Wednesday, November 22, 2017

10 Reasons why you should go Cycle Touring in Iceland




 Cold, dark November days are really conducive to some hygge and if you are anything like me, planning your next adventure. If you are looking for inspiration about where to go next, look no further. Cycle touring in Iceland will not disappoint you! It has everything that you could want from a cycle trip- amazing out of this world landscapes, wild camping spots, good roads and natural springs to await you after a hard day in the saddle. It was one of the best adventures that I have ever been on.  I have listed my top 10 reasons why you too should put this on your adventure list! 



 1. Scenery 


                         Stunning scenery from the viewpoint on Kjölur

Iceland is just breathtaking. Parts of it remind me of remote areas in Scotland but on much grander scale. Some of the scenery makes you feel like you have been transported to Mars- miles and miles of open landscape consisting of volcanic rock formations. This is a contrast to glaciers and fjords that are so clear that even if you are not into wild swimming, you want to jump in. As a cycle tourist, you get really close to these places. You feel every mountain and every bit of wind that passes through this rugged landscape. With every new turn of the road, the view opens up making you want to stop and take photos in order to imprint this memory in your mind forever. I don’t mind putting in the hard work on the bike when my mind is occupied by views like that!

2. Hot springs (but not the Blue Lagoon)


I would say that this alone is a reason to cycle around Iceland. Almost every small town has access to either hot springs or a swimming pool. When we realised this, we ended up planning our days so that we could end up in the next hot spring or local swimming pool. Swimming plays a big part in Icelandic culture. It is there that you hang out with your friends, take your kids for some quality time or spend some time on your own, relaxing. My Icelandic friend said that she always remembers going swimming as a child and it is really important to instil the same love for water to her own daughter. The winters here are tough -sub-zero temperatures, heavy snows and limited daylight, which is so much more bearable by the availability of these social hubs. 

Hint- I have never made it to the Blue Lagoon so I can’t say if it is worth the money. But don't worry, there are many hot springs or swimming pools for you to enjoy- free of charge or for very little money.

3. It is environmentally friendly


It seems that four panniers worth of stuff and someone to share the adventure with is just enough to make me happy 

Tourism in itself has an impact on the environment, there is no 
question about that. However, there are some things that we can do in order to have less of a footprint whilst we are travelling.  Discovering a place on a bike is, in my opinion, the best way! You have very little impact when you cycle as you don’t need any fuel, apart from Belgian waffles which power your internal engine. When you look at big camper vans and cars carrying so much stuff, you realize just how compact you are and how little you need for a fulfilling life.

4. It’s cheap!


Doing the dishes suddenly seems like a lot of fun when you have views like that! 

This is probably the most surprising fact about Iceland. There are two ways to travel around. One is to hire a car, stay in B&B’s and eat out = expensive. If you can cycle tour, camp and cook a lot of your own food, it will be one of the cheapest trips that you will do. But don’t be fooled! Cheaper, in this case, doesn’t mean that you will be missing out on what the country has to offer. On the contrary, it is a much better way to get to know the place as you get to experience things which you would not have the opportunity to see otherwise. You can set your wild camp next to a fjord and start frying locally caught salmon whilst pondering if this is in fact, happiness. I am sorry, but that is not skimping in my book!

5. Camping


                                                                Good morning! 

Iceland has a lot of campsites all around the island making it a really good place for cycle touring. They are some of the best campsites that I have encountered with some spectacular views included almost every time.  The prices were similar to the UK, but often with better facilities for the money.  A lot of local people go camping or touring with their caravans and so it is generally encouraged. Get yourself a camp card which will save you loads of money if you are planning to use your tent on numerous nights.



If you are a seasoned wild camper, you will be in your element as you can camp on most of the uncultivated land. If you have never wild camped before, you should definitely do it whilst you are in Iceland! There is an abundance of great spots and it is generally really safe. Camping really made the trip for me. We camped every single night for the whole 19-day trip. Some of the most magical spots included pitching a tent by the side of a glacier lake, camping next to a hot spring or falling asleep overlooking one of the western fjords.

                   Midnight sun- I didn't photoshop anyone out - everyone was asleep! 

You can even camp in Reykjavik!  The Eco Campsite is absolutely amazing and has space for 900 tents. It seems to attract all of the adventure tourists who are keen to share their local info with you. It is such a good idea to have a campsite in a big city, wouldn't it be great if other European capitals followed? Did I also mention that they try to be sustainable in a number of ways including recycling extensively and using eco products? I am sold. 

 6. On or Off Road



If you are a mountain biker, there are lots of amazing trails that you can follow. I would really recommend discovering the Interior if you are keen on some hard terrain. If you prefer to stick with roads, most of the of the main roads are well paved and lead around the whole island. 1332 km of tarmac roads to be precise and that is just around the ring road! The ring road is busy around Reykjavik but slows down the further away you go.


We originally planned to cycle around the whole country as it seemed like a good idea given our touring bikes with skinny tires. We heard about a mountain bike route which went through the interior Iceland- The Kjölur, but decided against it. Apparently, even mountain bikes struggle on that terrain and although the scenery is incredible, it is also hard going and quite remote.  The thing with ideas is, that they are just like seeds. You plant them in your mind and they grow until, well you can’t ignore them! We changed our minds almost immediately as we left Reykjavik. Suddenly cycling on the main road seemed a bit boring. We made a decision on the spot and set off towards the direction of Kjolur with the aim of making it across the interior of Iceland and following towards Western Fjords. We dropped the tourists' buses in Gulfos.  All the traffic suddenly stopped at that point. That was the end of Golden Circle.  Beyond that laid unknown, quiet paths and adventure. The pull towards it was immense. One more chance to turn back. Deep breath and acknowledge the butterflies of anticipation in your stomach. How hard can it be? Let’s do it!


