Lysebotn and the rest of day 3 were my first real taste of the Norwegian mountains and the day was a taxing one. By mid-afternoon I’d come down off the high ground and into a headwind on the Rv9 toward Haukeli. My energy was leaving me and I was feeling like I wasn’t going to last much longer. Thirsty, exhausted, and craving fresh food, I pulled up to a grocery shop in Valle for a break.
This was the first slump I’d had and I felt pretty rubbish about it. You’re supposed to just keep pedalling, right? And I was stopping just because I couldn’t face it? That’s not a good look. Well, I’m sure it’ll get better, but right now I need that bottle of pear juice in the fridge.
Obeying my cravings, I walked out of the shop with an apple, a yoghurt, a litre of pear juice, several bottles of water, an armful of pastries, and a much lighter wallet. There wasn’t a lot of fresh stuff to be had here, so it was the best of a bad bunch.
I ate the apple in a couple of bites, downed the yoghurt, and then tried to get through as much of the pear juice as I could while sitting on a bench in the wind feeling sorry for myself. After about 15 minutes I abandoned the dregs and hauled myself back onto the bike. Time to go.
Once I was underway again I started to feel a bit better, despite the road ramping up again, and as the sun swung lower I found my energy returning. I remembered a comment from Emily Chappell in her book Where There’s a Will – that the body is not a battery, gradually depleting until empty, but something far more complex that has its own unpredictable ups and downs, much like your state of mind. Or something like that. She put it far better than I could, so go and read the book. Besides, there’s something about the title that appeals to me.
Day 4: the field thins
The following day was the fourth since leaving Oslo, and the route led me around Hardangerfjord in the direction of Bergen. From here on into the ride, the weather was almost entirely good – so good that I almost felt cheated not to be experiencing the real Norway. Almost.
Either way, spending the day riding along the side of the fjord in brilliant sunshine made a nice change from the relentless mountain terrain of the day before.
By this point I was truly desperate for fresh food. I’d been subsisting off nuts, pastries, and “bolle” bread (a type of cardamom-spiced roll ubiquitous across Scandinavia) and I needed something more. How it hurt, then, to find that the road around Hardangerfjord was crowded for a good 100 km with fresh fruit stands from the orchards lining the hillsides along the shores of the fjord. The only means of payment were cash (almost unheard of in Norway) and Vipps (which requires a Norwegian bank account). I would’ve sold my soul for a box of fresh cherries, but sadly they did not accept this payment method.
Nutrition is something I think I’ve more-or-less nailed in my long-distance adventures, but finding “real” food is always a challenge. It didn’t help that Miranda was staying with her family and had been sending me regular photographic updates of her bacon-and-egg breakfasts and her mum’s delicious home-cooked dinners 🙄
What delight, then, when I got to Bergen. I was struggling up an unreasonably steep hill on the way into the town with my pain face on when I noticed a shifty-looking man standing at the top of the hill. As I got closer, he started taking photos of me. Erm? And then he started shouting my name.
Turns out he’d been dot-watching and had come out to support the riders as they passed through. He ushered me over to his car, where he had a bunch of goodies for me, including Snickers, a banana, Coke, cinnamon rolls. But it got better. “So, real food!” he said, and asked me what I wanted from the supermarket nearby. I was taken by surprise, and the craving I had at that moment was for a fruit smoothie, so he ran off to the shop and came back with a selection of smoothies, milkshakes, and other bits and pieces, and instructed me simply to take whatever I wanted and leave whatever I didn’t. (This would actually be prohibited under the rules of most ultra-races, but this year’s edition made no such stipulations!)
His name was Tor Frithjof and he’s a member of Randonneurs Norge. As a veteran of long-distance cycling, he knew exactly how I was feeling.
It’s a lonely kind of existence, ultra-distance cycling. You’re entirely alone in the world – both on the road and in your head. You see other people around you, going about their business, but their every-day is so far removed from yours that they might as well be on a different planet. Sure, you might interact with people every now and then when you walk into a shop, but of course they cannot understand what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. You learn to keep quiet about it, to avoid the gawping disbelief as you’re reclassified as some kind of alien.
So to be greeted like this by Tor was huge – it’s difficult to overstate how much it means to meet someone who’s been there. Someone who gets it. I hope that one day I can be that person, and help some other lonely soul through their travails. (Tor, if you’re reading this: thank you!)
Tor gave me an update on what was happening elsewhere on the road, and I learned that Alex and Jan had scratched in Flekkefjord a couple of days earlier, and that I had passed Kai a few hours ago and was now in the lead. While I was sad to hear of the abandons, my encounter with Tor launched me off into the night, toward the first ferry terminal, with renewed purpose. I was hoping that Kai would remain in the game, and that we’d have a good fight for leadership over the rest of the course.
Days 5 & 6: ferries, mountains, and solitude
I’d overnighted at the Leirvåg ferry terminal. The ride from Bergen the night before had got colder and colder, and when I arrived just after 01:00 it was 5°C and I was borderline hypothermic. When I found that the waiting room was both unlocked and heated, there was no doubt about where I was sleeping. But this presented certain problems in the morning.
With the waiting room lights on and several cars waiting outside for the first departure of the day, I was more conspicuous than I would’ve liked when the time came to change out of my sleeping underwear and into my lycra. I put on a nice show for the onlookers, trying in vain to minimise the indignity by hiding behind my bike.
