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On another planet: Going off-road in Iceland

In-depth
28 May 2020
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A remote island settled by Vikings and covered in volcanoes, Iceland could indeed be the true king of gravel destinationsThis article was originally published in issue 2 of Cyclist Off-Road magazine

Words James Spender Photography Mike Massaro

There is an Iceland in Iceland. In fact, there are three of the frozen food supermarkets here. But that stands to change. From 2014 to 2018, Iceland the country and Iceland Foods Ltd were locked in a dispute over the trademark of their shared name.

European courts have since ruled in favour of the country, with minister for foreign affairs Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson wryly noting that ‘it defies common sense that a foreign company can stake a claim to the name of a sovereign nation’.

Especially when the supermarket was established in 1970, while the country has been an independent nation since 1918.

The Icelandic Sagas, a kind of 10th century Beowulf-cum-Holy Bible collection of semi-mythical histories, tell of a Norseman named Naddoður reaching Iceland in 850 after being blown off course on his way to the Faroe Islands.

Upon seeing heavy snow, Naddoður named the country Snæland. Then, Swedish Viking Garðar Svavarsson landed in 870 and named the country after himself, Garðarshólmur, but left the following summer, leaving naming rights up for grabs to fellow Norseman Flóki Vilgerðarson, who arrived a year or so later.

Flóki had a terrible time of things, losing one of his daughters and his livestock en route, suffering a hellish winter and returning back to Norway in the spring with his tail between his legs.

But not before he’d spied a vast fjord full of ice, giving rise to the name Ísland. And even before the Norsemen, recent discoveries have led some historians to believe Iceland was first inhabited by Papar – Irish monks – as early as the 8th century, who may well have referred to Iceland as Thule, an Ancient Greek word referring to places beyond the known world.

If that’s a historian’s many Christmases, it’s nothing compared to how a geologist would feel about this place.

 

For while Iceland might have a land mass marginally bigger than Scotland, it boasts a landscape of a hundred countries, twisted and wrought over 150 million years by the tectonic plates below.

It is unlikely there is a better gravel riding destination on Earth, which is precisely why we’ve brought our bikes here.

What’s with the weather?

I normally don’t cruise the booze aisle at 10 in morning unless it’s a bank holiday weekend. However, before setting off on this trip I was forewarned of two things. One, it’s summer, but summer in the Icelandic Highlands can still mean four seasons in one day and bitterly cold nights.

Second, alcohol is rather expensive, so if I do feel the need to get anything for this trip I’m best off buying it in the duty free next to Keflavik airport’s baggage carousels, where it is 40% cheaper.

This advice came from Ásta Briem, whose biking company Icebike Adventures is hosting our two-day gravel ride into Iceland’s volcanic interior, and a quick bit of maths tells me that things must be pretty expensive in this country. The Reykjavik rum I pick up in readiness for a post-ride snifter is £11 for 350ml, and is by far and away the cheapest spirit I can find.

Ásta also gave me a comprehensive packing list, and I now have more wool in my camping rucksack than the Isle of Arran. Still, when I’m met outside the airport by Ásta’s partner in both life and business, Magne Kvam, I’m pleasantly surprised by the weather. A balmy 18°C with breathless blue skies, like a perfect spring day back home.

 

On the drive to Reykjavik – a not inconsiderable 45 minutes that makes a mockery of my Icelandic geography (in which I understood the airport to be just down the road from Iceland’s capital) – Magne explains that like the rest of Europe this summer, Iceland has experienced a heatwave that made June the hottest June on record.

It’s out of step for a country whose average summer temperatures range from 10-15°C and where winter’s mercury drops to -30°C in the north. This is very much a country of extremes.

At summer solstice, on 21st June, the sky barely darkens even a shade; at winter solstice, on 21st December, the country gets around four hours’ daylight. So here in July, things should bode well for long days riding and relatively clement weather.

Still, when we stop by Icebike’s HQ on the outskirts of Reykjavik to load up our support vehicle, it’s evident Magne is planning for every eventuality.

