Biking in Iceland - Tips

An extract taken from the content I wrote for www.bikinginiceland.com:

TIPS

A few simple do's and don'ts to make your biking in Iceland easier. For more detailed tips, check out the following categories:

  • Kit

  • Landscape
  • Roads & Maps
  • Weather
  • People & Language
  • Accommodation
  • Food & Drink
  • Money

DO...

...carry spare parts with you

...expect stunning, nowhere-else-in-the-world scenery

...give yourself a month if you're going to do the whole Circle Road

...expect the weather to change in mid-sentence

...ask for help if you need it; Icelanders are friendly

...book ahead if you want to sleep anywhere other than a campsite

...expect eating out to be expensive

...bring your credit card, cash is sometimes unwelcome

DON'T...

...bring your racing bike; you won't be comfortable and nor will the bike

...expect to freewheel downhill

...rely on your map (things change)

...forget your waterproofs in the summer

...expect to pronounce anything other than “hallo” correctly (unless you're Icelandic, of course)

...look for cheap accommodation (apart from campsites there isn't any)

...forget to stock up on food when on the road

...dwell on the cost, look at the scenery


KIT

The key question is: bring your own bike (which you know and love like the back of your hand) or rent one (which avoids entrusting your pride and joy to the baggage-handlers)? Only you can answer that, obviously, but if you're thinking of bringing your own, consider the following factors:

  • Iceland's roads, weather and landscape are tough.

  • Your bike will need to be in top shape for the challenge.

  • However tough you and your bike are, there will be damage to repair.

  • Outside Reykjavik, Iceland does not abound with bike repair shops.

  • So you will need to carry a number of spare parts.

If you decide to go with a rental, don't expect to just walk in and hire a bike. Plan and book ahead the same as you would your flight. Check our Bikes section for options.

As for clothing, check the section on Climate before you pack. Even in summer, you'll be wise to come equipped with hat, gloves, Goretex jacket, etc. The sunlight can be sharp, so eyewear is recommended.

Also, if you're going to be fording freezing rivers in the interior, you might want to consider some neoprene shoes like those worn by surfers. Whatever you do, don't try fording in bare feet; numbing water and sharp stone riverbeds are not a good combination.

A helmet is not required by law for adults (15 and over) but if you're riding rough, it might be a wise idea.


LANDSCAPE

OK, here's the geography lesson.

Iceland is 103,000km2 in size (that's 39,000 square miles) and is partly inside the Arctic Circle. Having erupted from the sea just 20 million years ago, Iceland is the youngest country in the world. The landscape is volcanic and mountainous and the ecology is still fragile. Roughly 12% of the island is covered by glaciers and in some regions you will feel as if you're biking on the moon. With fjords on the north and east coasts, plains to the south and uninhabited highlands in the interior, expect the scenery to change with each bend in the road. Nowhere else in the world is quite like it.

If you want to fully experience the lava fields and glaciers, you need to explore the interior highlands. But be warned, you'll definitely need that mountain bike. The roads are mainly gravel at best. They are closed during the winter and are opened during May and June (often by bulldozer, leaving a flat but soft surface which can be treacherous for biking). Many rivers in the interior are still unbridged. When fording, carry the bike. Bearings may be sealed, that doesn't mean that they're waterproof and the glacial run-off contains all sorts of suspended grit and dirt that will scupper your means of transport.


ROADS & MAPS

The main (and best) road in Iceland is the circle road that – you guessed it – is circular. It's 1,339 kilometres long (that's 832 miles) and you ride on the right hand side. Traffic tends to be light which is just as well because much of the road has no shoulder on which to take refuge in the face of approaching cars. Around 98% of the circle road is asphalt and is fine for a regular touring bike.

During the peak season buses run at least daily along all main roads. If you get stuck or just don't want to spend a month riding the entire circle road, the bus will take your bike for an extra fee if space is available.

As mentioned earlier, the roads across the interior highlands are closed until May/June and are pretty rough – gravel rather than asphalt – and tend to be a test of your endurance.

As for maps, there are plenty available. Ferðakort produce a variety of maps based on Iceland's National Land Survey: from 1:250,000 regional maps to a 1:500,000 touring map of the whole country to a 1:200,000 road atlas. Take your pick.


WEATHER

OK, first here's the 'official' information but bear in mind that the weather in Iceland is fickle to say the least and can change at the drop of a pannier.

Due to the Gulf Stream, Iceland's climate is relatively mild for it's latitude. Summers are short, making late May to early September the best time to visit. Although that depends what you're visiting for. If you want more extreme conditions, Iceland can provide them.

