The Ring Road circumnavigating Iceland is oft nominated as the most spectacular – and testing – cycle tour in the world. Father and daughter, Ben and Anna Brady, relate the saga of their circuit.
The gusts of wind were so strong that I was riding on the right side of the road one minute and the next I was thrown onto the other. Despite the ridiculously heavy weight of my bag (due to carrying three coats and enough food for a week in case we needed it while traversing the edge of the earth), no matter how hard I pushed I couldn’t battle the power of the wind.
Just as I was about to tell Dad that I was ready to fling my bike into the next lava field we passed, we found a small sheltered road to take a break. As we followed it a few hundred metres, an incredible waterfall revealed itself: Seljalandsfoss. The scene before us was surreal – a waterfall with a hovering rainbow and sitting below, a local musician playing his guitar. In true Icelandic style, we went from one extreme to the other: being utterly exhausted and ready to quit, to feeling pure serenity and peace the next.
When I was cycling in Patagonia in 2014, I met an Italian who had cycled the world. I asked Sergio where he thought was spectacular and he named Iceland. Nestled in the middle of the Atlantic, just south of the Arctic Circle half-way between North America and Europe, it is a country of mythic majesty.
I started to Google Iceland and cycle touring. Yes, it was feasible. July and August provide the window in their Arctic weather. We allocated about two weeks of cycling time – not enough time to fully circumnavigate the 1,350km – using the cycling-friendly public bus to traverse the weird high-centre landscape of the geysers to Akureyri.
Bicycle touring is not just for ‘old’ people. My 23-year-old daughter Anna was up for the adventure. She started cycling to university to avoid the parking problems and wasn’t all that impressed by over-packed trains. I knew she was in trouble when she told me that her times commuting were 10 minutes faster than when she started riding at the beginning of the academic year and was enjoying the convenience of parking her bike on a tree in front of the lecture halls.
Anna was a little reticent about the touring bicycle thing though. Her mates were saying it’s what ‘old’ people do. Thankfully, her work mates at The Freedom Machine started doing their own homework about Iceland. Iceland is awesome. Before long, her peers were jealous and admiring her courage. We bought the smallest Surly Long Haul Trucker which complemented my Salsa Vaya.
While many people enjoy relaxing for their holidays – replenishing and returning home after enjoying an abundance of sleep and good food, having polished off multiple books – the idea of a holiday to my Dad is something more like coming home in need of a rest and with a face full of wind burn.
Since I was young it has been Dad’s dream to travel around on two wheels with a busload of friends and family and he somehow managed to convince me to come along on this trip. Iceland was certainly appealing for its vast and dramatic landscapes as well as the fact most towns and attractions were both “ungoogleable” and completely unpronounceable. I hadn’t heard of many towns or landmarks before except for one active volcano, the name of which I could only remember by saying the sentence “I forgot my yogurt” (Eyjafjallajokull). I might struggle to pronounce it but it was a must-see on my list of things to do.
By the time we had booked tickets, the bus load of company we had intended to go with ended up being just Dad and me. We quickly decided against needing any support vehicles at all and packed the entire contents of a house into our panniers and planned our itinerary very loosely around the idea that we would ride 70–80% of the way around the country following one road the entire way – the Ring Road.
I knew when we were hopping on the plane to Iceland, my idea of an amazing holiday would be warped into being something similar to Dad’s ideal holiday. The idea of a true adventure could only be experienced when putting yourself outside in challenging conditions to achieve something life-changing.
Well this summer of 2015, summer never came to northern Iceland. It was simply cold (3–8 degrees Celsius) and raining. There were brutal headwinds, a touch of sleet and a few tears of exhaustion. I wasn’t expecting to be taken to both my physical and mental maximum, three times a day!
But the landscapes were surreal. We traversed desolate lava flows following the ancient cairns of the early travellers. We passed the largest waterfalls in Europe. When you’re living outside for two weeks, the cold becomes a background inconvenience rather than a major issue. When the sun does shine, it feels like warmth you’ve never felt before. We warmed up in plenty of cafes.
