Blood, Sweat and Skyr
RJ Sauer’s fat-bikepacking trip through Iceland takes a turn for the worse, sending his party on a quest for the elusive “Bike Repair Enthusiast” in the mystical mountains of Kerlingarfjöll…
A loud WHIRRRRRRR screeched from the front wheel of my bike. A raw and unnatural siren. The sound of bad things to come, especially when barreling full speed down a rocky road with over eighty pounds strapped to a fat bike at coordinates nowhere in the middle of the Icelandic Highlands.
I instinctively pump the brakes, pull the ‘chute. Gently, let’s not overreact here, a pilot guiding in for a crash landing.
The metallic cry of a tire snapping free of a fork.
My body catapults forward and I soar and spiral through the air like a gymnast, one who has never trained or stuck a landing in his life.
I hit the ground, the over-stuffed contents of my pack buffering the impact of the road and spring back into the air executing a sort of unsanctioned, double layout, pike combination. A few more impacts, skipping across the gravel surface, miraculously landing on my feet looking back up the road.
I stood motionless. My brain catching up to the change in orientation. A few quick breaths. I’m in shock, although impressed with my landing. This wasn’t my first rodeo, I had been bucked off my bike before.
I took stock. No protruding bones or missing limbs, although I wish I could say the same for my bike. I reluctantly stare back at the crime scene and immediately look away from the severed aluminum carcass sprawled out on the road, I didn’t want to believe my dream, month long bikepacking trip across Iceland had just violently come to an end on only the second day.
Our group consisted of six riders: my wife Sarah and I had done many bike-based road trips, but we were making the deep commitment of the multi-day bikepacking trip. Frank and Sylvia had shared many adventures, but the scope and scale of this journey was a dress rehearsal for their plans to retire and ride across Asia together. Alexa was a friend and planned to race the Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska with Sarah and Sylvia this winter. So for them, Iceland doubled as a psychological qualifier for the upcoming race. Our friend Byron was a last-minute addition, hungry for adventure and a break from an endless run of work in the film industry.
Our first step in cobbling together a route was based on photographic inspiration from social media. Each stunning image of Iceland became a waypoint, pinned to a map, creating a constellation for our journey, a tapestry of waterfalls, volcanic landscapes and Martian deserts flagged across the Icelandic Highlands. They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but Iceland was an exception to every rule.
With these photos as our guide, we focused on the routes that connected the dots. We had three weeks to ride from Reykjavik to Vik, weaving West to East, avoiding major highways and paved roads. There was guesswork and the perfect number of unknowns, we wanted a level of spontaneity and those beautiful, unexpected mistakes come discoveries along the way. To accommodate that, we ensured flex days throughout the schedule to offset the possibility of slower pace, changes in route, added routes, technical difficulties or the desire to relish at a certain pace or place for longer then one can anticipate when two-dimensional resources are your guide.
The IncidentDay one led us out of Reykjavik and instantly onto a remote stretch of tarmac winding through Thingvallavatn National Park, our first taste of the austere landscapes of Iceland. We camped for the night, exploring the faults and fissures of the area, a designated World Heritage Site.
The next morning we followed the Kaldidalur Route, tracking Langjokul Glacier around its western flank to its northernmost tip. From there, we hoped to cross east, but our route was uncertain. If there was a Cartographic Association of Iceland, they were a hung jury on the existence of a road there. Some maps suggest a narrow track connecting to the Kjölur Route to the east while every second map didn’t show the road at all.
Insert flex day here.
It was getting late, still only our second day riding and we stopped at the rise of our highest point of elevation on our northbound route. The Kaldidalur was a hard-packed, dirt track stained in crimson hues. Iceland was already living up to its reputation of rugged and remote beauty. We propped our bikes against a pile of rocks forming a giant stone pyramid to soak up the views. On the horizon a thick wall of cloud swept toward us, swallowing the landscape in its path. Fatigue weighed on the group and the desire to finish for the night rolled in heavier than the opposing storm front. Group patience dropped faster than the barometer.
One-by-one, my fellow riders dropped down the road, rolling off into the distance and out of sight. There was fifteen kilometers of undulating terrain to ride to our day’s goal of Húsafell. I was second last to leave, allowing gravity take hold and immediately the heavy fat bike roared down the dirt track, devouring the surface with ease.
I stuck the landing.
I surveyed the damage to my body: bloody knees, bloody elbows, bloody hands, shoulders and hips, an even distribution of abrasions. Nothing serious, although my right heel pulsated. I leaned on my coping mechanism of optimism and humour, I mean, what’s an adventure without a little drama?
