Ok, disclosure time. I didn’t really cycle very much in Iceland. I took a hire bike out for five hours and cycled around a few Reykjavik suburbs. But I at least got a taste, a hint of what cycling around Iceland might be like.
I can also say with some certainty that Iceland is a country very much geared-up for cycle tourists, and the outdoor life in general. The roads are in great condition, there is a country-wide map showing not only cycle routes and facilities, but towns with cycle shops and even, in the smaller towns (which is most of them) whether there is a ‘cycle repair enthusiast’ who will help you out. Cute, huh?
In my short time in the country – a week in mid-July – I also see way more cycle tourists than I expected to. Obviously July, with its midnight sun, flowers in full bloom and relatively mild temperatures, is the time to do it.
The terrain is surely going to be pretty challenging though – this is a mountainous, craggy place – and the weather, especially the wind, could make life hard work, but the rewards are likely to be many: incredible scenery, vast skies and millions of acres of pure wilderness to name just three.
So, to my humble cycle trip. I hire a bike from the City Campsite, itself an impressive example of how to do campsites properly, and set off. My first stop is at The Raven’s Nest recycled house, which is exactly as it sounds – a house made entirely from recycled (or ‘up-cycled’ in 2015 hipster-speak) materials. It’s an impressive sight and a great start to the day.
Next I head to the city centre via the coastal cycle path, passing the ever-impressive Harpa building on the way, and on to a suburb called Seltjarnarnes, where there are lots of buildings like the picture below. Sadly, you can’t really imagine a British tower block being adorned in a bird mural.
Alas, it quickly becomes clear that there’s not much here – claims that the world’s biggest pub is in this neighbourhood turn out to be false. Instead, I head south towards the wonderfully named suburb of Hafnarfjourdur.
Passing the local city airport, my first stop is Pearlan, a restaurant on top of a hill with great views of the airport, Reykjavik city and the surrounding snow-capped hills. Apparently the top floor of the restaurant rotates, if you’re loaded and that way inclined, but for everyone else you can just hop in the lift to the 6th floor for some fine, free views.
I continue on, and one thing is already becoming clear. Icelanders really don’t like to cycle on the roads. It’s just not the done thing, at least not in the suburbs. Almost every main road has an accompanying footpath/cycle track running nearby, but often not that nearby. There’s so much space here, after all.
This makes navigation tricky as often the cycle path is winding its way all over the place, and it’s hard to know which of several possible paths to take. It also means that when you put in the distance to your location in Google Maps or whatever (I’m using Maps.me again, it still rocks!), you probably need to add an extra km or two to account for all the extra bends.
When I do cycle on the road, I notice a sense of surprise among the drivers, ie: ‘what on earth do you think you’re doing?’ The cars also pass by much closer than in other countries. So, perhaps paradoxically, by taking cycles off the roads Iceland has made it more dangerous for cyclists when they do go on the roads, because drivers aren’t used to them being there. An interesting one for the ‘Go Dutch’ campaigners to consider…
The suburbs are pretty extensive, but never dull because the quality of the architecture, and the ‘quality’ of the neighbourhoods in general, is constantly surprising. There’s no litter, the air is clean, there’s not much graffiti, even the new-builds look beautiful, and there’s an outdoor hot-spring heated pool in every other street; it’s weird for someone used to the grime and the grit of London.
The people seem happy enough, but after a while you do start to wonder where the excitement, where the edge is coming from. Maybe you don’t need edginess in a place where, until a few decades ago, just surviving was hard enough.
Hafnarfjourdur is a sleepy little fishing town, with not too much going as far as I can tell. There are supposed to be some ‘attractions’ here, but unfortunately I left my ‘Big Map’ back at the apartment, so I don’t have much chance of seeking them out. So on I pedal.
Eventually, heading inland, I break out from small-town suburbia into the countryside, and onto a winding country road that has no side-path, just a bridleway for horse-riding, which means I HAVE EVERY RIGHT TO CYCLE ON THE ROAD! So I do. And it’s great.
The countryside is mostly covered in a wild purple flower, giving an effect similar to a heath in full colour, with a backdrop of snowy mountains in the distance. For a while, it’s pretty stunning.
But I only have five hours on the bike, so it’s back to the city I head, coming full circle at a petrol station where I stop to refuel on a hot dog (an Icelandic speciality, don’t ya know) which I eat sitting on a bench in front of a fountain fashioned into the shape of a young boy wrestling with a fish (the water spurting out of its mouth). Only in Iceland…
It’s been an enjoyable 30-35km ride around Icelandic suburbia, and has definitely made me keen to cycle tour this country properly – maybe next summer…? It would be cool to hear from anyone who has already!
PS. One thing I forgot to pack was sunscreen, but you’ll definitely need it here. Although it’s not hot, the sun is strong and the wind is constant. Also I think maybe there’s less atmosphere and ozone layer up here to protect you from the sun, so you *will* burn without it!