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ICELANDIC CYCLE-TOURING NOTES, AUG 2003

Rich Simmons



REMIT:

I do not intend to give complete touring advice, and leave many important subjects un-discussed, but the following notes incorporate the issues that affected my tour, and cover information that I couldn’t find before going.

DISTANCES:

Conversion to Km is relatively simple. Plan to travel in Km what you would normally expect to do in miles per day. Also, do not plan to travel at an average speed of more than 10Km per hour, not miles per hour. I found that 60km a day could be gruelling at times, but if I had the wind behind me on a tarmaced road, 100km per day was possible. On gravel roads in headwinds, my speed was down to 6km per hour at times, and my body’s energy reserves generally limited to eight hours of effort. Sometimes a greater distance is required to reach a suitable camping site or re-supply of water or food. Then you must push yourself onwards indefinitely to reach that place, but you will pay for it the following day and be limited in your performance. I had to do 110km one day, 60 or more on gravel, to reach a water supply, but was aided by a tailwind. The following day it took five hours to cover 35km on gravel, and this was enough.

WATER:

Water is very scarce in the Highlands, ie. Interior routes, plus glaciated areas, gravel plains and lava fields. The ground is very porous, and the water simply isn’t there. Rivers shown on maps often do not exist, and glaciated rivers are laden with grey sediment and of no use. Always carry two litres of water. If it is hot or windy and you are on an interior route (ie. Unpopulated) then carry three. All routes have occasional traffic, so in an emergency you could ask for water from a passing motorist.

CAMPING:

Camping is essential, you must be able to rely on your own resources. I always used designated sites, because they have water and excellent facilities for washing and disposal of waste, often for as little as £4 per person.

FOOD:

Food shopping is limited in choice and the shops can be over 150km apart. Always have three days supply in your baggage, generally something for the evening meal, a dried meal in reserve, and a bag of rice, oats, sugar, pasta, powdered soup and herb tea, can keep you going for several days between fresh food supplies. The best food shop I could find in Reykjavik resembled a local Spar or Jacksons in the UK with limited range. Food costs upto 250% of UK prices, is generally tinned, frozen, shrink wrapped or dried at source. Bananas are usually available, lettuce and tomatoes becoming scarce outside the city, and meat usually frozen in portions that would feed a family. Dairy products are excellent, and 250ml cartons of UHT milk (Nymjolk) very useful for tea or cereal. Dried milk is not available. Re-supply can be difficult when running out of oats or rice when you have to buy a kilo of each on the same day. For this reason, a travelling companion could be useful. Some places host hotel accommodation, camping, golf, swimming pools, and petrol, but have no shop: be careful, check ahead.

GAS:

Gas cartridges are available at garages. I always carry a spare, and use freely. Both piercing and screw-on types are available. The latter more versatile, as you cannot take them on the ‘plane, so there is a ready supply of abandoned cartridges at Reykjavik campsite, and easier to remove your stove before flying home.

MAPS:

The country on three maps at a scale of 1:250 000 will suffice, but my UK road map is bigger, it doesn’t show the hilly sections, just 50m contours, so expect some surprises. Also, mountain huts and camping sites shown at that scale on the roadside may actually be a few km off. 1:100 000 is better if you are not planning to cover the whole country or a greater part of. Do not use the 1: 500 000 map with the country on one sheet, it’s a big place.

ROAD CONDITIONS:

All roads are raised above the surrounding land on embankments, to escape flooding, but for that reason they catch the wind. Very often you can see where you will be in an hour or two, owing to the straightness of roads, and prominence of hills, but surprisingly, the roads are generally flat (don’t quote me) going around independent hills. If you do have to cross a pass or get to higher ground, then the inclines can be long and tiring but not steep.

Maps show quite clearly what the surface is: sealed, maintained gravel, or secondary route with maintained gravel. The latter two can be of equally bad condition, although some sections of maintained gravel are actually quite smooth and fast.

Gravel roads tend to be very dusty so oil your bike daily to stop exposed parts seizing up. If a vehicle passes on gravel you will be swallowed up in a vortex of dust, which may or may not blow away. You will learn to take a deep breath immediately before it approaches, and wait. If it is a coach, then you may have to stop and breath through your sleeve for a minute. If your bike is on the back of a bus or car, it will be completely coated in dust, especially where there is oil, so try to protect these areas with plastic bags and tape.

