We’re excited to introduce the first instalment in our new “Roadtripping” series – a series of feature articles all about the joy of exploring some of the planet’s most amazing roads. In this first instalment we take a trip to Norway with Szymon “SzymonBike” Kotowski, Karol Michalski and Wojtek Kwiatek to experience some of the most breathtaking roads you’re ever likely to see. We hope you enjoy this piece as much as we’ve enjoyed putting it together. And this is just the beginning.
You are riding along this gorgeous, winding road, captivated by the vast spaces, mountains and fjords, and it suddenly dawns on you that you have been completely disregarding cars and potholes all along. Simply because there are none – it’s just you and the dream road.
This is Norway. A country which has as much in common with cycling as Spain has with ski jumping. That is, nothing. Nevertheless, this is where one can find a true cycling paradise. One which has accidentally been created thanks to Norwegians’ breadth of vision that tells them to build perfectly even roads everywhere; to the top of a mountain, through little islands on the sea, through mountain valleys or seaside wastes.
Sometimes, these roads seem to have no point or destination, but this is why they unknowingly prove to be such fantastic places for riding.
Little do the Norwegian road builders know about these presents they’ve left for cyclists, and masses of riders have no idea about these roads either. All in all, every sane bike-lover will choose a trusted spot like the Alps, Dolomites or Pyrenees – ridden hundreds of times – for a weekend away from home.
But why not try something different? Take a group of friends, get in the car and set off in search of roads unknown to cyclists. Why not abandon the comfort of tried and crowded roads as well as stable weather, and instead head the opposite direction, to the north of Europe?
There were three of us on our trip: Karol, Wojtek and me, Szymon. Two students, one blogger from Poland. It is August and nobody is thirsty for results, gear or anything that seemed so important at the beginning of the season. We leave heart-rate monitors, power meters and other unnecessary rubbish at home.
We forgot about our training plans, rankings in local races and all that stops cycling perfectionists from doing rides like these. We just went ahead, far into Norway, in search of dream roads and adventure.
The plan was as simple as dropping Purito Rodriguez on a steep uphill. Two epic rides, from dawn till dusk. The first one at the sea, the other in the mountains, both well away from the biggest tourist attractions that can be reached by bike. No more arrangements. Less planning, more fun.
We are far from being in top shape. Wojtek is the furthest: he oversleeps, misses his first flight and joins us two days later. We don’t have too much time either. It’s not good because the weather is getting worse and we do not have time to sit out rainy days.
But we realise that in Norway rain is an inseparable part of the climate. I must say it worries us a bit as clouds cover a lot of the spectacular views but there is no point in complaining about something that cannot be changed. Let’s do what we were supposed to do.
“It suddenly dawns on you that you have been completely disregarding cars and potholes all along. Simply because there are none.”
The alarm goes off at a stupid o’clock, it’s still dark but we don’t have to look outside to check the weather – the sound of rain tells the whole story right away. We try to ignore this fact and just eat a proper breakfast before getting into the car with the rest of the guys. Direction: Molde. The starting point for both of our rides.
Molde is known as the city of roses but it is not roses that are of interest to us. There is something much better here: the Molde Panorama. Supposedly, one can see 222 summits from the Varden viewpoint. We are not going to see them for two reasons: all of them are hidden behind the clouds, and our eyes are still half-asleep due to lack of caffeine. There is a café at the top but it’s useless due to being closed, which is quite normal here.
So we are standing alone at the top of Varden which can be accessed by a 5km hard uphill road: a little bit of tarmac, a little bit of gravel, profiled turns and a car park as well as a closed café at the top. The first gift-road cleared right away.
Today we are riding at the sea. We want to do the whole Atlantic Road, go round the Averoy Island and do 222 km – just like the supposed number of visible summits.
I must admit that I am not a fan of long distances and I have never ridden that much but it somehow doesn’t bother me. It is hard to be bothered by these kind of things when you are surrounded by such beautiful landscapes. You simply feel happy riding and knowing that in a moment you will experience arguably the most beautiful road in the world.
