Singletrack Magazine Issue 116: Fjord Fiesta

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Words Berne Broudy

Photography Donald Shearer

Pushbiking and peak bagging:

Riding the mountains of Norway’s fjords  

I’ve been slogging uphill for an hour and a half, my mountain bike on my back, and the summit cairn isn’t getting closer. The trails in Norway’s Sunnmøre Alps aren’t uphill rideable, so four of us – an American, two Scots, and one Norwegian, ‘pushbike’. Steep, jagged slopes, some a volcanic grey, others an eerie green, shear off into the narrow fjords below. We sink to our ankles on the boggy trail with each step – then clamber onto slick, uneven granite hogbacks.

 Hiking these peaks in trekking footwear would be sketchy. In cleated mountain bike shoes, it’s treacherous. A squall blows through. As I am giving myself a cheesy pep talk, reminding myself how there are no rainbows without rain, I miss a step, drop my bike and chip the paint, nail my knee on a rock and curse as carbon scrapes granite and a dribble of blood spreads into a blotchy smear below my patella. The sole peels off my shoe…

Oil tanking

Despite US$47 billion of annual exports, Norway’s oil and gas industries are tanking. The fjords region is hoping that mountain bike tourism could help defibrillate the economy. It worked in Whistler, BC, Steamboat in Colorado, and closer to home in Wales and Scotland, where depressed economic areas have seen an upturn in tourism thanks to the free-spending, constantly hungry hordes of mountain bikers lured there to ride the trails. 

Skiers have explored the Norwegian fjords by boat for decades. Mountain biking is more of an idea than an actual sport here, but it’s an activity that the local economic and tourism councils want to develop. Norwegians are looking for work outside of extraction, and towns and municipalities that depended on petroleum are exploring alternate means to bolster their bottom line.

Tom Anker Skrede, Marketing Manager for Destinasjon Ålesund og Sunnmøre, tells me: “We want to develop all kinds of bike riding in the region – road, mountain and enduro. Obviously, there are a lot of tracks in the mountains, but for us it’s a bit of a new idea. We’d like to make it bigger, to know what we need to do to develop biking here, to connect paths that already exist.” And they’re laying the groundwork. Destinasjon Ålesund is investigating the viability of old postal routes for riding, and researching how to improve hiking trails while avoiding user-group conflict. It’s also committed to developing bike-friendly shops, guides, shuttle services, and hotels willing to take muddy riders. 

I’m here with H&I Adventures, a Scottish mountain bike tour operator that Destinasjon Ålesund has commissioned to pioneer mountain bike tourism here. H&I is piecing together a trip where mountain bikers explore the surrounding peaks by day, and spend their nights on a retired wooden minesweeper. It’s working with Skrede and his colleagues at local tourism and economic commissions to assess and then develop the trail network and supporting infrastructure.

Thank Godøy.

We unload our bikes on Godøy Island, ancestral home of Rollo, the Viking who ruled Normandy in France. We pedal for 50 metres and pass through a gate. Then our guide Veronica Vikestrand starts pushing up a rock and grass trail that’s too steep, uneven and boggy to get enough momentum to turn the cranks. After trying to pedal and repeatedly falling, the rest of us carry behind. 

At the summit of Storhornet, it’s pretty clear that not a lot of people roll off the top. Our backside descent is a precipitous, chundery snake of lichen-pocked rock and sandy dirt that intermittently burrows into the hillside and disappears. During WWII, the Nazis used this side of the mountain for target practice from across the fjord. It’s beating us with the vengeance of the abused. We pogo down an open ridgeline, then clumsily manoeuvre tight switchbacking drops, carrying our bikes through exposed corners. 