Byron trundled around the bend and I was suddenly grateful I wasn’t the sweeper. We remained calm and got to work on the real patient, my bike. The diagnosis included a bent front fork, in two directions and contorted front hub. Any other issues seemed superficial at this point. They would only manifest later.
We glanced over our shoulder, to see the storm close in. We were running out of time, so we stepped up our efforts, both torquing on the frame as if engaged in a wishbone, tug-of-war. The approaching monsoon motivated our actions but the wheel wouldn’t fit. We use my seat post to gain more leverage, hoisting more aggressively. Finally, the wheel jams into place, enough to secure the bent skewer, severely warped but rideable. I untangle the hydraulic lines spewing out like intestines, still attached to the disc brake and stuff them with the caliper into my front frame bag. I’ll deal with that later, we need to get moving.
The storm rolls over, pounding us with a torrential downpour. Through the sheets of rain, a shadow emerges. Frank, unaware of what happened rode back to check on us. He shivers from the wet cold as we exchange a few facial contortions suggesting ‘we’ll explain later’ and keep moving. It was time to just put the head down and go.
I picked up the pace and a cacophony of unnatural, mechanical instrumentation erupts behind me. The badly bent bike rack, supporting my heavy panniers rubs against the rear tire. I bear the dulcet tones of my quadriplegic bike, battering and bouncing through the flooded potholes. I find my place of masochistic Zen, where you know things are bad but temporarily unresolvable. I glance across at a window in the clouds revealing the distance ice fields of the Langjökull Glacier. Despite the monsoon, bent fork and skewer barely holding the wheel in place, the warped rear rack rubbing against the tire and a pulsating throb throughout my body, everything was perfect. I was bikepacking in Iceland, a dream come true.
Organ DonorLater that night in Húsafell we relive the story and consider solutions. We are skeptical the bike will hold together for the remaining twenty days of the trip. I send emails and make calls, setting the wheels of reparation in motion to ensure the wheels of my bike stay in motion.
My local bike shop in Vancouver responds to my explanation and autopsy photos with ambiguous honesty: the bike might hold for the duration of the trip or could come undone at any moment. Reassuring.
I decide to have them ship replacement parts to meet us along our route. Meanwhile, I will search for local solutions along the way. According to our Cycling Iceland Map, a “Bike Repair Enthusiast” was based in the mystical, mountains of Kerlingarfjöll where we intend to arrive within a few days. A Bike Repair Enthusiast seemed reassuring, no mere bike shop or disgruntled repairman, but an Enthusiast, a mechanical zealot. It suggested images of a Nordic God, moulding metal with bare hands, forging forks from volcanic fires inside a cave atop a mountain with tools and aluminum bones of bikes past strewn about like carcasses. This was Iceland, a place of magic and folklore and anything was possible. Maybe my trip wasn’t over, maybe it was just getting started.
The Highlands of Iceland are as spectacular as they are desolate. The vast landscape offers a stark beauty tempered with a balance of ancient adolescence. I relish in the open space, devoid of forest, stretching across an endless horizon. We encounter “Impassable” signs along the dirt track, twisted sideways, suggesting the route is in fact passable, or perhaps blown aside by gale force winds. Time would tell.
We arrive at the first “V” on our maps, the Icelandic symbol for vað, meaning ford. Our analog and digital maps were strewn with them. At the water’s edge we unload our bikes and shuttle across, testing our crotch-high, canvas leggings, for the first time. They fail instantly. My thigh-high, cinched drawstring loosens with every step as if my pants are falling down. I contort my legs, catching them awkwardly, my arms preoccupied with the seventy-five pounds of bike and gear on my shoulders, my ankles rolling on the loose boulders underwater and holes puncturing, allowing water to gush inside. In the days to come, I simply embrace the wet, in Iceland the elements always win.
After repacking the bikes and fighting through a bout of rain and fog, we arrive at Nordlingaflijot and make camp in the picturesque scenery. A series of narrow rivers trickle down into a lake echoing with the calls of distant loons reminding me of home, a mesmerizing Icelandic-Canadian euphony.
The following day it isn’t too long before we arrive at our anticipated crossroad and the mystery route east from Storisandur. Despite warnings from two Parisian cyclists we passed the night before, there were no “Impassable” signs so we take our chances. If it was truly unrideable we would return and take the long, alternative route north.
The track was rough and not well traveled, but certainly not impassable, especially on our fat bikes. The thick tires eat up the terrain with ease.
No flex day required.
These Are The Thors I KnowWe make great time along the open dirt roads through Hveravellir to Kerlingarfjöll, mainly thanks to a blistering tailwind, at times doubling our speeds.
