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To Bicycle Iceland Mountains or Highway?

HLADIR, Iceland- The third day into bicycling in Iceland I found myself staring down a big decision: to cut through the mountains on a gravel road or continue taking a nicely paved road that connects with the dreaded Ring Road — the main highway of Iceland. My destination was Borgarnes, a small city on the [...]

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HLADIR, Iceland- The third day into bicycling in Iceland I found myself staring down a big decision: to cut through the mountains on a gravel road or continue taking a nicely paved road that connects with the dreaded Ring Road — the main highway of Iceland. My destination was Borgarnes, a small city on the western coast, I was still sitting on the northern flank of Hvalfjodur (Whale Fjord).

To cycle on highway or through mountains?

I looked over the maps, talked with some locals, and tried to come up with the best plan of action. Planning for a self-propelled journey is nearly a fool’s endeavor — when you are out there on the road biking or walking pretty much anything can happen, you stand a little closer to the sharp edge of Providence. I knew that no matter how long I planned and plotted, success or disaster was all a game of chance.

Mountains in Iceland

These were the parameters of this decision:

1. I cut across contour lines on the map, go through a hilly region into no man’s land, on a gravel road that had potential to be rough, and hope the rear wheel of my bike holds up. This road is also bound to be full of dust and dirt clouds kicked up by the wheels of passing motorists: I would not come out of this one looking pretty.

2. I stay on the paved road skirting the fjord, ride parallel to my map’s contour lines, and then connect up with Ring Road — the main traffic artery of Iceland. The road going to the highway would be cake — it was relatively flat and the wind forecast was not very frightening — the difficult part would be meeting back up with Ring Road. My previous frolics with this highway did not leave a good taste in my mouth: the road was packed with cars and trucks, did not really have any shoulder to speak of, and, to make matters exponentially worse, the fringes of this highway were occasionally stamped with rumble strips. I vowed firmly that I would avoid Ring Road at all cost throughout the remainder of this trip.

[adsense]On an additional note of woe, a stretch of highway between Akranes and Bogarnes (right where I would be cycling) is known as being one of the windiest in the entire country. The gusts there are so powerful that motor vehicles are sometimes overturned and blown off the road.

I went into the gas station and began fishing for some advice. The guy running the show there took me over to a map on the wall and advised me to take the back road.

“This way will have a lot of cars, especially since it is the weekend,” he spoke of Ring Road. He then told me what I would experience taking the country roads: “You go over one hill then a valley then a second hill then a valley.” The way he poised the second option made it seem, by far, like the best choice.

I then questioned the Estonian at the pool. “It is paved,” he spoke of the back road, “and there are cars that travel it.” This seemed to be a strange thing to say as from where we stood we could see cars kicking up huge clouds of dust as the traveled down this road: it was definitely not paved. I had to conclude that the Estonian and I were not speaking of the same road. But he did have some additional advice:

“Don’t get stuck up on the mountains in a storm. The weather changes fast here, make sure you are not up there.”


I retreated to camp and stared into the maps, pondering both courses of action. Suddenly, I looked up to find a familiar apparition on the horizon: it was Pierre, the French tramp who I camped out with (link) at the farm and met up with previously on the road out of Reykjavik.

He was walking fast, I raced to meet him. I ran through the field between the camp and the road but by the time I made it to the tarmac he was long gone. I raced back and grabbed my bike, and successfully ran him down.

“Told you we’d meed again,” I exclaimed as I pulled up behind him on the road.

He jumped with shock and smiled large. He told me that he was able to hitch from the farm to the waterfalls, and was picked up by the first car that passed by. But it turned out that the waterfall that was billed as the highest in Iceland was recently demoted to second highest. “They recently found a bigger one somewhere,” Pierre spoke without sign of disappointment.

He hiked to the waterfall anyway — the second highest in Iceland — but stop short of going to its top. “If I climbed all the way there I knew that I would not be able to walk very far today.”

The tramp had learned his lesson from the previous day’s misadventure up Mt. Esja. With that we said goodbye for the forth time. “Hey,”I yelled upon our parting, “we’ll meet again, you know it.”

I don’t know how much weight I really placed behind these words, but they sounded good none the less.

Pierre, the French tramp, walking to Borgarnes, Iceland


Back to the decision: A) Take a bicycle that is wavering under an incredible load on the rear wheel on a gravel road of dubious condition, over hills, through valleys, and on a — relatively speaking — rough ride, or B) Take a flat, paved road to a highway with tons of Saturday traffic that goes through one of the windiest places in Iceland.

I chose option A, and the next morning cut over two sets of ridges and valleys in one of the greatest days of bicycle travel I had ever experienced. The photos from this day of bicycle travel will show that I had chosen wisely:

Lake, sky, and road in Iceland

My bicycle, packed with gear

Mountains in Iceland


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

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

2 comments… add one

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  • Bob L July 14, 2011, 11:36 pm

    When on two wheels, even when human powered, NEVER choose flat land over hills, no matter how rough the road is. Hills rule.

    Bob L

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard July 17, 2011, 8:20 pm

      Good call.

      Link Reply