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Viking cycling: Unexpected paradise

White sand beaches, jagged peaks, lush archipelagos? This is Northern Norway, an unexpected cycling paradise.

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It’s stage 1 of the Arctic Race of Norway, and I have a decision to make. I could sit in the pressroom in the small town of Harstad, on the island of Hinnøya and watch the early goings of the race, or I could take a quick trip into the wilderness, and be back for the finish in time. Trondenes Church, the world’s northernmost surviving medieval church, is just a 20-minute walk from the pressroom. And based on what I’m seeing on TV, that’s just the start of what’s on offer.

Sheer, 4,000-foot peaks shoot up right out of translucent turquoise water along the coast, and around every bend in the road, the peloton rides past another scene straight out of a fantasy novel. At a little over 210 kilometers, it’s a relatively long stage, and after watching the opening 30km, my mind is made up. I live and breathe professional bike racing, but this is Viking territory, and who knows when I’ll be back?

Trondenes Church sits just feet from the ocean, a short hike away from Norse burial mounds in a cove that faces east toward more islands and, beyond them, the mainland. The church’s whitewashed stonewalls and red roof pop against the deep green, verdant surroundings.

While Norway’s scenic beauty may not be breaking news, the climate here defies expectation. Thanks to the unusual moderating effects of ocean currents in the North Atlantic, winter isn’t actually all that chilly here compared to the northern United States. At midnight in the dead of winter, it is often colder in Chicago than in Tromsø, Norway, the largest city in the region.

Spared the blistering cold in the wintertime (and with a healthy dose of precipitation year-round), the landscape of Northern Norway is lush in the summertime, with abundant vegetation providing a stark contrast to the perennially snow-white groundcover one might expect at this latitude. On this August day, the weather outside the pressroom is balmy.

Two hours after my walking tour, I’m hustling back to the finish in time to see Alexander Kristoff edge out fellow Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen for the win. It’s an impressive sight, watching these two stars go head-to-head in front of a crowd of jubilant home fans, but I have to admit that I can’t stop thinking about that trek through the Norwegian hinterland, and the wonder of discovering it all alone without another living soul in sight.

Northern Norway, officially comprising the country’s three northernmost counties of Nordland, Troms, and Finnmark, offers a setting that stands out even in a country known for its natural beauty. The region is roughly the size of Ohio but with a population of less than half a million spread amongst the mainland and several coastal islands. Much of the area is untouched wilderness, and the mountains and fjords that dominate the sparse landscape offer perhaps the most spectacular scenery in Scandinavia.

“Everything is a bit bigger there than what you’re used to,” says August Jensen, two-time King of the Mountains in the Arctic Race. Jensen hails from Bodø, one of Northern Norway’s largest towns with a population of around 50,000.

Most of the region sits above the Arctic Circle. With the right timing (visit between May and July), you can enjoy 24 hours of sunlight. Even in August, when a contingent of cycling pros drops by to ride the Arctic Race, the sky never gets all that dark at night.

“It’s quite fun because people that visit Northern Norway tend to not want to sleep, because it’s so beautiful and the sun is up all night,” says Haaken Michael Christensen, a tourism specialist for Innovation Norway, a government-owned company tasked with, among other things, promoting travel to the country. That’s an accurate characterization of my own experience in the region. It isn’t easy to close the hotel blinds and force yourself to sleep when the sky is painted with orange-red light at 2 a.m.

Given the landscape and perpetual summertime daylight, Northern Norway seems like an obvious haven for adventure tourism, but things are only just starting to take off here. “I remember in about 2008, ’09, when I was riding as an amateur up there, there were not a lot of races,” Jensen says. “Not a lot of culture for bike riding. I was the only youth doing it. I think with the Tour de France on TV2, the national channel, it’s getting more and more popular. We have riders like Alexander Kristoff and Edvald [Boasson Hagen], which helps a lot, and Thor Hushovd, when he won the world championship.”

Indeed, so many fans line the roads at the Arctic Race, it’s easy to forget just how relatively undiscovered the area really is. But as the Arctic Race broadcasts images of some of cycling’s top names riding through the Norwegian hinterland, a wider audience is getting exposed to the region’s potential.

“The impression that people have of Northern Norway — that it’s cold, it’s icy, it’s snowy, you have polar bears walking around — will be changed when people see the pictures of white beaches, green forests, and high mountains,” Christensen says.

Given how seemingly remote Northern Norway is, those who do decide to make the trip will find it all surprisingly easy. While none of the towns are big, they’re plentiful and welcoming, and the islands are connected by bridges and robust ferry service, making for ideal bike touring. Norway is among the world’s most highly developed countries, meaning even out in the country, the roads are in relatively good condition.

As such, there are numerous places to stop and eat the local cuisine (salmon, wild sheep, and reindeer are popular) and also to stay the night. Riders can plan to start their journey in one of the larger “cities” — Tromsø, Bodø, Harstad, or Narvik, for instance — and then take it day by day, pedaling from town to town.

Fully loaded touring is certainly a possibility, and there are indeed many places to spend the night under the stars in a tent. But camping out is not a necessity.

“It’s just the last couple of years really that we started to develop infrastructure — the hotels and restaurants — to be able to accommodate riders in a proper way,” Christensen says. “So you could say that it’s still an unexploited beauty. For people who want to explore and feel that they are doing something new, something that not so many others have done before, Norway is the place to go now, before too many people get their eyes opened to it.”

After four days of following the peloton, I have only 24 hours left before I board a flight back to the States. One final day to explore.

I rent a bike in the town of Svolvær and head out to explore the Lofoten archipelago, a string of islands that looks like a finger pointing westward toward Iceland. Svolvær serves as a hub for excursions in Lofoten and, in some ways, reminds me of a (very) small resort town in New England, with stores, restaurants, and a few hotels. There are numerous smaller villages every few miles along the coast.

A cycling path runs parallel to the main road in this part of Lofoten, a welcome feature as the roads themselves are not particularly wide. It’s nice to be able to ride without worrying about cars when so much of my focus is directed at taking in the sights. Still, compared to what I’m used to back in the States, car traffic isn’t so bad.

Further contributing to the pleasure of the experience is the easy terrain in Lofoten. The relatively flat main roads along the coast bisect the water and the mountains instead of actually ascending the climbs. Therefore, this is one of many places in Northern Norway where the less alpine-inclined cyclist can experience a breathtaking new vista around every corner without having to face any tough gradients.

It’s one of the most memorable takeaways from my cycling experience in the area. Being able to enjoy the view without having to earn it is a guilty pleasure unlike any other I’ve experienced on a bike, and for the traveler more interested in scenery than suffering, there are miles and miles of flatter coastal roads that still offer staggering views. A particularly useful amenity for those looking for a relaxed coastal trip is the Hurtigruten transport service, which offers riders the freedom to island hop on passenger ships, making travel from one fishing village to the next even easier.

That’s not to say there aren’t mountains to climb. The diverse topography means that most riders will be able to find something that suits their style in Northern Norway. While long alpine ascents are hard to come by, there are many places where the road rises skyward.

Whatever you’re after, a willingness to go it alone comes in handy in this part of the world. Given the nascent tourism scene, it is the sort of place that caters to those who prefer self-guided rides.

“You have reindeer running along the roads; you can go a hundred kilometers without seeing a house,” Jensen says. “It seems like the only place that people have even touched the ground is the road you’re riding on.”