By the afternoon our tents are pitched, clothing and laundry hung to dry in the sun. That’s when Thor strode towards our campsite. I didn’t call him Thor because of his long blonde hair and even longer golden beard, nor because he was tall and strong or because he was Icelandic and I was name-norming or that he did have all the qualities of a Nordic god of thunder, I called him Thor because I quickly discovered through introductions his name was, in fact, Thor. He wasn’t our first Thor and he wouldn’t be our last. As it were, Iceland was truly inundated with Thors.
At first, I thought he must be the omnipotent Bike Repair Enthusiast coming to help, witnessing our approach through his magic Oracle. But Thor was struck more with curiosity than a bolt of lightning. He, like so many others, had come to gawk at our herd of fat bikes.
I was still surprised how peculiar our oversized tires were perceived by everyone. Iceland felt like an island fat bike park, forged by supreme beings, a Salsa Cycles-spewed volcanic playground.
It turned out Thor was in need of enthusiastic repair himself. He borrowed my tire irons to fix a flat, promising to return them right away. If I knew how grateful he’d be, I might have simply given them to him. That evening, my plastic tools were safely returned to my frame bag accompanied by a delicious Icelandic Porter, a gift of gratitude. Maybe not a Nordic God but a man after my own heart.
The following day we scaled the surrounding peaks of Kerlingarfjöll, translated as “The Old Woman’s Mountain”. It was easy to imagine a witches brew as we meandered along the narrow paths, weaving between natural caldrons of boiling, sulphurous, hot springs and rivulets. The mountainous layers of red rhyolite stone were smeared with strokes of yellow, green and orange mineral deposits, a volcanic palette of unnatural hues.
I returned to our campsite only to find yet another offering, a heaping sacrifice of hand-picked, wild blueberries with a note of gratitude. Thor seemed to have things backward, weren’t we supposed to sacrifice to the gods?
We never found the great Bike Enthusiast of Kerlingarfjöll. We set off south along the Kjölur Route with Langjökull Glacier and lake Hvítárvatn to our right. The town of Geysir and the hope of bike parts from Vancouver was only a day away.
I flinched with every impact out of fear for the stability of the bike, I could feel something was wrong. Every pedal rotation was unnatural, the right pedal wobbled and before long and without warning the pedal simply fell off.
Sarah rolled up behind me and I explained the situation. There was nothing that could be done, another casualty of my crash coming to bear. As always, the problem manifested in the middle of nowhere. The rest of the group was well ahead of us, so I pocketed the pedal and I initiated my best single-sided stroke. Suddenly those one legged bike drills back home didn’t seem so ridiculous.
The rest of the day was spent mostly climbing, grinding our way up the gravel road past Bláfell en route to Geysir. I didn’t want to show it, but I was concerned and knew my bike was a loose thread slowly but surely coming undone. Each day, my front wheel slipped a little as the makeshift joint loosened and the rear rack needed continuous adjustments and now I only had one pedal. It was no longer the physical aggravation, but the mental one.
We dropped down a steep and dusty road. I had come to dread the downhills as my rear brake was overcompensating for the missing front brake and the pads were worn raw. I wove across the road, carving lines like a downhill skier to manage my speed, giving the rear disc brake rhythmic pumps while searching for possible runaway routes for a controlled crash.
Once atop the summit, a car approached with mountain bikes mounted to the roof. Frank threw his arm out, signalling them to stop. The car pulled over and the window rolled down and the local occupants gave us a nervous once over.
“Pedals? Do you happen to have any pedals?” as if they were some bicycle merchant roaming the countryside with spare components and tonics to heal all ails and alignments of nomadic cyclists. Pedlars, as it were.
Their response was swift and silent. The driver disappeared into her car and returned with a brand new set of pedals, the cheapest, most glorious pieces of plastic I had ever seen. If there was a code of ethics against public affection in Iceland, I broke it out of pure gratitude. I would ride with two legs once again.
A storm kept us hunkered down on the side of the road for more than twelve hours. Time enough for several dehydrated meals, three games of Scrabble and a shot of local whiskey in our hot chocolate.
After a motivated pack up, we quickly found ourselves riding across the crimson, Martian landscape of the netherworld that was Landmannalauger. The contradicting textures and tones resemble the fashion sense of Mother Nature’s precocious daughter, permitted to dress herself each morning. Wonderfully mismatching layers, unburdened by convention, emancipated expressions of ethereal delight. No natural order, the earthly mode rebelled against all protocol.
We roll into the designated campground, an overflowing, canvas subdivision carved into the small valley, garrisoned with a stone dyke to protect against regular flooding from river overflow. I have never been to Everest, but I was pretty sure this is what it must have felt like. Throngs of international adventurers clumped together in a crowded basecamp like an outdoor, camping gear convention.
Frank took advantage and wandered off to explore what was essentially a field laboratory for global tent designs. He and Sylvia were suffering from nightly leaks and he was in the market for a new shelter.
