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Norway big ride: Fjords, waterfalls, testing climbs and unrivalled views

In-depth
6 Jan 2020
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Words Jack Elton-Walters Photography Patrik Lundin

’Was this a last-minute trip?’ Mathias asks me as I arrive to collect my bike. I’m in Bergen on the southeast coast of Norway, it’s a crisp summer morning and I’ve just stepped into Mathias’s bike shop, called Sykkel Butikken (which translates rather prosaically as ‘bicycle shop’).

My hire bike is all prepared and waiting to take me on a 150km odyssey around the Norwegian fjords.

I ask him what he means, and he explains that southern Norway has just experienced its wettest June since 1952, and so he’s assumed that I’ve been scanning the weather forecasts, waiting for an opportune window of dry weather to ride in before dashing to catch a plane.

Actually the trip has been in the pipeline for months – I’ve just got lucky. The weeks of wet weather have subsided, the sun is out, the temperature is pleasantly cool and there is only a light wind.

The conditions couldn’t be better for exploring the area’s mountains and lakes. 

Norse code

It’s early in the morning, but the sun has already been up for some time.

Bergen sits on the same latitude as the Shetland Isles, and at this time of year, early in July, sunrise is just after 4am. It won’t get dark again until after 11pm.

With 19 hours of daylight, there’s no issue about making it back before sunset, but I’m still uncertain as to what to wear for the ride.

I consult with George, my riding partner for the day, who is also a friend from my childhood home of the Isle of Wight. George now happens to be resident in Bergen, so he knows what to expect from the weather on this ride.

The day looks bright and clear, but in the shade of the hotel courtyard there is a distinct chill.

I know that layering up now could mean over-stuffed pockets later on once the temperature gets too high for kneewarmers, armwarmers and gilets, but I’d rather be overdressed than under, so as we roll out from the courtyard to begin our ride, I have very little skin on show.

The hotel is in the small town of Osøyro, which is about a 40-minute drive south of Bergen, on the banks of the Bjørnafjorden.

As the hotel is right next to the shoreline, we have no option but to start the day with a climb, which we tackle with slow, gentle revolutions of the cranks to allow our legs a chance to warm up.

Conversation ceases temporarily – there’s a long day ahead so we focus on gaining height with the minimum of expended energy.

Norwegian woods

Almost immediately the sharp rise in elevation gives me the opportunity to take in views that are quintessentially Norwegian: expanses of chilly-looking water, fringed by a jumble of steep-sided mountains, swathed in dark green forest and dotted with rocky outcrops and wooden houses.

It’s a landscape that is simultaneously inviting and intimidating.

It’s also a region that at the time of writing is gearing up for the forthcoming UCI World Championships in September, so Bergen is in the grip of a newfound love of cycling.

The talk locally is all about whether national hero Alexander Kristoff can do the country proud and bring the rainbow bands back to Norway after Thor Hushovd won the road race world title in 2010. (Come the event, Kristoff will narrowly lose out to defending World Champion Peter Sagan in a sprint for the line.)

With this increased emphasis on Bergen as a cycling destination to rival the rest of Europe, it has meant a welcome boom in trade for our hosts today, Marta and Sigbjorn, who own and run a local tour company appropriately named Bike The Fjords.

Despite being keen riders themselves, the husband and wife team is happy to drive the support car that will ferry around Cyclist’s photographer for the day.

When we pull over for the first stop to look at the view, Marta is quick to apologise for the state of Norway’s roads.

By this point I have yet to see a single misplaced curbstone or pothole, and in fact I can only recall one significant road blemish all day.

She chuckles at the idea that British roads could be any worse than Norway’s, so I suggest she join me for a ride in Surrey to see what truly terrible roads really look like. 

Smooth runnings

With so many hills and fjords to negotiate, there are relatively few roads in this region, but the motorists who pass do so with a level of consideration that’s often hard to find in the UK.

On busier roads, cyclists are provided with a wide barrier-separated lane that runs parallel to the main carriageway.

As we continue northwards George chats away, seemingly oblivious to the natural splendour all around us.