The average daytime summer temperature around the coast is 10-12°C (50-55°F) with around 5-6 hours of sunshine a day. Summer nights are bright and it is possible to experience 24 hours of daylight.

Sounds idyllic, doesn't it? But, as we said, it's changeable. And unpredictable. And has been known to snow in August. Expect the unexpected and you won't go far wrong. Always check the weather forecast. You can get it by phone 902-0600 or if your phone has no signal, try asking a local. As you might imagine, Icelanders are devoted to the weather forecast.

Now, on to the wind. Iceland is the land of headwinds. By some strange meteorological quirk, the wind is always against you. No matter which way you take the circle road, clockwise or anti-clockwise, you should expect to have to pedal downhill at times.

And, when it rains (which it does, often) the constant wind means that the rain comes straight at you. None of this rain falling straight down nonsense. In Iceland, a 45 degree angle is usually the best you can hope for.

Of course, there are also days of blue skies and sunshine; really, really bright and low sunshine. Because due to the high latitude, the sun (like the rain) tends to come straight at you. Don't forget those sunglasses.


PEOPLE and LANGUAGE

Icelanders are friendly. True, they have a reputation for not smiling much. Or saying much. But they are friendly and if you're lost and need directions they are happy to help and will take pleasure in doing so.

So don't be put off by the brooding façade. The average Icelander may be a touch reserved but if you want to open up a conversation, try the weather. Given the national obsession, you're guaranteed a response. Or perhaps some compliments about the beauty of Iceland? Icelanders are a patriotic lot and like to hear a visitor's appreciation.

At least they'll be able to understand you. Pretty much everyone speaks at least some English. That said, it may help to know a few biking terms in Icelandic, even if the pronunciation defeats you and you have to resort to writing them down, so here you go; have fun!:

ball-bearings - kúlulega

bicycle / bike - reiðhjól

brake - brems

cable - leiðsla

chain - kedja

chainwheel - tannhjól

derailleur - skiptir

fork - gaffal

front-light - ljós

gear - gírskipting

handlebars - stýri

luggage-carrier, rack - bögglaberi

nut - ró

pannier - taska

pedal - fótstig

pump - loftdæla

saddle - söðull

screw - skrúfa

spoke - hjólteinn

tire - dekk

tube / innertube - slanga

valve - ventill


ACCOMMODATION

There's plenty of places to stay in Iceland – hotels, guesthouses, farmhouses, youth hostels, campsites – but little of it is cheap. Check our Accomodation site for details.

In fact, the only cheap accommodation will be the tent that you bring with you. Iceland boasts around 150 campsites (most villages have one). They are usually just somewhere to pitch and provide toilet facilities and cold water. Don't expect to book in at some sort of Reception; usually someone will come round in the morning and collect the camping fees.

Apart from some protected areas (e.g. the National Parks) you can camp pretty much anywhere that isn't fenced-off so long as you leave no litter or damage behind you. That said, if you believe it to be privately-owned land, ask permission first.


FOOD & DRINK

If you've travelled elsewhere in Europe, you probably won't find the eating and drinking in Iceland particularly exotic. Quite 'normal' in fact; except for the prices which – depending on where you're from – may be seem extortionate.

If you're in the city, then cheaper fare may be had by ordering the 'meal of the day' in one of the cafés. But let's be honest, you're not here to parade up and down Laugavegur in Reykjavik. You're here to bike your way round some of the most fascinatingly brutal terrain in the Northern Hemisphere. So, you're more likely to eating in hostels, service stations or over your camp stove.

Certainly when you're on the road, it's worth keeping a day or two's food in stock. Village shops and service stations will be your most common sources and there are no hard and fast rules regarding opening hours and the less 'tourist-y' the area is, the earlier the shop is likely to shut. On weekends, the service stations are probably your best and only bet. Be careful you're not left hungry!

For CIY (Cook-It-Yourself), the service stations and some local shops will sell replacement Camping-Gaz and Primus cartridges for your stove.

Once again, just to make the interior highlands even more attractive to the die-hard enthusiast, there are no shops so you must carry enough food for the crossing.


MONEY

The currency is the króna and like many it has been up and down during the last couple of years' global banking crisis. Things are improving, but there's no avoiding the fact that many visitors will find Iceland expensive. Do your best to think of the incredible scenery and the unique experience that you are enjoying and take the expense in your stride.

Some say Iceland is heading towards a cashless economy. Well, it's not there yet, but certainly Mastercard and Visa cards are accepted everywhere – even in taxis – and are used even for small transactions. In fact, cash may even be frowned upon, especially if you are renting something.


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