Here’s an inspirational guest post for you, from a guy called Gary, who’s a friend of a friend. I was impressed by his determination and motivation to ride around Iceland on a second hand bike, with little cycling experience. Enjoy his story, and please support his cause if you can.
Cycling around the land of fire and ice, by Gary Mahon
It was about 6 months ago when I came up with the idea of cycling around Iceland to raise money for the British Heart Foundation – I really didn’t have a big budget for the trip because it was self funded and I wanted to ensure all donations would go straight to the charity.
I picked up a second hand Carrera Subway that had hardly been used and after a few upgrades, it was ready for Iceland’s roads.
I swapped out the saddle and added a handlebar riser (I’m 6’3” and like an upright position) and I also swapped out the tyres for a pair of Schwalbe Marathon Plus Road Tyres.
I opted for a rear axle single wheel Skiiddii trailer that could carry a fair load and had a low profile to avoid catching the arctic winds. So with a cheap bike and trailer (less than £250 from eBay) and after a few months of training and hopefully just about enough bike knowledge to get by, I was on the plane heading toward the Arctic Circle!
Cycling in Iceland, using “Route 1”
My route stuck mostly to Road 1, Iceland’s circular ring road – I figured this way I was least likely to get lost, on reflection the likelihood of getting lost in Iceland while cycling isn’t huge, there are so few roads that there tends to only be one going in each direction, even the interior is well signposted due to the fact that these roads are mainly explored by tourists in 4×4’s.
The condition of the roads though is another matter entirely!
As you would expect – around the capital, the roads are well maintained with a good tarmac surface but are not even remotely cyclist friendly – often with no shoulder at all and heavy traffic. Thankfully these busy roads are restricted to within 10 miles of Reykjavik and once past the 10 mile radius things get a lot quieter and also the scenery gets much more inspiring.
Puncture protection on Iceland’s Route 1
On the outskirts of the more built up areas, the fringes of the roads tend to be littered with all sorts of stuff that will play havoc with your tyres, mostly metal parts thrown from passing traffic – I consider it a small miracle that I only picked up one puncture on my 927 mile trip, this was caused by sharp metal fibres from a shredded tyre just outside of Akureyri. High puncture protection levels are essential – I was pulling out all sorts of objects from my Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres on a daily basis and I can’t help but think if it wasn’t for them, I would be picking up a puncture more days than not!
The variety of road surfaces really keep you guessing and tends to change frequently – Route 1 is paved most of the way around with a huge swing in composition and quality of the surface which greatly affects the ride. In some areas crushed lava rock and gravel are mixed in with tar, which probably saved a fair bit of cash when paving the island, but really takes its toll on your backside! Other areas the fringes of the road are crumbling away due to the harsh conditions they have to endure over winter and some areas are just compressed dirt with potholes a plenty.
Once you stray off the main roads between towns you will very quickly find yourself on un-surfaced roads which are heavily gravel based and even on the more frequented routes the gravel can be pretty loose. I found on these occasions that I was mostly off the bike pushing as I didn’t want to risk a buckle and was only kitted out with road tyres as opposed to anything with better grip!
The only other busy section of road I came across was Road 41, the road between Keflavik airport and Reykjavik this is very heavily used by HGV’s and tourist buses – I decided to cycle it as I liked the idea of getting straight off the plane, putting my bike together and getting going, but knowing what I do now – I wouldn’t make the same decision again. The area is pretty much completely flat and the landscape is not a great introduction to the country – it’s an old lava field so not much to see other than rocks and moss for miles, also if you are unlucky with the wind as I was – there is nowhere to hide! This nicely lines up my next point.
The temperamental Iceland weather.
“Go in the summer” I thought to myself – that is, as it turns out, not a way to avoid the storms and freezing temperatures. Just make sure you are kitted up for all eventualities because the weather can change in a heartbeat – the temperature fluctuation when you head into a storm is unlike any other I have come across, one morning I set off in my shorts and sunglasses and within 1 hour I was being battered by a storm in minus 2, you really just have to get into the mindset of heading into whatever Iceland throws at you.