You ride/drive on the right. But on a gravel road that is quiet, maybe one car every thirty minutes, you will find yourself following whichever tyre track happens to be the smoothest. If a vehicle is approaching you will be in one tyre track, and them in two. Thankfully, they will usually go around, as it is difficult to veer off because the gravel is deeper at the sides and can grab your wheel.

Gravel roads can become corrugated, ie. A parallel series of wavelike potholes that stop you dead in your track/s. with a heavily laden bicycle, they can cause serious damage, and you should proceed downhill as fast as you go on the flat or uphill. In these conditions it was difficult to maintain 10km per hour, and with a headwind on gravel I could achieve 7km per hour cycling if it was flat and in granny gear, but any hills had to be pushed.

WIND:

Wind is always as problem, as it tends to be blowing every few days, not in gusts, but continuously, almost to the extent that only a cycle camper would notice. One day I had a terrible NE headwind with sheets of rain that were on and off, every few minutes. After a gruelling 10 hours to do 80km I arrived in a state of collapse at the hostel, and had certainly over stretched myself. Normally the same distance at home would have been a piece of cake. The following day I was on the bus at 80km per hour. Two days later I had a fantastic SW tailwind for two great days, sailing past many a cyclist going the other way bent double over their bars or walking. One day I had an E tailwind, but on turning a corner coming out of the mountains, it changed to a N gale, and on tarmac I crawled along in granny gear eventually walking. Even the flagstaffs at the garage were bending. For this reason I would strongly recommend taking a cycling companion.

COMPANIONS:

You will meet a great many people at campsites (often in communal cooking areas), youth hostels, on the busses, trips and on the road. It is a feel-good place to visit, and very safe for lone travellers like I was, but just a little harder with wind and carrying the food.

BUSSES:

All the cyclists I met were on a bus at some point of their journey owing to a lack of time, big distances, and headwinds. For £8 your bike is on the bus, doing one day’s ride in one hour, and all places are served, even the two interior routes Sprengisandur and the Kjöller. Fares are reasonable, and you can bypass long boring sections, Reykjavik to the airport at Keflavik, and the initial sections of route 1 which are very busy. Your bike will be either in the luggage compartment or on a rack outside. If it is on the outside, then have plenty of straps ready and try to cover your hard-working oily bits with plastic to protect from dust.

A QUICK REMINDER:

You are now aware of the following: Two litres of water, camping gear and often three days supply of food, possibly a kilo of rice and oats from your last shop. Seriously slow gravel roads Headwinds more than half the time (there is no 50/50 scenario) Distances possibly reduced to 60km per day Crossings of sand or gravel plains that can take two or three days with little of scenic interest Seeing where the road will take you in an hour or two

LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THE FOLLOWING:

Beautiful glaciers, mountains, waterfalls, volcanic wonders, gasses vented out of the ground, the people you meet, the ultimate experience that is travelling in Iceland. If you are still interested in cycle touring there, you wont regret it, just try to limit your tour to a reasonable area, and know beforehand what you may expect.

THERE IS AN ALTERNATIVE:

Do feel free to use the busses, because there are no certificates awarded for cycling the whole of the circle route, and unless you are a goal-orientated type of person, you will regret the time that it has taken from exploring the many walking trails and sights. There are literally hundreds of hills and places beckoning to jump off and walk up/ to, and these require time too. If you choose cycletouring because you enjoy independence, exercise, travelling through interesting places, then it can, and is mostly done by walking in the interesting areas, and bussing in between. My annual tours have taken me over remote tracks in Scotland and, more gently around the coast of Ireland, plus a regular weekend cyclist, but Iceland certainly made me realise my limits.

