By Colt Fetters
I awake as the plane touches down at Keflavik International Airport in Iceland. It’s midnight. I wipe the sleep from my eyes and exit the plane into a small airport. We work our way through customs and to the baggage claim; standing alone in the middle of an aisle are our banged and beaten bike boxes. We unwrap our bikes from the unconventional packaging we threw together hours before our flight and quietly assemble our bikes and pack our panniers.
Surprisingly, despite a few scratches, dings, and dents, our machines are in decent shape. Being much too excited to sleep, we set out on the road in the dim northern light at 6am, greeted by a barren landscape filled with rock and sand. Dark clouds move slowly overhead.
As fresh college graduates, my buddy Luke and I are cash poor, which means our trip has a very tight budget. Trying to save money, we managed to find a couch-surfing host in Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik. Our host, Guðmundur, insisted that we call him Gummi; we didn’t argue because weren’t able to pronounce his full name anyway.
We owe our trip to Gummi, since before our arrival we really had no plan, and no idea where we would be bicycling. Through a long night of deliberation, Gummi was able to talk us into attempting the entire Ring Road, which covers 828 miles, circling around the country of Iceland. That night, while lying in a miniature bed, which is usually reserved for Gummi’s young daughter (with my feet hanging from the edge), I worried that with our lack of experience, we may be biting off a bit more than we could chew. I try and remember if we informed Gummi that this is our first ever bike tour.
The following morning, Gummi escorted us through the weaving bike trails of Reykjavik to the edge of town. He rolled slowly to a stop and pointed to a busy highway with no shoulder. “That is the Ring Road” he exclaimed. This was as far as he was taking us.
Luke and I set out on the Ring Road as the light rain grew progressively heavier. Being from Washington State, we’re used to rainfall, but not this kind. Rain hurtled through the air sideways, invading every nook and cranny, soaking nearly everything we owned. The pockets of my rain shell filled with puddles of water. It’s our first day on the Ring Road and my ‘waterproof’ cycling computer has already died, along with my iPhone. I chalk these losses up as a sacrifice to Odin, the mythological Germanic god; hopefully he will take pity on us for the rest of the trip after these sacrifices.
We pedal slowly up a mountain pass while strong gusts of wind intermittently blow us into the middle of the lane, where speeding traffic weaves around us. Icelandic people have a fascination with extremely large tires; most of their vehicles are equipped with them, and if they happen to run over one of us, I doubt they would even feel a bump.
We quickly learned to ride during the night to avoid the wind and the traffic; this is possible with the perpetual daylight at 66 degrees north. Seriously, during the summer the damned sun never sets. Our destination for the day lies roughly 90 kilometers away from Reykjavik, and after 55 kilometers we roll into the town of Selfoss. After being beaten down by the storm, we decide to hole up for the night and reevaluate our plans in the morning. Despite it being 10pm, the sun lies along the horizon as we set up our tent and crawl in. The birds chirp loudly; I suppose they are just as confused as we are with this never-ending daylight. I fold my buff, slide it over my eyes to block the light, and fall fast asleep.
Our route is simple: follow Highway 1—known as the Ring Road—and find detours along the way. Each morning we break out the map and pick a town 50 to 100 kilometers away. After a week our routine flows easily, we boil water for coffee and oatmeal, break down camp, load our bikes and plop our sore butts onto familiar leather saddles. During our longer days of riding, we need extra motivation, and the best motivation for two perpetually hungry bicyclists is food!
Out in the distance I see them, the waving red flags, indicating a gas station, which are usually coupled with Iceland’s version of a fast food restaurant. More importantly, the home of the iconic Icelandic hotdog. These dogs are little meaty tubes of pure stoke sprinkled with fried onions and mustard. Hotdogs are about the cheapest food you can find in Iceland, so every now and then we eat a few too many. Two dogs in one sitting is normal, unless it’s a holiday, in which case the market is closed and we have most likely run out of groceries. During those days, it’s not uncommon for us to eat four or five dogs chased by a few soft serve ice cream cones for dessert. Originally we thought we would finish this trip fit and trim, now we realize that we may be gaining some weight.