After living in Norway for a couple of years he’s become inured to the scenery, and on one descent he disappears around a corner with his head down while I come to halt in the middle of the road, brought to a standstill by the sheer beauty of the view across the Samnangerfjorden.

This narrow stretch of fjord marks the southern extremity of the Bergen Peninsula, with the namesake city set out of sight to the northwest.

The road is edged on one side by a pine forest that has survived resiliently on the rocky hillsides that border the fjord, while on the other side grassy slopes recede gently towards the water.

The morning sun glistens off its surface and the scene is framed by the silhouettes of far-off mountains, with only the year-round snow caps as an indication of their height.

When I catch up and explain the hold-up, George concedes that not only has he become blasé about the scenery, but that he’s rarely paid it any attention at all because most of his rides around here are conducted during local amateur races where his view has been either his stem or the rear tyre of the rider in front.

Rounding the northern end of the fjord, 40km into our ride, we come to the hardest slog of the day – the 11km ascent out of Tysse up to the Eikedalsvatnet inland lake.

We fall into a silent rhythm, gaining height steadily as we climb through gorges cut by the fast-flowing river to our right.

The road passes through a number of tunnels, but we’re able to bypass all but one thanks to purpose-made cycle paths that have been laid along the routes of the old roads that cling to the cliff edges around the mountains.

From the lake we’re rewarded with a thrilling 15km descent down a wide, flowing road towards the town of Norheimsund.

This too is punctuated by tunnels, but with rear lights switched on and carrying plenty of speed we stick to the main carriageway and blast through the darkness, guided by the lights of cars ahead.

Each time we enter a tunnel I’m glad to have kept my gilet and armwarmers on, as the air in here has an icy edge.

Add in the rushing wind as we make our way rapidly back down towards sea level and my teeth are chattering by the end of the final underpass.

As the road flattens, I find myself pedalling hard in an attempt to warm up again. 

Ghosts from the past

By the time we get near to our lunch stop, we have completed half the distance of the route and ticked off the major climb of the day.

On some rides this might be a problem – the second half being mostly a slog to get back to the start – but here in Norway almost every kilometre is a treat.

The lush greenery is testament to the average of 213 days of rainfall Bergen and its surrounds get every year (a figure that could unfairly deter would-be visitors), while the ruggedness of the landscape and scarcity of people give the region an adventurous edge.

Following a short stop to take photos beside the spectacular Steinsdalsfossen waterfall, lunch awaits us at Bjørketeigen Gard, a traditional-looking Norwegian farm.

The welcome is friendly, but things take a strange turn when I wander to the back of the building in search of a toilet and discover a wall decked out in swastikas.

Fortunately it turns out that I haven’t stumbled into a hideout for far-right extremists.

It is instead a historical display of items left over from the days during the Second World War, when Norway was occupied by the Nazis.

Between 1940 and 1945, the country was run by a puppet government, its strings pulled by the Reich Commissariat, and little of day-to-day life for Norwegians was untouched by the occupation.

Even the sacks used to carry potatoes from the fields were emblazoned with the eagle and swastika of the Nazi party.

Food for thought

Reassured that this is not a shrine to fascism, we settle down for an impressive lunch of stew, bread and fruit juice.

All too soon it is time to remount and get going with the rest of the ride. Even though the long days mean that we’re in no rush to get back before dark, we can’t afford to dawdle too much.

The final part of our journey involves a ferry across the fjord back to Osøyro, and a glance at the timetable tells us we have to maintain a respectable speed for the remainder of our ride if we’re not to be stranded on the wrong shore of the Bjørnafjorden.

Heads down and with a reduction in chatter we soon get into our rhythm, riding along fast roads over rolling hills.

Reaching the southernmost point of the ride at the village of Mundheim, the road swings north and heads away from water for what feels like the first time all day.

The draggy climb of Mundheimsdalen is just my kind of ascent. Averaging only 3% and hitting 6% at its hardest, this 3km rise feels hard this late into the ride but we manage to keep a strong pace all the way up, especially as the peanuts and chocolate mix Marta has been plying us with throughtout the day is finally kicking in.

