International Adventure: Legends Across Iceland

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Photos by Scott Markewitz

Two mountain bike legends set off to ride the length of Iceland on a snow-chocked and hazardous route.

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It is ten-thirty at night at the end of a stormy, rainy, cold day somewhere in the remote wilderness of Iceland. We are still quite a distance from our refuge for the night when the short Icelandic night draws in. Suddenly our Land Rover support vehicle’s axle breaks; we stop just in time before the left rear wheel completely falls off.

This was one of those times when we were extremely thankful that there is cell phone signal almost everywhere on this 103,000 sq km island, and so we were able to call the refuge keeper to come to our rescue. Magne, our support driver, had to brave this hostile environment solo all night and wait for spare parts to come the following morning so that he could repair the Land Rover. As they say – an adventure isn’t an adventure until things start to go wrong.

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The following day, downhill legend Steve Peat and I continued our north to south traverse of Iceland on mountain bikes, knowing that Magne would catch up with us at some point that night at the campsite.

I’d been wanting to do a mountain bike trip to Iceland for nearly 20 years, unlike the bike-packers or touring-bikers who frequently ride this volcanic island on the main roads and dirt roads, we wanted to hit the best singletrack, while crossing through the barren, isolated and little visited interior. Runar Omarsson was our local contact, an Icelandic mountain biker and entrepreneur whom I met a few years ago and who loved the idea of this adventure and riding with a couple of his two-wheeled heroes. We came up with a plan, route and a support vehicle with an off-road trailer with gargantuan 36in tires to conquer the deep rivers, snowfields and sandy sections along the way. Magne from Icebike Adventures looked after the logistics and made sure we could travel light with just our daypacks; we didn’t have to worry about food, tents, sleeping bags or our film-maker’s extra equipment. I was very excited to have Scott Markewitz, one of the most accomplished bike and outdoor sports photographers, with us to capture our trip in photos and Cédric/ Tassan (VTOPO) to film our feats for an upcoming global TV documentary.

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Land of the midnight shred.

Our international team met at Reykjavik before continuing on with a domestic flight to Akureyri where we met up with our local crew and began our adventure by driving east to latitude 66: the Arctic Circle. Our first stage started near the coastline with a stunning ride to Dettifoss waterfall. We clocked about 50km that day – due to a late start we didn’t finish until nearly midnight but all without lights, simply powered by the midnight sun; in the summer months, it hardly gets dark in Iceland. During the ride I had quite a surreal moment when we had the midnight sun to the west, the Arctic Circle to the immediate north, a blue moon in the east and to our south the fabled trolls and elves territory. The Jökulsarglufur trail that followed the river had a nice natural flow, which we anticipated experiencing a lot more of in the forthcoming days. There were a few smaller river crossings to tackle; easy enough to take off the shoes and keep them dry for the time being. The last few miles during the twilight hours were very rocky and technical and the dimming light made it more challenging. At this point our group split up, since everybody was keen to make it back to camp – darkness had set in and we were famished and fatigued. The highlight was without a doubt witnessing the massive amounts of water that gushed over the ledge of Dettifoss waterfall (a volume of 500 cubic metres per second).

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I was stoked to have my old friend and former adventure partner (Borneo, Ireland, Scotland), Steve Peat, along. Due to an ACL injury earlier this year, he missed the 2015 downhill racing season and had recovered just enough from his surgery to join me on this epic. It’s always a good laugh when you have Steve Peat along.

Our entrance to the Highlands was marked with powerful headwinds, off-road tracks and river crossings. To be precise, this was the Askja area. Word had it that the snow conditions were still very bad in the mountains and so far it had been Iceland’s coldest summer for the past 50 years. Despite their names, Iceland is not ice, it is green and Greenland is not green, it is ice. But this year our expected ‘green island’ was somewhat icy. We were expecting some snow, but not as much as we were told would be ahead of us by the ranger in Drekagil. He said that so far this season nobody had crossed the only pass between the north and south, not even hikers, and that we would face about a 60km stretch of snow, pushing and carrying our bikes. Not ideal for anybody, especially a guy who just had ACL surgery. The decision was hard, but after hiking up to the snowline we saw first-hand that we couldn’t do it. The only option was to radio our support vehicle and ask him to fetch us. Magne was already driving the long 250km detour to get to the other side, since the only direct route was impassable by 4×4.

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Missing out the middle.

