From San Francisco to Ísafjörður

Originally published in the Icelandic Mountain Bike Club’s (Fjallahjólaklúbburinn) yearly magazine

Only a week had passed since I finished my 11,000 kilometer ride across America and now I was assembling a new bike at the Keflavik International Airport to start another journey. A few months ago in late March, I had paused my great bike ride across America to shelter-in-place at my parent’s house in Texas for the pandemic. It feels like such a long time ago, now, but within those first few days of lockdown, I got an email announcing that I had been accepted into the Coastal Communities and Regional Development master’s program at the University Centre of the Westfjords. It was quite a relief to know the next steps my life would take after I risked it all and quit my job as a transportation engineer to bike around the perimeter of America, starting and ending in San Francisco. I had already successfully biked over five thousand kilometers from San Francisco to San Diego and then halfway across the country to Louisiana before the pandemic forced me to make the hard decision of taking some time off to figure out how to handle it. 

After sheltering-in-place for ten weeks, I didn’t have enough time or the weather window needed to complete my loop around America so I changed my route to ride from Texas to Minnesota, and then I would officially end my tour as a ride across America in Boston. My ride was now going to be completed during COVID, so I defaulted to riding and camping alone every night. I would no longer use the Warm Showers network I enjoyed so much before the pandemic and I would wear a mask in all public places, regardless of the lack of mask laws. My main priority was keeping myself safe. While there were some lonely nights, I got to experience my home country in ways I couldn’t imagine. Rivers and lakes became my showers and laundry machines and I had campsites all to myself. After 126 days on my bike, I successfully finished my ride in Boston on a Tuesday, and my flight to Iceland left at the end of the week.

My border screening COVID test came back negative, almost to my disbelief. While I had been careful riding across America, I still had seen a few friends and interacted with strangers in certain situations and there was still so much uncertainty about the virus. During that time in early August, Iceland introduced a new COVID process where a first test was required before leaving the airport, then a second test was administered five days later after quarantining. The quarantine regulations were still flexible enough to allow me to ride my bike to Ísafjörður as long as I limited my interactions, didn’t go to swimming pools, and wore a mask in public places when I had to go in. After I got my negative test result, my journey was on. The first day was designed to almost be a warm-up, in terms of distance. While I had ridden at least 100 kilometers a day in America, I knew I would have to scale back the distances in Iceland to take in my surroundings more and account for the possibility of extreme weather events. The first day was about 60 kilometers from the airport to Reykjavík . When I finished my ride across America, I said goodbye to my trusty Surly Long Haul Trucker and shipped it home to my parents. A new-to-me Specialized Rockhopper rigid mountain bike outfitted for touring with racks had been waiting for me in my friend’s Boston basement and it was all boxed and ready for the flight. I had everything setup in the Bike Pit at the airport and all that was left was to get air in my tires, but at that moment my mini-pump decided to seize up and no longer blow air. Even though the Bike Pit supplies pumps and tools, I couldn’t get any of them to work properly on my tires due to my stem being too short. After asking a few random strangers if they happened to have a bike pump in their cars (which of course they didn’t) some other tourers arrived at the Bike Pit and they let me borrow theirs. Appropriately masked, we made light conversation of our future journeys and I set out on my path.

I found a dirt road that paralleled the highway to avoid the cars for a little bit, and my new bike handled the bumps well. My panniers were still attached once I found the pavement again and I cruised on with confidence in my new rig. Before long, I could see Hallgrimskirkja on the horizon. Since I was moving to Ísafjörður for at least a year, I brought a few more things than could be carried on a bicycle and rode the first day with a backpack full of all the little things I needed to start my new life in Iceland, but not necessarily needed on a bike ride. I graciously accepted an offer from a classmate who offered to take my extra load and happened to be in Reykjavík at the same time that I was.

For the next five days, my journey would take me from Reykjavík to my new home in Ísafjörður. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but contrary to the shorts and t-shirts I wore in America, Iceland required a bit more protection from the elements. As I’ve learned, there isn’t bad weather in Iceland, just the wrong clothing. I had only used my full rain suit in America twice, but I had a feeling it was going to become my everyday uniform in Iceland. As I set off on my second day, I had to learn how to navigate the zippers of my raincoat with my thickest waterproof gloves and how to get out my phone without dropping it to take some pictures.

I originally planned a route starting on Route 1 to Route 60 and then taking Route 61 along Ísafjarðarjúp to the Westfjords. I hadn’t planned much other than I knew which roads I wanted to take and approximately where I wanted to camp each night. A few days before arriving in Iceland, I retraced my route to find that bikes weren’t allowed in Hvalfjarðargöng. The bike friendly route was to divert over 50 kilometers around Hvalfjorður. Given that this day was already planned to be at least 75 kilometers without the diversion, I decided I would try to hitchhike through the tunnel at a recommendation of someone who had done it successfully on an online blog, before COVID. With my thumb out, cars passed me while looking at me like I was crazy. After about thirty minutes, one person stopped to see if they could help but we decided their car was too small for my bike. Discouraged, I moved closer to the tunnel where cars could slow down and pull into a nearby parking lot so they could safely stop. After another thirty minutes, a man named Björn stopped and pulled a bike rack out of his car and invited me in. With my mask on we cruised through the tunnel, discussing where he was originally from in Iceland and my future plans in Ísafjörður. Within a few minutes we were on the other side. He dropped me off and I told him that I would let him know the next time I was in the area since of course I now owed him a coffee or beer for his helpful ride. I finished the day in Borgarnes after a long rainy day with surprisingly manageable wind.

