Roadtripping Iceland

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Four degrees Celsius in the middle of summer. Perpetual daylight that makes it difficult to sleep. Constant rain. Backpacks full of heavy camera equipment. Niggling injuries. Jason Stirling and David Fletcher from NorthSouth faced no shortage of challenges as they made their way around Iceland over the course of two weeks. And yet the story they tell of that trip is unmistakably inspiring.

In the latest instalment in our Roadtripping series, David and Jason share their experience of biking around Europe's most sparsely populated country – the ups and downs, the people, the riding, and, of course, the breathtaking scenery. Enjoy.

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From the moment the plane touched down in Iceland it was obvious that this trip was going to be unlike anything we’d done before. We’ve ridden our bikes in some pretty interesting places but this felt like we had landed on another planet altogether.

Despite the fact that it was well past midnight, the sun was still in the sky and I could just make out the lava fields and ice-covered volcanoes from my seat next to the window.

“Where the hell are we?” I asked Dave who had been lucky enough to stopover in Iceland once before. He gave me a reassuring nod as if to say “I told you so”.

Iceland really is a world of its own. Stranded at the top of the globe somewhere between the UK and the North Pole lies this under-populated island nation, spectacularly crafted by ancient geological forces and fiery volcanoes. It’s a land of extremes and it can be quite confronting when you first arrive, armed only with a bike and a backpack.

The howling winds, impossibly low summer temperatures and perpetual daylight make Iceland like nothing I have ever experienced. If you’re looking for a relaxing cycling holiday I honestly don’t think you could choose a less suitable destination. For us though, it was exactly what we were after.

Ever since we started our blog a couple of years ago Iceland has been on top of the ‘to do’ list. We didn’t know a whole lot about the country but from what we had seen on National Geographic documentaries it looked like the place was made for a cycling adventure. Empty coastal roads, giant snow-capped mountains, glaciers, volcanoes, bubbling hot springs to rest your legs in at the end of the day – what more could you possibly want?

For us, Iceland had always been the epitome of adventure. The only problem was that it was on the other side of the world but if anything, this just deepened our fascination with the wild land. All we needed was an excuse, and some money to make it happen.

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“There was an air of nervous excitement when we arrived with absolutely no idea where we were going.”

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Dave and I make films for a living so when a client from London contacted us about a job at the end of the month we were overly enthusiastic from the outset. Iceland is only a couple of hours flight from London and we could just tell everyone that it was a ‘work trip’ so it didn’t look like we were slacking off again.

In the space of a couple of hours, the job was locked in and our flights to Iceland were booked with a one-week stopover in London!

Compared with some of our previous trips Iceland was completely unplanned. Amidst finishing off all of the jobs at work and preparing for London we didn’t have a spare second to think about the trip. Admittedly there was an unusual air of nervous excitement when we finally arrived in the country with absolutely no idea where we were going.

It wasn’t until we got to our hostel in Reykjavik that we started going over maps and itineraries of fellow travellers who had been foolish enough to explore Iceland on their bikes.

Having skimmed over a few blogs there seemed to be some recurring sentiments from the writers, namely that “it was a once in a lifetime experience but they probably wouldn’t bring their bikes with them next time”. One cyclist’s appraisal was particularly reassuring:

“The country is mountainous, and often very windy. If it rains, cyclists get plastered with sludge. If it is dry, they choke on clouds of dust. Cycling around Iceland is strictly for masochists!”

Maybe this wasn’t going to be the wild and fun adventure that we had envisioned after all. Despite the uninspiring comments, we mapped out a 2,000 kilometre loop along Iceland’s circuitous coastal roads and in the morning we set off on our ‘once in a lifetime experience’.

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“Whatever you do make sure you ride clockwise around Iceland. If you ride into the Easterlies you’ll never get back!” These words would come back to haunt us. It’s what the owner of the local bike shop told us just before we left Reykjavik on our two-week ride around the country.

We would have heeded his advice but we had already booked our first night’s accommodation to the east and to be completely honest, we weren’t that concerned about riding into a headwind for a couple of days. How bad could it be?

Four hours and only 40 kilometres later we were cursing ourselves for not listening to the man at the bike shop. “Why do we even ride bikes? What is wrong with this country? Why did we bring film gear and whose idea was it to bring these stupid backpacks!?” There were obviously a few expletives thrown in the mix as wellm but that’s what made up most of our conversations on that first day.

