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Preparing for Bicycle Travel in Iceland

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In search of a bicycle and notes on the road ahead in Reykjavik

“Don’t expect to pay more than 30,000, 35,00 for a used bike,” I was told early on in my search for a bicycle in Reykjavik. “But for this price you will probably have to make some repairs to it.”

30,000 to 35,000 Krona is around 300 USD. The manager of the Reykjavik campsite was helping me track down a used bicycle for a decent price. She scoured the internet, and we could only come up with junk for a mint. But just about everything in Iceland costs a mint — not just junky bicycles — as this is truly one of the most expensive countries on the planet. But I couldn’t whine about this, I have navigated through expensive countries before, and I knew that I could land a good bike for a good price — somehow.

Arni from the Reykjavik mountain bike club showing me the path ahead

Reykjavik Mountain Bike Club

One out of every 300 Icelanders are part of the Reykjavik mountain bike club. Every Thursday night is open house at their clubhouse on the corner of Breakust and Framnesvegur. “They are friendly, they like to talk about bikes,” I was told by a well provisioned American bicycle traveler, “you should stop by, they may be able to help you find a bike.”

I walked the four or so kilometers from my camp at the edge of the city into downtown, found the maroon building that was pictured on the mountain bike club’s website, and walked right in. I found a couple of greasy handed guys working on bicycles in a garage full of bike parts — wheels, pedals, frames, everything. It was overtly obvious that I had found the right place, but breaking the conversational ice sometimes means uttering non-sequirs like, “Is this the meeting for the Reykjavik mountain bike club?” The two guys inside looked at me. If the equivilent of “duh” exists in the Icelandic vocabulary, I’m sure they muttered it. I made my purpose known: “I want to ride a bicycle around Iceland, and I’m looking for an old, used, cheap bicycle. My name is Wade.” 99.9% of Icelanders seem to speak English very well, but I still used the simple-speak that I’ve inevitably cultivated from traveling in non-English speaking climes.

The two guys understood my English perfectly, but looked puzzled for a moment about my mission, then replied that they did not really know where I could find such a bicycle. This statement seemed almost too askance to be true, I felt like a man standing in front of a spring being told by someone that you that they did not know where I could get water. I tried not to stare too much at the dozens of part way assembled bikes that laid all over the garage and hung from the rafters, and proceeded to ask about the club meeting. I was directed to go upstairs, I heard nothing going on up there and showed some hesitation. “Is there anybody up there?” I asked, thinking it would be slightly awkward to sit through a Reykjavik mountain bike club meeting in which I, myself, was the sole presenter as well as the audience. “Yeah,”one of the guys answered, “there are people up there.”

Figuring that they could have been knee deep in a meditation session about the spiritual benefits of bicycle travel, I took off my boots and walked up the stairs. I found a guy looking lonely on a couch, he was the only one there. He greeted me with calm courtesy, said his name was Arni. We shook hands, and I told him who I was and explained my purpose. I passed over a Vagabond Journey business card. He echoed the sentiment of the two guys downstairs and said that he could not think right off of any places where I could get hooked up with a cheap used bicycle, and advised that I post my request on the club’s message board. I was in trouble: if the Reykjavik mountain bike club could not direct me to a place to purchase a used bicycle then I did not know who could.

But Arni seemed earnest in his advice, and eventually recommended that I go around to the new bicycle shops and try to land a bike that had been previously traded in. “Many people trade in their old bicycles for a discount when they buy new ones. I do not know what the shops do with these old bikes after they take them, but maybe you could get them to sell you one.

This was the best lead yet.

Arni seemed willing to talk, he seemed to think deeply about my questions, and answered thoroughly. I began asking more questions as told me about the ebbs and flows of bicycle travel in Iceland. Arni got up and pulled down a wall map of Iceland that was connected to the low ceiling, and began explaining to me the attributes of various parts of the country and their impacts on the bicycler. He pointed out mountains, volcanoes, deserts, lakes, rivers, glaciers, and it became clear that Iceland has every extreme that physical geography can throw at the traveler.

Physical map of Iceland

I asked him about crossing the country through the center, and he seemed to advise against it, stating that the roads are not even open yet and are covered in snow. Iceland is currently having their worst weather in 60 years. Where the mountain passes are usually opened for travel by the 15th of June, they are now still covered in snow. “Nobody lives in here,” Arni told me, and virtually pointed to the entire country. “Iceland is mostly populated around the coasts.”

“So there are no villages here?” I asked as I plotted my finger down in the center of the map.

“No,” Arni replied, and told me that there are some geothermal plants and tourist huts, but not really functioning population centers.

“There is no water for much of this way,” Arni pointed to a section of the map between two very large glaciers. “It is all volcanic, and all the water from the rain just goes down into the cracks in the lava and flows underground to lakes. So there is no way to get anything to drink. That is a problem.”

It seemed freightening, something like Chinese water torture played out by nature.

“The roads here are sort of dirt,” Arni pointed to another huge sector of the map. “It is the desert so it may be a little dirty riding a bike here.”

I nodded, took note of another potentially harsh environment. Arni continued:

“It is also cold in the north, maybe no higher than 10 degrees centigrade.”

“There are lots of mi, um . . . little flies there.”

“Oh, like blackflies?”

“No, not blackflies. We have blackflies along this river, but not like they do in Canada. These flies when they swarm they cover the entire sky and block out the sun.” I had Arni write down the name of this type of swarming insect in my notebook so I could look up their English name later. Chironomidae.

Arni then began pointing out the parts of Iceland that were pretty much uninhabited. I stopped bothering to remember all of them, as it constituted the bulk of the country. He told me that there are a little over 300,000 people in Iceland, and two thirds of them live around Reykjavik. The rest is populated in squirts and dribbles.

I asked about forests, thinking of my choice of camping gear — a Hennessy hammock that is ideally hung between two sturdy trees. “We have a saying in Iceland,” Arni began, “If you get lost in an Icelandic forest all you have to do is stand up, then you can see your way out.” We laughed a little at this, and then he explained that there are birch forests, but they tend not to be very tall.

I cringed again, though smiled slyly at what I was getting myself into: this would be no bicycle ride through the park, without doubt I was courting adventure. For better or worse, I thought to myself, knowing well that for adventure to occure that I would need to experience far more of the latter. I stepped back and looked at the map of this country in awe: this place is geological kliedescope, twist it a little and it is changes completely. A sentiment that was echoed by a German traveler that I met at the campsite who had just gotten back to Rekjavik after hitchhiking around the south from east to west:

“You travel for one hour and it is all mountains and big rocks, then the next hour there will be a lava field, then there is just dirt, just ash all over the place and nothing, it looks like the moon, if there were not power lines I would believe that I was on the moon, and then, all of a sudden, there will be big green fields.”

At the northern edge of the inhabitable planet, Iceland is nothing if not extreme. There is no better landscape for biketramping.

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Filed under: Bicycle Travel, Europe, Iceland, Western Europe

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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