Around Norway, part 1

Part 1 of 4 in the series Around Norway

tl;dr: I rode a bike-packing event covering pretty much the whole of sub-arctic Norway. The 3,400 km route took in Norway’s most iconic scenery and demanded payment in kind. I bike-packed my way to the end in 9 days, 8 hours, 43 minutes.

Some highlights:

  • 📈 Lots of climbing
  • ⛴ Inconvenient ferry timetables
  • 😰 A 1,000 m switchback descent, including a 1 km tunnel with a 10% hairpin inside it… that had to be climbed again afterwards
  • ⛽️ Extortionate petrol station food
  • 🚏 Camping in bus shelters
  • 🪦 Camping in graveyards
  • 🥵 Unbearable heat
  • 🥶 Unbearable cold
  • 🎭 Plentiful mood swings
  • 🏔 The most beautiful mountain scenery I’ve ever seen

This was a long ride and this is going to be a long write-up – long enough to merit several instalments. Riding so far is a complex experience and I’m not really sure how to capture the whole thing in a blog post, so we’ll see how this goes.

Day 1: how it started

It started at 14:00 on Friday 31st July outside Oslo’s town hall. There weren’t many of us there – 8 people with bikes, the organiser, and a few hangers on. We received the briefing and then just milled around with some nonchalant chatter that seemed a bit futile and inappropriate given the circumstances. I don’t know about the others, but my outward calm was belying the mild panic inside me about what I was about to embark on.

I’ve done “long” rides before – in the 1,000 km ballpark – and I’ve never found them to be easy (maybe this is not surprising). From experience I know that I will always have low moments and that I will always, at some point, want to quit. I tend to dwell on this in anticipation, which really doesn’t help me get to the the start line. Still, I managed to conquer this dread enough to play it cool in the interviews unexpectedly conducted before the start by YouTuber and bike-packer Matthew Norway, and with that done we were off.

But really, this whole ordeal adventure started several months earlier when I entered. Back then, with the pandemic in full swing and Norway’s borders impermeable, it wasn’t at all clear whether it would even go ahead. So it wasn’t until late June, when Norway announced its intention to admit vaccinated travellers, that I actually set about planning in earnest.

For something so far outside my comfort zone, the planning is the true start of the event. From this point on it becomes a great big cloud of anxiety that hangs over me all the way to the start line, sometimes raining on me, sometimes moving aside for the sun – my mood vacillating between excitement and terror. I did my best to research, plan, and prepare in good time, but that month before the start date was not a relaxing one.

So when we finally rolled away from the town hall at 14:00, it was a relief that the thing was at last underway, that there was no turning back, that I could now just focus on the task of turning the pedals. As we filed out of Oslo, through endless conurbation (well, 50 km of it), my thoughts turned to the journey ahead.

The itinerary for day 1 was simply to get over Gaustatoppen – the first of three passes over 1,200 m, and site of the infamous Norseman triathlon – before nightfall. This meant covering around 200 km in a little over 8 hours, which is not a sustainable pace for a 3,400 km ride. But with a lot of rain forecast, I didn’t want to go over that pass at night, where it could get dangerously cold. I wanted to be down in the Rjukan valley on the other side.

What I was going to do when I got there… well, I wasn’t really sure. I knew that some others would be riding through the night (in fact I think all of them did), but I don’t like night riding and with so many days and nights ahead of me I was worried about the effect it might have on me further down the line. As it happened, I was thoroughly drenched by the time I crested Gaustatoppen and desperate for the dryness and comfort of a cabin in the campsite up the road from Rjukan – to hell with getting ahead overnight.

With the temperature up top a balmy 4°C, the 1,000 m descent into the valley below turned me into a human ice cube and I was shaking so violently from the cold that I was actually worried at times I might throw myself off the bike. I reached the campsite at 22:00, 15 minutes after the reception closed, leaving me with two options: use the adjacent bus shelter, or keep on going.

