When his plans to race Ireland’s 2,500-kilometer-long TransAtlantic Way bikepacking race were foiled by Covid travel restrictions, former VeloNews managing editor and Fast Talk Labs cofounder Chris Case hatched a plan: Circumnavigate Iceland on a mix of gravel tracks and dirt and paved backroads, avoiding the famed Ring Road as much as possible.
He built a route he dubbed “Alt Ring Iceland,” which stretched approximately 2,200 kilometers around the perimeter of the island. The intent was to take in as many alternative roads as he could find, which involved scouring several maps, reading and researching online, and looking for telltale signs of interesting terrain (i.e. switchbacks, close contour lines, and steep grades).
He then found someone crazy and fit enough to join him — experienced long-distance cyclist Matt Roy. Roy has raced Paris-Brest-Paris, TransAtlantic Way, and countless brevets and other ultra-cycling events. He was once a pro mechanic most famous for wrenching for his wife, Mo Bruno Roy.
Once the pair arrived in Iceland, they built their bikes in “The Pit,” a small, purpose-built facility for building bikes on site. They set off from Keflavik airport on a route they estimated would take 13 days.
Follow along on their journey below.
Chris’s (right) and Matt’s bikes lean against a bridge over one of the hundreds of rivers in the volcanic desert interior of the country, known as the Highlands. Each bike weighed about 47 pounds, fully loaded with water and food. Chris rode a titanium Mosaic GT-1 AR, and Matt was on a titanium Seven Evergreen.
On day 1, the pair set off from Keflavik airport outside Reykjavik, hugging the southwest coast on a series of backroads. Day 2 would be their first foray into the Highlands, eventually climbing into the Mælifellssandur (“black sand desert”) on a collection of increasingly rugged gravel tracks, surrounded by the Myrdalsjökull glacier and ancient volcanoes.
Despite the great distances they hoped to cover each day, Chris and Matt made a pact: If either of them asked, “Should we stop and take a longer look?” that was their cue—it was worth slowing down or getting off their bikes to appreciate the beauty they were witnessing. Here Matt gazes upward at a picturesque waterfall, one of hundreds they would ultimately see along the route.
The Highlands might be a stark, black rock desert, but the area is also laced with hundreds of rivers, some of which rage and others which trickle. Matt scans the horizon to take in the vast, rugged beauty and locate the track among the rocks and rubble.
Many of the rivers lack bridge crossings, which can mean wading through bone-chilling waters.
While they weren’t aware at the time, day 2 would prove to be one of the most eventful days of Alt Ring Iceland, in no small part because of the dust storm the pair encountered. They had seen a dusty cloud rising in the distance for hours, but couldn’t quite figure out what it was: venting geyser, the rising mists of a waterfall, volcanic ash? Eventually, and rather suddenly, they became well aware of what it was, and how the Mælifellssandur got its name. At the peak of the storm, visibility dropped to some 20 feet. The entire storm laid down a fine layer of fresh sand on the already sandy track, making it nearly impossible to ride. For over an hour, they struggled mightily to make forward progress. Then, almost as suddenly, it was gone.
What happens when you ride your bike through a dust storm? Not much really. You get a little dirty. You launch a few curse words into the wind. Chris found himself cackling with laughter: “I suppose there was a bit of fear but mostly it was from a love of the absurd.” Only after they made it out alive did Matt and Chris fully grasp what they’d just experienced: a Mad Max hellscape trying to consume them.
In Iceland the locals like to say, “If you don’t like the weather right now, wait five minutes.” The same could be said about the scenery; drastic changes were around nearly every corner. No more than five miles from the heart of the black desert, this scene appeared.
Since Iceland sits so close to the Arctic Circle, summer days are filled with continual daylight. And without any impetus to set up camp before darkness fell, Chris and Matt would often ride into the night. Along the southeastern coast, they reached the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon around 10 p.m., where the icebergs glistened against the black sands of Breiðamerkursandur.
In the remote northeast of Iceland, Matt climbs to Hellisheiði Eystri, 644 meters (2,112ft) above sea level. Its 15 switchbacks on the northern approach are easily visible on most maps of the country. Because of that, when Chris learned it was also one of the steepest climbs in Iceland, it was an easy target to add to the route.
Remember that saying about the changing weather? As they climbed the northern side of Hellisheiði, even though it was nearly 9 p.m., the pair shed layers under the sun. However, as they rolled down the steep southern flank, the mists rose and they donned every layer they brought as they rode into the low ceiling of clouds.
At every opportunity, the pair took the less beaten track. This took hours of scouring maps and websites, occasional conversations with locals, relying on intuition, and a simple love of curiosity. Just outside of the popular Goðafoss waterfall area, Matt rides a double track that sliced through farmland.
If you hate waterfalls, don’t visit Iceland. You’ll be extremely unhappy. Most of the waterfalls Chris and Matt came across were devoid of signage, parking lots, or any tourist infrastructure. That is to say, they had them all to themselves. Eventually, because they couldn’t put a name to a fall, they started referring to them as “Crappy Waterfall #873” and so on.
Iceland isn’t all waterfalls and sea cliffs. It is, in fact, an island in the North Atlantic with few trees to block you from a relentless wind. That wind is always—always—a head wind. And when you find a giant dumpster in the middle of nowhere—the middle of nowhere—or a roadside ditch, you take the opportunity to hide, if only for a few minutes. On several occasions, the pair dealt with 30mph sustained headwinds, with gusts to 45mph, for several hours at a time. Their motto became: “There are no easy miles in Iceland.”
Matt takes in the stunning views of the Tröllaskagi peninsula, in the far north of Iceland.
Another day, another waterfall on another climb, this one called Brattabrekka in West Iceland.
Near the end of the final big day of the trip, at mile 95 for the day, Chris and Matt had to haul their 47-pound bikes up Nesjavallavegur, a 2-mile, 20-percent climb, into a vicious 30mph wind. It was a fitting way to cap off an unbelievably beautiful and relentlessly challenging adventure.
The sun never truly sets on adventures like these. The memories remain. The stories grow more elaborate with each telling. Ultimately, one adventure begets the next. And, hopefully, this adventure inspires some element of your next adventure.
Chris and Matt used a spot tracking device to indicate their whereabouts. The red lines indicate the potential routes they uploaded before they left, and the 2,080-kilometer route they completed in 12 days is shown in black. (Their last day included a trip to Reykjavik for a Covid test, then the completion of the loop to Keflavik airport). They averaged nearly 175 kilometers and 10 hours of riding per day. “I would be lying if I said there weren’t some moments of discomfort during Alt Ring Iceland,” Chris says. “For example, there was that little dust storm in the black desert, which got a little challenging. There were other times when we’d race to a town after 12 or more hours of hard riding only to find the only thing open was the gas station, which only offered what we affectionately dubbed ‘garbage foods.’ But we took it in stride, laughed it off, and made sure we kept things in perspective. It might make for better stories when it seems like we’re ‘suffering’ out there. But it’s all a choice, and our discomfort is nothing compared to how most people live every day. We were simply lucky to be able to ride around Iceland on our own terms.”
So long for now.