The beauty of cycle touring is that you’re free to sleep the night wherever you get to. In the Icelandic summer there is no night, so there’s no racing the sun to the camp ground. There is plenty of time to explore, reflect and stop. You sleep in towns that are off the map because you’re simply tired and need to rest. There are motels and hotels but they are booked out six months ahead. We slept in the fabulous camp-grounds.
We often ate at the local town’s restaurant – providing a stark contrast of grimy cyclist to tourist – wolfing down three courses most nights with a nice glass of Bordeaux. After dinner we’d take a long walk around the village to stretch the legs, find a secret waterfall or a nice bar. You can read a book at midnight or 1am outside. When we finally crawled into the tent we were asleep in a minute.
Despite the predominant wild vastness of the country, there are many other travellers on a similar journey, with the Ring Road a well-worn path for touring cyclists. Drivers of the passing cars are in a holiday frame-of-mind and also have that wonderful European patience. In the village of Vik (a filming-location of Game of Thrones), we shared the cycling enclave of the camp grounds with 14 other cyclists.
From the moment I saw Iceland, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Steam was rising from the land, billowing upwards among green hills covered in lava flows – not to mention the 24-hour sunlight as well. This magical place was nothing like I had envisaged – it was more spectacular.
As we started riding, it became abundantly clear that this ride would not be easy, as we were constantly pushed beyond our boundaries of comfort while living outside. We would be riding up long hills through the high country feeling chilly in three degrees Celsius when it would suddenly start pouring with rain, and then a 70km gusty headwind would start slapping us around the road.
The weather was relentless but with challenges come reward, and when the sun would start peeping through the clouds, we felt an indescribable feeling of joy and the dramatic landscapes would remind us of why we were here. Perhaps it was the hard work which meant every view, spot of sunshine or snippet of blue sky was that much better.
Surprisingly the best weather would often begin as people started pitching tents to fall asleep despite the fact that the sun was well and truly still up and the day was hardly ending at all. Camping in 24-hour sunlight was nothing like I had imagined. In fact I hadn’t even thought about how it might affect our body clocks or sleep patterns.
The opportunities to continue riding into the night were there and some people we came across chose to do their kilometres in these peaceful hours due to the lack of wind and weather. We gradually settled into the long days by cooking dinner later and waking up later too as there was no urgency whatsoever.
I came to love living outside in Iceland not just from the sun’s warmth while sleeping in my tent but also due to the lack of bugs, lush grass and being surrounded by singing birds. Throughout the trip we had many interesting encounters with the wildlife of the land: from large arctic gulls, to baby puffins, to deer living on glaciers and, most exciting of them all, the largest animal in the world, the blue whale.
Unfortunately on one occasion we were mentioning to a waiter how adorable the puffin birds along the coast were when he misunderstood what we were saying and brought out on a plate an Icelandic delight of Puffin Tartare. Our trip was full of challenges, culinary, climatic and all.
From the verdant bucolic farming of the west, the lonely fjords of the north, the austere lava flow of the north east and the great glaciers of the south, Iceland is a land of astonishing contrast. It doesn’t matter where you go, your eyes are in for a feast.
But really the best part, truth be known, was a three-week adventure with my daughter. She is a wisp of a young lady but as head strong as me with a hilarious sense of humour, and truly wonderful company.
There was a feeling of both relief and sadness when the time to leave Iceland came around. I had discovered a new appreciation for the power and strength of Mother Nature and realised how insignificant and weak we are in comparison. We became far more flexible when it came to travel as the less plans we made, the more we discovered. By the end of our trip our routes would be determined by the direction of the wind instead of anything we had predetermined. And this spontaneity was always a thrill which we both will carry through into future travels.
Above all I found a greater appreciation for my Dad for so many reasons. I don’t know many dads who are willing to take their kids on rugged, epic adventures exposing them to the beauty of the world we live in and introducing them to the bliss that is cycle touring. The most euphoric image that will remain as a memory for me will be riding next to Dad, portable speakers playing Sigur Rós’ magical music, tailwind behind us and extraordinary, volcanic, glacial landscapes surrounding us as we rode along the perimeter of Iceland.
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