With a few minutes to spare before the ferry arrived, I did some dot-watching. I was sad to see that Kai had not caught up, but had scratched at Bergen due to achilles problems. This left me quite alone at the front of the race, with a gap of several hundred kilometres between me and the next rider. With 2,000 km still to go I prepared myself for a lonely ride over the remainder of the route.
Day 5 was an interesting one because of the timing challenges it posed. There were 3 ferries to catch in the space of a couple of hundred kilometres, each with its own timetable.
The problem was the second ferry, which departed only every 4 hours. This meant that in order not to lose a lot of time, I had to get the first ferry, from Leirvåg, on its first departure of the day at 06:15, and then pedal hard to get from there to the next one from Rutledal at 08:40, 34 km down the road. By the time I’d stepped off the second ferry it was already 09:00. This put a pretty hard limit on how far I could get that day. After 286 km, my shortest day, I set up camp in a bus shelter in Fortun at the foot of the 1,400 m climb over the Sognefjellsvegen.
The ferries gave a welcome break to the breathless pursuit of forward motion. I was able to take care of a few important admin tasks like
posting updates to Strava scouting ahead for places to sleep and trying to book my return flight from Oslo (painful to do with a bike reservation). They also served to “neutralise” the ride to some extent, since anyone arriving within the same 24 hour period would probably end up on the same ferry. Although in my case, it was only me.
Waking at the usual 03:30 the next day, I set off up the mountain to Sognefjellet. Day 6 would deliver most of the route’s headline mountains, including Sognefjellet, Geiranger, and Trollstigen. With so much to see and so much climbing to do, motivation was a simple matter – my mind was pretty well occupied the whole way through.
The temperatures changes on the route, and particularly this stage, had been a nightmare. Coming down off the high mountain passes, where it was often below 5°C, you’d be travelling at 60 km/h or more for perhaps 10 minutes, with no opportunity to put any power down or generate any heat. So you layer up, put your jacket and cold weather gloves on, and then you hit the next climb and have to take it all off again.
All this was made worse by the northerly direction the route: every climb was south-facing (in the sun), while every descent was north-facing (in the shade). So as I descended off Sognefjellet from 1,400 m, at 4°C, I was fully layered up. A few hours later I was taking a shower under a waterfall to cool off after climbing out of Geiranger.
The last effort of the day was the one that really stuck in my mind. I didn’t know what Trollstigen – the troll path – was before I got there, but I do now.
From the elevation profile I knew it was going to be a slog – a long, 850 m one – and at the end of the day I wasn’t super keen. But at least I could look forward to a fast descent on the other side.
When I crested, though, I started to wish the route had taken me over the top in the other direction. The descent was fast, technical, and great fun. I managed to pass a few cars and campers on the way down, so as not to be held up, but… the views! The road zigzagged its way down the head of the valley, flanked by towering walls of rock, themselves dominated by the surrounding peaks. The scale seemed all distorted: the waterfalls bisecting the valley walls were diminutive trickles when viewed from the top, but became thundering deluges as I got closer. I felt like an ant in a cathedral.
The weather at this point was grey and moody with layered cloud cover and a threat of rain. If you ask me, the best kind of weather for this barren terrain. These landscapes were forged in a harsh, unforgiving climate and it’s right and proper that they be experienced in it too, the brooding sky complementing the treeless, primordial mountains below.
It was a shame, then, that it was over so quickly, and that I had so precious little time to glance up from the next switchback and actually take it all in. I think Trollstigen is best done from the north, climbing this imposing glacial valley at a more civilised pace and then flying down the long, gradual slope on the other side.
With Trollstigen checked off and some welcome flat ground ahead of me, I continued into the night toward my designated bus shelter.
The bus stop bivvy
By this point I’d really got the hang of the bus shelter bivvy. At the beginning of the day I’d look 350 km up the road on RideWithGPS and see what sort of accommodation I could find, by switching to Google Maps and searching for “bus stop”. I’d then use Street View to scout out the candidates and see what sort of shelter they offered, if any, and plan my day accordingly, with the finalists marked on my map for reference.
Of course, this works best when you’re in a country that (a) has reasonable 4G coverage and (b) doesn’t have a complicated relationship with privacy that makes it the only country in Europe without Street View. But this blog post isn’t about Germany.
Anyway, the advantage of this approach for me is quite simply the independence. I don’t have to talk to other humans who don’t understand my predicament or worry about closing times, but I still get a target to aim for and the security of knowing where I will sleep that night. The best of both worlds.
Consequently, I’m happy to report that I’m now intimately familiar with all the designs and layouts of bus shelter that Norway has to offer. Some little more than a roof, others impregnable fortresses against the cruel Norwegian weather (of which I mercifully saw little).
Of course, most of the time you don’t get to choose your bus shelter; you just make do with what’s available where you need to stop. I was especially heartbroken when I passed the Haukelifjell Skisenter on day three. This bus stop had 4 walls, glazed windows, benches, ample space for the bike, and a door. But it was only 20:00, clearly too early to stop, so I had to forego this luxury and carry on into the night toward the wooden shack I’d chosen that morning. Ultra-cyclists can’t be choosers.
Keep reading: Around Norway, part 3: the long road home