Atlantic Road – the name sounds serious. Everybody knows it at least from awe-inspiring photographs. The road twists and turns among small islands connected by tortuous bridges. All this is really impressive. There is one thing that does not come to your mind when you are watching these photographs. All of them are taken from a bird’s-eye view or from a hill that the photographer had to climb. But you are not a bird or a fleet-footed photographer. You are a rider who found himself at open sea and is kicking himself for choosing wheels with high profile rims.
However, the power of suggestion is strong and no matter how much you suffer, you feel that you are in a special place and you do not mind another closed café or a cold wind that constantly blows in your face. The wind is especially painful on Storseisundet, an unusual bridge that bends into a high and wide arch that makes you realise what ‘to gag’ means when you reach its top.
Even after going around the magical Averoy Island, without a bit of flat surface, where the landscape changes every five minutes and instead of reindeers so typical for Norway you pass lamas again and again, you are riding against the wind. That’s even better – you are going slower and, thus, you can enjoy the scenery longer. Second gift-road done.
We decided to come back to Molde through side roads and that decision opened the floodgates to lovely tracks. It does not matter if the road leads to a town or to a single house – the tarmac is always perfect, you always get some beautiful views and encounter almost no traffic. It’s a Norwegian thing – wherever you go riding, take a side road and you will find a dream track. It’s as simple as that.
We are back in Molde and we are hitting the wall. But we still have to climb the hill to Varden. On top of all that, Karol glimpses at his Garmin and says ‘we’re not going to make the 222 km plan’. Damn. There is nothing we can do about it — let’s climb this killer hill and get back home honorably.
After 200km and a whole day of fighting with the coastal wind, Varden seems to be much steeper and barely climbable even by zigzagging in the granny gear. In my mind, I am so thankful to my compact crankset. Half a day later, at the top, I am asking Karol how many kilometres we have covered: 230.
The route: Molde to Dalsnibba. Actually we start a bit outside Molde because Norwegians, apart from building mountain roads to nowhere and constructing bridges across the sea, also like drilling tunnels. Under fjords, for example.
Do you need to connect two shores? Let’s dig a tunnel below the sea! It’s nice up to the halfway point – you are riding a couple of kilometers down. But then you have to go up again, slowly, without any reference point, waiting to be run down by a truck. Sheer torment.
The ‘mountain’, whose top is conquered after a heroic battle, is as high as zero meters above sea level. Never mind. We will start after the tunnel, we still have a distance to cover, anyway. In the rain.
The road is pleasantly wavy, our legs are pedaling nicely and our spirits are high. As if we had forgotten that the journey ahead of us is so difficult that one would have to lose a serious bet to embark on it.
We are wandering about a little on some perfect tarmac and then turn to a fishing village. We have a brush with death when Wojtek gets tangled in his rain jacket right in front of an approaching truck in the tunnel. Thankfully, the driver is Norwegian and Norwegians don’t know anger so he spares Wojtek and the three of us arrive at the next fjord.
This is the wonderful landscape Norway is known for. Fjords and ferries sneaking between them. They are everywhere and using them is as natural as stopping at the red light. This is how you travel through this country. And this is why it is so difficult to organize a bike race in these most beautiful locations.
But we are not racing; we are enjoying the first coffee break, even though the coffee tastes like dishwater. That’s right, coffee is not the Vikings’ specialty. We definitely aren’t in Italy. People here drink black and very strong coffee poured from a flask – so strong that you can set the spoon upright in a cup of it.
What is nice about the ferries is the fact that when all cars drive off them and go ahead, the road becomes completely empty until the next run. You can enjoy the views to the maximum. Unless you and your mates are fully charged with caffeine and you shift into your hardest gear, get into an aero position and push hard until the road twists smoothly around a fjord, pulling through and off in turns.
Only when we see a Trollstigen road sign and emerging mountaintops covered with snow, do we start to calm down. This is where the fun begins.
The Golden Route. A spectacular road built over eight years in order to connect two middles of nowhere for a reason that seemed important to somebody. Absolute madness. Thank you Norwegians for being this mad.
Thanks to the Norwegian panache for roadbuilding we can now fully enjoy one of the most beautiful roads on the planet. It’s sort of a mini-Stelvio, but there is no use comparing the two. There are many longer and steeper hills than this one around the world, but this road is one-of-a-kind.