I should probably point out that the landscapes we were riding through at this point were absolutely phenomenal but regrettably, neither of us were in the mood to truly appreciate it.

  

  

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Just as we were about to collapse on the side of the road after our feeble 40-kilometre effort, we spotted a couple of older cyclists motoring towards us from the other direction. They both had smiles on their faces so large that you could see them grinning from 100 metres away! I’m still not sure if was the joy of seeing another human being or if they were just so relieved to finally be riding with the wind behind them – I assume that it was a combination of the two.

It turned out that these two 70-year-olds from Canada had just ridden all the way around Iceland during the country’s coldest spring in 40 years, and this was the final day of their journey. No wonder they were so happy to see us!

In spite of literally being blown off their bikes and “nearly freezing to death up in the north” they assured us that we were in for “one hell of a trip”. People like this are what cycling is all about. In their 70s and they’re still riding around with their mates and exploring new places? I can only hope that I’m still riding at that age.

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“It was supposed to be the easiest day of the trip but I can honestly say it was the most difficult 90km of my life.”

Filled with enthusiasm after our encounter with the two Canadians, we pushed on into the 60km/hour block headwind. The only thing that enabled us to keep going on days like this was our extreme sense of optimism, or stupidity, as some would suggest.

It’s the optimism gene that so many cyclists are burdened with. If we didn’t have it, we probably wouldn’t have decided to ride around Iceland in the first place.

Every time I approached the crest of a hill or turned a corner, I convinced myself that the final destination was just on the other side. Deep down I probably knew that this was unlikely but you need to be able to trick your mind in order to keep your body going.

It was supposed to be the easiest day of the trip but I can honestly say it was the most difficult 90 kilometres of my life. I’ve been on 200-kilometre rides and climbed some crazy mountain passes but nothing compares to riding into an Icelandic headwind.

We finally made it to Laugarvatn at 10pm, just 10 minutes before they closed the kitchen at the local hotel. I daresay there would have been tears if we couldn’t find any food. We celebrated our survival with three homemade pizzas and a couple of beers, and agreed that tomorrow we would be heading to the west!

  

  

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We woke to the sound of rain the following morning but even that couldn’t dampen our spirits. Our decision to go back towards the west meant that we would have a 60-70km/hour tailwind for most of the day and that we would hopefully be back on schedule by nightfall.

We basically just rolled for the first hour or so until we reached Þingvellir National Park, taking full advantage of the wind at our back. Þingvellir is home to Iceland’s historic parliament but more interestingly it is one of the only places in the world where you can actually see the boundary between the North American and European tectonic plates.

Apparently you can even dive in the crystal clear water that separates the plates but given the temperature, we settled for a ride along the boundary instead.

By mid afternoon we had already covered more distance than the day before and it felt like we could keep going until midnight, given that the wind kept blowing in the same direction! As we were approaching Iceland’s western coastline Dave even set up a wind sail contraption on the front of his bike in a bid to stop pedalling all together.

Foolishly, though, we hadn’t been keeping an eye on our route on Google Maps and soon noticed that we were riding towards a 20-kilometre ‘car only’ tunnel that was supposed to take us to that night’s accommodation. Upon closer inspection we discovered that we could still make it to our guesthouse if we rode the 65-kilometre detour all the way around the fjord to the other side of the tunnel.

The fjords in Iceland are long and narrow inlets of the sea that are always incredibly beautiful but slightly frustrating when you’re trying to get to a town on the other side.

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It was lucky that we couldn’t take the tunnel because the roads that took us around the fjord were exactly what we were hoping to find in Iceland. With the ocean on one side, spectacular cliffs on the other and no cars or tourists to ruin the quietude, it really was one of those perfect cycling moments.

In the space of a couple of days I had experienced some of my best and worst moments on a bike. This trend seemed to continue throughout the trip but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Iceland definitely has some of the most beautiful roads in the world but they wouldn’t have nearly the same allure if they were easy to find.

The fact that you have to deal with the elements and travel so far just to reach them makes it so much more satisfying when you finally get there.

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“This is the problem with riding a bike in Iceland. The sun never goes down so it becomes so easy to ride all day.”

Over the next few days we started to get into more of a routine now that we knew what to expect. When the weather was bad, we would knuckle down and try to cover as much ground as possible and when the sun was out we would stop to take photos and appreciate our obscenely picturesque surroundings.