The rocky spine we’re riding rises and dips through stunted, marshy arctic sedges glowing gold in the afternoon light. We skirt a high alpine pond and crank across a natural pump-track I’d swear was purpose built if it wasn’t so remote. Across the fjord, Ålesund, famous for its art nouveau buildings and cod fishing fleet, is clustered behind a sturdy breakwater. Ferries heading to and from the city bisect the silvery Atlantic below. We bang a left and pop out into someone’s garden wearing grins of exhilaration and relief. 

“You liked it?” asks Vikestrand hesitantly. 

To say mountain biking is in its infancy in the Norwegian fjords is a gross exaggeration. We didn’t run into other riders, because, aside from a handful of self-labelled ‘pushbikers’, they don’t exist. Even Vikestrand, who was on the national downhill team, confesses that she got sick of rolling her bike uphill for endless hours, so now she’s a Cross-Fitter who rides motorcycles. 

Green and orange Hobbit landscape. 

The next day, on an unnamed peak, the fog opens as we reach the summit, god rays stream down, then the drizzle resumes. The celestial drama makes the weather worth it. I sign into a summit registry with frozen fingers like I’ve only previously had after swinging ice axes, not bike riding. A bottle of hot, sugary tea and a cheese and smoked salmon sandwich restore my energy and enthusiasm. I wring out my gloves, drop my saddle, and roll.

A rocky ribbon unfurls through the green and orange splatter-painted hobbit landscape before it disappears and the grippy ridge morphs into a rumble strip of shark fins and mud. At a junction, we pass a doubletrack ride-around and veer off on what our Norwegian guide calls the ‘normal route’. We negotiate a bramble-covered rock slab that ends with a traverse on slick mud that’s hard to imagine being able to ride ever. I’m wishing I brought a rope and climbing harness. 

Our trusty ship, the Gåssten, provides respite. Between plodding climbs and slick descents, we sleep, eat and plot our course in the Admiral’s lounge aboard this five-cabin retired navy ship. For a small boat, the Gåssten is spacious. Below deck, she has cabins to sleep twelve guests plus three to four crew, a dark wood-panelled state room, a steamy engine room perfect for dying gear and two full bathrooms. Above deck, a kitchen and galley give access to the cluttered pilothouse. In fair weather, we hang out at a picnic table on deck or climb a ladder to the top of the pilothouse for the best view of the fjords. 

Today, after doing a first rinse of bikes, gear and bodies with a dock hose, we bolt for hot showers, then hunker down in the galley for afternoon tea. Chef Izzy has prepared home-made cookies and breads, served along with nuts, crisps, tea and beer. We snack, chat, nap and read until Izzy kicks us out to set the table for dinner: reindeer stew with lingonberries, salmon wrapped in pastry, and white chocolate crème brulée with fat ripe raspberries. After a five-star meal and several glasses of red wine, all I remember about the day is the awesomeness of the scenery and the thrill of the steep descent. Then, with bikes strapped to Gåssten’s wooden gunwales and Captain Sven Stewart at the helm, we cast off to steam through the night.

A Swedish-ised Scot.

Stewart, a Scotsman living in Sweden, is an oil and gas guy on his second career. An intrepid adventurer and hardcore skier, Sven worked as a commercial diver for Statoil before he bought the Gåssten. 

“Why I set up this boat tourism business in the first place is I like doing new things,” he says. “Clearly this is new.” 

Sven recruited his best friend and expedition partner Tash Wright, also a Scot, as skipper. Tash doesn’t ride, but she had sailed solo across the Atlantic, completed a long list of arctic ski expeditions – many with Sven, and she was on the first team of women to ski from the summit of Denali in Alaska.

When we dock in Sylte at 1am, stars are twinkling and the moon is reflecting off the glassy bay. By breakfast, low fog is draped like a soiled, wet rag over the harbour. Unloading bikes, the light drizzle changes to hail, then back to rain. After a gourmet breakfast in the galley we shuttle to shore in an outboard-motor-powered dinghy raft. Then, with my downtube grinding against the back of my neck, I start the uphill shuffle. Again.