Like us, the hordes of visitors were here to gawk and stare at the outlandish landscape and scenery, an earthly representation of a Dali-inspired geologist improvising with a graffiti-inspired landscape architect. Landmannalauger’s popularity represented the perfect Icelandic dilemma: a remote and primordial beauty colonized by endless streams of automotive armadas.
Maybe we hadn’t met the people this popularity negatively impacted or spoke with those who grew up here and wanted to preserve the silent sanctity of this place. Like so many of the ornamental rocks we collected along the way, I imagined many native Icelanders wanted to pick up a place like Landmannalauger, slip it in their pocket and hide it away, a keepsake for future generations. The challenge of something so enchanting is once found, it’s hard to lose again. Standing there as one of the countless visitors, I hoped that Iceland would somehow find the balance between sanctuary and public spectacle.
A Fork On The RoadWe waited patiently in our tiny gap of the campground in Landmannalauger, fending off new arrivals like packs of baying wolves coveting our empty site. We kept watch on the horizon, uncharacteristically excited for the arrival of the daily tour buses from Reykjavik. One of those we hope carried my shipment from Vancouver, a new front fork and a laundry list of accessories.
Sure enough, the buses arrived, cresting the hills and forging the rivers leading into the park. I pushed through the crowds of fresh recruits, the well-informed lofting backpacks while others wrestled with shiny, rolling suitcases designed more for the foyer of a Shangri-La than the muddy trenches of a nature reserve.
As fate would have it, the bus bearing a license plate with “RJ” carried my spare parts. I believe in signs but this one was on the nose. I ran back through the maze of tents with wild excitement, thrusting the package into the air like a championship trophy.
Our campsite transformed into a mechanical, field hospital, tools and new instruments laid out neatly as we got to work rebuilding the front fork. Before long the Mukluk was good as new, up and running with its new appendage. The transplant felt like a new lease on life, I no longer had to cringe at every pothole, crater or steep downhill, I was free to ride.
The route leading from Landmannalauger to Holaskjor was a stunning masterpiece of rivers and rolling countryside basking in a golden light. Reflecting back, it was one of my favourite sections of our Highland journey. Perhaps exalted by a sense of relief from now riding on my newly convalesced Salsa, or inspired by our collective calm and latent feeling of accomplishment, allowing smiles and slacken shoulders to slip to the surface, so close to our final ambition. There were only a few more days of riding left in Iceland and all of us were soaking it in, relishing in what we had already accomplished.
We spent the day in search of an elusive trail overland but finally conceded defeat. The trail just didn’t exist. We retraced our tracks and rerouted through the village of Hrífunes.
With the winds howling and a storm gathering we indulged in the refuge of local guesthouse. They were full for the night but they offered up a sheltered part of their property to camp for the night. Their generosity, or pity as they eventually admitted, didn’t end there. They sat us down for a five-course dinner in the Scandinavian chic of their living and dining room, squeezed in before the scheduled meal for their paying guests.
We indulged, gorging on endless homemade dishes and in the blur of courses, beer and wine our host Elín balanced the phone to her ear and accepted a wedding proposal. Icelandic selflessness and hospitality knew no bounds.
The next morning, we put our heads down and trudged through the coastal headwinds to our symbolic finish line in the seaside town of Vik. Spoilt with so much backcountry terrain the smooth tarmac felt foreign and unnatural. I leaned in and gave my Mukluk a grateful pat on the torso. My trusty steed had miraculously endured despite amputations, so many wounds and battle scars, it had faithfully delivered me across the rugged highlands of Iceland.
Like Riding A Bicycle
Our final few days in Iceland were spent in rental cars, absorbing what we thought we had missed while traveling by bike.
The feeling was wrong and unnatural. I appreciated what I was seeing but it was somehow tainted, a blurred projection seen through a windshield that I couldn’t absorb or process, a study guide summary rather than the novel, ticking off highlights without appreciating the context and depth of character.
Surrounded by the crowds and caravans, I realized just how much I missed the bike. Or more, what the experience of bikepacking had to offer. We were suddenly part of an anxious dash to see as much as possible when in reality we weren’t seeing anything at all.
On the bike, every pebble and brook, every twist and turn, was intimate and relevant. The scale of a waterfall was exalted by the isolation of the interaction. Our day’s objective was subjective. Whether a farmer’s field or a famous monument, the result was always monumental because of the shared commitment of getting there.
Iceland was a magical place, a Goliath in experience despite its David in stature, not based just on the contours of the landscape but the depth of its soul. Like the volcanic source of its geological creation, the mystifying power of this place was at its core, seething below the surface. Iceland is certainly a place to see, but more importantly a place to absorb.