On 10 June 2010, Peter Downey and his brother-in-law, Nick Strugnell, started a 15 day, 1363 kilometre (847 mile) bicycle tour of the Ring Road around Iceland to raise money for Reach, a UK-based charity that supports children with upper limb deficiencies. When he had recovered, he told us about it.
I was keen on doing a trip that was more extreme than what you would do in the UK; we wanted somewhere that was difficult and an adventure. I had wanted somewhere hotter and sunnier than Iceland, but Nick had been a couple of times and thought it would be a good place to cycle.
The trip took 15 days. We took a tent but only managed to use it once. We stayed pretty much everywhere, from a tin hut on a mountainside to a four-star hotel. It was just what came up at the right place and the right time for us, because we weren’t sure how far we would get each day.
We knew it would be windy, but it was a shock how it slowed us down and how hard it made the trip. On the second day we were riding uphill in a headwind. Normally when you get to the top you get to freewheel down, but we had to peddle downhill because it was so windy. That was slightly soul destroying at the time, but looking back, it was kind of fun.
The terrain in itself isn’t particularly challenging; it’s the weather and remoteness that make it harder. It’s just so empty compared to everywhere else I’ve ridden. We did 110 kilometres (about 70 miles) through lava fields. Initially that’s great, but then after seven or eight hours it can make you a little crazy. Also the scenery is so massive a car passes you and you finally see it disappear into the distance ten minutes later.
This would be a great trip to do in a car. The Ring Road is good almost everywhere, and in the few sections that were unpaved, you could see the highways agency working on a detour.
We had some really fantastic experiences. By and large, Icelanders are reasonably reserved, but once they learned what we were doing they were really helpful and kind.
My overriding memory for kindness was from some Austrian mountain bikers. We had just gone down a really scary, windy, dirt road and slept in a mountain hut and used up our emergency rations. The next day we didn’t manage to stop and get some food and so we really needed some by the end of the day. We rolled into a campsite with just some noodles. The only other people there were these Austrian bikers. They gave us food and beer, and even did our washing up for us!
We passed some beautiful places. We stayed at Lake Mývatn and saw the geysers and mud fields nearby. One of the most beautiful things we saw was the glacial lagoon. And there were many waterfalls—massive, powerful ones and pretty, high ones.
The volcano was impressive. We could see it in the distance, and the scale of it was mindboggling. All you could see were those big mud flats and you knew they were there because this torrent of water had just come from the volcano. Seeing how quickly this was dealt with was impressive. The road agency just dug away a section of the Ring Road so the floods wouldn’t wash away too much.
On the other hand, the ash cloud was quite scary for us. It was a big cloud and it was very scary and menacing to ride into. As you got into it you could see there were green fields but now there was just ash everywhere. For us, what was scary about it was not knowing because you didn’t know how bad it was going to get and when it would end. We were wearing close fitting sunglasses and different masks so we resembled Lawrence of Arabia and Hannibal Lector riding together.
Raising money for charity was very positive. The charity Reach supports children by getting them to meet each other and share experiences. We just thought we could help a bit, but it turns out we are their major fundraiser for the year. We’re at 9,500 pounds but we’re hoping to get to 10,000.
Anyone thinking of doing a similar trip should be prepared for the remoteness. Make sure you have enough food with you; buy it whenever you see it. It’s not inaccessible, but there is always a day where there is a long stretch of nothing, so you must have something in reserve. Plan where you can stop and make sure it’s a place where you can find food and a place to sleep.
Overall it was a really positive experience. It made people think we’re a bit crazy. Maybe we were—but it doesn’t really feel like it.
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