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North to Narvik

Athlyn & Tim spend two weeks cycle touring in Norway, riding north from Trondheim to Narvik through one of the most sparsely populated areas of Europe...

Tim and I started our ride at the beginning of July, a fortnight after the Solstice when the sun would dip below the horizon for around two hours each night. The further we rode, the more daylight we’d earn – an incomprehensible thought given that we crafted this plan at the height of British wintertime. But here we were, settling into our tiny bunk cabin on the train from Oslo to Trondheim, already excited by the fact that at almost 11pm, the sun was only just beginning to transform the sky above us as we ripped through the pine trees, speeding us towards the beginning of a two week adventure…

We knew little about the topography we’d be riding, the food we’d be eating, the spots we’d be camping out at, or even the exact route we’d be taking. We weren’t even sure that we’d make it onto the train we’d booked back at the end of our trip from Narvik to Stockholm, as the Swedish-operated service has a strict no bike policy. And if something went wrong en route and we wanted to catch a train back south, that wouldn’t be an option either; there are no train lines above the arctic circle. The only reason for the station so far north is to connect the world’s largest iron ore mine in Kiruna, Sweden to the closest unfrozen port during winter, which happens to be Narvik.

After two days of boats and trains, the real trip began as we clipped into our pedals in the tiny village of Vanvika just across Trondheimsfjord, and left all of our worries behind. This was it. We’d travelled two days to get to this point, and there was no turning back; the only way to head was north.

Soon enough, it felt like heading north also meant heading directly up every mountain in our path. I very quickly began to realise that my gearing might be a little inappropriate for this gargantuan landscape. Only a few kilometers into the trip – almost all of it spent riding behind Tim in my granny gear – my heart sunk. “I’m not sure I can keep doing this for two whole weeks”, I told him, feeling deflated. “Well, this is the plan…” Nonetheless, as we emerged out of the first valley to see a great road spill down the mountain in front of us, my heart skipped a beat – I remember feeling so small at that moment – the snow-dusted mountain range filled the entire skyline. Each peak was so striking – I stood there wondering if they had ever been climbed. That evening as we kipped in the tent, my thoughts turned to gratitude and excitement: we’ve got two whole weeks of this.

We’d chosen to avoid the E6 motorway, and instead ride up the Fv17 route, which skirted the inland fjords before curving out to the coast and up to Bodø where we’d catch the ferry to Lofoten. But after following signs for the road out of a small town, we found ourselves riding uphill through a vehicle-only tunnel, and we were spat out onto an entirely new route altogether. Stopping at the side of the road to catch our breath, we consulted the map and tried to work out how to rejoin the Fv17. I was frustrated about the prospect of having to ride through the tunnel again. Road tunnels in Norway are both a blessing and a curse – low visibility, freezing temperatures, lorries and a cacophony of ventilation for kilometres – but surfacing once again to see the mountain you’d avoided scaling often made things easier. In this case, I convinced Tim that we should press on and try to rejoin the main route further down – it was one of those ‘on your head be it’, moments. After riding for about ten minutes, however, we realised that this little mistake had turned out to be better than we could have ever imagined. Norway’s beauty was outdoing itself. A recently paved road meandered around rocky peaks, connected to every island by delicate suspension bridges. As we wound our way along the road, walls of trees and rock opened out onto vast blue lakes where little yellow and red cottages held fort on grassy outcrops, with only a rowboat and pulley connecting them to the rest of the world.

The trees were so still, the water so placid and the mountains so towering. We stopped for a long break at the side of a fjord, sitting in silence while we took it all in. The water was so tranquil, we skimmed stones across it just to watch it ripple, listening to the echo of our voices bounce until they left the valley completely. This was the Kystriksveien, or coastal route, a hidden treasure we would have missed had we followed our predetermined plans and not gone off-piste after the tunnel. And to top it off, there were hardly any cars.

Every so often, the road would just end at the water and we’d find a queue of a few caravan holidaymakers jostling to read a ferry timetable, pinned on a wooden hut. The rhythm of touring when you’re at the mercy of a ferry timetable is a funny thing. We’d wake up bright and early with the intention of clocking a good distance before lunch, only to wait two or three hours at a port – an odd experience when you could sometimes see the next stretch of road rising out of the fjord just a few kilometers across the water. But one look at the map for an alternative way around will have you waiting obediently… With daylight on our side, however, this wasn’t such a bad thing. It gave us the chance to rest, eat, swim or even nap for a while when the sun was at its hottest, and when we picked up the road again on the other side, we’d cycle – re-energised – into the late evening.

