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Scandi noir: Haute Route Norway review

In-depth
12 Mar 2021
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From monochrome peaks to misty fjords, the Haute Route Norway serves up a unique three-day odyssey 
This article was originally published in issue 86 of Cyclist magazine

Words: Mark Bailey Photography: Manu Molle

There are only two ways to travel in or out of the remote Norwegian village of Lysebotn. It is surrounded on three sides by dark mountains of granite and gneiss, and on the other by the deep waters of the 42km-long Lysefjord.

One way is to travel by boat, which is how I and the 200 other cyclists taking part in the inaugural Haute Route Norway arrive from the nearby oil city of Stavanger, floating down the fjord into the jaws of the black mountains before disembarking in the village’s port like troops heading into battle.

The other is via the solitary Lysevegen mountain road, which rears steeply up from the village like the prow of a Viking longship.

Built in 1984 as a service road for the Tjodan hydroelectric power station, this stunning slither of tarmac provides the only land access to the outside world – and with 27 hairpin bends and an average gradient of 9.4%, it marks the gritty opening challenge of today’s 122km stage.

As this is the second day of the event, I’m aching before we begin. Needles of pain stab at my right knee as I wrestle my bike up the climb and watch the metallic surface of the fjord dissolve into the morning fog.

But after spiralling up the hairpin bends, which from above appear to fold over each other like a coil of decking rope, we glide into a world of stark Scandinavian beauty.

 

Fantasy fjords

All around us are walls of black granite, some weeping with frothy waterfalls. There are flaking slabs of gneiss, dark lakes that glisten like pools of ink and carpets of scrubland.

The scene is a perfect distillation of western Norway’s rugged allure, and the reason hundreds of riders have come from as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, America, South Africa and Brazil to visit one of the freshest cycling destinations in the world.

Norway is now firmly on the radar of the international cycling cognoscenti.

This is thanks to epic routes such as the Trollstigen and Atlantic Road (both of which have featured as Cyclist Big Rides), the success of Norwegian pros such as Thor Hushovd and Alexander Kristoff, and Bergen’s hosting of the World Championships in 2017.

For anyone looking for unique adventures away from the popular routes of the Alps and the Pyrenees, the country has much to offer.

That now includes the Haute Route Norway, the latest incarnation of the series that launched in 2011 with a seven-day sportive in the Alps.

The Haute Route family has since grown to include two more seven-day events – in the Pyrenees and Rockies – as well as 12 three-day challenges in places such as the Dolomites, Alpe d’Huez, the Stelvio, San Francisco, Utah, Oman and Mexico.

The three-day events are proving particularly popular because they offer riders the benefit of the Haute Route’s professional-level logistics – with marshalled courses, mechanical and feed station support, timed rankings plus post-race meals and massage services – without tearing a hole in your holiday allowance.

The first stage of Haute Route Norway is held on a Friday and the final day time-trial takes place on the Sunday morning.

That means many riders can fly out on Thursday afternoon and be back at their desks by Monday morning, armed with aching glutes but, more importantly, a winning response to the water cooler question: so what did you do at the weekend?

The host town of Stavanger combines its status as Norway’s oil exploration capital with an old-town atmosphere, thanks to its white wooden houses and cobbled streets.

The city is located on Norway’s Atlantic coast at roughly the same latitude as John O’Groats. On the day I arrive, a cruise ship towers over the harbour like a floating city.

In the evening hundreds of uniformed army cadets fill the harbour’s bars and restaurants, swilling beer and singing boisterous songs that scare away the local cats.

Meanwhile, we cyclists sit quietly eating pasta and drinking water before bagging an early night. Are we getting it wrong or are they?

David Millar, an ambassador for event sponsor Maserati, is taking part as a duo with his wife Nicole, and gives a talk to riders at the Clarion Hotel.

He admits that after his last race in Norway he said he’d never come back, on account of the brutal winds that ripped the peloton to shreds, but promises that – without freak winds – the landscape here is spectacular.

With that, it only remains to get some sleep and prepare for the coming 296km of riding and 5,393m of climbing over three days.

 

Wet and wild

When I wake up the next morning the good news is there are no howling winds. The bad news is we have lashing rain instead. After a summer heatwave the sight of this strange liquid tumbling from the sky comes as something of a surprise.

As we have a 40-minute ferry ride to the start of today’s stage, I enjoy a hotel breakfast of muesli and yoghurt, a berry smoothie, and a plate of eggs and bacon, then roll down to the harbour to catch the ferry to Tau.

This should have been a charmingly scenic voyage to kick-start the event, but with the low cloud and curtains of rain most riders huddle inside for shelter.

After disembarking at Tau, we complete a 12km spin to the start line in Jorpeland, where riders hide under trees and awnings to calculate the precise combination of base layers and shoe covers, full or short-length gloves and thin or thick jackets that will get them through today’s 157km ride in the rain, without either overheating (it’s a perfect 15°C) or morphing into a wrinkled, human-sized raisin.

I’m sure this wasn’t quite what people were expecting when they signed up but, as lambs to the slaughter, we are in tune with the dark local history.

The name of the port town of Tau is derived from the Old Norse word taufr, which means ‘witchcraft’, on account of an ancient sacrificial field located here in the Iron Age. When we catapult ourselves away from the start line, excitement soon replaces anxiety.

We sweep alongside the fjord, past seabird-dotted islets, bright red wooden houses and snug bays, before venturing into a grittier landscape of grey rock pinnacles and dark green pine forests.