If the calibre of a ride can be measured by the number of times we stop for photos then Iceland would undoubtedly be on top of our list. It got to a point where we had to ban ourselves from taking photos for certain periods just so that we would reach our campsite by midnight!

Even with these self-imposed limitations it was difficult to ride past giant waterfalls and glaciers without getting the cameras out. Often we would find ourselves riding into the early hours of the morning.

And this is the problem with riding a bike in Iceland. The sun never goes down so it becomes so easy to ride all day and disregard sleep altogether. There was one occasion in particular where Dave decided he wanted to check out a waterfall at 1am. We did a little 50-kilometre return trip in the middle of the night and then managed just two hours sleep before it was time to hit the road again.

I usually wouldn’t be able to function properly with this amount of sleep but there’s something about the constant daylight and the fresh air in Iceland that provides you with an extra kick of energy.

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After five days and 500 kilometres we had only reached Stykkishólmur, a charming little fishing village on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula on the west coast. By this stage we were both suffering from serious ankle injuries (possibly due to the dramatic increase in cycling and the stupid amount of weight we were trying to carry) and were resigned to the fact that we couldn’t possibly make it all the way around Iceland’s coastline.

We still wanted to see the Western Fjords so we decided to leave our luggage at the hotel and take the ferry across to the fjords for a day. The following day we would hire a car and drive all the way across to the east coast where we would resume our ride.

Although we only spent a day in the Western Fjords, it was easily the highlight of the trip. The northwestern corner of Iceland is the most breathtaking and one of the least visited parts of the country, making it perfect for cycling.

We only had seven hours before the ferry was due back to pick us up but that gave us plenty of time to explore the empty coastal roads and even ride up into the mountains where we found metres of snow still lining the roads.

I think we both really wanted to stay in Western Fjords but we had to get back to the ferry so that we could keep to our original goal of seeing as much of the country as possible.

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After a long, eight-hour drive through the north of the island we finally arrived in Egilsstaðir where we begun the final leg of our journey back down the east coast.

The Eastern Fjords were much like their spectacular counterparts in the west except there were far more cities and more tourists making their way up from Reykjavik. With town names like Breiðdalsvík, Fáskrúðsfjörður and Neskaupstaður we quickly gave up on asking locals for directions and even resorted to referring to them by their first letter when we were talking to each other.

By the time we reached our third fjord in two days Dave was becoming frustrated by the amount of time it was taking to move south. This fjord, however, had a tunnel that you could apparently ride through so we did a quick Rock, Paper, Scissors (see video right) to decide our fate: the 40km gravel road that went around the fjord or the five-kilometre, dodgy-looking tunnel?

Luckily I won and opted for the gravel road, which looked horrible to begin with but opened up into one of the most beautiful coastal regions we had seen on the entire trip. The road was carved high into the cliff so we had amazing views out across the islands and the vibrant blue waters of the Norwegian Sea.

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Once we had finally left the indirect roads of the Eastern Fjords behind us, it was all about exploring some of the famous sights on the way back to Reykjavik. While we still had to cover 100km per day to get back in time, the winds were more favourable than earlier on in the trip so we could afford to have some time away from the bike.

Iceland’s south east coast is packed with natural wonders so our last few days were easily our busiest. We camped on the glacial lake at Jökulsárlón, hiked up to the Skaftafellsjökull glacier, swam in Iceland’s oldest swimming pool, pitched a tent in the middle of Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon and visited some of the island’s most impressive waterfalls.

While this was all definitely worthwhile, the roads in the south east weren’t actually that great for cycling. If all you want to do is ride your bike in Iceland, then I would head straight to the Western Fjords where there are far less cars and some mind-blowing stretches of road.

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“The earth is literally alive in Iceland and there’s no better way to experience it than on your bike.”

When I woke up on the final day of the trip, I finally understood why those two Canadians were so happy. Although we didn’t complete the entire 2,000km loop that we set out to do, we still rode 1,300 kilometres through some of the most beautiful and challenge environments that I’ve ever been faced with on a bike.

Whilst it was sad to be leaving this crazy world behind us, I couldn’t help but feel happy and relieved that we were actually going to make it.

Travelling by bike is the best way to see a country – you explore all day until you’re out of energy and then spend your nights trying new foods and recounting the day’s events over a couple of beers.

Compared to travelling by bus or car you get to experience the country on a completely different level; the sounds, the smells, the people, even the way the earth rises and falls beneath your feet – all things that go largely unnoticed within the walls of a motor vehicle.

As we were riding back into Reykjavik, I realised that this was especially true for Iceland. The earth is literally alive in Iceland and there’s no better way to experience it than on your bike. The crisp clean air, the sounds of glacial rivers rushing alongside the roads and the strong scents of hot springs and tiny fishing villages are what make Iceland such a unique and memorable place.

While there were some days when we wanted to throw our bikes into a volcano, Iceland also gave us the best roads and the most extraordinary landscapes that I’ve seen anywhere in the world.

It’s definitely not for everyone, but if you’re after a ‘life changing experience’ and you’re prepared to work for it, you should definitely pay Iceland a visit.

Highlights video

Photo gallery

This trip was made possible by the support provided by Exodus Travels. If you’d like to go on your very own cycling holiday in Iceland, featuring some of the areas David and Jason ventured to, be sure to check out the Exodus website.

To see more of David and Jason’s amazing adventures, head over to their website, NorthSouth, and follow them on Instagram. In addition to the highlights video you can see above, David and Jason also produced daily videos during their trip, some of which you can see in the sidebar of this piece.



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  • Pete W

    Gorgeous photos. I’m a bit perplexed by the choice of bikes. Those backpacks look miserable. Why not go for a proper touring bike and get that weight off of your back?

    • Simon

      +1 A bike with better load carrying such as provision for a rear or front rack with panniers would suffice. Form over function perhaps?

      • Chris

        If I were planing a trip to the other side of the earth I’d take my bike. My bike. After the cost of everything else, I’d not be looking at buying another one.

    • It’s a good point and I totally agree with you but making films whilst riding is a whole new ball game. It’s stupidly painful and silly to carry all that weight on our backs but we love having quick access to cameras/drones etc so it’s a bit of a trade off. A lot of times we hike up hills or do other scrambling to try and capture a cool shot so having our film gear in panniers would slow down the process and probably be more annoying than putting up with the extra weight on our backs.

      • echidna_sg

        that’s why people use handlebar bags (like the old fella you met on the road) – camera right there in front of you… drone? well that’s a different story!

      • The Potato Man

        You guys are from Melbourne right? I suggest dropping in to Commuter Cycles in Brunswick and learning a little bit about how to carry a load on a bike.

        Backpacks? You’ve got to be joking.

      • Tim Ashton

        Given the obvious amount of touring you have done, ignore the armchair experts and use whatever bags works for you carry gear.

        Im certainly inspired by your story and photos

  • Stompin

    OMG, those images. Bike holiday porn.

  • VT3

    White bar tape! What were they thinking?!

    • Hahaha! agreed! It was worth a shot though :P

    • Kieran Degan

      I thought the same thing.

  • Glenn

    Amazing! makes me want to walk out of the office right now and go on an adventure! thanks for sharing!

  • echidna_sg

    a few shots in the video show the saddle/seatpost mount bags swinging… my understanding is these types of saddle bags are designed specifically not to do that? for those with experience, is this “normal”?

    • Eat More Lard

      Yep, they all swing a bit when loaded. After 5 mins, you get used to it and don’t notice it. I guess you learn to unconsciously compensate very quickly.

  • Kateroo

    Brilliant! Thank you for sharing your amazing trip; I’m inspired!

    • julierstratton

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      ?Look HERE???? http://www.work-join.com ???????????????????????????????????? observe and discover more help by clicking any inside link.

  • pauldr

    Fantastic. Work hard, explore harder. I love it.

  • BRK

    Insane. Awesome.

  • Pete23

    Great story lads, love it, it’s making me look forward to a wet Canberra commute home and pretending I can see nothing but endless fjords

  • Robert Merkel

    Thanks for bringing back some memories.

    Some additional thoughts:

    * Forget aero road bikes and wheels for Iceland. Even the most “crosswind-friendly” deep section wheels are going to have bad days. That said, if you do bring your road bike, the Strava segments for the major climbs have delightfully sparse leaderboards.
    * The Westfjords was our favourite part of Iceland, and the most interesting for cycling. But many of the good roads are (good) dirt, so my suggestion would be an adventure/touring/CX bike.
    * Forget crossing the interior on a bike without support. We were hiking the Laugavegur trail; a storm came in and we copped near-freezing conditions, white-out, and 100km/h+ winds (our guide reckoned it was 160 km/h).