Food isn’t cheap here in Iceland, so we’ve resorted to other means. We post up at the local fast food restaurant/gas station in town while hordes of tourists wander from their travel buses, buy expensive meals and leave leftovers on their tables. We’ve taken to nabbing these leftovers once they’ve finished. Sounds tacky but it works well, except for today. Luke discovers a plate of hearty bread left on a table that he grabs and brings back to our table, in his state of hunger he fails to notice it hardly looks to have been touched. As soon as he sits, we notice a lady looking around confused and suspicious, likely looking for her plate of bread sitting on our table. We watch her walk to the front counter, talk to the cashier, and return to her table with a new plate of bread. Luke quickly destroys the evidence and stares down at the ground while chewing with bulging cheeks. We decide we need a bit more reconnaissance before any more of these missions.
As days of cycling turn into weeks, we cruise down the road’s centerline while large dark clouds loom overhead. The wind is always blowing and it seems that it only travels in one direction: straight into our faces, slowing us to a snail’s pace. We learn in Iceland there’s no such thing as a tailwind. The key is to take turns drafting off each other, following within inches to stay out of the wind. Following this close can be tricky—“Icelandic kiss” is becoming all too familiar—this happens when one of our front tires kisses the other’s rear tire, which can sometimes sends one of us wildly out of control.
Throughout our tour we heard mumblings of a short cut, some of these mumblings good and others bad. This short cut would take us up and over a mountain pass we’ve been told should be devoid of snow this time of year, then dump us into a valley just short of Egilsstadir, one of the biggest towns on the eastern side of Iceland. We arrive at the turnoff to our shortcut, and are immediately greeted by dirt roads and a large yellow sign cautioning us of the extreme weather on the pass and 17 percent grades. Starting with fresh legs, we attack the hills with vigor but soon the sustained steepness pushes us to a crawl.
Mark Jenkins, in his story “Off the Map” states: “Pushing a bicycle is absurd. It’s a sacrilege. Like pushing an airplane or rowing a sailboat.” Well, Mark may be right, but sometimes there’s just no other choice. Being inexperienced bicycle tourers means we have unnecessarily heavy bicycles, mix that with unpaved steep grades full of potholes and well, maybe even Mark would be pushing his bicycle. So at some points we push, at some points we pedal, and finally there’s snow, which turns the air cold and so we pedal some more.
Fortunately we pedal through mostly dry roads that split massive 20-foot tall snow banks, along giant creeks rushing with snowmelt, and pedal up about 3,000 vertical feet. After a couple hours climbing, we reach the top; we are stunned by the beauty of the vast emptiness of the snow-covered mesa. We stay long enough to don our puffy jackets and a second pair of gloves before the cold drives us down the other side of the pass into warmer weather. At the end of the day, I crawl into my old down sleeping bag and am greeted by a familiar stale aroma: the smell that sends my mind stirring with memories of all the wild places this bag and I have been together. I drift off to sleep thinking this particular day of bicycling may be one of the best in my entire life, right behind the day I learned how to ride.
Today, we’re riding our steel steeds 70 kilometers to the town of Egilsstaðir. We struggle to pronounce any Icelandic words, so instead of trying we use nicknames for towns, streets or even people. For instance, Bústaðavegur would be Bust-a-move or Hvammstangi would be referred to as Hamstring. We’ve noticed that locals don’t really appreciate the nicknames so we’ve learned to keep them to ourselves.
Hot tubs and old men
Once arriving in Egilsstaðir, we set up camp, ditch our gear, and ride light bikes to the local town pool. With all of the geothermal activity in Iceland, community pools are very popular. Almost every town has some kind of pool, and for a small fee, we soak our sore legs in the hot tubs and revitalize our spirits.