It’s 18km long with 800 meters of elevation gain and 11 hairpin turns on the hillside, a waterfall going down the hill and pointed mountain tops looking sternly at us. The visibility is not too good today. From time to time we can spot something among the rain clouds. No problem; thanks to the awful weather the hill is all ours. So is the climate that resembles the final battle scene from The Lord of the Rings.
“The Golden Route. A spectacular road built over eight years in order to connect two middles of nowhere.”
This is exactly how you feel; as if you were taking part in something really big. And even when you bonk, you know that at the top there is a café with an observation terrace facing the whole hill. A café, as it turns out, which is closed. Normal.
Fortunately, right beside it is a little shop with trashy souvenirs where we pay through the nose for typical dishwater from a flask in a styrofoam cup. The temperature is only a couple of degrees above zero and it’s still raining. Our morale is barely alive and when we set off from the summit expecting a downhill what we get is a steep hill going up. This kills our morale instantly. With our lowered heads we look like Chris Froome looking at a stem.
But that’s life – sometimes you have to suffer in order to get a reward. Our reward was a magical 30km descent that gave us a bit of all four seasons. At the top the wind and rain were as strong as in the middle of winter. A bit further down the hill the golden leaves changed the scenery into autumn, then thanks to green pastures we entered spring, and finally when the sun came out from behind the clouds, summer was back. All that and another ferry crossing revived our morale. We were going to need it.
It was getting late and there was still about 50km to go, including two hills. Piece of cake. Not really.
You already know that this ride is one of those you will remember for a long time when nobody is setting sprint finishes at road signs or putting the hammer down when pulling through. The talking is over and each of us fully focuses on riding. I love this moment when the chit-chatting ends and nothing interferes with the most important thing.
We fell into this trance, and finally reached the top of Eagle Road. It leads through steep switchbacks to the famous Geiranger health resort, which is actually a small podunk somewhere in the mountains. We took a longer break under the pretence of shooting a video while going down and stop to fasten the cameras here and there as well as stuffing ourselves with cookies to delay the bonk.
“It’s getting dark. We are still more or less at sea level and the last mountain is about 1500 meters above us.”
It’s about 620 meters of climbing to the Geirangerfjord. Ideal tarmac, profiled turns and most importantly no brake blocks in Karol’s bike contribute to the high speed. But this is the last time for today.
We reach Geiranger, everything is already closed and it’s getting dark. The worst thing is that we are still more or less at sea level and the last mountain is about 1500 meters above us. Wojtek hits the bonk irreversibly and is out. Karol and I pack the cookies that are left and set off to complete the ride of our lives.
We got into trouble because we tried to motivate Wojtek by telling him it’s a cakewalk, only one hill. We didn’t convince him or ourselves. We would laugh at it later but now we have to do it. In the fog, without talking.
Initially, I felt surprising well. I even left Karol a little behind, got into the granny gear and kept riding without watching the views, which were covered by the clouds. While riding I am thinking to myself that I must be close to the top, and then a huge stone appears by the road and says ‘600 meter over havet’ (“600m above sea level”). We’ve only climbed a little more than a third of the hill. I feel like a deflated balloon.
Karol overtakes me and quickly disappears in the fog. I still have 400 meters of the hill until … the beginning of the final climb. Dalsnibba.
It’s a flagship gift-road that has been built specifically for tourists through hard work of many Norwegians and huge amounts of dynamite. It ends at the top of the mountain with a car park and a small café that is, yes, you guessed it, closed.
If you are going by car, you have to pay something at the gate but when you are on a bike you can simply go round it and enjoy the never-ending switchbacks and the view of Geirangerfjord from the top. Unless you’ve ridden there from Molde, in the rain and cold, and you’ve got no energy left whatsoever.
In such moments it’s hard to appreciate the switchback paradise … or hell. You are slowly zigzagging ahead, more and more snow appears on the roadside and it’s getting darker and darker. It’s really high but there is still no finish within sight.
These are the moments when you would love to throw your bike to the ditch by the road and start collecting postcards instead. But you know that if you keep going you will have the most beautiful memories. You know that the harder it is, the bigger the satisfaction, and that tomorrow you will laugh at all this.
Once at the top, the snow was everywhere and a perfect silence surrounded us. We opened a beer that tasted better than any beer ever has and basked in the feeling of happiness and satisfaction that only a ride this tough can bring.