Soon (this evening in fact), I’ll be heading back to Iceland for a second time to explore more of its mountainous dirt roads by bike, and to learn more about that improbable, impossible and very thoroughly lovely country; that’s not to mention further research on the infinite variations of liquorice-based sweets to be found all over the place. Problem is, March is still wintertime in Iceland, and this trip is going to be a little different to last time… When we wree there in August and September 2014, we looked up at the icy bobble hat of Vatnajokull ice cap (Grimsvotn volcano is the bobble) from the black beaches of the south coast, and one of us asked idly whether it would be a good idea to come back with fatbikes when the Highlands were snowbound. Fast-forward a year and a half, and at some point one, or even both of us, must have thought it was wise to actually go and find out. Cycling isn’t big yet among Icelanders, although that may be changing pretty quickly, and information is sparse about road/snow conditions as far as cycling goes, especially in winter. It’s going to be full of new experiences for both of us, as we’re both very much used to looking after ourselves in winter conditions in the mountains here in Scotland, but fatbiking on unpredictable snow for extended periods could throw up plenty of surprises. That’s not to say though that winter cycle touring in Iceland hasn’t been successfully done before – Emily Chappell went to that neck of the woods a couple of winters ago and wrote about it on her blog.
A quick google turns up this excellent account of a winter trip by (predictably) some crazy Germans who seem to get off on riding bikes in cold, dark places to judge from the rest of their adventures. Well worth a perusal if you’ve ever said anything alomng the lines of “you know what, it’s a bit cold out for a ride today”:
Half the fun of a new adventure is playing around with new bits of kit, and to that end we owe a whole heap of thanks to some folks that have helped us to get this idea off the road when financial means are tight.
Charlie, of Charlie the Bikemonger, helped me to get my toes wrapped snugly in some of 45NRTH’s excellent Wolvhammer boots, and what’s more they’ll look excellent as part of my Halloween Judge Dredd outfit. They aren’t as bulky as I had expected, but they’re rated to -18 celsius, which as cold as we’re likely to encounter, and are still SPD compatible. I went for a size 44, one size larger than normal, and found them to be a roomy enough fit around the toes, even with thick socks, to prevent circulation loss and keep everything pink and defrosted down there.
An overnight test ride in the Cairngorms during a recent cold spell suggests that they’re comfortable to pedal in all day (I chose to stick with Hope’s F20 flats), and replacing the previous zipper system with a foolproof pull-cord and Velcro closure is a welcome way to take some faffing out of the system when it comes to putting them on and taking them off, which can only be a good thing in the confines of a chilly tent. Without a decent sole they would just be glorified disco slippers though, so I’m glad to see that there are some proper chunky knobbly bits down there, much more like my mountaineering boots than the slippery plastic blocks of most winter cycling shoes. I hope it doesn’t come to it, but extended periods walking or pushing the bikes in and around the Cairngorms were made easier by the ‘proper’ sole.
To my eye, they seem simple, tough and visibly well-made. The tops are high enough to keep snow out, and post-holing through semi-frozen Scottish bog has already confirmed that yes, they are definitely waterproof. With some stretches of the trip expected to involve up to a week of self-supported riding between warm, indoor places, wet and cold feet aren’t just unpleasant, they’re dangerous, so paired with a pair of vapour barrier socks I’m keen to see how well the Wolvhammer’s do.
What about bikes though? Neither Annie nor myself own a fatbike, which would have been something of a stumbling block if Bryan from Raleigh hadn’t come to the rescue in the form of a brace of gleaming adventure ponies bearing Chilli peppers on their headtubes. Salsa’s Blackborow is a chunky monkey indeed for (hopefully) floating on top of snow with those ginormous tyres, while the blue Beargrease that Annie will be riding is surprisingly light for an alloy frame shod with 4” tyres. In fact, both bikes surprised me with their lack of weight when lifting them out of the boxes, which may be down to the fact that I’m just unused to seeing fatbikes where low weight is given much consideration. It makes a hell of a difference to any bike’s ride qualities though, and a first ride on the Blackborow felt more nimble than some of the more portly steel fatbikes that I’ve tried. Both will be equipped with familiar Hope components and if Surly’s 5” Lou tyres can’t get enough grip, well then I’m happy to walk.
Andy and Rob at Backcountry Bikes have helped us out once again with some Revelate Designs pogies to add to our existing Revelate setups, and over the course of the trip I intend to find out what weight of chocolate raisins can successfully be stored inside them before anyone notices.
Accommodation will be taken care of by our now trusty Hilleberg Nammatj tent, which survived the worst winds that Patagonia could throw at it without so much as a twitch, although quick and efficient pitching on snow is going to be one of the main skills to continue practising on the journey.
Given the uncertain snow and weather conditions, plans are fast and loose until we set foot on volcanic Icelandic soil, but whatever happens we hope we’ll see some things and some stuff, and hopefully we’ll be able to recommend some of them. The main thing drawing us back to Iceland is not the riding, but the contrast between the bleak beauty of the landscape and the warmth of its people (and possibly hot springs). At any rate, check back at the end of April for some indication of whether the type 1 fun outweighed the types 2 and 3!