes an event, each mile a distinct memory part of the experience.
For a country as spectacular as Iceland the bike seamed the obvious choice to explore the south west of the land of ice and fire. The trip would also be my first proper shot at cycle touring apart from an abortive attempt in Austria about ten years ago when we broke ourselves on Day 1 and let the train take the strain from then on.
The beauty comes with a bite though, and many of the days can best be described as a challenge; Iceland can throw down wind and rain with the best of them, and on a bike you really don’t have anywhere to hide. Heading out in September I knew I was taking a bit of a risk on the conditions and I didn’t escape. One particularly miserable stretch between Pingvellir and Geysir sticks in the mind; fog bound, up hill and into the teeth of the wind whistling off the interior (strong enough to stop me freewheeling down hill!).
With rain driven by the gusting wind working its way into every patch of unprotected skin, the ride becomes a mental game of counting down the miles, driving the body forward with the motivation of a hot cup of tea at some ill defined time in the future. Counting down the yellow marker flags which line the road every 50m to tease and taunt you as you slog into the headwind, the word saturated does not come close.
The roads themselves are a joy to ride on and in a novel experience for those used to riding in the UK, open empty and wells surfaced and also often devoid of other motorised vehicles. Apart from sections of Highway 1 the 800 mile “Ringroad” they are quite and flowing; drivers almost always give you plenty of room when passing usually in some form of modified 4×4 with a roaring engine and monster off road tyres. In the south west, all the major routes i followed, and by that I mean up to ten cars an hour are smooth tarmac with none of the cracks and potholes which can make cycling in the UK so much fun.
I had hired a bike and trailer out here instead of trying to fly my bike out; this was half a mistake as it meant going back to 26″ wheels, and having got used to the easy rolling of the 29″ tyres I ride at home just highlighted how much more efficient my 29er is on anything but the most technical terrain. To be honest the bike I rented, a mountain bike with front suspension was overkill for this tour as I stayed on tarmac for the duration and therefore just carried around unnecessary weight. For future trips and a crossing the interior where roads are just packed gravel I will certainly bring my big wheels out there to eat up the miles
One of the things I was really keen to try this tour was a trailer for all my kit. Cycle touring used to involve messing around with a pannier system on the back wheel, or if you really have packing efficiancy issues on the front wheel as well. I’ve cycled with panniers before and found them to really weigh down the rear of the bike, cock up the centre of gravity making handling uncertain, be awkward to balance, and usually be too small.
Almost through day one, heading towards Pingvellir
Trailers seem a much better idea especially as you can now pick up models designed for pretty rough off road use where in my opinion, panniers really fall down. Beast of burden or BoB trailers sit behind the back wheels attached to a modified hub and can pretty much go anywhere you would take the bike, the more expensive models even equipped with a suspension fork.
The result of this setup is that weight is kept lower giving the bike a more natural centre of gravity and hence normal handling. The trailer came with a massive dry bag which swallowed all my kit, even the monstrous Quasar ETC I was force to bring as my tent. I flew out with just over 25kg which all had to be towed around with me; being able to put all this weight off the bike behind the back wheel really minimised the feeling of carrying a lot of weight.
Not getting lost is also quite easy in Iceland, as there are not many roads to get lost on! I used a1:300,000 road map with couple of 1:50,000 for the more popular areas. The maps themselves are poor by UK standards (the Ordnance Survey spoil us) and you would need to be careful and know your nav if going off road. Places are well signed but there are no intermediate distance markers which is a grind if you want to know what you’ve covered. I did take out a cycle computer but could not get it to work properly on the bike.
So basically I’m hooked, cycle touring is physical yet relaxing; each day becoming little adventure. The flexibility of stopping when and where you spot a view or something interesting, or enjoying the rush of wind as you roll downhill. It’s the simple joy of carrying your life around for a few days of setting up camp and resting with a brew and a book at the end of a day. A trailer is going on the kit wish list, and the Western Isles into my sights for spring.
A bit more info…
Kit and logistics
Tent: I had thought long and hard about this, I own two tents a small light one man Vango TBS100 and a two man Tera Nova Quasar ETC. The Vango was the obvious choice for weight and space but it’s old, and the fly has seen better days, it’s also its one pole design and although strong is not going to stand up to a real battering. The Quasar is practically indestructible, pitched correctly it will stay standing long after most tents have given up the ghost; the ETC porch also offers the space to cook and keep kit dry in Iceland’s changeble weather; but its heavy and bulky, with two people not and issue… but with one? I’m glad I took it but it was a ball-ache to lug around.
Bag: Switched to the four season down bag last minute, glad I did it got cold at night. Keep it in its own dry bag and protect it with your life.
Stove: Primus Omnifuel TI, light, and powerful especially if you just bring it set up for gas. Fuel canisters are easy to pick up in Rekjavick and you can often get half used canisters free at campsites.
Food: Supermarkets in main towns only, N1 petrol stations act as grocery stores where you can pick up all the basics. They also have microwaves and sandwich toasters for you to use to cook a mid ride lunch (this is amazing!!!).
Campsites: Where I was in the south west of Iceland usually good; hot showers, covered/indoor seating areas, the bigger ones have internet access. Cheap too – £5 ish
Geothermal baths: End of day bliss, even the ones that stank of brimstone (sulphur) Excellent, excellent, excellent
A video is now up of my travels http://mountaingoatjon.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/im-slowly-learning-with-video-that-you.html
Camping at Pingvellir