MORE ON CYCLING etc

EQUIPMENT TO TAKE SHOULD INCLUDE:

Steel luggage racks. They take such a pounding, and in these conditions, alloy ones can easily brake.
Straps to hold your panniers down.
A small oil can, plenty of rags, insulation tape to wrap things with plastic bags.
Plenty of plastic bags.
Day sack for walking and shopping. You have to buy carrier bags.
Swimwear and a towel everywhere. You will be surprised by the number of pools, hot-tubs and springs you will find.
Suncream, sunglasses and peaked cap. I have had three days of scorching sun in the desert areas, 25 degrees in the shade, except that there wasn’t any shade after leaving the campsite.
Midge-netting-hat. In the north, there are lots of small flies that go for the face. They will try to crawl up your nose and into your ears. Eventually they will bite, but are not nearly as bad as the Scottish midges.
Footwear that is equally suited for cycling and rough walking, such as mountain bike boots.
Sandals, if you intend to do some interior routes, to assist in the fording of rivers (they are often glacial and impossible to see the stream-bed). By the way, I think quick-release cleated footwear would be fairly useless off road with all that dust about. Use good old-fashioned cage-type pedals, and I think if I did it again, then I would have taken off my toe clips from the beginning of the gravel roads.
Sleeping-bag: I took a four season bag that goes well below freezing point. I had trouble sleeping many times because I was simply too hot. At night, it only dropped to ten degrees, and in the youth hostels and sleeping-bag accommodation, the heating was on.
Lock? Not really necessary outside Reykjavik, due to very honest people, with little interest in cycling, but I took a lightweight one. Don’t take a heavy one, there are more edible things to carry.
Films, I took eight rolls in three weeks, they can cost upto £14 a roll over there.
Your usual stuff, tools to fit your bike, spare tubes and repair kit. I didn’t take a spare tyre, but fitted new ones before going, and took a piece of canvas, which can be used to protect a damaged sidewall.
HUBS! I have broken my rear Q/R spindle twice before, the last time was a week before departure, cycling around the local shops. So, as a precaution I took a spare spindle, spare skewer ( because the thread can strip when the spindle goes) and cone spanners. Then add a chain-link remover, block remover, crank remover and a spoke-key. Basically, anything that a garage wouldn’t have, as cycle shops are pretty rare. I think there is one in Reykjavik. Goodbye to lightweight touring!?

DO TAKE:

Some dried fruit and nuts, preferably lots of it for your first week, and a stock of teabags and herb tea.

CLOTHING:

A bike cape would be useless in the wind, and for walking, and at the campsites. Take a good waterproof-breathable jacket, and underneath, a thin layer that wicks sweat away, and maybe a fleece. Then add to the list track-mitts, a woolly hat (unless you intend to but an Icelandic one, the same goes for jumpers too). For the bottom half I choose to get wet. Ten degrees is not that cold, provided the upper half can maintain that essential warmth. Lycra shorts dry out quick after rain, whereas waterproof trousers offer drag against the legs, and wind resistance. For travelling, and walking I took some ‘cargo’ shorts, and fleecy leggings for a colder evening if needed.

BIKE:

Could be useful, I used a ten-year-old Dawes touring bike with 700x32 tyres (new) and new brake blocks. It depends what you are used to. However, I did find the drop handlebars useful in headwinds, and saw the disadvantage of large continental-style bicycles that other Europeans were using, with a high riding position. A front rack was useful for spreading some of the load. I haven’t got a mountain bike, because there is so much more drag from the wider tyres, and little choice of handlebar position, so I find them much slower on the roads, but if you intend to do lots of gravel roads, then it could be a good choice. I didn’t have any punctures in 1,000 km (250 on gravel), but did manage to crimple the braking surface on the back rim over a rougher gravel road, by carrying so much weight. Wider tyres would have prevented this….And on returning have washed out piles of black sand from my chain, block and gears, that virtually made everything seize-up.

BEER:

If you can find a bar, you can get, straw-coloured lager full of bubbles for the equivalent of £5 per pint (or half-litre as they sell it). If you like bitter or real ale then you will appreciate the de-toxifying effects of a holiday in Iceland, and a good excuse to visit your local pub upon your return. (If you need an excuse).

ROUTES AND PLACES:

Based on where I have been, not intended as a definitive guide, and without general info on the sites that is available in the guidebooks. The letters Ð,Þ, and ð, are pronounced ‘th’, so read placenames carefully.

