Like a game of football, it was a game of two halves. First, one of the most beautiful days on a bike I’ve ever had. Then, one of the most savage.
I’m out in Iceland, heading from the south coast into the Laugavegur mountains, on a two day loop on Lauf’s new True Grit gravel bike. Why Iceland? Two reasons: Lauf is based there, so that makes logistics a hell of a lot easier when you can grab a bike out of its Reykjavik office, and because the roads and scenery in Iceland are, almost, out of this world.
The first day would be a 70-ish kilometer ride up into the Highlands of Iceland, from the fertile, flat plains that surround the Southern coast, up into the hills and then mountains. Surrounded by lava flows, multi-coloured hills covered in ochre and black rocks and vibrant green moss, and alongside steaming geothermally heated streams, our route was exclusively on dirt.
Day two was projected to be just under 60km, following a similar theme – sweeping roads through the mountains, longer climbs and 15 or so river crossings.
The bike is Lauf’s new gravel bike – its long, low and slack geometry, and clean boss-free lines mark it out as a race bike, rather than one built for the rigours of touring and adventure riding.
Up front is the firm's unique leaf-sprung Grit suspension fork with 30mm of travel, while it rolls on 40mm tyres, driven along by a SRAM 1x drivetrain. On the loose, mottled surface of the Icelandic interior, the friction-free Grit fork takes away both the high-frequency buzz of the gravel and the immediate shock of un-seen chunks of lava that litter the road.
Back to the football match. Day one was bliss. With clear skies the colours of the hills and vegetation was popping, while the rivers we rode through had that glittering look we’re more accustomed to seeing in alpine regions.
The roads are relatively smooth for the most part, but every now and again we come across steeper, rockier stretches. With the surface varying between volcanic gravel and sand, it’s wise to stick to the established vehicle tracks in the road – stray into the middle or towards the verges and very quickly the softer, looser surface becomes a wheel-eating trap, ready to steal speed and grab the front wheel when you try to steer out of it. 40mm tyres help, but at times, more flotation wouldn’t be a bad thing.
While we spend most of our time in wide river valleys, the road twists and turns, popping you out into wild volcanic rock formations, threading a sinuous track between lava stacks. Riding in small groups we’re able to make good time – aided no end by having a generally following wind pushing us along – it’s amongst the easiest block of riding I’ve done; even the hills are substantially less painful than they rightfully should have been.
Along our route we have a convoy of 4x4s following us, including a rather fancy Volkswagen T6, recently modified with raised suspension and burly wheels. Watching these vehicles negotiate the roads is almost as enjoyable as riding the roads ourselves, especially when the deeper river crossings are involved. They served a purpose, though – well, they actually served lunch, which was a rather well earned BBQ and beer as we take a relaxed hour to enjoy the surroundings.
Post-lunch, the pace certainly wasn’t up where it had been before, but then we also found ourselves climbing more and more. Fortunately, we’d broken the back of the day, so with a final sprint finish we found ourselves at our lodgings for the night. More beer and BBQs followed, along with a quick drive to a thermal poor for a soak.
Soak? How apt – on day two we got soaked again, but in a far less pleasant way.
We’d been warned before we left that the weather was due to turn, but as is the way with weather forecasts, they all vary, and are rarely accurate.
This time, though, they hit it spot on the nose. Before we’d left the hut we could hear the wind howling round the mountains. A small group of hikers trudged up the hill behind us, caped head to toe in waterproof gear.
I layered up in knee length Sealskinz, winter-spec tights, a base layer, waterproof and neoprene gloves and just got stuck in.
There was no choice but to work in groups, taking turns to feel the full force of the wind, constantly above 40mph, frequently gusting to 60mph. Heads down, the groups inevitably splintered – some of us were better on the flat, some better on the hills.
The headwind made forward motion at times nigh on impossible. One minute you’d be over the left side of the track, the next you’d have been blown all the way over to the verge on the right. At one point on a steep climb out of a river crossing I found myself pointing right back downhill towards the river, as the wind took my front wheel from the side and literally spun me round. It was savage.
At a number of points during the day I found myself off the bike and pushing. One little slip up and your momentum is lost, so it’s just easier to push until the wind drops, or the hills offer a touch of cover from the gusts.
The rain was as relentless as the wind. I’ve ridden before when the rain hitting your face stings, but I’ve never felt that sting through a jacket and base layer, such was the force of this wind.
During the early river crossings I tried to keep my feet dry – ratchet pedalling through them to try to prevent the water splashing up above my waterproof sock line. After a couple of hours and half a dozen rivers, the battle was lost, though – I definitely had wet feet.
From then on it was open season across the rivers – either as fast as possible to carry momentum through their flow, or just off the bike, trudging across. It was cold, but this meant there was plenty of impetus to just keep going.
While we took our time on day one, day two was just heads down as long as you could face the conditions. A quickly munched Mars Bar, while sheltering behind a truck was as much nutrition as I took on during the ride.
Over time people relented and bailed on the ride – it was cold, wet and windy, and frankly bloody hard going. My tipping point came, perhaps aptly, at Syðri–Ófæra - Southern Impassable River.
I had the van trailing me down the previous hill – one on which I had to downshift my gears in order to be able to keep pedalling – DOWN the hill… Beyond knee deep, the river was as far as I wanted to go. 10km was left planned, but only one guy, the CEO of Lauf, decided to push on.
I stripped to my tights and base layer, grabbed a thermos of coffee and a slug of Jagermeister, and pointed every heating vent in the van at me. I was done.
It was, undoubtedly, the hardest day on a bike I’ve ever done. My legs weren’t too tired, but mentally I was drained, and I was just about done with being blown around at the mercy of the wind.
Our journey out of the mountains the next day in the vehicles was just as eventful – rapidly rising water meant vehicles nearly floating down the rivers. Three of the four got stranded on an island in the middle of the Impassable River, meaning a convoy of trucks from Reykjavik had to be dispatched in order to get us all back.
Iceland has it all. Incredible weather, both beautiful and not, and amazing gravel riding – the roads themselves and the scenery to go with it. I would thoroughly recommend a trip out there with bikes – just make sure you pack some decent wet weather gear!