Iceland may be the 21st century’s most famous tourism success story, but most visitors never make it to the Westfjords — cyclists included.
The remote northwestern corner of Iceland is its least inhabited and most dramatic. Shaped by wind, water, snow, and ice, the Westfjords are home to wily weather and even wilier residents (7,000 of them). Vibrant villages and family farms are tucked into the terrain, and people share the landscape with puffins, arctic foxes, seals, and whales.
Last summer, adventure photographer Chris Burkard, ultra-endurance cyclist Lael Wilcox, photojournalist Rue Kaladyte, endurance cyclist Payson McElveen, and mountain biker Nichole Baker set off to scout a bikepacking route around the Westfjords with the help of the local tourism office. The route they mapped, 960km of paved and gravel roads, is now the foundation of the Arna Westfjords Way Challenge, a four-day stage race that debuted in late June.
The race is unique by virtue of its location but in other ways, as well. In order to finish the race, riders are required to make two cultural connections per stage. A cultural connection may include stopping at a hot pool or museum, or eating local fare.
Additionally, the fourth stage of the race begins at midnight, so that riders can truly experience the season of the midnight sun.
This year’s edition was capped at 100 participants, and 10 slots were reserved for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color) athletes.
Welcome to the Westfjords Way Challenge.
The race begins in Ísafjörður — which literally means ice fjord — the largest settlement on the peninsula.
Stage 1 is 158 miles with 7,500 feet of climbing and is 11 percent unpaved.
Wind is the name of the game in the landscape of long meandering fjords.
During one cultural connection, this family – and their many pets — greeted riders at Hólar Farm. A photo with the family or an animal was proof of the visit.
Most everyone stopped to snuggle a dog or two, and there were homemade cakes on hand, as well.
Lael Wilcox took a moment for a jump.
A rare straightaway
Iconic Icelandic horses
Riders always have the option to visit more than two cultural connections per stage — and the time they spend there is deducted from the total race time.
Each stage has a recommended start/end time, but it’s up to riders to decide what time they start and how long they spend at each stop.
The race is partially supported. Meals are provided at the end of each stage, but there are no aid stations and all riders should be experienced and responsible backcountry travelers.
Roadside hot pots are a highlight of traveling in Iceland.
Flats, as anywhere, are not.
Services, of any kind, are limited in the Westfjords. There is one bike shop in Ísafjörður, and the race provides a mobile service station available at the end of each stage. Otherwise, there are no options for servicing your bike between stage start and end points.
Waffles and jam are … the jam.
The gravel and elevation pick up in stage 2, which measures 152 miles with 7,725 feet of climbing and is 30 percent unpaved.
Most hot pools and hot pots in Iceland are free or or ask for donations (collected either digitally or in a jar).
Which, we agree, is very exciting.
Stage 3 is big: 154 miles, 9,050 feet of climbing, and 30 percent unpaved.
All riders are required to purchase and provide proof of carbon offsets for flights to and from Iceland. These can be purchased through IcelandAir which plants trees throughout Iceland. Other carbon offset programs are accepted at the discretion of the race.
A 3AM snack during stage 4, which starts at midnight.
Saving the best — and biggest — for last: stage 4 clocks in at 132 miles, 14,734 feet of climbing, and is 65 percent unpaved.
You can find snow in the mountains all year round in Iceland, especially the shadowy sides in the fjords.
Riders walked through 30 meters of snow on the last mountain pass before finishing in Ísafjörður.
Riders had 24 hours to complete each stage; 20 hours was the longest single push, when a rider came in at 7AM after riding from the morning before.
Stage 4 brought riders past the iconic Dynjandi waterfall, where where Fisherman served fish cakes to all who chose to stop.
A truly international men’s podium: Matthew Paez of the United States, Arnþór Gústavsson from Iceland, and Thomas Skov Jensen of Denmark.
And the lovely ladies: Hannah Simon and Lael Wilcox, both of the U.S., and Canadian Maghalie Rochette.
Ed note: Rochette recorded a daily podcast during the event and you can find the collection here.