Iceland

Cycling in the footsteps of the Vikings

Posted by James Anderton on August 7th, 2019


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There is something about Iceland. It is a beautiful, wild and rugged country and there is no better way to experience it than from the saddle of your bicycle. If you like untouched scenery, glaciers, volcanoes, fjords, dramatic coastline, a rich history, stunning waterfalls and abundant bird life then this is the place to go. Iceland has the lot. It is an epic country in every sense of the word. It is also one of a handful of places in the world where there are absolutely no mosquitoes. I hate mosquitoes. I love Iceland.

Reykjavik Iceland

Reykjavik, Iceland (Photo Credit : A Dangerous Business)

Don't be deceived by the name. Iceland is surprisingly green. In fact there's an excellent long standing rumour that Greenland and Iceland were deliberately misnamed by the Vikings. In the hope that their enemies would go to ice-covered Greenland instead of following them to where they actually settled in Iceland. Clever! That said the cycling here is a constant challenge. The wind can be brutal. The roads are often a mixture of sand and rocks. Potholes come out of nowhere. There is the occasional stream to wade through and it's fair to say they are quite cold. Don't let this put you off though. The cycling here is as rewarding as it is a challenge. The scenery is always incredible. On a clear day you can see for miles. You can go for days without seeing a sole. From time to time as you pass a gorge the only sound you can hear is that of water falling from the heights and splashing on the stones.

Wide vistas and dramatic scenery in the Westfyords

Wide vistas and dramatic scenery in the Westfyords

A lot of cyclists who come to Iceland will do a lap of the country on the Ring Road that goes all the way around. Whilst it is a superb cycle on mostly paved roads you would be missing out on what makes Iceland so special. My favourite cycling in Iceland was away from the ring road on the Westfyords and through the desolate and deserted middle of the country. The Westfyords, a large peninsula in northwestern Iceland, are spectacular. It is very mountainous. The coastline is heavily indented by dozens of fjords surrounded by steep hills. The roads are often rough but the views are awe-inspiring, the scenery wild. The settlements are small and sparse. Between them are untouched landscapes and dramatic features unlike any other in the country. Arctic foxes are numerous. I saw a few. Seals are often seen hauling out on the rocks along the coastline. I saw a couple. The surrounding waters are home to species such as Humpback Whales, white-beaked dolphins, and orcas. I didn't see any. There are breathtaking cliffs, gorgeous beaches and it's a special moment when you stumble on the Dynjandi waterfall. It is arguably the most photogenic spot in Iceland, which is saying something. It was out in the Westfyords that I got battered by the winds swooping in from the Arctic. Out here you are never heading in one direction for long though so you get your share of respite and wonderful tailwind. On the fyords themselves I would have 5km of heaven as the wind whipped me along and then I would make the turn and have 5km of hell back into the wind. Over and over again all day. There was only one day when I truly suffered but that day I decided to bite the bullet early. Sheltered in a cove and listened to the wind howl. No point flogging myself getting nowhere fast. With the near constant daylight I just made up time the next day when the conditions changed.

The waterfall at Dynjandi

The waterfall at Dynjandi

The other main attraction cycling in Iceland is heading off into the vast interior. This is the true wilderness of Iceland. Along the coast settlements are sparse. In the middle settlements are non existent. Here is the true wild beauty of Iceland as you skirt round volcanoes and cycle along dramatic glaciers all under an enormous sky. Here is where you will need to stock up on dehydrated food. There are no shops in the interior. It took me 4 days to cycle from north to south. The roads were bad but you wouldn't expect anything else in such a remote part of the world. Due to the loose gravel and the sand having wider tyres would make your life a lot easier. There's also plenty of washboard to enjoy. Your traditional map apps will be pretty useless out here and don't expect any phone reception. You can download an excellent cycling map which shows the way through the interior. Due to the remote location and the changeable weather it's a good idea to check current road conditions before you set off. There's plenty of options to explore in the interior but it's important not to stray too far from the roads/tracks except when camping as to not to disturb the fragile ecosystem out here.

Cycling Iceland Interior Landmannalaugar

The interior of Iceland on the way to Landmannalaugar

On the way out of the interior I got swept up in one of the best tailwinds I can remember. On the flats I didn't even have to pedal. It was something else and payback for the tough days I'd endured heading north from Reykjavik. I met an Italian couple coming the other way. They didn't look happy. The man, a cycling enthusiast, had spent years trying to persuade his wife to come to Iceland for her first ever cycling holiday. Here they were on Day 2 cycling into a mind blowing headwind. I tried not to laugh at the daggers she was throwing him. That's the way it is cycling in Iceland. There will be the rough and the smooth. The glorious can often be followed by the 'What on the earth am I doing'. Their luck would've turned later on I am sure.