I quickly adjusted to the temperatures by doubling up on base layers and to be honest coming from Wales – the rain has never bothered me too much but without doubt Iceland’s trump card is definitely the wind! The strength and ferocity of the winds was without doubt the biggest challenge I faced, to give you an idea, Day 1 was spent pushing my bike along road 41 from the airport, the plan for that day was to reach Hvalfjord 50 miles away, but after 6 hours of 35 Km/h headwinds and torrential rain, I couldn’t even get onto the saddle and had to call it a day in Hafnarfjordur – it was the first sign of civilisation that I reached! The wind was a severe issue for my first 10 days and especially in the more mountainous regions of the northern fjords, there was very strong, consistent headwind on most days (isn’t there always) that made progress painful work!
The forecast over in Iceland could give you an idea of what you were about to face the day before but could very quickly change without much notice, one of the most difficult choices the cyclist faces pre-trip is what to do for accommodation, I opted to plan routes between hostels and guesthouses which are both pretty cheap, hostel were on average £20 a night for dorm rooms and guesthouses around £35 – £45 for a private room but the weather does present you with the tricky question – what if I can’t cover the distance needed?
The accommodation conundrum
Iceland has a population of around 300,000 people, two thirds of whom live in the capital area, this means that outside of the capital, options for accommodation can be few and far between. If you can’t get to your plan A accommodation – there may not be a plan B! I met cyclists on the trip that had camping gear with them, which is certainly a good way around this issue but they tended to be doing shorter tours and of course this does mean carrying a lot more gear.
I witnessed many tents (even expensive looking ones) flattened by the wind, and heard more than a couple of horror stories from cyclist having to abandon the idea of sleeping in their tents due to the storms. In fact one group I spoke to had abandoned their trip completely in the south of the island due to storms and torrential rain and caught a bus up to Northern areas in the hope of better days!
That said – I am still of the opinion, if you can take the extra weight, that a tent would be a good option for a shorter tour or to have as a backup for the days when you need a plan B, however as you are in a sub-arctic climate, seeking emergency shelter in the nearest farm building or hitching to the nearest town may something you are forced to consider.
Some of the more remote areas can have 100 miles between even small towns and in a storm that can last a couple of days, attempting to cycle through it is likely to burn thorough your food supplies and energy way too quickly to be productive.
There really isn’t an easy solution to this issue – its what makes Iceland such a challenge, it would be fair to say it’s the hurdle that nearly tripped me up! The best defence against it is to keep your plans flexible and be aware that if Iceland wants to change them, it will. If you can master this, please tell me how, in the first 2weeks I set my plans far too rigidly and I was guilty of pushing myself too in an attempt to achieve my Plan A goal, as a result I burned through all my energy in appalling conditions and made little progress, with the gift of hindsight I would have been much better off revising my goal when I had the option to and saving my energy for a better day, a lesson I learned the hard way!
It’s hungry work!
One difficulty I was not expecting was running out of food, I could carry plenty in my trailer but shops were often few and far between. 100 miles between shops is not uncommon and in Iceland families in the rural areas think nothing of driving miles for their once weekly shop, an issue for the cyclist especially on a long tour. Even when you do reach somewhere to shop it may only be a service station with very limited supplies, most don’t have fresh food or anything to build a meal from – just snacks and a couple of fast food options. Even when covering 70 – 80 miles a day it can be a couple of days between supermarkets, you can keep topped up with café’s and service stations on the way but these are more expensive and tend not to have the right types of food to keep you fuelled for a long day on the road.
