Written by David Keppler Friday, 09 December 2016 18:24
About a year ago I had the opportunity to see the Ben Stiller movie, ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’. One of the most memorable and affecting parts is when the main character travels to Iceland. For some reason, I couldn’t get the scenery out of my head. I started thinking that it would be a crazy cool experience to mountain bike in such a beautiful, surreal place. So I took a serious look into it and, after much planning and research, was able to head to Iceland for the first few weeks of September of this year.
The first thing I found out about traveling to Iceland is that it is relatively cheap to get there. I flew non-stop from Boston to Reykjavik, and paid just over $500. I could have flown even cheaper had I been more flexible with my schedule. I left from Boston at 9:30 p.m. and arrived in Reykjavik at 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Regardless, it worked out to be cheaper than it normally is for me to fly home to Colorado.
After doing some research on mountain biking in Iceland, I decided to book a tour with Icebike Adventures. They offer an amazing array of guided tours, ranging from one day trips to multi-day excursions, some of which include Heli-biking. This organization is highly professional and extremely knowledgeable about the extensive options for stellar riding in Iceland. Magne, the owner and guide for my tour, is a wealth of knowledge and obviously spends a remarkable amount of time finding the best trails to ride. He also has a deep interest in the conservation and treatment of the environment, and is eager to share his extensive knowledge of all-things-Iceland. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My tour didn’t start until Monday so I had a weekend to spend getting familiar with Reykjavik and experiencing the amazing things that this vibrant, European-feeling city had to offer.
Iceland has rapidly become a ‘must-see’ destination, and the country hosted some 1.2 million visitors in 2015. That may not sound like a lot, but consider that the country (about the size of Kentucky, which has 4.4 million residents) has only about 330,000 residents. So the number of tourists exceeded residents by a factor of 4. Because of the importance of tourism in Iceland, the country is exceptionally accommodating to visitors. The airlines that service the country offer extended layover deals (up to 7 days with no extra fees), cheap domestic flights, and you can get pretty much anywhere on the island by bus. Car rentals are comparable to our domestic rental rates and, fortunately for us ‘Mericans, they drive on the right side of the road so getting yourself around is also very straightforward.
One thing I will mention is that Iceland is considered by some to be an expensive country once you’ve actually arrived. I did not find it to be outrageously so. When you consider that Iceland is an island nation and largely dependent on imports, living expenses are comparable to a place like Hawaii. The conversion rate is a little challenging, as our dollar is worth upwards of 100 of their Icelandic Kroner. That being said, with Iceland’s accommodating treatment of visitors, you have options. You can choose how luxurious of a holiday you do or don’t want to experience. If you want to hike around, camp in a tent, and cook your own food, you can do that without spending an unreasonable amount of money. Conversely, if you are only there for 3 days and want to be pampered the whole time, you can certainly do that as well.
So, I spent Saturday and Sunday exploring Reykjavik and its surrounding areas while I prepared for my mountain bike tour. I went on an Icelandic Horse ride (highly recommended even if, like me, you are not considered a "horse person"), spent an afternoon in one of the many local geothermal pools, and enjoyed a free walking tour of the city. After just two days in the city I already felt like I’d had a wonderful vacation and I hadn’t even been on a bike yet. Monday finally came around and David, from Icebike Adventures, picked me up at my AirBnB residence in one of the company super jeeps. Super Jeeps are exactly what they sound like, usually a Toyota Land Cruiser that has been raised and fitted with super sized, balloon tires. These are the standard vehicles for traveling around in the backcountry on the country’s F class roads. I had booked the 3 day þórsmörk tour back in June, and I had expected the tour to fill up with other travelers. Surprisingly, I lucked out, and was the only client present.
For the first ride it was David and I riding on an incredible trail called The Edge, which was about 20 minutes outside of Reykjavik. David explained that the trail got its name because it skirts the edge of a 4,800 year-old lava flow for the duration of the hour plus ride. When the trail wasn’t a full on rock garden, the soil was very spongy, grippy, and forgiving. The first part of the trail actually felt like riding on shredded bark mulch. This was a totally new experience for me. Another surprise was the completely open landscape. Hailing from New England, one of the most striking things that I noticed about the majority of Iceland is that there are no trees. Because of the volcanic nature of the soil there are very few native trees and, even though there has been a fairly recent push to plant more, currently only about 1.6% of the island is forested. Pretty much the exact opposite of New England.
After thoroughly enjoying this first ride, we met up with Magne (the owner of Icebike Adventures) and his friend, yet another David (!) The 3 of us (the first David didn’t accompany us on the rest of the tour) spent the next 2 days riding some of the most amazing trails I’ve ever been on.