The ring road that goes all the way around Iceland

Iceland is rarely included in a traditional long distance cycle trip. Being a remote island it's never a country on the way to anywhere. There isn't even a ferry service from mainland Europe anymore. You have to fly in. Iceland works best as a standalone cycling holiday. You could happily spend a couple of months exploring what Iceland has to offer though and it is well worth the effort. I will go back for more one day of that I am certain.

Roads:

Mixed. Stick to the ring road and you can spend the vast majority of the time on decent pavement. This is Iceland though and you want to explore so expect a lot of bumpy dirt roads. Especially cycling through the vast wilderness that is the center of the country.

Reading:

A surprising amount of great literature has come out of Iceland. I guess you need something to do on those long winter nights. Reading up before and during your trip will provide a finer appreciation for the unique people and the dramatic landscape the country has to offer. Here's a few things you could read:

Halldor Laxness is credited with renewing the great narrative art of Iceland. He won the Nobel prize for literature in 1955. His books are funny, clever, sardonic and brilliant. There's a lot about fishing, cold weather and sheep. He is the man who first piqued my interest in visiting this beautiful country. His home where he lived for more than half a century and wrote all his books is now a museum. It's well worth a visit. It is only 22km north east of Reykjavík and the detour away from the Ring Road is a lovely cycle.

The Sagas of the Icelanders, written in the 12th and 13th century, are an amazing treasure trove of historical knowledge about the early years of settlement in Iceland. They reflect the struggle and conflict that arose within the societies of the early generations of Icelandic settlers. I wouldn't read them all. There's a lot but sampling a few will give you an excellent flavour of the hardships of early life on this remote island. I recommend Egil's saga.

Whilst I was in Iceland I read an enjoyable book called Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Inspired by a true story: the final days of Agnes Magnúsdóttir. A young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829 and the last woman to be executed in the country. It's a good read and does a fine job capturing the bleak reality of what living in Iceland must have been like in those distant times. I even cycled past the place where it all happened. Apparently it is being made into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence!

Time to Go:

Winters are long and brutally cold. Summers are excellent for cycling. Expect all weather at all times. I had rain, hail, snow, cloud, incredible wind but also plenty of sun. The long summer days mean you always have time to sit out any bad weather and wait for your luck to turn. The weather never stays the same for long. Temperatures are good in the peak summer months when the majority of tourists visit Iceland. Spring and fall it will be cold but fine for cycling and there are less tourists. February, March, September and October are typically best for the Northern Lights.

Wild camping:

Iceland is wild camping heaven. Just stop pedalling and pick your picture perfect spot at the end of the day. Be careful not to disturb the fragile ecosystem in Iceland away from the roads. You need strong pegs as it can be difficult to find shelter from the wind when it picks up (and it will). A sleeping eye mask is essential. Don't expect to see much darkness. Camping gas can be found here in Reykjavik. There may be no mosquitoes but the gnats can be a pain. I would still bring a head net though the wind often keeps them at bay.

Ideal campspots in Iceland

There are ideal camping spots galore in Iceland

Bicycle Shops:

Plenty in Reykjavik. Kris Cycles comes recommended. Excellent repair shop as well as a good stock of parts. Also a good place to go for a bike box. There's not a lot outside of the capital but the locals are friendly and as resourceful as they come. They will be able to help you out or point you to someone who can. It is important to carry any spare parts you may need as there are often long distances between towns.

Wind:

Pretty mental. It will be a factor most days on your cycle trip. The majority of cycle trips begin and end in Reykjavik so you will have your fair share of for and against. In my experience it came more from the north than any other direction. A good wind break for camp cooking is essential.

Tips:

Keep an eye out for the numerous hot springs dotted around Iceland. Due to the volcanic nature of the island you are never far from one. Some of the more spectacular ones are quite pricey but there are plenty of free ones that are the perfect way to relax at the end of a day on the bike. Many campsites have their own natural hot spring.

Every N1 service station has free Wi-Fi and hot food (not free).

Locally brewed Einstock Pale Ale is very good.

Iceland is expensive. Don't shop at the 10-11 grocery stores. The prices will make you cry. Nettó, Bónus, and Krónan are much more reasonable. Do not buy water. The tap water in Iceland is astonishingly clean and you will find wonderfully clear water everywhere you cycle in Iceland. The only exception being the interior where you should purify the glacial water. Cook yourself and camp every night and you shouldn't break the bank.

Food:

Local cuisine includes whale, puffin, dried fish, fermented shark, sheep's head and pickled ram's testicles. Enjoy!

Side of the road:

Right.

Electricity:

This socket also works with plug C and plug E.