Throughout the trip, there was always a feeling of being at the mercy of something: the ferries, the weather, the sun and even the supermarkets. In our first week, we rode around 120 km every day, but we couldn’t really have done much less, given the distances between towns and shops. Plus, everything shuts down on Sunday and closes around six on a normal day, so the freeze-dried meals we’d packed for backup really came in handy when we lost track of time. While food is pretty pricey up north – we once spent 35 kr (£3.50) on a cucumber – we were tipped off by another tourer that supermarket dumpsters were always full of fresh food. And then there was BACONOST a squeezy cheese complete with bacon chunks that became part of our daily intake. At points I’d find Tim just squeezing Baconost directly into his mouth.

The 100 km ferry crossing from Bodø to Moskenes at the westernmost tip of Lofoten took around four hours, and it was the first time we’d been in a warm indoor space since our night train. We felt a bit rattled, rolling down the gangway that evening as we grappled with the strange feeling of leaving mainland Europe and suddenly finding ourselves at the end of the earth on a spit of land that was no more than two miles across. (Words won’t suffice – pop it in Google). To get our bearings, we decided to find a good spot for two nights of camping so we could take a well-earned rest day and explore the beauty of the fishing village of Hamnøya.

When it came to pitching up at the end of a day, finding the perfect spot became Tim’s obsession. I’d be ready to fall asleep just about anywhere, but he wouldn’t rest until we’d found paradise for the night – we’d take detours down dirt tracks, clamber over boulders, traipse through thick forests or carry our laden bikes across streams in order to seek out the best spot. Even in a country where you can camp wherever you like, the feeling of waking up without another soul around is worth the extra effort. The first night on Lofoten didn’t disappoint – we shared our spot with a sea otter and seal, who played in the waves just off shore as we cooked over an open fire.

After clocking around 780km into the first six days of our trip, we only had to ride an average of 60km per day from the tip of Lofoten to reach Narvik on time. We had hoped to take another few rest days on the archipelago and ride long distances on the days in between. But things didn’t quite work out that way, as it seemed all of Norway’s bad weather had found its way to us. Up until this point, we’d been sunbathing every lunch break and scoffing ice lollies at every supermarket. But after the first night on Lofoten, the clouds blew in and we faced the Nordic weather we’d been trying not to think about for the whole trip; the mood certainly changed at that point. Our eyes became fixed to the ground, watching for big puddles and to keep the rain off our faces. A determined grind to the next ferry until we both decided it would be sensible at this point to find the nearest campsite for a warm shower and a place to dry our kit out for another day in the rain. Other than swims in the sea, we hadn’t properly washed in a while so common sense prevailed.

About half way along Lofoten’s spine, we decided to take another rest, pitching up in the middle of a pine forest for a bit of extra shelter. We spent the day warming ourselves up by a huge fire in a reconstructed longhouse at the Lofotr Viking Museum. It was also one of the few times we had access to wifi en route, which also meant being reconnected with the news that Boris Johnson had been made foreign secretary. We were happy to leave the museum, and disconnect ourselves again after that…

The last few days of our trip were spent winding our way along the archipelago and back to the mainland, inching closer to the end of our journey, and real life. The initial struggle with my lack of gears was no longer a worry and I started to really enjoy riding the climbs. The weather eased up and we spent time focusing on the things that had made the trip so enjoyable – finding great camping spots, lunchtime swims and delicious meals.

And so when the time came that we finally rolled into Narvik with a day and a half to spare, our arrival was less ceremonious than we had anticipated. We stood – perplexed – outside of a shopping centre. Was this it? Had we reached our end point? Deciding we had, we rolled further into town and paid £15 for two cold pints outside the only open bar we could find. Now finding ourselves in the formality of real life once again, we felt grubby and out of place amongst the locals, and so opted to spend one last night outdoors before checking into a hotel for the final night. Locking our bikes up outside the library, we filled two panniers with the tent, sleeping bags and a few bottles of beer, before taking the cable car up the mountain above town. Our hasty and inattentive packing felt so unceremonious compared to the care we’d taken when touring. Disembarking the gondola at the top, we avoided the hustle of the tourist-filled restaurant, and began our final adventure of the trip – climbing to the peak of a mountain just 100m shorter than Ben Nevis, wearing our basic campsite footwear.

After laying out the tent for our final night in the wild, we sat and surveyed the landscape that had been ours to explore for the past two weeks – we had hardly made a dent. As the sun momentarily hid behind the peaks across the fjord, it created an orange glow that highlighted every bug and blossom in the air. As we got ready to zip ourselves into the tent one last time, I realised that this was the first time I’d stayed awake long enough to see the midnight sun in all its glory.

Norway, we’ll be back.