My metabolism really ramped up at the end of week 1 and whenever I reached a shop I filled my trailer to bursting. On day 10 I set off on what I knew would be a tricky day, it was 100 miles between Reykjahlid and Eglisstadir with absolutely nothing in between, I was confident I had enough food to last 3 days and anticipated the crossing would take me 2. On the first day of the crossing, after 11 ½ hours of cycling I had eaten everything I had with me as I was battling a fierce headwind on the open plains for 70 miles, my guesthouse gave me an evening meal (they could see I was in a bit of a state) but I had nothing for the next day and only just managed to limp into the town before I had to stop.
This was by no means an isolated case so if you are thinking about tackling some of the more remote areas this is something to bear in mind – once again its all down to the wind, that day was so flat – if I was heading in the opposite direction I would have covered 100 miles quite easily and had plenty of food left for the next 2 days – it’s Iceland’s unpredictability factor that is difficult to plan for.
I would recommend carrying a healthy amount of spares with you as the terrain can be punishing for your bike and repair options are few and far between – the only bike shops on the island are Reykjavik, Akureryri and Eglisstadir, getting to them to sorting out a repair could easily set you back a couple of days and that’s if they have everything they need for your repair – for the most part, you are on your own! Most towns have garages that would help with welding or metalwork – I was down near Hofn on day 14 when the wind completely wiped me out off my bike and into a ditch, this mangled my rear axle trailer – a local garage helped me beat it back into shape.
The Icelandic people
In general the Icelandic people are very friendly and helpful once you get to know them a little, I heard many tourists comment that they find them unfriendly and stand-offish but I really found this not to be the case – they have a very dry sense of humour and will happily take the mick out of themselves (and you) but so many of them went out of their way to help me when they really didn’t have to! It was these little gestures that turn a bad day into a good one!
In Kirjubaejacklaustur I was having a bad day – I had to abandon the route for the day after 125 km when I discovered the petrol station that I was planning to get all my supplies from, was now an abandoned building (they neglected to mention that on their website.) this was a real blow! As I wasn’t planning to stay there for the night – the only accommodation was a hotel which was crazy expensive – after explaining to the manager that I was raising money for charity he sorted me out a really good deal and threw in an upgrade and breakfast, 10 minutes after I had checked in he knocked on the door with some free beers and food for me – I was a very happy man!
As if the scenery and friendly locals weren’t enough to entice you, there are some great culinary delights to discover along the way – I’m not talking about the rotted shark delicacies you may have heard of (seriously – steer well clear!) I’m talking hotdogs with remoulade and 99 ice creams dipped in chocolate, rolled in nuts – available at just about every service station you can find, I demolished more than my fair share of these on my way around!
What a sight to behold
Even on the hardest of my days out there all I would need to do for inspiration is lift up my head and have a look around – it is without doubt one of the most stunning and diverse countries you could ever hope to visit, the landscape is always evolving and unfolding right before your eyes, just when you think no view could be more stunning than the last – Iceland throws something new at you: cascading waterfalls; glaciers intertwining the mountains; lava fields; huge imposing volcanoes; stunning wildlife; iceberg lagoons; geothermal pools; sheer cliffs and sweeping black sand coastlines – this is exactly what makes it worth negotiating all these challenges. Everyday is a new adventure and however the day starts; it is anyone’s guess how it will end.
Iceland’s treasure trove of wonders are vast and completely mind blowing – but it doesn’t give them up easily, many days will be a fight against the elements that will seem unconquerable but if you can brave the storm, the rewards are completely breathtaking and worth every drop of blood sweat and tears!
To find out more about Gary’s trip, read his daily diary here:
That’s not all, folks! Here’s a Q&A session with Gary
I was so impressed with Gary’s account of his adventure, I wanted to know more and fired off a load of questions.
Fortunately for us, Gary was more than happy to oblige….. Read on!
After visiting the island 5 years ago with my wife (she was actually my girlfriend at the time – we got engaged under a waterfall in Iceland!) I always wanted to return – we travelled around by car, passing so many of the incredible sights in a flash – I liked the idea of being much more connected to the land on my bike. Sadly a friend of mine passed away on the 13th of August last year and I wanted to do something to raise money for the BHF in his memory.