Prior preparation prevention

‘My Land Rover is like a grandfather with leprosy,’ says Magne, with typical comedic delivery for an Icelander. Deadpan, pause, burst of laughter. Moments later: ‘You love it, it loves you, but there are bits falling off.’

It’s an apt description. Doors articulate beyond the allotted degrees, the driver’s side dash is more wiring loom than trim, buttons have been disinterred and reimagined as wholly new systems and, most notably, the whole thing has been jacked up and widened by some margin to allow for monster truck-level tyres.

 

When my co-rider, Halla Jónsdóttir (pronounced hat-lah), draws up alongside in her Nissan Leaf, the Land Rover takes on the look of a lost war veteran.

This, however, is the thing. Whereas in the UK your average 4x4 is more likely to see the school run than a scree-riddled 1-in-10 slope, everything in Iceland, including the vehicles, is born out of necessity and shaped by the landscape and climate.

Those over-reaching doors, says Magne, are the product of high winds trying to blow them off hinges; that bank of jerry-rigged switches by the dash remotely inflates and deflates tyres to increase grip; the spade on the roof is in case we need to dig ourselves out of volcanic sand; the snorkel coming off the bonnet is so the engine can suck air when the Land Rover is bonnet-high in a river. All these are very real possibilities, I’m told.

We hope our hundred or so kilometres on the bike will straddle a night spent camping under the stars, but the weather is shaping up to have other ideas.

 

It’s still a fine enough day as we head northeast out of Reykjavik’s urban sprawl (the population of Iceland is 360,000, of which 216,000 live in the Greater Reykjavik area), but as we approach the beginnings of Iceland’s interior, near the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, it grows apparent that we will have to rethink our itinerary.

To the south the skies are pleasant, but the rising peaks to the north are a haze of windswept sands. With typical calm, Magne spins the Land Rover around and declares we’ll do our proposed route in reverse. ‘Tomorrow is now today.’

Once we finally get under way, any vestiges of tarmac are immediately left behind, replaced by a criss-cross of car-wide tracks disappearing into the plains. The Land Rover has gone ahead, leaving me and Halla to spin out our legs to the tune of tyres crunching through gravel.

What seethes beneath

The Highlands of Iceland denote the island’s wild insides: huge areas of varying degrees of vegetation and arid black sand, pocked with carbuncular rises of volcanic mountains. In all it’s reckoned that Iceland has some 130 volcanoes, of which 30 are considered active and of which 18 have erupted since the first settlers arrived.

The last eruption was in 2010, beneath the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap, and dumfounded nearly as many news reporters with its pronunciation as it cancelled flights with ash clouds billowing towards Europe. (If you want to have a go yourself, try saying ay-uh-fyat-luh-yoe-kuutl-uh.)

 

As we pedal off into the wilderness, Halla explains it’s these volcanoes that have not only shaped, but are the very essence of, Iceland. I do my best to dredge up some limited GSCE geography theory while dodging some pretty significant chunks of hardened volcanic spew.

Apparently, it’s believed Iceland was formed some 24 million years ago. The country is bisected southwest to northeast by the Mid-Atlantic ridge, the intersection between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.

It also sits above a hot spot – essentially a ginormous gurgling mass of molten rock – and as the plates have drifted apart, fissures in the Earth’s crust have opened up and magma has flowed forth, eventually cooling to form mountains of igneous rock.

The tectonic plates continue to drift apart some 3mm a year, which means this landscape continues to heave and groan as millennia pass, with vast bodies of water coming in and out of existence as eruptions melt ice caps and cause flooding, before saturating entire rivers with ash to form dry valleys.

I suspect that my understanding of these processes is somewhat flawed, but at any rate, as the landscape kaleidoscopically shifts in colour and visage, it’s easy to appreciate at least the consequences.

As abruptly as an eruption can immediately change Iceland, Iceland changes with immediacy before my very eyes. What was once a flat but verdant landscape has disappeared with a magician’s puff into deep charcoal flats covered in toxically green moss and clumps of tiny white flowers holding on for dear life.