    If I were to go back to Iceland specifically to cycle and money was no object, I’d hire a 4WD motorhome, take it to the Westfjords with the appropriate number of bikes strapped to it, base myself in the (delightful little) towns for a few days at a time, and ride when the weather was OK.

    • Adam_Eckersley

      All useful advice and a truly inspirational account and video, thanks for sharing.

      Now to the important/vain subject.. What are those jackets? I want one immediately!

      • Haha. Those jersey’s are actually our own (North South). We are currently in the process of getting them manufactured so we can sell them on our website but we just need to tweak a few things first but I’m glad you like them. The reason we are doing this is that we believe that a lot of cycling kits lack meaning and are just lines/patterns/colours on lycra. We are trying to create cycling kit that takes inspiration from the countries that we visit and this design in particular was based around Iceland’s volcanic activity – lava and steam.
        Thanks for the support.
        Cheers

        • CrazyRichard

          I agree, the jersey’s look epic! Will you be making a women’s range also?

        • Adam_Eckersley

          Cheers for the info David, look forward to them being released. Good luck with the launch and your next trip.

    • Kristín Ketilsdóttir

      Being from one of those delightful little towns in Westfjords, I couldn’t agree more with you :)

  • PAUL R

    just a great story guys,love the picks and the inspiration.The words about what its like being part of the road and smelling the world around you in a part of the world that looks so beautiful,

    well done:)

  • em3900

    Awesome images, Iceland is such an amazing and bleak landscape, I have to admit though, my trip there certainly cancelled any romantic notions of touring there, that wind is brutal, ALL the time. you guys are tough.
    Totally agree with all the touring vs roadie calls, Those bikes and wheels are pretty, but embrace the touring tech! there’s some beautiful and functional touring gear out there, its not all high-vis 60 dork.

  • Eat More Lard

    I love this. It’s certainly not an easy trip around France in the sunshine but that all adds to the adventure. As for the touring vs road bike debate. You know what, seek advice but ultimately do it what ever way works for you. I’ve certainly managed quite happily with a handlebar bag, frame bag and seat pack on a road bike but then I’ve only been carrying tools, change of gear, first aid kit and a small(ish) camera.

    • Robert Merkel

      Fair point.

      However, having been there, even if you’re not carrying much gear, there are a lot places you’d want to go that are only reachable by gravel roads.

      • Eat More Lard

        Absolutely agree Robert! If gravel is on the agenda, then you’ll need to factor that into your decision. I guess all I am saying, is it is not up to us as the armchair voyeurs to dictate to the noble adventurer the ways and means of their travels! We can offer advice – and real world advice such as your insight is bang on where we should go for advice – but it is not our place to judge (although we, as humans, all seem to be hardwired as judgement machines!)

  • roklando

    wow. just f***ing wow, I need to go there…. this is why I read CT. Can we have more of this and less Pro circus please?

    • Thanks Roklando. I wish we could do more of this, but it’s extremely expensive and time intensive. Hopefully we’ve got a good mix of everything to do with cycling to inspire you!

      • roklando

        I completely understand, and I enjoy the racing as much as anyone but these pieces are really where it’s at for me. I’ve been a long time fan of the site and really think it’s the best around. congrats!

  • ChrisB

    Awesome story. Always wanted to go to Iceland, this is the proof I need to make it happen! Cheers

  • O’Sullivan

    Gorgeous photos and great video. After a b*LLSH&T day this just made me smile no end. Thanks lads for taking me there for a while. Hands down CyclingTips best pieces are these road tripping features. Magic. IGER @coscycling

  • Lawrence Ho

    You guys are so crazy!! Congratulate you’ve finished the incredible touring.

  • Fritz

    Great video lads. It’s all about the adventure.

  • Craig S

    Love the Road Tripping series. Would like to have wallpaper quality photos though!

  • Jim Crumpler

    Fabulous photos guys, and a great adventure. Years later, you’ll look back and you wont regret carrying the camera gear.

  • winkybiker

    Looks a fabulous trip. But wouldn’t touring bikes be a better choice?

  • Nitro

    At the risk of stating the obvious – The Beauty of Cycling personified.

    Awesome story. Amazing shots.

  • takethattakethat

    be great if you made it to vancouver, canada

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