Today’s stage has no major climbs but plenty of short jabs – including the 183m Botsli, 207m Malandsdalen (twice) and 178m Meltveit, plus the bigger 280m Heia, which rises at 5.6% over 5.1km, and the 320m Kragasen, which averages 4.8% over 6.5km.

The main challenge is the distance: the timed ride is 157km but with the 12km before that it’s more like 170km. I soon team up with another rider of similar speed.

Following the wheel in front involves swallowing mouthfuls of dirt and being blinded by road spray, so we ride side by side and enjoy the views of colourful fishing boats and the striking 639m-long Lysefjord suspension bridge.

We circle back to Jorpeland and trace the shoreline road north before cutting inland past farms, stone walls and wooden houses.

We ride beside the brooding Bjorheimsvatnet lake, which is surrounded by plump brown hills, and the Tysdalsvatner lake, where the nearby peaks – some cloaked in feathery pine trees, others dotted with skeleton-white lumps of rock – rise up to more dramatic heights.

David Millar pops up at different points in the strung-out peloton, chatting to riders and somehow still looking dapper in spite of the biblical downpours.

After topping the 207m Malandsdalen climb we complete a loop to the fishing town of Fister before heading to the village of Ardal at the eastern end of the Ardalsfjorden.

We pause at the final feed station, around 120km into the ride, for bananas and pastries, then start the 40km charge back to Tau.

The rain has upped its intensity so we decide to fight back by rampaging along the hissing wet roads at speed, slicing past the gloopy black Tysdalsvatner and Vostervatnet lakes to the town of Fiska. It feels like riding through a high-wattage power shower and I am convinced that I’m burning more calories through blinking than pedalling, but it’s an electrifying final dash.

Just when we’re starting to splutter out of gas, to our rescue comes the figure of Millar, with his wife Nicole powering along on his back wheel.

In my mind his sudden appearance is accompanied by a full orchestra, and I’m momentarily inspired to lift my pace to join the back of the Millar family train.

After being dragged to the finish line we head straight for the ferry home. With 170km of riding in our legs it’s been a long day and, despite no major climbs, we’ve still completed a total ascent of 2,711m.

The weather stripped us of our full appreciation of the scenery, but when I make the bold British declaration that I found it strangely exhilarating to be dashing through the rain in this warm and wet world of fjords and fishing villages, the sun-loving Brazilian riders look at me in horror.

Just like on the rain-soaked roads, I decide to keep my mouth shut.

 

Rock on

Day two arrives with more cloud, so during our 90-minute ferry ride to Lysebotn we miss out on a glimpse of the famous Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), a square platform that juts out over the fjord at a height of 604m, and which features in the movie Mission: Impossible – Fallout.

After the opening 932m ascent I fear there will be a lot more pain between here and the finish line of today’s 122km stage, but by the time we reach the summit the weather has started to clear, enabling us to appreciate the beauty of the landscape, with its striking grey peaks, staircases of rock, lime-coloured moss and dark caves.

For safety reasons the 350m descent is untimed, so I roll down to Suleskard at leisure, inhaling the majestic mountain scenery to make up for yesterday’s poor weather.

I team up with another rider to tackle the 20km valley section and we glide past piles of giant boulders, steep cliffs wrapped in metal avalanche barriers, and rippling lakes.

At one point it turns so warm I’m tempted to strip down to short sleeves, but I don’t want to tempt the Norse god Thor to start lashing me with thunder and lightning.

After stocking up at the 50km feed station I complete the 726m Gravassryggen climb and enter a dramatic primordial landscape of gnarled forests and rock.

It’s an invigorating stretch, with almost 50km of gentle descent, allowing me to enjoy every charcoal-coloured lake, boulder-strewn meadow, sloshing river and forested gorge.

We pass through Byrkjedal, a small mountain village named after the birch trees in the area, and carve between steep black walls of rock.

After 100km we face a series of short climbs, with the 150m Royrdalen, 335m Seldal and 140m Melshei. A young girl in a village high fives me as I pass.

Another group of Norwegian men – origins unknown, intoxication clear – start chanting ‘You are the champion,’ to the tune of the Queen classic, at every rider who passes.

I feel surprisingly fresh by the time I reach the finish line in Sandnes, but we still have to ride another 22km back to Stavanger.

The early-morning ferries and added extras can be a pain, but it’s a necessary evil to explore the full range of landscapes in the region and avoid transfers to different hotels each night.

The final day’s time-trial – a 17.6km dash from Skagenkaien to the Ullandhaug telecommunications tower – is an exciting and zingy ride.

In the previous Haute Route events I’ve completed, the time-trial has always been up a colossal climb, but this is a smile-inducing dash through technical urban terrain, with a few ludicrously steep climbs thrown in for good measure along the way.

Finishing 135m above Stavanger, we enjoy sweeping views of the city and the fjord beyond – a fitting end to our three-day Scandinavian adventure.

By the evening the army cadets are back in their bunks, and it’s the remaining cyclists who are drinking beer and eating fish pies in the bars and restaurants of Stavanger. Nobody has enough energy for singing.

 

How we did it

Travel

Cyclist flew from London Heathrow to Stavanger with Scandinavian Airlines, with round trips available from around £150 in August.

Bikes can be included as part of your normal luggage allowance – 23kg for SAS Go or Plus customers – but this must be requested before you fly to ensure there is enough room in the hold.

Accommodation

We stayed at the Hotel Clarion in Stavanger (nordicchoicehotels.com), which is the official race hotel. Discounted accommodation packages are available directly through Haute Route.

Oh, and one other thing: all riders must provide a signed medical certificate to enter the race or have membership of a national cycling federation.