Monday 28 May 2018

Riding Iceland - Prologue

For several years I’ve had an ambition to cycle round Iceland, broadly around the “Ring Road” (Þjóðvegur) or National Route 1. I’ve never had the chance before – the minor matter of earning a crust to feed the family got in the way.  Without detours, it is 1,300 kilometres. Perhaps 3 weeks, and my 5 weeks annual leave belonged to my family.

Now I’m retired I have all the time in the world. My kids, one a recent graduate and the other a second-year degree student, are now independent and self-sufficient in all matters non-financial. Far from demanding my presence, my wife would probably be only too happy to have the house to herself again for a while.

I’m planning to travel light, and spend most nights in hostels and a couple at camp sites. For several years we've stayed at 4 or 5 star hotels, or rented apartments through AirBNB, so this is going to be a bit of a departure, but some camping is going to be unavoidable however I feel about the austerity of it, because in some areas it will simply be too far (for me) to ride to reach the next available hostel or guest-house.

If anyone is thinking “mid-life crisis”, well yes, I heard a programme on radio 4  about it recently and recognised myself immediately. At least I have no yearning to buy a Harley Davidson.

There is however just one snag – if I had done this when I first thought about it, perhaps I could have contemplated 3-4 weeks of cycle-touring with a tent and a sleeping bag. Not any more. I'm not going to risk spoiling the whole experience for myself by attempting it in one go, and quite probably failing. I’m getting a bit old for that.

So, I’m planning to break it down into three or four stages, one for each of the next few summers, each with seven days on the road, 9-10 days including travel to and fro. OK, it means 3-4 return air fares instead of just one, but at less than £300 if you buy well in advance, I reckon I can afford it. It’s only the cost of two nights in an average B&B in Iceland.

I’m also not going to aim for a complete, uninterrupted circuit. My daughter planned to do that this summer, but followed local advice which was to transport your bike on the bus to get well clear of Reykjavik and the whole “Golden Circle” region around it, where the roads can be very busy. Similarly the section between Myvatn Lake and Egilsstadir, which is lightly travelled and peaceful, but is also 200 km of nothingness and sameness, with no settlements and hardly any facilities, and where wild camping is unavoidable.

I’m going to start with the region which is reportedly the quietest populated part of Iceland, and currently the least visited by tourists – the East Fjords, starting from Egilsstadir Airport and working around the coast road to Hofn/Hornafjordur. It’s about 350km, so an average of 50km/day but, with some long gaps between settlements, the daily runs vary from 35 up to 70km. My last day I'm hiring a car to drive back to Reykjavik - I'd take the bus but I can't risk it being cancelled or full, and a car will give me more time to sight-see on the way.
Planned route round the East Fjords - the As & Bs denote my planned daily stages
I've planned the route North to South, on the basis that reported weather averages show the prevailing wind to be from a little West to a little East of due North. As the average wind in June, when I plan to go, is 20kph and can be quite a lot stronger, I obviously want it behind me if possible.

Postcard from my daughter last summer
If that goes well, next time I’ll probably go around the east and north coasts between Egilsstadir and Akureyri (both have airports), and finally across the south coast to or from Hofn, bussing one way.

The routes all substantially follow the coastline: this is almost all paved road, in good condition, at low level and with only moderate gradients. It’s where the population lives and the roads have to be usable in winter without ploughing. (The interior is uninhabited and most roads are gravel, rough and undulating).

I can’t contemplate off-road or much gradient any more than I can contemplate long sectors, because of the bike I’ll be riding: a Riese & Muller “Birdy”.  More on that in the next post.