Our hope is to meet young Icelandic ladies; to our disappointment, the tubs are normally filled with older overweight Nordic men. We sit and soak anyway, knowing these tubs are our only chance of recovering from the punishment that we put them through each day. Icelandic ladies haven’t seemed to take much interest in us; maybe our bicycle clothing doesn’t quite cut the fashion standards, or that we’re too cheap to buy them a drink, or maybe it’s the odd body odor that we can’t seem to get rid of. Whatever it is, we don’t let it crush our psyche.
Once we leave Egilsstaðir, it’s a three-day ride before we reach the next town. Due to the lack of civilization, this segment is when our bikes are at their heaviest, packed with meals and water. We set out with our fully loaded bikes, our panniers about to burst open at the seams, and are immediately greeted by the wind.
With each pedal stroke our bikes surge forward, and my mind slowly floats away. The mind travels to strange places while on a bike ride, processing old memories, mulling over past experiences and relationships, or it just floats. Sometimes hours can pass and seem like minutes. Riding bikes is our day job: eight hours of work with an hour-long lunch break – although a really cool day job where the views are world class and the air is fresh and clean.
We’re making good time, better than expected. Some days we ride over 100 kilometers just because we can’t wait to see what’s around the next bend in the road. Being ahead of schedule has given us the opportunity to take a significant detour. Outside the “large” city of Akureyri, we leave the Ring Road and set out on a quiet country road, hoping to bicycle as far north as possible.
Ferry time to the Arctic Circle
Another early morning, the alarm on my watch breaks the silence with its insistent beeps. I start boiling water for coffee and oatmeal as Luke breaks down the tent. We ride our bikes through a quiet sleeping town and down to the port where our ferry awaits. People give us odd looks as we ride our bikes onto the ferry; a shipmate helps us carefully strap our bikes to the large bins of fish at the back of the vessel. Destination is Grimsey Island, the most Northern point of Iceland, where we plan to ride the few kilometers into the outer edges of the Arctic Circle. We stand in the open air on the front of the ferry, straining our eyes to catch glimpses of whales and porpoises out in the distance. Grimsey Island is a birdwatchers paradise.
Once we arrive, we unstrap our bikes from the bins of fish, wheel them off the ferry, and set out through narrow streets, which quickly turn to gravel and then to simple dirt paths. Swarms of arctic tern, gulls, and puffins soar overhead as we ride our bicycles down narrow dirt paths until we reach the most northern tip of the island; we’ve arrived in the Arctic Circle. Sitting in the grass next to my bicycle, I stare north at the seemingly endless Greenland Sea and ponder what my younger self would think of all this. I try and remind myself of what I’m doing and where I am in the world, because so much of the time, this all feels too normal.
After four weeks on the road while coasting down the long winding road, we manage a view of the capitol–Reykjavik—the last stop on our tour. I’m filled with elation at the sight of the finish; however, this also means our trip is coming to an end. The sadness is a fleeting emotion and I embrace the sense of victory and accomplishment. I find myself dancing on my bicycle as I cruise down the hill toward our final destination.
Only a few months ago this trip was nothing but a half-baked plan derived over a few beers at our local college bar, and now we’ve actually accomplished the trek all the way around the entire Ring Road along with a couple of detours! After a month in the tent together, cycling beside each other day after day, we weren’t sure we were ready to be done. Our bicycles had become part of our everyday lives, and though we had pedaled them every day for a month, there was nothing else we wanted to do, except ride just a little further.
Pulling into the downtown metropolis of the capital city Reykjavik is surreal. A month before we had left this city not knowing what was ahead of us and now we are back with sore legs, knee problems, a few extra pounds of belly fat, and 1,000 miles under our belt. Detours here and there slowly bumped up our mileage, increasing our total distance traveled from the originally planned 828 miles to just over 1,000. The end of our incredible, epic—and sometimes arduous—tour called for a celebration. How to celebrate in Iceland? The only way we know how: hotdogs and beer, of course.