                                  How hard can it be? 

Three days later we emerged on the other side. The mountain bikers were right, it was tough going. The road ended not long after Gulfos and progressively went from bad to worse. Riding on terrain like that on skinny tyres was challenging, although I have come away from this experience with a much-improved bike balance. To give you an idea of the scale of the terrain, it took us about 7 hours to do the second leg of The Kjölur which was 37 km. We finished at 1 am, frozen to the bone. But as always, Iceland didn’t disappoint-we finish the day in a hot spring.


                                 Rocky terrain was present most of the route

The rest of the trip had a similar pattern. Hard cycling conditions followed by some pampering in hot water. 


                                                           Too hot? I will risk it!

Western Fjords did not disappoint either. The route follows the fjords so you have beautiful views all around as you dip in and out of the land. There are not many shops around but there are small coffee shops just as you need them. 


                                       Cozy coffee shops just as you need them

The riding is hard and hilly on this stretch. There are a lot high mountain roads, often covered in snow and ice, even in the middle of the summer. 19 days seemed like not enough time to explore this landscape. You would need months just to explore the Western Fjords! 

7. Food


Did you know that the best fuel for cycle tourists is waffles? I should know as I have done the whole trip mostly running on at least two of those a day. I am not sure where the obsession originated or why you have to travel to Iceland to get the best Belgian waffles but I embraced it and without further questions proceeded to eat as many as I physically could. Another staple was soups. A lot of places do free refill on soups which as hungry cyclists we took advantage off at every opportunity. Because we were camping every night often in remote places, we were cooking a lot of our own food. We wanted to eat local as much as possible so we opted for salmon and lamb. Not many things can beat fresh lamb steaks after a hard day on the bike.

8. It is geared up for cycle touring 



Drinking water is available everywhere in Iceland. You can drink tap water as well as water from fast flowing streams both of which are widely available. We took a water filter with us but I remember not using it as the water was crystal clear in most places. Instead, we took some stainless steel Kleen Kanteens and we refilled when we needed supplies. There is no need for plastic water bottles in Iceland! We did this trip two years ago. It was partly on this adventure that I started to be aware of my trash and my environmental impact. I bought my stainless steel water bottles just before we left. I wasn't sure if it is a good idea for a cycle trip as they are heavier than plastic bottles. I can now tell you that I still have the same water bottle as pictured above and it is still going strong! 

One of the best things about touring in Iceland during the summer months is that you get unlimited light. If you are a faffer like me, you can get up at a reasonable hour, have a coffee, morning plunge in a hot spring if you wish, set off in the afternoon and still put in 8 hours on the bike. If you struggle to sleep when it’s light, it might be a good idea to invest in a neck warmer. You can use it as a wind protection during the day and eye cover at night. 



If you find that some sections are too challenging in the weather conditions or you just want a rest day, you can also hop on the bus and take your bikes in the hold. We took the bus for about 150 km section as we were running out of time and wanted to get to Western Fjords. You can also hitchhike if you can manage to get one of the big camper vans to stop. We didn’t!  


                          Heavy winds making flags out of my clothes!

Just a couple of tips - Reykjavik campground kitchen has tons of food which people left behind. You can find everything in there from half used packs of rice, pesto, to oats, flour, stock cubes, gas canisters and even some wine if you are lucky. This is such a good idea as all of this food would be thrown away which is a massive waste of resources. Take what you will need and drop food off if you have any left, for other people to enjoy. The campsite will also store your bike boxes for a small charge, which makes life a lot easier if you are flying in and out of the country. Iceland also has a fantastic emergency app. Download it. Just in case. 

9. Because it is hard

                           One of those days on the bike when you give everything that you have

You might be surprised that I included this as one of the reasons why to go. Bear with me whilst I explain why.  Iceland is challenging. The weather and the terrain (if you choose to go off-road) is not easy. The weather is a little bit like in Scotland- unpredictable. It can be sunny one minute and below freezing the next. The rain and wind in July can be as strong and cold as that of a winter in the UK. Some of the off-road terrains are just hard as nails.  Chances are that you will be carrying heavy bags with lots of clothing due to the weather reason above, all of which makes touring challenging. So why is this a reason to go? The answer is contrast. For every hard day on a bike, there is a sweet wild camping spot. For every minute of when you are shivering during the day, there is the pure bliss when you soak your tired body in a natural hot spring. Every time you get a headwind and you go 7 mph downhill, there is uphill with the wind in your sales, making you feel like you are riding an electric bike. 


When you take two photos - one for the parents and the other one to show how you really feel in the moment - type B fun:) 

There is always something to look at in Iceland. You can’t be pissed off for too long as the view, wildlife, scenery or the food will take your breath away, so much that you can no longer remember why you were angry 5 minutes ago. This is not cycle touring around the South of France, where a lot of things (including the weather) are predictable. It is the contrast that makes Iceland so special. You have to earn your rewards. But wow, the rewards are totally worth it.



Solitude



If your heart longs for vast open spaces and you are searching for calmness in the turmoil called life, Iceland is the perfect place. As soon as you step away from the Golden Circle, the only company that you will have is that of yourself and the person you have decided to share this trip with. You feel alone, yet you are never lonely. Your company becomes the landscape with its vast array of sounds and smells. You fall asleep listening to the wind and rain gently tapping on your tent. You wake up in the middle of the night as the tent flaps in what are now heavy winds. You are so grateful that you are protected by a thin sheet of fabric from the environment that you are so longingly trying to connect with. Put some Sigur Ross on in low volume on your phone speakers. Listen carefully and see the sound materialising into a real landscape in front of your eyes.  Don't worry, you will not disturb anyone. There is no one there. Just you. 


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