Keflavik to Reykjavik Route 41 is best avoided. Very busy, with two to three lanes of fast traffic. A hard shoulder does give some respite, but a series of hills approaching Reyk are the last straw. Use instead the airport bus service. There is a youth hostel in Njarðvik, and Reykjavik, the latter incorporating a huge campsite for £5 which includes good facilities, and both adjacent to the swimming pool. The Reyk hostel/camp is a 24 hour affair with people coming and going, and can provide full information on tours, busses etc, but is about two km out of town. For first class accommodation use Snorri’s Guesthouse, with hostel-like facilities, beds either made or using own sleeping bag, and breakfast included. (61 Snorrabraut, tel 354 552 0598 or 354 551 3890), but do book ahead.

Route 1 east to Selfoss, is very busy, again use the bus, most routes go this way, before the traffic disperses various ways. After a good deal of grazing land, the scenery gets better after Hvolsvöllur.

Heading west from Hveragerði, takes you towards Keflavik on minor roads. Hveragerði hosts a series of greenhouses heated by hot springs, and an excellent day’s walk in the hills, where you can bathe in a hot river, plus a big swimming pool, hostel, shops and campground with five-star toilet compound included in the £4 fee. Route 38 is surfaced, west, then turning off to 42 becomes a gravel road. This is no problem for any type of car, but for cyclists it is a pain due to miles of corrugated ruts which, combined with a westerly wind can make painfully slow travel. At Strandarkirkja there is an interesting church built originally about 1000 years ago by sailors washed ashore in a gale, but since rebuilt several times. Also, views of the coast (generally the edge of the lava flow), and camping plus café if she is there. West again is rough but becomes surfaced on crossing the boundary of Grindavik district, which helps immensely. There are fantastic hot springs and vents, at the junction of routes 428 and 42. I didn’t attempt route 428 owing to westerly gale with rain thrown in, and because it is of a lower classification than the previously rutted section. Instead , route 42 is smooth cinder road passing some of the most spectacular lava formations I have seen, everywhere black and burnt, but unfortunately busy with quarry traffic all the way to route 41 Keflavik-Reykj. For me, this was an escape route, with a screaming tail wind, in so much as, I didn’t mind the traffic, knowing I could ride my bike in other than Granny gear, and reach Keflavik by airport bus instead.

Þorsmork Valley is definitely worth a visit, as is the spectacularly located hostel at Fljotsdalur, with its turf roof, and timber construction. It is HQ for Dick Phillips’ walking tours, with an extensive library on anything to do with Iceland, so you should book ahead.

Now heading anti-clockwise as far as the north of the country.

On route one, excellent waterfalls at Seljalandsfoss (you can walk behind) and Skogarfoss (more famous, with campsite, but no shops.

Vik has camping, hostel, shop and a bank. From here towards Skaftafell you cross two endless plains of firstly lava, then gravel washed out of the glaciers, with nothing else. Half way is Kirkjubae…, which could be well worth a stop, and a hostel at Hvoll.

Skaftafell hosts an excellent camping site, shop, café, tourist info, and excellent walks into glaciated wilderness, one of Iceland’s gems.

From here, route one again, passes many glaciers, and quite stunning scenery. There is a hostel and camping at Vagnsstaðir, and the first shops are in Höfn, all two of them. It is an important port, with a good deal written about it, but mostly the camping, hostel (excellent), shop, info and pool. To look round will take all of an hour. There is a bicycle repair-man here too, I was told by a fellow cyclist, but don’t expect a bike shop.

Djupivogur hosts a shop, I’m not sure what accommodation there is, but this isolated place is tiny, and two difficult day’s cycling in either direction to get anywhere.

Egilsstaðir is a more important place with camping.

Myvátn is where you should spend a few days. Myvátn = midge lake, so you will need that veil on, but it is the flies that are the problem. Reykjahlith is the main centre with bus-stop, two campgrounds, a shop and tours. Volcanic wonders can be seen at nearby Krafla, where a bike is useful for 15-20km, between places. The biggest waterfall in Iceland is Dettifoss, which is best reached with your bike unladen. Take water, there is none on the route, and the river is laden with sediment. It is about 20km of road and 20km of rough sandy track to get to the west bank, well worth it, but allow 6-7 hours for the return trip, and take food, there are no facilities out here.

