Bikepacking Iceland: Trolls, Elves & A Bucksaw Named Bjork

It seemed like a cruel time to realize my overreach but the message was clear––I had grossly underestimated Iceland. As icy river water swirled about my thighs inches away from chamois-soaking depth, I looked up to assess the distance to the other side. One quick glance at the far bank steadied my vertigo, but confirmed this river, one of dozens I knew I would have to cross, was simply too big. Slowly shuffling my feet back to dry land, I plopped down in the green moss, dejected and reeling at the thought of a 30-mile backtrack. This trip was not going to be easy.

It may have been the flecks of grey peppering my beard, or the constant creaking of my aging knees, but something deep within had compelled me to tackle one more big ride, one last chance to overuse the word––epic. Many places could have exorcized my irrational urge to torture myself for sport, but my mind continually drifted of to visions of Iceland. The land of volcanoes, glaciers, trolls and elves, Iceland seemed a fitting anvil on which to hammer myself into shape, or perhaps crush myself to dust. Soaking wet and on the wrong side of a glacial river, the realization that I had been stymied on the first day did not bode well for the remaining ten.

My trip to Iceland had been a long time coming and getting rolling that first day, despite its failed river fording, had been everything I had hoped it would be. Pulling my Bucksaw from the belly of a tour bus at my starting point in the coastal village of Vik, I knew immediately this trip would be something special. For one thing, there is no way to travel Iceland with a bright blue fatbike and not get noticed. Locals and tourists alike marveled at the Bucksaw, the word “tires” voiced in a dozen languages during the trip. Like traveling with Iceland’s most famous celebrity, I decided my Bucksaw should be dubbed Bjork, and as I rolled out of the village of Vik, the winds whipped up, the rain began to fall, and the adventure I had sought unfolded before me.

Iceland has long been a playground for adventure cyclists, most of them cordoning themselves to the paved Ring Road or the more moderate gravel roads in the island’s interior. With a Bucksaw as my steed, I craved something more. Knowing there isn’t an abundance of singletrack on the island, at least not much that could be linked together for a multi-day bikepacking trip, I set my sights on the famous Laugavegur trekking route. Usually hiked in four days, I convinced myself it could be dispatched in an easy two. This is the same foolish logic that had me butt deep in a glacial river.

The Laugavegur Trail is a stunner that bisects the Fjallabak National Park and one of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet. The multi-colored mountains are dotted with steaming geothermal vents, the acrid smell of burnt eggs a constant reminder that this portion of Earth is very much alive. The trail itself however, is a heartless beast.

Rolling through the base camp at Landmannalauger where hundreds of trekkers busied themselves for their own adventures, a smiling park warden named Einer flagged me down to get a better look at Bjork. In a broken exchange of multiple languages I deduced he was an avid rider himself. His questions about the bike were accompanied by wild gesticulations and waving hands. When he asked if I was riding the Laugavegur route, I smiled and with an almost boastful grin said, “Yes, it should be fun.” His dry, almost sinister reply, “Fun? Maybe…is possible.” He went on to tell me that only a handful of riders each season attempt the Laugavegur, most turning back within the first few hours. Oooft. That wasn’t what I wanted to hear.

The next two days were some of the most rewarding and punishing days ever spent with my bike. I say with my bike as I didn’t ride it much that first day. The trail was an endless insult of ledges, 45-degree slogs up piles of volcanic ash, down-hikes through rock-strewn gullies, all of this accompanied by Iceland’s infamous winds and buckets of rain. Every section I could ride proved to be just a tease before another ledge, field of slushy snow, or sandy gully would force me afoot. But, just when it looked as if things couldn’t get any more unpleasant, the clouds would part, a rainbow would drop from the sky, and a fleeting moment of sunshine would warm my face. The fog would lift and breathtaking views would open up leaving my jaw slacked in awe. Even the constant rain was reduced to a minor plaint, tolerable to the point of almost being unnoticeable.

On the second day on the Laugavegur, I awoke to sleet pelting my rainfly and the grumbles of nearby trekkers who had their tent destroyed in the night’s fierce winds. My proffered assistance seemed to only compound their frustrations, as a shredded tent is what it is. Making quick work of packing my camp I retreated to the trail where river crossings, near impossible climbs, and more snowfields kept my progress to a minimum. My previous days covering 45 to 55 miles had been reduced to a strained 12, even with 20 hours of daylight.