As it turned out, this was a wise decision because the following day the weather turned nasty. Naturally we were extremely disappointed, so there was nothing for it but to drown our sorrows with a bottle of Scotland’s finest… some whisky. The setting was pretty perfect – we were sitting and soaking our muscles in a hot lava-heated river. It was amazing to see the sulphur fumes still rising from the lava fields after the most recent volcanic eruption, which had been during the previous year. The black volcanic magna rock was sharp and fragile and the water that flowed underneath was hot. Unexpected pockets in the rock open and close as nature dictates; we were lucky enough to find such a spot and soak our sore muscles in it at about 42°C.

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After being crammed into the Land Rover for the better half of the next day, we continued our ride on the other side of the snow pass. The weather was miserable and we had a long way to pedal along the boring Sprengisandur road before reaching the more scenic southern part. Despite our super-functional clothes we couldn’t avoid getting wet and cold; sometimes submerging waist deep in water or fighting rain and headwinds. We kept moving forward, trying to stay on schedule for our six-day traverse to arrive on time at Skógarfoss waterfall, Iceland’s tallest at 60m, close to the southern coastline.

Most mountain bikers in Iceland do day trips – to do a multi-day trip one has to be prepared and it would be extremely tough and rough to do so without some sort of support. It was a good sight to see our support vehicle waiting for us with a dry set of riding gear at the end of such a day.

The following morning the sun came back out and the landscape looked more and more amazing, flanked by glaciers, colourful ridges, giant river deltas and lava fields, and – twisting through the midst of this scenery – was some stunning natural singletrack. The trails looked like they were carved by Thor especially for mountain bikers; the traction on the volcanic soil was not from this planet. It was so much fun riding with Runar and following Peaty’s lines downhill, as long as I could hang with him. I’ve been fortunate enough to ride with many of the world’s best bike riders and it’s always cool to see their creative lines and styles. We all choose all-mountain bikes for this trip: Peaty brought his Santa Cruz 5010 model with 125mm travel, Runar and I rode GT Carbon Sensor bikes with 130mm/160mm.

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Odd bike riders.

Along the Landmannalaugar trek we started to see more backpackers and even the odd bike rider. The lands reminded me of the Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings type of films. We set up our tents at a beautiful campsite. Good thing the days are long during Iceland’s short summer months, we needed all the time and light between the distances we had to cover and the extra time it took for filming and shooting photos. Each location was more stunning than the next.

iceland7Before falling asleep we had to give our bikes some attention – the many water-crossings and volcanic sand had started to take its toll on our equipment and I’m still not sure how good sulphur stream water is for bearings and bushings.

Day five continued as the previous day had ended, incredible scenery and views as far as the eye could see, including glimpses of Europe’s biggest glacier, Vatnajökull. The Laugavegur trail actually just became an IMBA Epic Trail. We crossed lots of lava fields and deserts; the black sand and soil was a stark contrast to the lush green ridges and rugged mountains that look just like the Napali Coast on Hawaii but with added glaciers and snowfields. The Laugavegur trail brought us to another picture-perfect campsite at Thórsmörk. Not only here, but actually in every household in Iceland, hot water and heating comes straight from the ground and, therefore, smells like rotten eggs.

The last day turned out to be the longest, but also the most amazing. Again we had to cross several miles of snowfields, but before that we climbed on gorgeous ridges above canyons – some of them scarily narrow with deadly consequences should one make a mistake. This caused some stressful riding and required nerves of steel and incredible balance. This day offered pretty much everything Iceland has to offer – we had to do a lot of climbing, pushing and hiking, including approximately 6km of snowfields. At one point I felt like I was on an arctic expedition – I guess that thought was not that far out of place… Most of the time the snow was too soft to ride it. Runar proved to be a valuable asset to our team as he had lots of local knowledge, even showing us some of their secret trails after making us first swear secrecy. I have never seen as many big and powerful waterfalls than on the final descent on the Fimmvörduhals route, endless trails, sometimes rough and rocky, at other times smooth and fast. By the time we got to Skógarfoss waterfall, it was almost dark; we didn’t even take our helmets and backpacks off before indulging in food on the hood of our Land Rover. Mission accomplished; another bucket list trip checked off my list.

Thanks so much to Adidas Outdoor, Monster Energy, Clif Bar and Santa Cruz for making this trip possible. Thanks also to our ‘Sliceland’ team for their hard work and dedication – their film and photos have captured some of our memories forever.

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