 

Wind and the billows

If there is a defining factor weather-wise it isn’t rain or sun, but wind. It’s present this morning, causing dust storms on the horizon, blowing sand onto our helmets and sunglasses with a sound I first mistake for rain.

As certain as death and taxes is the fact that a pair of cyclists will always share the workload into a block headwind, and Halla and I each take our turn, like un-timetabled guards, offering some respite to each other from the oncoming gusts.

The Land Rover has pulled up ahead so we can shelter behind it, and for a minute or so we’re engulfed in swirling volcanic dust, my face a contortion of screwed eyes and closed-down nostrils. Then, as quickly as it whipped up, it’s gone.

Magne winds down his window and sticks his out head, calmly explaining that was quite normal and to expect more. Mercifully we’ll now be getting mostly a tailwind to our designated camp but unfortunately, given the weather, said camp won’t be a back-to-nature affair.

 

Mountains once surrounding us have been enveloped in mist; the wind, though now at our backs, is fierce. Camping is out, a 40kmh ride to a mountain cabin is in.

Horses and courses

By the time I’m changed, the coals of the barbecue are beginning to whiten and Magne has retrieved the best part of a whole lamb from a cooler, sliced into chops and pre-marinated.

While Iceland does love its fish, lamb is an incredibly popular choice, too. The mountain cabin is a pretty plush affair, with a barbeque out back, a kitchen and several large bunk rooms-cum-living spaces alive with the sound of chatter.

A travelling group of mountain bikers and a bunch of lcelanders out on a horse trek have also booked in to stay – which in such cabins you need to do ahead of time in the summer, although I couldn’t imagine being turned away, such is the hospitality of the people here and the cabin’s warden.

The horse-team’s leader joins us on the deck and, from a large bottle, hands out Brennivín, a kind of Icelandic akvavit with an alcohol content high enough to afford it the nickname ‘Black Death’.

 

On this occasion it merely serves to nicely warm the cockles before we can get stuck in to Magne’s cooking and the accompaniments Halla has seemingly pulled out of nowhere. My Reykjavik rum is tasted by all and a second round politely declined. Tough crowd, though to be fair it is insanely sweet.

After discussing the day that’s drawing to a close and what’s in store for tomorrow we bed down, and barring one almighty crash in the night as an ackvavit-laden horse rider falls down the stairs (he is happily snoring when we wake), sleep comes easily. We’ve only ridden 67km on the opening day, but it has taken five hours and my body feels like it has closed out a double century.

Game theory

The morning is glorious, with the green, sweeping mountains in full splendour and the promise of another tailwind as we head south. Yesterday’s unifying landmark was the Hekla volcano: last eruption in 2000, but with a propensity to blow every decade, it’s long overdue. Today, though, it’s the turn of the glaciers to dominate: to the east Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe, and Mýrdalsjökull to the south.

Where Hekla laid like a gigantic beached orca, a high expanse of black ash cradling splodges of bright snow, the glaciers sit like seas floating in the sky, levitating in and out of view as we climb a series of vicious sandy rises that have us out of our saddles.

 

Like levels in a computer game that each have their own theme, the Highlands landscape morphs drastically from kilometre to kilometre. One minute we could be rolling through the Lake District, the next climbing on the Isle of Skye, then splashing through a Norwegian fjord then pounding along farm roads in Greece.

Then all of a sudden we’ll crest a peak, the track will plateau and it’s back to the toxic green lichen, the bouldered grey lunarscape, through fields of solidified lava floes and into a world of sand so featurelessly black the track all but disappears. Then red soil. Brown soil. Black soil. Shingle, scree, rocks, sand.

It’s mind-bending. Not just awesome or beautiful, but mind-altering in a way I didn’t think possible given we’ve barely roamed around 100 square kilometres. It feels like we’ve traversed a dozen countries.

Before I came here I’d been browsing pictures of this place on the internet and I thought Instagram filters had digitally augmented them to within an inch of their lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s all real.

 

Mythical status

Our final 15km are like the game’s final boss, everything we’ve seen so far and more besides thrown into a melting pot that begins with several kilometres of singletrack, where deep patches of volcanic sand pull at our wheels and have our bikes fishtailing at speed.

There’s no other course of action than to try to relax my grip on the bars and let the bike go where it wants. Barring one or two tumbles into the adjacent lava fields, this strategy works. Halla seems totally unfazed. T

he singletrack continues for a way, transposing into ruddy earthen trails cut deep into grassy hills. It forges through rivers, several so deep that we hitch a lift on the running boards of the Land Rover, then pitches into ridiculously steep inclines whose gradients would be testing even if smooth, but littered with 10-inch rocks are near-impossible to navigate on a bike.

Almost at the point where my legs and concentration levels are shot, Mount Einhyrningur hoves into view. It’s another peculiarity to Iceland, created by an eruption under ice-capped sandstone, whereupon the ice caused the lava to harden and the lava the ice to melt, with the result a stony protrusion through which winds have whipped to erode a gap that looks like an animal’s horn.

Hence the name. Einhyrningur means ‘unicorn’, and despite it being what was originally supposed to be the start of our Icelandic adventure, I can’t think of a more fitting place to end what has been a magical ride.

 

Fun’s gone to Iceland

How to get the best out of Iceland’s wild geography

To download a map of this ride, go to cyclist.co.uk/or2/iceland. While it’s possible to go gravel riding in Iceland unsupported, to have the best – and safest – time, an experienced tour operator is a must.

A 4x4 support vehicle will double as wardrobe, shelter, workshop and mobile larder, however it’s the guide/driver that will prove indispensable.

Iceland’s Highlands region is beautiful but remote, its tracks sprawling, and Google Maps is totally out of its depth here, if you can get a signal at all. That means going with an experienced guide, such as Icebike Adventure’s Magne Kvam, is not only highly recommended from a practicality point of view, but will also enhance your experience immeasurably.

The Highlands are also a good distance from your most likely landing point of Reykjavik, so you will need a car transfer to get there.

That all makes a route very difficult to explain, so this map is more one of reference points that can be reached in a variety of ways.

Should you wish to go it alone, an OS map and some careful planning will be required, but if you wish to travel supported, contact Icebike Adventures (icebikeadventures.com).

Prices start from around £195 for a supported day trip, including Lauf True Grit gravel bike hire.

 

The rider’s ride

Lauf True Grit, approx £4,150 as tested, £2,400 frameset, laufcycling.com

I can remember when the Lauf Grit forks debuted and I must admit to being impressed – a 980g suspension fork with 60mm travel – but ultimately bemused.

The original was for 29er mountain bikes, a world where most forks offer at least 100mm travel, and unlike the Lauf have tuneable spring rates and rebound damping. But now I know – the Grit is the perfect gravel fork, and pairs with the True Grit frame to create an adept platform for rough riding.

The True Grit is just what you’d want from a gravel bike: smooth, comfortable and stable. The slack 70.5° head angle, 1,040mm wheelbase and short 90mm stem make for a reassuring ride with handling that sharpens up as speed increases, while the short 133mm head tube and 571mm top tube brought a relatively low, nicely familiar, road bike-type position.

 

Weighing in at just under 8kg this thing is a flighty enough ascender, and when the road really punches hard a one-to-one lowest gear courtesy of Sram Rival 1’s 10-42t cassette and 42t chainring made the True Grit a true wall-climber.

The 40mm Maxxis Rambler tubeless knobblies did the trick over loose and loamy ground, but there’s room for 45mm rubber and if I had my time again I’d opt for something wider, run at lower pressure to increase grip and plushness further.

One thing I’d never change, though, is the fork. In this 850g ‘super-light’ gravel guise travel is 30mm, and it’s undamped. Yet the bike doesn’t ‘bounce’ as a result of impacts, but rather because of the leaf spring design it oscillates (ie, responds) a lot faster than a telescopic fork, meaning it copes far better with the constant rumblings and odd big hits of gravel riding.

No surprise that Lauf is an Icelandic company, because on Icelandic soil the True Grit was astonishingly good. 

 

What kit to pack

The old ‘no such thing as bad weather’ checklist

Packing for Iceland is a bit like packing for the Alps, the Hebrides and the Moon all at once. Even in summer the weather is temperamental, so be as versatile as possible by packing weather-resistant arm and kneewarmers, insulated and lightweight gloves, a waterproof, lightweight jacket and windproof gilet alongside usual summer bibs and jersey.

Glasses are also imperative as dust storms can whip up seemingly from nowhere, and quality base layers and socks – specifically wool socks for warmth when wet – and walk-able SPD-type shoes are essential because you’ll have to push your bike at times.

You can fill up a bidon in any stream quite safely, but carrying two large ones is a good idea, as too a top-tube bag for extra food and a saddle pack for spares.

As tubeless is the order of the day, a small bottle of latex milk, tyre plugs (check out dynaplug.com) and valve core remover is a good idea, but so are spare tubes in the event of an unpluggable puncture. That said, a tour operator such as Icebike will have you covered in these departments.

The evenings in the highlands and in towns can get chilly even in summer, so a packable down-type jacket is advised, as is a lightweight waterproof shell and a woolly hat. And if you plan on doing any significant exploration on foot, hiking shoes or boots are highly recommended.

 

Food and drink

A few maybes and a lot of musts

Eating out in Iceland is expensive – a main costs around £20 in Reykjavik – so investigating local supermarkets is a good idea. That said, there is some really good food to be found.

Reykjavik Roasters does the best coffee in town, Sandholt and Brauð & Co the best pastries and sandwiches – look out for the Icelandic take on the doughnut, called a kleina – and the Ostabúðin restaurant does a superb ‘fish of the day’ at lunchtimes. All these are at reasonable prices, and all are easily walkable within the downtown Reykjavik area.

Along with Arctic char, salted cod and minke whale (fished only at certain points in the season when the population needs culling), Icelandic lamb is a staple and so too skyr, a thick-set, tangy-sweet yoghurt. Diner Le Kock also serves up some much-lauded burgers until late, and hotdogs at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur food truck are a Reykjavik institution.

Tap water is incredibly pure but the hard stuff is pricy, so either stock up at airport duty free or visit the bars in their afternoon and evening happy hours, which are signed outside and which see the average price for a beer or glass of wine drop from £8 to around £5.

Finally, for the true Iceland gravel rider in need of lightweight calories, harðfiskur, or dried fish, is the go-to snack, packing a whopping 82g of protein per 100g – although its aroma means your ride companions will know about it.

 

How we did it

Travel and accommodation

Hand luggage-only returns with WizzAir or Easyjet in November can be had for as little as £50, but prices increase in summer. We flew with Iceland Air in late July for £290 including luggage, but booking in June or September can see prices of around £170, including a bike.

Taxis are expensive – a private airport pick-up costs more than £100. That’s fine if you’re travelling in a group, but for the cheapest transfers check out Airport Direct and Fly Bus, with prices around £20 to town or £40 for a direct-to-hotel service.

We stayed at the Old Bicycle Shop (theoldbicycleshop.is), a guesthouse with private rooms and shared living spaces in the heart of Reykjavik. A single room starts from around £90pn. In the Highlands we stayed overnight at the Hungurfit Mountain Hut, details of which can be found at facebook.com/hungurfit, or by emailing fitjamenn@outlook.com.

 
 

Thanks

Huge thanks to Magne and Ásta Kvam of Icebike Adventures, without whose help we would have been both figuratively and literally lost – particularly when it came to the changeable weather. As it was, Magne re-planned routes on a near hourly basis to make sure the riding was fair but without compromising on the landscapes.

Thanks also to Halla Jónsdóttir from Lauf Cycling (laufcycling.com) for joining us on the ride and providing detailed geological commentary, irrepressible spirit and a lesson in how to ride on volcanic ash.