Then, as Iceland is prone to do, the game quickly changed. The trail opened up and like a discarded ribbon laid out before me, twisting through a dry, warm, and dusty volcanic desert. The fat tires beneath Bjork began to buzz and rumble as they gathered momentum. Large expanses of black sand were reduced to a blur under my bars as dust devils danced on the horizon. It was a surreal ending to my two days on the Laugavegur. Rolling into the hut camp at Porsmork, my knees swollen and pained, Bjork battered and dirty, we both collapsed in the thick grass, Einer’s words echoing in my head, “Fun? Maybe…is possible.”

The final days were spent casually touring the southern coast of the island and its many mountains, canyons, and glaciers. The bucolic farmlands along the coast were dotted with sheep, bales of hay, and small groups of Icelandic horses. Glaciers on distant volcanoes belied the convergence of sky and ice and white waves crashed on black sand beaches. Waterfalls as tall as skyscrapers tumbled onto rocks below, their ethereal mists wetting the surrounding cliffs. Pedaling around the southern coast, I struggled to reconcile the beauty of Iceland, carefully cataloging each smell, sound, and visual as best I could.

As Bjork made her final turn towards my ending point in the idyllic village at Vik, I stopped to inventory my many and varied experiences. Iceland’s extremes, splendors and dangers are measured out as if by design, presenting no more than can be endured at any given time. I can see why the Vikings that settled in the land of fire and ice were so captivated by it. It is otherworldly, brutal, yet pristine and at times almost gentile.

Waiting for my bus ride back to Reykjavik I stopped by the local market, bought a pack of razors, and in the campground shower started to shave away ten days of grey speckled beard. My knees were stiffer than rusted hinges, my back crooked and sore. With one final glance in the mirror, grey stubble gone, I made another judgment, perhaps as fool hearty as the others made along the way.  With a wink in the mirror I said under my breath, “I think I have one more epic left in me. Just one.”



Christophe Noel is a journalist, traveler, and the senior editor for Overland Journal and Expedition Portal. An avid cyclist since the Reagan years, his primary hobby is biting off far more than he can chew. When not grinding his knees to a pulp on the bicycle, he can also be found twisting the throttle on motorcycles, traveling to far off lands, or simply enjoying the splendors of the great outdoors.



This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Bucksaw Explore Fatbike Guest Blogger Mountain Biking Split Pivot Touring Travel

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Rich Adams | October 28th, 2014

This blog made my morning! As hard as it looks, I bet it’s even more quite intense - but totally worth it! The waterfall picture is awesome - alien landscape all around! This is bucket-list ride for me!

Christophe Noel | October 28th, 2014

Rich, I have a “How To” article soon to go up on detailing how to plan your own Icelandic bikepacking romp.  Look for it next month. As for Iceland in general - I have never been so punished by a bike ride in all my years, but it was worth every minute.

Glenn Charles | October 28th, 2014

really great story. You have now successfully added a new destination to my ever growing list of places to go…

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Rich Adams | October 28th, 2014

Thanks Christophe! I will certainly look forward that that post in expedition! Will you have a map posted on your ride? I’m assuming your GPS helped out?  Great Job! Excellent storytelling btw…Cheers! Rich

Christophe Noel | October 28th, 2014

Rich, I didn’t add a map because my route looked so confused, it would have unraveled any impressions that I knew where the hell I was going. I had a very detailed route at the onset of my ride, but anyone who has ridden Iceland will tell you that plans are meant to be broken in that landscape. I got turned around three times by big rivers and one bridge that only spanned half of a river. I also got turned around once by wind (50mph), and again because I was just good old tuckered out and didn’t have the miles in me. As such, my route got redesigned on the fly almost every other day of a 12 day ride. That was part of the fun, though.

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Sean Parchem | October 28th, 2014

Christophe, wonderful write up. Amazing words and photos. I love these journeys that end up more than just a ride on a map. From point A to B. I’ve never been to Iceland but it’s on my list. Now even more than ever. Thanks to Salsa for these wonderful guest posters.

Christophe Noel | October 29th, 2014

Thank you for the nice words, Sean. I’ll have a full multi-page feature in the upcoming issue of Overland Journal which will hit shelves in January. I enjoy the telling of these tales as much as I do living them. It’s fun sharing with my fellow riders from either side of the computer screen, as a reader or a writer.

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