Askja is a huge volcanic crater which blew up in 1875, 130km from Myvátn. There are day tours out there on a specially built 4WD bus, which crawls along the tortuous lava fields and sandy plains. There are two huts/ campgrounds out here, and it could be cycled in two arduous days. Both places are like oasis’ with spring water coming out of the lava. The tour (£60) can also drop you here, and collect you a day or two later. (It doesn’t run every day-check). Adjacent to Askja is Viti (translated as Hell), a crater of turquoise water at swimming temperature, all year round.

West on route one finds you climbing a pass with your midge netting on (you cannot loose them), and in good weather arriving at the beautiful Goðafoss waterfall for lunch, then Akureyri over a long, high pass. This is an important town, with more than a dozen shops, and a good campground on the hillside.

West to Varmahlið takes in breathtaking hill and valley scenery ie, out-of-breath, going over a short pass. No facilities between these places. The road is initially very busy and off-putting, but I think the traffic is mostly local, as it does get quieter. Here you will find an excellent shop and camping. There are two sites. I arrived in a gale and stopped on the right-hand-side (from the east), just before the village. Here you can sleep in beds in a centrally heated barn, and use the cooker in another huge heated barn, or simply camp. All for £3.50, which includes shower and hot-tub!

The Kjöller (route 35) crosses back to the south in a fairly direct line, if you are prepared for three good days, and a good deal of rough (175km is unsurfaced) There is hardly any surface water around, so rely on your own bottles, filed up at the end of the day at a campground or mountain hut. From route one, south to Hveravellir is 85km, plus whatever you have already done that morning. Initially it climbs for a mile or two, to reach a power station. Then it is a smooth gravel road, which becomes undulating, and fairly pleasant, across dried-out moorland, hopefully, views all around. At Afangafell there is sleeping-bag accommodation, and I suggest a place to refill bottles. An emergency hut at Arnabæli may well be the destination of a weary cyclist, but there is no water here. First river after route one is Seyðisa, about another ten km, and then, as indicated on the map, it becomes rough, ie. Lots of loose stones, and deeper sandy patches. All rideable but slow. You could camp by this river, but it is only another ten km to Hveravellir, with its camping ground, fresh water and hot springs, also a mountain hut, and a very basic store. This is such an oasis, that you may well arrive exhausted, but will soon revive in a big, stone-built hot-tub, fed by two polyproplene pipes, one boiling and one cold, that produce a very hot bath over-looking the distant ice-caps. You will also be reluctant to leave.

Continuing south on the Kjöller, I detoured to Kerlingarfjöll, where the mountain hut turns out to be a series of chalets for weekend retreats out from the city, hosting a restaurant at £15 for a delicious main course with a glass of water, hot-tub and camping for the usual reasonable fee. The track here takes a long time because the surface is very loose, with one ford to cross, and most of it uphill. There is a good day’s walking here, and a spring to enjoy, which hosts water gushing out of a well-head at 30 degrees, into a hollow scraped into the surrounding pebbles. They are coated in rusty deposits, and the whole thing resembles an old mine or quarry.

South again is an endless basin of sand and gravel with the occasional blade of grass, or plant, struggling to find moisture. There are mountain huts on the way, but I pushed on to Gullfoss. The road is slow, and you don’t have that smooth surface again for a good while. It is fairly loose and often corrugated, until you reach Bláfell. Then there is a spectacular descent on smooth cinders for about ten km, but the last 15km are badly corrugated.

Gulfoss hosts the famous waterfall, and a café, pushing on to Geysir, another 10 km there is camping, with free use of the hotel swimming pool and hot-tubs. There is a café, but no shop. You won’t starve, but will still be benefiting from food you have carried in, despite the frequent off-loading of coach excursions.

If you are going from south to north, expect a day of climbing, with your first overnight around Blafell or Hvitarnes.

Continuing south, your first shop will be Laugarvatn at the garage, and also home of hot springs which run into the lake. Camping and hostel also.

A good gravel road (365) leads to Þingvellir, with excellent camping at the National Park centre, but no food shops. Well worth looking at this historic site and rift-valley, where Iceland is quite literally splitting apart, major fault-lines all over the place, and ancient lava flows covered in shrubs.

FURTHER INFO

Useful contacts have been: RSF.ORG.UK , off-road cycling club (look under touring articles)
http://members.ziggo.nl/erens/iceland.htm a site dedicated to Icelandic touring
Dick Phillips of Nenthead, Cumbria, who can organise travel arrangements and tours.