It was harder than I had expected to wrench ourselves away from what had become a glorious Scottish summer. For weeks at a time the sunny days had rolled in to the eastern highlands, and following another rider down the trails was dangerous if you didn’t want a mouthful of airborne loam-dust. Way back in March though, we had taken the plunge and booked flights to Iceland to explore the mysterious land of fire and ice, by bike, over a period of five weeks.
Exposed to the sub-Arctic climate, way out there in the North Atlantic, mountain biking is a relatively little-known pastime. It’s growing fast though, and having found small hints here and there of what can be found with an inquisitive attitude, and a willingness to put the legwork in, we were brim-full of excitement when the plane touched down amidst a blanket of grey sea-fog in mid August. Stepping into Icelandic air for the first time, it felt more like the chill damp of Scottish autumn, and we knew that we were going to face some new and testing conditions in the weeks to come.
We spent the first 10 days travelling anti-clockwise around Iceland’s Route 1, breaking in our legs and adjusting to the rhythm of a life dictated by tired legs and available camp spots. It took time for us to adjust to the views of tumbling glaciers, vast lava fields and never-ending black sand beaches as we approached the southern ice fields. Beneath Eyjafjallajökull (the one that erupted in 2010 and stopped you from flying anywhere) we found alpine singletrack that followed a cascade of waterfalls as the Skogar river fell from the frozen plateau above.
Further east, we saw fjords and mountains that almost mirrored the coastal mountains of Torridon back at home on the Scottish West Coast. Every day seemed to bring new scenery and a new perspective, and every one was more improbable and unexpected than the last. Even on the road there were surprises in store: On one day the cross-winds were so vicious that they physically blew us sideways off the road.
We used a mixture of panniers on Annie’s bike and Revelate Designs bikepacking bags. These are relatively new to us but they allow you to really spread the weight around the bike, keeping it fun and lively to ride. There was no way that we could carry enough food to last the entire trip though, and so as we neared Egilstadir in the north-east of the island, we hooked up with one of the food resupply parcels that we had cunningly sent out in advance when we landed. If you want to rejuvenate your appreciation of food, then go ride for a few days eating nothing but oatcakes and couscous! I have never been so happy at the thought of a fresh apple, and at one point paid the equivalent of £3.50 for a pear at a remote petrol station.
We left Egilstadir with bikes groaning under the weight of goodies, and started on the biggest section of backcountry riding that Iceland has to offer — crossing the uninhabited interior highlands via the Sprengisandur dirt road. On the way, we climbed to 1,000 metres, crossed paths with a violent storm that trapped us for two days, and watched as the rough track gradually disappeared over the remoter sections, leaving us to trustingly follow a line of old wooden posts that jutted out from the featureless black gravel at intervals. It might not have been technical riding, but it was a challenging adventure when Annie’s rear derailleur exploded 150km from the nearest tarmac surface during a howling storm. Luckily, we fixed it up using an adjustable Surly singlespeed tensioner, and with no other option we ploughed on into an unrelenting headwind, averaging barely 5kph, but reaching an old barn at nightfall where we gratefully slept on the dry straw used to feed trekking ponies when they passed that way.
Days like that tested us to the limits of our motivation, and the featureless highlands had turned from enchanting to maddening after five days struggling across them into the wind. Our reward, though, was the paradise of Landmannalaugar, a volcanic hotspot among steep, beautifully coloured hills that are dotted with steam vents. Riddled with hiking trails, it was one of the places that had inspired us to come to Iceland in the first place. Although we were desperate a rest, there was nothing we could when we arrived but drop all our gear, grab the bikes and hike up the nearest hill to get a taste for Icelandic mountain singletrack.
After ten days of rain, we saw a window of good weather, and on the spur of the moment decided to hitch some of the gear back up to the bikes and try to cover the Laugavegur trail over three days. It was 110km out and back, and was the toughest part of the trip by far! The singletrack was unbelievable — so unbelievable that we found time to make a short film of this trail, just so that you’ll believe me. Steaming hot springs, alpine singletrack, high snowfields and frozen lava fields, all under the watchful eye of the ever-present glaciers. After three days, we were shattered. There was plenty of ‘pushwhacking’ on the trail, and for a day or two all we could do was eat and sleep. The Laugavegur combined super technical, alpine-style riding with long days and a real, and potentially serious, remoteness — exactly what we had hoped to find! The campsite at Landmannalaugar is placed at the foot of a cooled lava flow, and from its base there flows a heated stream, which pools to make the most relaxing natural bath I think I will ever have the pleasure to wallow in.
After the excitement of the mountains, we had hoped to have an easy spin for a few hundred kilometres back to Reykjavik for some sightseeing. The wind had other ideas though, and instead we ground out a gruelling 100km into a 40kph headwind. Despite descending 800m over that distance, it felt like we were climbing, and Annie’s singlespeed gear meant that she could only make progress while riding in my slipstream. It was another test of mind and body, and when we finally reached the first town at Hella the local shop didn’t know what had hit it. If Iceland does one thing well, it’s sweets, and we made a dent in the national stocks of chocolate raisins that evening.
Feeling entirely spent, we rode the bus into Reykjavik. It’s a funny city, feeling more like a large regional town than a capital city, but the love of culture that it’s renowned for was there in abundance. We introduced ourselves to the local bike shop, Kria cycles, and the owner Emil gave us some ideas to chew on as he traced unmarked trails over our map in faint pencil. If we had known that there was so much more potential lying in the seemingly empty highlands, we wouldn’t have bought a return ticket! The exceptional Icelandic hospitality that we had experienced everywhere we went wasn’t altered by the bustle of the city, and everyone we met smiled and chatted to us in fluent English, putting our scant knowledge of Icelandic to some shame.
The riding wasn’t finished yet though — we still had 40km to travel back to the airport at Keflavik, so we took the scenic route and checked out a local riding spot on the way. If mountains made of solid bedrock are your thing, then you might want to book a ticket. No plants, no paths, just slick black rock and endless grip. Our final night of camping was beside a restless Atlantic and beneath a neon pink sky. An Arctic fox stopped briefly on its rounds and eyed us, warily. Iceland is an incredibly fragile landscape — rogue off-roaders are a real problem in the highlands, and the tracks of 4x4s that have left on the marked tracks leave an impact on the delicate plants and mosses for decades. We felt divided between the urge to explore and the knowledge that damage can be done just by visiting certain places. I think it’s this environment that makes Iceland the perfect place for real adventure — it’s there if you are willing to put in the work to find it.
Words and photos: Huw Oliver
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