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Two Styles of Bicycle Travel in Iceland

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BORGARNES, Iceland- I saw a bicycle decked out for touring sitting outside of an Olis gas station as I pulled into Borgarnes. It was a real time pro rig. I pulled my bike up right behind it, as though both of the two wheeled, self-propelled vehicles were cars in a parking lot. As I dismounted, I looked at both bicycles — two birds of very different feathers — one behind the other leaning up against the exterior of the Olis gas station.

I could not contain my laughter.

Two styles of bicycle travel

One bike was sleek and shiny with all the gizmos and gadgets of modern bicycle touring — waterproof panniers, a handlebar mounted compass, a neatly packed gear rack, a digital distance counter (speedometer?), disc brakes, and various hooks for bottles, an expensive pumps — while the other was a cheap-o beast of burden, bright pink in color, with squeaking gears, pad brakes that hardly worked, comfortless handle bars, a rugged seat, a plastic tub for a gear rack that had a backpack rising out of it like a sail, and two overstuffed cheap panniers. One looked slick, the other absolutely ridiculous, but both were serving the same function.

As I looked over the two contrasting specimens of  very different styles of bicycle travel, I noticed the owner of the other bike checking out my rig, probably thinking the same things. I entered the gas station and it did not take long before I was shaking hands and chatting with the other bicycle traveler. It was obvious that he was a very astute and avid shopper, as he was decked out as sublimely as his bicycle. He wore a spandex riding suit with bright green stripes, a matching skin tight bicycle riding jacket, speed demon sun glasses, and fancy little shoes with pedal clips which clicked on the floor each time he took a step. I think his helmet may have been able to detect subtle changes in weather and re-dress him accordingly.

He said that he was from Boston — I nearly said no shit. Out of politeness I did not talk about the Bruins, figuring that this guy must have been too busy shopping in bicycle specialty stores to care much about ice hockey (the sacrifice you must make for bicycle travel, I suppose).  But I did ask him about his trip so far.

It had been going for one day. In one day this guy had traveled the same distance (minus a few kilometers that I went out of the way as I took the back road that I took through the mountains). The only difference was that this jet setter did it all in a matter of hours, whereas it took me three days.

Perhaps, I thought,  all that slick gear actually did something?

I then tossed this thought to the wayside as the bicycle traveler continued speaking. He was a bicycle guy, someone who goes to foreign lands just to be on a bicycle, the locale itself is just an interesting background, it is the peddling that is the passion. It is my impression that these guys are f’cking weirdos. Who would go all the way to Iceland just to hang out on the highway? Strange universes.

I write my opinions here keenly, because I know that the bicycle guy was more than likely thinking just as critical thoughts about yours truly:

Who would want to get all geared up to go on a bicycle journey and only pedal 35 km a day? Why the hell is this idiot carrying so much stuff? Why does he have a tub tied onto the back of his bike? What the f’ck was this weirdo doing in Hvalfjordur for three days, I zipped through there in a few hours?

“I only have two weeks,”  the man in the spandex suit called a halt to our mutually critical meditations.

“You are going to go all the way around Ring Road in two weeks?” Exasperation.

“Yeah.”

“But that is like 100+ kilometers a day.”

He thought about it, then nodded in agreement — “Yeah, it is.”

Ain’t no thing but a chicken wing. 

“I just left the capital this morning, it was smooth sailing, not much wind,” he added. “Everyone talks about the wind here, but it isn’t really that bad. I once biked through a gale in New Zealand, now that was a lot of wind.”

I was talking to a regular old one-upper. What one person says the one-upper will one-up them. For all intensive purposes, you can get less hot air talking to a fart.

We continued to look down our noses at each other’s bicycle rigs.

“You got a lot of stuff,” he observed.

You spent a lot of money.

I walked away and bought a hot dog. He plugged in his intravenous glucose injector. I looked at my free tourist info shop map, he had is exact coordinates beamed down to him by satellite. I said that I was going to camp in Borgarnes. He said that he was going to continue on.

It was raining hard. Spandex man rode off into the storm, knowing well that the next stop wouldn’t be for another 40 km. I am not sure if we impressed each other much, but we definitely impressed ourselves.

[adsense]Iceland is full of spandex men riding bikes with set ups that easily cost more than I ever paid for a motor vehicle. This is what “bicycle travel” means — I am the errant transgressor here, I am the one jumping definition, pushing the boundaries of this term. Bicycle travelers typically sit on their bikes all day long on well equipped bikes making 100s of kilometers per day. It is the riding that is of essence here, the sport is what matters, digging the location is an omega objective.

I sought to use the bicycle as a means to access this country a little closer. I travel by bicycle just to get to places that make me want to get off the bike, look around, meet people, have experiences, and put myself in the in between areas of the world that I would not be able to stop at using point to point public transport (which in Iceland I can’t afford anyway). I sought to use sport methods of travel as my means to see this country at a little closer resolution, to feel every bump, to be blown around by the wind, scalded by the sun, soaked in the rain, frozen in the cold, to feel this place a little more directly. But my methods are not common. The bicycle is rarely used as a vagabonding machine.

The typical bicycle traveler is like this man in spandex, the love of their journey starts at one wheel and ends at the other. They are bicycle riders, not travelers. The country, the place, the people, are but an inevitable backdrop to these bicyclers as they zoom from dot to dot across a map. This guy is going to bicycle 1300+ km in under two weeks. In point, you don’t make friends moving at this pace. This guy is not going to meet Pierre, the French tramp, he is not going to meet Kristinn and sleep in his field, he is not going to talk with people about modern whaling in Hladir, he is not going to take the magnificent back roads through the hills rather than the nicely paved and smooth highway, he is not going to challenge himself to make innovative gear carrying systems from scavenged goods.

But, they may say, I am not going to bicycle all the way around Iceland.

Fair enough.

The game may look the same to the onlooker, but my use of the bicycle and that of a bicyclist is very different. We meet each other and I know that I am not considered a “one of them,” and I know for sure that they are not a “one of me” whatever this means. It is the difference between a hunter and a marksman: they both used firearms, their methods are sometimes interchangeable, but they engage in their activities to very different ends.

There is a point of distinction that I need to make here: how I am traveling around Iceland by bicycle is HIGHLY untypical. I am not a bicyclist, I am a traveler. The bicycle allows me to accomplish my goals, and that is where the passion ends. I am no more into bicycles than I am t-shirts. They are both pretty cool inventions, but neither are anything I get too excited about. But the people I see zipping around here on their bikes seem very passionate — idealistic even — about their vehicles, the way they’re traveling, their fly by night trips across entire countries and continents. Our goals are different and I may mock the bicyclists in spandex and they may look down their noses at me, but we are bicycling on different pages of the traveling book: we cannot be compared against each other.

Different strokes for different folks.

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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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