The Iceland Divide: Cycling from Iceland's South to North

Daniel Hughes explores Iceland from North to South

It's 10:15 am in mid-July. We’re at the southernmost point of Iceland and a cool Atlantic breeze is blowing in our faces. Our plan is to navigate from the South to North on adventure bikes. It seems the perfect way to experience the majesty of the island: human-powered, self-sufficient, exposed to the elements, and with our cameras. 

Our Wilier Triestina Jena bikes were able to handle 650b wheels and I was keen to put on the highest volume tyre for comfort and grip, and to handle the weight of the bikes over sharp rocks, loose sand, river crossings and everything in between. Panaracer’s Neo Moto 2.1inch ticked all the boxes (and it really does look like a badass motocross tire). 

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Iceland has a reputation for being an island with angry weather and we assumed biblical rain, wind and even snow could meet us along the way. Preparation was a question of: what is the smallest amount of equipment we need?

A bombproof outer layer such as the Arcteryx Beta SV Goretex jacket was essential, as were trousers to match, a synthetic jacket (it dries quicker if it gets wet) and plenty of layers. We also needed extra clothing to wear in the tent so we could attempt to dry out riding kit during the night. Talking of tents, we went for an Everest-grade MSR Guideline Pro 2 tent. It’s a laugh-in-the-face-of-hardcore-conditions tent. 

Of course, our ‘pack light’ philosophy became slightly laughable with the inclusion of two Sony SLR cameras, a drone and batteries for 10 days. The creative output is part of the adventure, I like to think. ‘Overweight’ is what the smiling check-in personnel told us as we began unpacking our bags in the airport, donning as much clothing as we could. Is it hot in here!?

Iceland has a network of F-roads, with the F standing for Fjalla or mountains. In essence these are gnarly roads that are only accessible by 4x4 and only open for a short period in the summer. On arrival in Reykjavik it emerged that some remain closed. This isn’t a problem for cycling but it is for the film crew in a 4X4. After a ludicrous amount of coffee, some scratching of heads and a small dose of scaring the crap out of ourselves watching river crossing videos on Youtube, the decision was made to ride from South to North instead, giving time for the northernmost roads to open. 

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Day 1

We rode on coastal roads from black lava sands to rolling farmland on gravel tracks, deciding to camp that night next to a bridge and a fast-flowing river. In Iceland it is permissible to camp for one night in the wild. The river provided water to drink, wash and carry for the next day. It came straight off the glaciers. My word was it fresh!Iceland sits just below the Arctic Circle and in three days it didn’t get dark. I knew this would be the case but it was a very puzzling experience nonetheless. The body clock is thrown totally out of kilter; great if you’ve got an endless to-do list but not great for sleeping. 

Day 2

I could hear a pitter-patter of rain on the tent. Stove on (a Jetboil is great if you want to pack super light) and water was boiling in 90 seconds. Time is money, right?! Though maybe we figured we would chill here for a bit longer to see if the rain would pass. It’s not like we needed to worry about having enough daylight. 

The rain eased and we entered into a visual nirvana. There were rich textures, greens that looked like they were powered by neon lights, and very dramatic scenery. The shutter count on my camera increased massively and the drone took off more than Taylor Swifts' private jet on a world tour. The next question: how do you cross knee-high or waist-deep, fast-flowing glacial rivers with heavy bikes? The answer: shoes off, rivers crossing shoes on, dry feet, shoes on, ride 2km to then see another one. Repeat. We were definitely tempted to avoid the rigmarole of swapping shoes but we knew that wet shoes would be miserable and we’d likely never be able to dry out the shoes in these cool temperatures. 

We were delighted when we knew we had crossed the last river for the day and entered the Fjallabak Nature Reserve with a blazing bright light shining through the clouds. It was like having a flash for your camera and a National Geographic film set to photograph and ride.

Day 3

We can’t believe how quickly the landscape has changed. From lush terrain with endless rivers we entered land of barren, shifting sands. It made for hard but fun riding on a bike that was like a bucking bronco, never knowing when the back end would surprise you and make you laugh. Stuff like this is why I love gravel bikes so much. 

Day 4 

Our first day of packing up the tent in strong winds required serious discipline to avoid losing anything. The wind was fresh on the face but there is something satisfying about having the appropriate equipment while being battered by Mother Nature. 

It served as a reminder of the importance of effective layering, especially in colder temperatures. If your clothing gets damp with sweat and you’re not generating the same amount of heat through exertion then feeling cold can rapidly turn to hypothermia. 

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We freewheeled down a gradual descent and the wind had picked up even more. With it blowing mostly on our backs the kilometres passed relatively quickly on a well-packed surface. It made for a super windy night inside a violently shaking tent.

Day 5

Wind, rain, and we had a big river crossing to start the day. Our plan of changing shoes for the crossings was a sound one – these are icy cold, violent waters. This was the most challenging one yet and we came very close to going for a swim with our bikes. I was very glad that everything was waterproofed.It took about 20 minutes to warm our feet up but with the wind firmly behind us it was so fun to be riding with such speed. These long winding descents, sand patches and lunar landscapes are right in the very middle of Iceland. Is it visually spectacular? I guess that depends on your definition of spectacular. It’s not as diverse as the first few days but there’s something pure and beautiful about endless nothing. We were 150km (93 miles) from the civilization with no phone reception and no cars. It was just us and our bikes.

Day 6 

I woke up with the realisation that we were now closer to the end than the start. ‘Don’t think forwards, enjoy the present’ I said to myself. It is so easy to go into a trance, visualising a bed and a more comfortable existence. 

Our route was an endless wondering path that began to descend towards sea level. We saw sheep, purple nootka flowers and an epic waterfall as the loss of altitude and water bought clear signs of life. With less than 70km to go the noise of normal life started to enter into my thoughts as we rode back into arable farming country on a compacted gravel road. No more F-roads. There was one last jewel, our final place to camp. With permission from a local farmer we managed to upgrade our vista from a riverside to a gorgeous lake. The Drifting storms and changing light illuminated spots like a flashlight for the rest of the evening and into the final day.

Day 7 

Tarmac! Sixty-three kilometres on the main highway, a ring-road around Iceland, was all that lay ahead as we pushed towards Akureyri, the largest city outside the Reykjavik area. 

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From almost being blown off our bikes, we enjoyed what felt like 10 free kilometres as we headed north to do a 20km U-turn to navigate around a car-only road tunnel. Fifty kilometres an hour on a laden gravel bike felt awesome but the speed was quickly reversed as we turned back on ourselves and got battered by a 60km/h headwind. It was hard work to maintain just 15km/h but occasionally managed to lift our heads to enjoy the last moments of the country’s stunning views.Our trip was seven days of some of the most dramatic landscapes on Earth. Seven days of being off the grid. And seven days of experiencing and capturing a land that I’ve been thinking about for as long as I can remember. One word: epic. And a big thanks to Panaracer for supporting our mission.