Without a word, it soon becomes apparent George and I are racing each other.

George is younger, leaner and keener than me so I’m not likely to beat him up the hill, but I’m having fun sprinting away from his wheel and forcing him to accelerate to close the gaps.

By the time we reach the top of the climb, my heart rate is pushing its maximum and my legs feel ready to explode, but we’ve recovered some of our time losses and are in high spirits.

All that effort on the climb means that the final stretch along the coast is hard work. We’re riding into a cruel headwind, and out in the middle of the fjord we can see the ferry glinting in the sunshine, making its way steadily towards the port at Venjaneset.

Just when I think we are in touching distance of the end, the road swings away from the coast and we find ourselves presented with a punchy climb that wouldn’t be out of place in an Ardennes Classic.

George attacks it with venom, and I struggle to stay with him. Eventually I have to let his wheel go and tap out my own slower pace towards the summit, hoping that it won’t be the difference between making the ferry and not.

Thankfully, as I crest the climb and peer out through the gaps between the trees, I can see that the ferry has yet to arrive, and we can roll easily into the port with minutes to spare.

Safely on board, and with the boat trundling across the cool waters of the fjord, I’m reminded of the ferry we use for trips home to the Isle of Wight, where George and I both first discovered our love of cycling as kids.

It somehow seems an appropriate end to what has been a near-perfect ride.

The route

Follow our route through the hills and fjords near Bergen

To download the route, click here

Starting in Osøyro, head east out of town on the 552 before turning left, signposted Samnanger on the 137.

Stay on that road for 28km until a right turn onto the 7 takes you east towards Norheimsund. Switch onto the 136 to avoid the Haukanes Tunnel, and hug the coastline all the way south into Tysse before once again turning west on the 48.

This gets you back on the 7, which will carry on all the way to Norheimsund (minus a few cliff edge roads to avoid some of the tunnels).

Road 49 then takes you south for 42km to Mundheim. Take a right turn signposted Tysse. Follow the 48 north to Eikelandsosen, where you turn left towards Osøyro on the 552.

This road takes you to the ferry at Venjaneset and after the boat journey it’s only a short ride back to Osøyro.

The rider’s ride

Focus Izalco Max Disc, from £4,300, derby-cycle.com

A lightweight disc brake bike is just what’s needed for this Norwegian ride, with its testing climbs and rapid descents. The Focus Izalco Max Disc fits the description perfectly, and it behaved impeccably.

Equipped with Sram Red – among the lightest groupsets on offer – it tipped the scales under the UCI limit at 6.7kg but felt lighter still when climbing.

The DT Swiss wheels looked the part and performed well, cutting through the wind on the flat beside the fjords, but not adding much weight penalty on the way up.

The red highlights on the bars, saddle and frame helped it to stand out without being too showy, which is exactly in line with how the bike handled.

It instilled a confidence in cornering and on fast descents that was welcome and at times essential when passing through tunnels and along windswept mountain roads.

And in a region with 213 days of rain a year, disc brakes are really the only sensible option.

How we did it

Travel

Cyclist flew direct to Bergen from Gatwick with Norwegian (norwegian.com). Expect to pay between £200 and £300 for flights.

Accommodation

We stayed at the 121-year-old Solstrand Hotel just outside Osøyro. It has excellent views over the mountains and fjord, and the locally caught fish is perfect for an evening meal or breakfast.

Even in July the fjord is too cold for all but the hardiest swimmers, but the hotel’s spa more than makes up for it. For details go to solstrand.com.

Bike hire

Sykkel Butikken is one of the biggest independent bike shops in Norway and runs regular rides in and around Bergen. Find out more at sykkelbutikken.no.

Thanks

Firstly, thanks go to Marta and Sigbjorn of Bike The Fjords for planning our route, driving the support car and supplying the snacks. Go to bikethefjords.com to arrange your own cycling adventure in the area.

Kristine from Innovation Norway (visitnorway.com) and Linn at Visit Bergen (en.visitbergen.com) were instrumental in organising the trip, while Iselin and Asgeir from Fjord Norway (fjordnorway.com) played their part in making everything run smoothly.