These 2 ideas just kind of met up (revisiting Iceland and a fundraising Challenge) the result was this trip!
Cycling was something new to me, when I came up with the idea in January, I didn’t even have a bike – hadn’t been on one for many years. I used to cycle when I was a kid but after breaking my knee and having a few operations in university (rugby accident) I had the misconception that it would be too painful to do regularly – It was painful but no more so than walking which was a pleasant surprise.
I started on a stationary bike for the first 2 months to build up my fitness, I remember the first time I got on it – I was done after 15 minutes! I built it up every night after work until I had a good basic fitness level (it would be fair to say I was really unfit in January). I then started out on my bike along the prom where it was nice and flat building it up from 5 miles to 50 over the period of the next couple of months. I then built in more difficult terrain on the back roads between Colwyn Bay and Llanrwst doing one larger ride a week of about 40 miles and a few smaller ones – always with the trailer full loaded at 25 Kg. By July time I was easily able to cover 60 miles in a morning ride on hilly terrain – this is when I knew I was ready.
I had a National Geographic – Iceland map that was great for planning the route and plotting out shops, but the scale was 1:465,000 so was somewhat lacking in the finer details. Due to how rural Iceland is, it was never a problem – there tends to only be 1 road heading to most places! I also relied a lot on Google Maps for the directions on how to get to my hostels – some were really well hidden up farm tracks!
I did record the ride on Strava and many of my training rides – I found in Iceland that it was crashing a lot and ran into quite a few issues using it to monitor the route distance. I would often get the “Strava has recovered from a problem” message on the screen when I checked it. Oddly I never had this issue in training but I think it was due to the phone being used for camera / phone when recording the ride which I didn’t do in training. Also my phone got soaked a whole bunch of time which I’m sure didn’t help. Due to the length of some of the days, the battery would often die before the end of the day – but that said it gave all my friends and family at home a good idea of where I was and how I was getting on.
Other than the tyres which I have already mentioned, a fully loaded MP3 player was a must for me as I was travelling alone and special mention has to go to the buff that I had with me – it was worn in one form or another everyday! I also bought a pair of SealSkinz gloves with a high thermal rating – I was worried pre-trip that they would be too warm but they were spot on and once more there were never off – even on the warmer days.
Tiger Balm was great for the muscles at the end of the day.
If I were going again I would take a good quality lightweight tent to make dealing with the unpredictability of the weather easier. I would also have a healthy back up of Carb powders and energy gels for those moments when my reserves ran dry.
I lost over ½ stone over the 19 days – not helped, I’m sure, by the days when the food ran out. Added to the weight lost in training – that makes 3 ½ stone since January, I’m sure that ½ will go back on, as it was lost so quickly – but I will keep the 3 stone off!
- Get to know you bike and kit, inside & out – It will essentially be your home for the next few weeks and if anything goes wrong with it, you will be on your own to fix it 99% of the time.
- In the run up to your tour, train little & often – This will build up a good base fitness level and get your muscles used to a quick recovery time.
- Prioritise your food intake – you will be shocked at how much you can burn off in a full days cycling. If you run out of energy, you will be going nowhere fast and can take a long time to get you back to peak energy levels.
I had point 1 & 2 well covered for my tour – point 3 caught me off guard, when cycling day after day your metabolism really kicks up a gear and if you haven’t got it already planned out – the right food can be difficult to come by.
I will definitely carry on cycling – I’m quite looking forward to doing some miles without the trailer! Despite how difficult it was out there, after the challenge there was strange disappointment when I woke up of a morning and realised I wouldn’t be heading off on my bike!
Nothing so far, just focusing on spending time with my family and enjoying being home. You can bet your last Icelandic Krona that there will be something else on the horizon soon enough.
Here’s Gary’s Fundraising Page link again:
Please donate if you can :-)
Note: the Amazon links on this page are affiliate links, and I’m donating any commissions earned on these products towards Gary’s fundraising efforts.