A section of steep doubletrack winds past a thundering waterfall, where a deer is picking its way across the foaming river, head bowed under the weight of its rack as it skirts fir trees heavy with stringy moss. We could be starring in a Norwegian fjords nature movie. Inches-high blueberry bushes sag under the weight of ripe fruit. The mist parts, and we have a momentary aerial view of treeless summits all around and blue fingers of ocean that stroke the shoreline. The Gåssten is a tiny speck below. Stunning views and thrilling descents make me forget the hardship of the carry.

Sending it. By post. 

The next day, a mellow 15-minute hikeabike leads us to the top of a secondary peak. Then we’re on an old postal route. This region is criss-crossed with them – centuries old footpaths and horse paths used by the Norwegian mail. We roll past a crooked, unpainted wooden hut barely tall enough to stand up in. A red post box stands sentry by its door even though we’re miles from anything you’d call a road. We drop on raucous zigzagging singletrack through thick evergreens to the bottom.

We take a half-day to rest and explore the UNESCO-protected 15-kilometre long Geirangerfjord, possibly Norway’s most stunning sliver of nature. Foaming waterfalls dwarf the Gåssten, crashing and dripping all around us with muscle from a week of rain. 

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Mountaineers and climbers know you haven’t had a successful summit bid until you’ve returned to base camp. It’s the same with riding these stormy, sharp and unpredictable peaks. “Norway’s fjords haven’t been done,” says Euan Wilson, the understated Scot who co-owns H&I, and the creative force working to put this region on the mountain biking map. “They’re are rugged, unmanicured and wild; the riding is challenging, emotional, and raw. But rolling these peaks is not only feasible but fun.” Wilson predicts that in the next decade the mountain bike scene here is going to explode.

Our hosts are happy to hear it. Big Ole, a lanky mountain guide H&I has hired to guide its tours, arrives wearing a full downhill compression suit with shoulder and elbow pads that would be overkill at most lift-served bike parks. Ole is from Molde, the only town with purpose-built bike trails in this region. According to the tourist map, we can see 87 peaks above 1,000m from Molde’s town harbour, and 135 more from a viewpoint above town. After 20 minutes of pavement and side street pedalling, Ole leads the way down a loamy temperate rainforest track that splits half a dozen times before spitting us onto rudimentary bermed switchbacks. This ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ trail was built by local riders – he guesses there might be somewhere between 20 and 50 mountain bikers in Molde, population 25,000 and the only town we’ve visited that has a bike shop.

Pushing is what we know.

On our last day pedalling it’s finally sunny but with a biting wind. We drive 45 minutes from Molde to Sjurvarden then plow up a babyhead-covered road that’s at times too steep to ride. The Norwegians push because that’s what they know. The foreigners attempt to pedal to make a point. We all carry to a muddy saddle between two gently sloped summits. 

In some of the most stunningly beautiful places across the globe, recreation has replaced industry, enticing visitors with unforgettable experiences that have replaced mineral, oil, or timber extraction. I agree with Wilson. I think it will happen here. 

It’s the weekend, and the first time we’ve shared the trail with hikers – everyone is friendly. A narrow path leads across a knife-edge ridge with 360° views. To the left, tractors zigzag through the puddled patchwork of fields bringing in the harvest. To the right, the white-capped Atlantic stretches past the curve of the horizon to the Shetland Islands and beyond. Over days of carrying my bike, I stopped expecting trails I could ride from top to bottom. But today, that’s what I get. I let my brakes go, and I roll.

Knowledge

Info on this tour can be found at:

H&I Adventures

mountainbikeworldwide.com

T: 01463 231441

Toll-free (US/CAN): 1-888-228-50-35

E: info@mountainbikeworldwide.com

Destinasjon Ålesund & Sunnmøre 

visitalesund.com

Tel: +47 70 16 34 30 

Skateflukaia, N-6002 Ålesund, Norway 

E: info@visitalesund.com

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