I chose the bus shelter. I still think that maaaybe I should’ve pushed on, but it worked out OK in the end. I’d had the forethought to bring some sleeping clothes (base layer top and underwear) that I could change into if I got really wet. I had a very comfortable 3 hours’ sleep in my sleeping bag, ending painfully at 02:00 when my alarm went off and I crawled out of my sleeping bag and back into my still-wet lycra to continue the “adventure”.

Gaustatoppen after the rain – what a view!

Days 2 & 3: getting into the zone

By this point I was feeling mostly positive about the ride to come, but having left Oslo so recently – Miranda and I had had a mini-holiday there beforehand – I was still missing the comfort and familiarity of what had come before. I kept thinking back to the nice times we’d had zipping around on scooters strolling along the waterfront in the sun, chilling in coffee shops, and eating our weight in cinnamon buns. I had to try hard to keep my mind on the here and now.

In all the long events I’d done up to this point, these feelings had tended to stick to me all the way through. Yes, the events were long, but not quite long enough to forget everything, and the end was always just close enough that it was all I could think about.

However, over the next few days I found that these memories of normal life started to fade – or at least seem less relevant. The end was far away and out of sight, and I had so many things to anticipate and look forward to in the meantime that I was able to accept the reality of my new life as a nomad on a bike.

My first night spent in a bus shelter also gave me a new-found confidence in my sleeping strategy and helped me to compartmentalise the ride into day-long chunks. I knew now that even when wet and cold I could look forward to a comfortable night’s sleep at the end of each day, just as long as I could find a basic roof to sleep under.

Waking up in a bus shelter after about 4 hours’ sleep

The coming days would take me to Lysebotn, over many scenic mountain passes, around beautiful fjords, and up to Bergen.

Lysebotn was the biggest item on my mental agenda for the first half of the race, sticking conspicuously out from the rest of the route as a spur that had to be ridden out-and-back (see Strava below). The village itself lies at the end of Lysefjord and is only accessible by one road – the one that drops 1,000 m directly down the side of the mountain, through a series of 30 steep switchbacks. If you look closely at the map, you’ll see a strange section near the bottom of the road where it seems to go into the mountain. Yep, one of the switchbacks is actually inside a 1 km tunnel.

The switchbacks of Lysebotn – image credit: Martin Schmidt, Norwegen-Service

The descent was one of the most thrilling and unique I’ve ever done on a bike – and made me realise that I’d forgotten to bring a spare set of brake pads with me. It reminded me of Mallorca’s Sa Calobra, only it’s much steeper and the switchbacks are continuous, one after another, all the way to the bottom. Just like at Sa Calobra, the fun was tempered by the knowledge that I would have to turn around at the bottom and immediately go right back up again. The descent took 10 minutes; the ascent 2 hours.

Looking down Lysefjord, just before beginning the climb

While every rider was carrying a GPS tracker, enabling the noble sport of dot-watching, I’d resolved early on not to look at the tracker – instead relying on my remote support vehicle loving partner Miranda to tell me when my tracker battery was low. Since an ultra-race is essentially an individual time trial, I figured that others’ paces shouldn’t matter, and I didn’t want to spook myself and mess up my own pacing by thinking about where I was on the road in relation to them.

I did know that one other rider – Kai – was ahead of me, and that gave me some motivation to keep pushing, whether or not I would eventually catch him. The out-and-back nature of the Lysebotn spur, however, meant that we passed each other as he was finishing the climb and I was about to start the descent, and I was able to time the gap between us: three hours. That’s OK, I thought. There’s still 2,500 km of road ahead of us. I pushed on.

Keep reading: Around Norway, part 2: ferries, mountains, and bus shelters

The day draws to a close over Haukelivegen
Speeding toward Lysebotn

If it’s not on Strava, it didn’t happen


3 thoughts on “Around Norway, part 1

  1. Matthew says:

    You seemed relaxed and confident doing the unexpected interview before the start. But I understand now the anxiety of day 1 and how much was going through your mind. In addition, leaving at 14:00 put all of you in a difficult situation – getting over the first mountain pass before night. You did remarkable well, it’s a tough and long road up to Gaustatoppen! I think three hour rest was a good choice considering the weather and pressure of day 1. Look forward to the next installment!

  2. Pingback: The Unknown Race | Will Vousden

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *