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When I began planning a stopover tour in Iceland between Canada and Scotland I imagined it happening late summer, but by the time I reached Nova Scotia it was already October. Even in Canada the nights were starting to get nippy and Iceland suddenly didn’t seem quite so appealing, so I considered skipping the island and heading straight back to the UK. Not for long, though. I often pretended to give myself a choice in these moments on my round-the-world cycle tour, when in reality my mind is always already made up - I'd pretty much always go for it - and it's the masochistic detours out of my comfort zone have forged the best, most memorable moments of my time on two wheels. Iceland turned out to be no exception.

I cycled into Reykjavik from the airport in a dream-state, pedalling on zero hours sleep from the night-time flight. The air was cold and wet and the sun seemed to take an eternity to rise. The landscape was barren and mountains beckoned in the distance. The cars hummed as they drove past me, winter tyres already fitted. I probably should have guess that a country with ‘ice’ in the name might get a slippery so close to winter but it was a long time since I’d seen any snow and I was feeling relaxed about my ride around the island.

After a week pedalling the remote Westfjords I began to ride east along the Northern coast of Iceland. It had been wet, windy and the long nights in the tent had taken some getting used to but the temperatures had only hovered around freezing; I’d checked the weather charts before flying over and it seemed unlikely that I’d get much below zero. I had a shock when I saw the weather predictions for -15°C over the next few days…

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The first snow came in early November as I rode around the Trollaskagi peninsula, just a snowball’s throw from the Arctic Circle. I was less than a week from Seydisfjordur, where I was due to catch a boat to the Faroe Islands. Those final few days would be some of the toughest of my entire trip.

By now, all of the minor mountain roads had closed for the season. Only the main road leading east from Akureyri was open, but that wasn’t going to be a ride in the park. For 70 miles there was nothing but empty highlands and total exposure to the elements. Just to make things extra fun - a storm would accompany the drop in temperatures just as I’d be up in the most remote part of this road. Few cars were out after the weather warnings. I had much of the day to myself cycling slowly across empty white landscapes, snow shimmered all the way into the horizon. For once in Iceland the winds had dropped and I had the most extraordinary morning riding through a desolate, surreal, snowy world.

As the wind picked up over the course of the day, icicles started cementing to my beard. The temperature was down at -16C and everything was frozen solid - my bread was hard to cut and my tongue stuck to my pocketknife when I licked it. A large 4X4 pulled over and a couple of Icelandic guys got out to see if I was OK and warn me about the storm. They looked like they were kitted out to drive to the North Pole. I told them I knew it was incoming and that I planned to find a spot to camp out of the wind. They shook their heads and gave me a stern look - “You absolutely can not camp in this storm. A big blizzard is coming tonight” – and suggested I tried to reach the farm off the main road 25km away. Their anxiety was contagious and I was nervous about the turn in the weather. I promised to head there; it's worth listening to locals. The previous storm I’d cycled through in Iceland had been so violent that the winds had blown me straight off my bicycle and I’d had to hang on to a sign post at one point just so I could stand up. I didn’t fancy camping out in this one...

Riding my loaded touring bike on, it quickly became obvious that I’d never make the farm. It was getting dark and the winds were reducing me to walking pace. Just as I was starting to panic I saw a dark shape in the distance and walked my bike over to it. I’d stumbled upon the only man made shelter for 70 miles - an abandoned barn in the middle of nowhere. Hallelujah! I slipped inside and pitched my tent in the old hut. What a lucky break, literally. The whole building shook so badly in the storm that I could barely sleep but by first light it was only a few degrees below zero and the winds had relaxed enough to start riding again; clear skies and a blanket meant glorious scenery. I reached civilisation again that afternoon and from there it was one last push over the mountains to Seydisfjordur

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I think my favourite moment in Iceland was getting on that boat and leaving the island. Not because I hadn’t enjoyed it - on the contrary, I loved Iceland - but because I took a bit of a battering. But, sometimes you need a battering to learn that the best thing about stepping outside of your comfort zone is earning the cup of tea when you’re out the other side... 

Why are the best roads in the world always the toughest?

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CREDITS

Words

Jonathan Kambskarð-Bennett

Photos

Jonathan Kambskarð-Bennett

END
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