The rain continued to come down on my tent until the next morning, and I broke down camp as soon as the drops started to slow down. The third day of biking showed me what Iceland weather could really be like. As I pedaled on, I had one of the most amazing tailwinds ever, which quickly transformed into learning how to ride with a lean to counteract the forces of the wind. Exhausted from this new riding position, a port-a-potty appeared on the side of the road and I escaped the elements long enough to eat a Clif Bar and regain the ability to think straight. As the road turned north I finished in Stykkishólmur with another tailwind.

At the recommendation of a local I met in passing the day before, I changed my route from biking all of the way to Ísafjörður to taking the ferry across Breiðafjörður Bay. It would save me a day of biking and I would get to bike through the middle of the Westfjords. One of the nice things about riding in Iceland is that it is a small country and lots of people visit to go bike touring. It’s inevitable that you’ll meet some other bicyclists along the way, no matter what route you take. After a morning of exploring the small village of Stykkishólmur, I boarded the ferry on a beautiful day with plenty of sun. As the ferry reached the small island of Flatey in the middle of Breiðafjörður Bay, four other bicyclists joined the boat. I had boarded at deck-level in Stykkishólmur but the departure at Brjanslaekur required me to carry my bike down a flight of stairs before stepping on to dry land. The other bicyclists and I helped each other out by grabbing each end of our bicycles. We learned that we were both heading to Flókalundur for the night, an easy five kilometers away. It had been over three months since I had ridden bikes with another person, let alone four of them! We cruised into Flókalundur to set up camp and nicknamed ourselves the “international gravy train” since I was from America, two were from Germany, one from Italy, and the other from Australia. 

I was struggling to sleep that night, as the wind had picked up and it seemed that it was trying to break my tent in half. When it gusted, my tent would almost collapse before springing back into place. It had changed directions at 1am in the morning and was now hitting the broad side of my tent and it was definitely going to break if I didn’t do anything about it. With my headlamp on, I needed to rotate it ninety degrees in 40 knot winds. As I took out the stakes, it felt like the wind was going to rip the tent out of my hands and throw it into the ocean. Luckily, I was able to get it securely fastened to the ground again and I managed to get a few hours of sleep. 

I awoke and the weather had turned to its worst and the wind was now pointing in my face and it was combined with freezing rain. The rest of the ‘international gravy train’ decided they were going to take the day off, but I couldn’t wait to get to my new home. I planned to go to Dynjandi and then see if I could bike any further than that for the day. As I climbed up the mountain pass, the fog rolled in and I was only able to see a few meters ahead of me. The rain turned the gravel road into a muddy playground and my wheels threw it all over my bags and myself. Maybe I should have invested in fenders. As I climbed higher and higher, more and more exhausted by the headwind, I thought I had reached the top, only to be disappointed to find another hill at the bottom of each downhill.  Finally, I began the long descent to Dynjandi as the sky opened up to show one of the most beautiful sights of nature I had ever seen. The sunlight reflected golden green colors off the mountains and I could start to hear the waterfall. I arrived completely exhausted but found that the wash closets were open and heated. I took my food bag in and ate every granola bar I hadn’t yet. I stayed in the bathroom for at least an hour before I regained enough strength to try and hike to the waterfall. My first attempt was unsuccessful so I went back to the wash closet to warm up some more. My second attempt worked but I knew that it was a sign that I should call it a night. I was the only tent there, since camping is only allowed for bikers and hikers. It had easily been the hardest day I had ever experienced on a bike.

It’s hard to describe the last day of my ride home. For one, it was the final day of a journey that was over 8 months in the making. I had left San Francisco on January 18, 2020, and I was now arriving to a small community in the Westfjords on August 8, 2020. While it isn’t a long period by measure of time, a lot had changed in the world and in myself, since I left my then home. The world was experiencing its first major pandemic since the 1918 Spanish Flu, George Floyd was murdered on the streets of Minneapolis, and President Trump continued to deceive Americans that he had COVID under control. My ride across America and Iceland allowed me to experience countries in ways that I had always dreamed of, but it seemed trivial compared to what the rest of the world was experiencing. I had somehow managed to have a little bit of good luck and a strong support network that kept me going. I climbed up and over Hrafnseyrarheiði , descending to Þingeyri before refuelling with a double cheeseburger and coffee. Gemlufallsheiði came and went. As I entered Önundarfjörður, I thought I had the biggest climb of my Icelandic tour awaiting me over the last mountain before Ísafjörður appeared. As I continued to climb, I found a tunnel that didn’t have a ‘No Bikes’ sign. As I turned on my lights and entered it, the road turned downhill and I was steadily on my way. Ísafjörður came into view on the other side as tears streamed down my face. I had made it home.   

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