We hopped in another (even more) super jeep and headed towards þórsmörk (roughly translated as Thor’s garden). On the way, we stopped for a superb lunch of burgers and grilled chicken salad, and took a side tour to a glacier that, unfortunately like so many others, was but a shadow of its former self. It was still very impressive, and driving on the ‘roads’ to get there was an adventure unto itself. We then worked our way across numerous, progressively larger and faster, glacial rivers and, after a few hours, drove up to the Volcano Huts in þórsmörk.
Þórsmörk is a valley that sits at the base of 3 different glaciers, which impart a unique and unpredictable weather pattern on the area. Where it had been sunny and gorgeous near Reykjavik, it was rainy and cold in þórsmörk. After checking in to our exceptionally comfortable rooms, we decided to head out in the rain for an afternoon ride. One thing can be said for the residents of Iceland: they NEVER use the weather as an excuse to avoid getting outside. This might be a result of the fact that their summer is relatively short and the daylight disappears very quickly at the end of summer. So, if you were to find silly reasons not to ride, like a little bit of rain, you probably wouldn’t get out much at all. Fortunately I had my Bikeman.com team Verge Middel jacket, which turned out to be the perfect piece of equipment for the trip. Being wind and rain-resistant it kept me dry and warm enough that it was the only external layer I had to wear over my jersey. I was very glad that I had brought it with me.
We took a trail that climbed quickly up out of the valley (so quickly that we had to hike-a-bike up numerous stairs and steep sections), but soon were up on a plateau that offered stunning views of the surrounding area. We rode numerous ridgelines and traversed some rocky trails, but were surrounded by beauty for the whole ride. The descent made the climbing absolutely worth it: a pattern that would repeat itself numerous times over the next two days.
The facilities at the Volcano Huts were exceptional, with small but comfortable rooms, surprisingly nice beds, and even a buffet-style restaurant. There was a sauna with a hot pool just outside and even some resident arctic foxes. The weather cleared as the sun fell and we stayed outside, talking about the riding in Iceland, and waited for a small (very fleeting) glimpse of the Northern Lights. Overall, a stellar first day of my tour.
The next day, which was spent entirely in the area of þórsmörk, dawned clear and unseasonably warm. The views that were previously shrouded in clouds were perfectly clear and even more awe-inspiring. All three of the surrounding glaciers were visible with their expanses of blue snow. These topped cliffs and gorges that were coated in a deep, almost electric green. This green was a result of the ash that had covered the area when Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010. Totally surreal.
We had an excellent breakfast, picked up our bagged lunches, and headed out for a full day of riding. Magne has explored the area extensively, and, due to his efforts, we were able to ride on different trails for the entire day. We encountered a few hikers, especially later in the day, but for the most part had the trails to ourselves. We hiked up some steep ascents and spent ample time riding down and across the ridges and valleys in the area. Later in the afternoon Magne and I headed out on a popular hiking trail that cut through numerous lava fields and interesting ridge lines. There was a little more hike-a-bike and some hairy descents but overall the trail was, again, without compare. One of the most exciting (and nerve- wracking) parts was a glacial river crossing. It was freezing cold, and loose stones were numerous, so carrying a bike on your shoulders across such a fast-moving stream was a challenge. We made it across safely in both directions, however, and finished out the day on some crazy fast and flowy single track. Dinner was again a buffet, and we spent the evening outside under the clouds reflecting on the day.
Day 3 saw us packing up our things in a drizzly rain and heading out to ride down the side of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull. You don’t get to do that every day. We worked our way over to Skögar , a small town that sits at the base of an impressive waterfall (Skogafoss). We rode up the slope of the volcano in the superjeep, and spent the next few hours bombing downhill. The trail followed the course of a large glacial river, and there were some 53 waterfalls along the trip. As a result, a ride that should have probably only taken about an hour ended up taking 3 times that due to the numerous stops for photos. It rained most of the day making the trail quite slippery. The wetness and smooth soil made for some sketchy riding, but it was not cold, and the scenery was beautiful. Magne met us at the bottom, and treated us to another stellar lunch (the food in Iceland is awesome. Don’t let anyone tell you differently).
Regrettably, that was the end of my mountain bike tour. Icebike Adventures returned me to Reykjavik, and I stayed another six nights in Iceland, heading north to the Snaefellsness peninsula and the Westfjords. It was one of the most memorable vacations of my life.
Iceland as a whole was astounding. From the people, to the food, to the incomparable scenery, I would be hard-pressed to find a negative thing to say about the country. The bike tour that was crafted and delivered to me by Icebike Adventures was beyond compare. I can’t recommend them and their services enough. Unfailingly professional, skilled, and accommodating, they made every effort (and succeeded) to give me the tour of a lifetime. I’m already thinking of going back for one of their other tours.
I would highly recommend that you consider Iceland the next time you are looking for somewhere to travel. Hopefully you’ll be able to ride with Magne and his crew at Icebike Adventures, but even if you just go for a few days to experience the country, you will come home changed in ways you can’t imagine. Good luck in your travels and thank you for taking the time to read my story. Until next time, keep the rubber side down.
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