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Biking in Iceland

Bob Forgrave

When you first step outside Keflavik airport in Rejkyavik, the first thing you’ll see is Iceland’s commitment to cycling in this gorgeous country with sometimes challenging weather–a glass building devoted entirely to helping cyclists recombobulate after getting their luggage from baggage, their bike from oversize baggage, and who knows what else.

Bike pit

THAT’S a bike Icelandic welcome!

welcome messages

Inside, in addition to a pumping station and lots of bike tools on cables, are messages just for adventure cyclists.

This is where things start to get weird…

bad weather

 . . . in a very Icelandic way.   Icelanders are delightfully direct . . .

big winds

. . . and keen observers of nature. 

While we didn’t cycle personally on this trip with friends, we did heed similar warnings at the car rental place about what the combination of high winds and volcanic sand does to car paint, and got the extra car insurance. So is this next cyclist welcome realistic or just Icelandic humor?

icelandic humor
Not knowing is part of the fun. Welcome to the many adventures of Iceland.

You may be thinking at this moment, “What??? Why would we even visit this place?” 

A picture says a thousand words. Here’s our love letter to Iceland.

How we fell in love with Iceland

Honestly, we came for the waterfalls–26 of them just on one 10-mile hike. If that’s all we saw and photographed, it would be a win.

Iceland waterfall

And see them we did, snapping pictures everywhere we looked, even the “unofficial” waterfalls.

But somewhere along the line, the other beauties of Iceland started to come into focus… 

another waterfall

…from the fields of Lupine that grow so big in the long Icelandic days, along with just about every other plant . . .

dangerous waterfall

To the raw beauty of the rugged volcanic terrain, as rivers churn powerfully through it.

iceland scenery

Sometimes, we went out to photograph waterfalls and were captivated by something else entirely in the background.

basalt columns

Even gorgeous green and blue rivers could be upstaged by the unique grandeur of their own riverbanks.

icelandic cave

Through the rocks themselves, we began to see Iceland in a whole new way.

caves of hella iceland

In the Caves of Hella, for example, we learned that Icelanders are 57% Irish, due to their ancient Celtic heritage, which has recently surprised even many Icelanders!

flowers in rocks

And among the rocks everywhere, constantly exposed to wind and rain, we saw life not just hanging on, but thriving.

split rock

In a harsh environment like this, even the rocks aren’t immune to change, but life carries on.

Puffins in Iceland

Not just plant life, either. These adorable little birds are masters of the air, sea and land. We saw them navigate through buffeting winds, but there’s so much more. Puffins can fly 88 km/hr, live on the sea for months at a time, dive to 60 meters for fish, and then dig into cliffsides to make high-density Puffin apartment complexes.

In away, that natural resilience and “can do” spirit isn’t that different from the Icelandic people.

graffiti encouraged

At Hella, we saw people protecting ancient ruins from graffiti  . . . by encouraging visitors to sign their building.

And in building after building, we saw problem-solving creativity expressed in many unique ways, from tables and church pews that can move to new configurations based on changing needs…

Icelandic ingenuity

…to boardwalks that integrate man-made with nature, sidewalks that integrate traditional with modern and colorful, and more.

treehouse in iceland

And the more you step off the beaten path, the cooler it gets. Now THAT’S a treehouse!

where the heart is

Honestly, we started talking about the goals for our next Iceland trip on Day 3 of our 12-day first trip.

5 Amazing facts about Iceland

  1. The name. Did you also grow up hearing that the names for Iceland and Greenland were swapped, and Iceland was more green? True or not, sometimes we make things way more complex than they really are. Iceland’s internet code is “.is”. Why? For Island! It’s an island, so the ancient founders called it that. The Icelandic language can be traced back to a Nordic language spoken in Scandinavia between 200 and 800 AD–where they pronounce the S in Island. 
  2. Gender equality. The first country to have a female president, Iceland elected Vigdís Finnbogadóttir in 1980. Women also participate at all levels of government, and Iceland has made huge strides in narrowing the wage gap, along with other Scandinavian countries. On a personal note, we observed that nearly all of our activity tour guides across the country were women.
  3. Renewable energy. In 2016, 65% of all of Iceland’s primary energy came from geothermal—85% of homes in Iceland have geothermal power. Another 20% of Iceland’s total power came from hydropower, with only 15% from fossil fuels. This is the highest percental of renewable energy of any nation . . . and Iceland is starting to implement wind power. 
  4. Icelandic vegetables. Ask any gardener, and you’ll hear that tomatoes are a warm-climate crop. So it may surprise you that a single tomato farm in Iceland produces nearly a TON of tomatoes every day of the year. Oh…and they do it without good gardening soil, thanks to hydroponic gardening.
  5. Economic resilience. In 2006, Iceland wealth was riding high. The stock market had tripled in value in three years, and with the Icelandic krona riding high, Icelandic banks were offering services across Europe and investing in foreign companies. Then the 2008 global financial crisis hit. The krona went down 50% in one week, the three largest Icelandic banks defaulted simultaneously and were too big to save, foreign currency fled, and most businesses across Iceland went bankrupt. The government collapsed.
    In 2009, voters elected Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, who immediately implemented social service protections, but she also barred all currency from leaving country and prohibited all citizens from holding foreign currency or foreign stocks. With nowhere else to put their money, citizens started to reinvest in local real estate and private equity, just as the tourism market started to heat up because the krona was low and Iceland such a value vacation. Nine years later, they had fully recovered, and tourism is now a powerful economic driver, fueled by savvy and funny ads like this one and that one that skewer tech billionaires, and some that recognize what we’re all getting away from.
hydroponic tomatoes
Amazingly, the plants on each side of this aisle are all growing from a single pot the size of a cinder block, full of volcanic soil and a nutrient-rich hydroponic system.

What you need to know as a cyclist.

Now that you’ve gotten a feel for this spectacular country, let’s circle back around to planning for the cycling experience.

First, while island is an island, it’s also a very big one. It took us two weeks and 1800 miles of car driving to see sights and drive around Iceland just on the outer road, and we missed the Westfjords entirely.

Regional map of Island
There are many regions of Iceland, each with their own personality.

You know what riding on a typical country road is like? Paved, two lanes, no shoulders, and light traffic? That describes Iceland roads extremely well, with inner roads faring better and having less traffic than the outer road. There’s also about the same number of speeders on the outer road as out in the country–people going someplace in a hurry, without a cycling perspective. 

If you’ve got unlimited time, and deep experience riding around country-style traffic, then maybe all you need is to pack a lot of layers and supplies, check the seasonal calendar, and plan for a long in-country trek. (And if you’ve already done this, your expertise is invaluable; let’s add to this description with your observations!)

long ride day in Island
It’s going to be a long day.

For the rest of us, the concept of visiting a lot of different regions across a long distance lends itself to a combination of biking and driving, with the understanding that our bikes will be be outside in the rain and windblown road grit between rides.

That’s a lot of bike cleaning! Surely there’s a better way?

Well… yes. As long as you’re willing to simultaneously think outside the box and inside the box, with the box being your car.

These are the same bike, one minute apart. 

Folding adventure bike side green
folding adventure bike folded

Literally, one minute you’re riding your bike with wild abandon and the next you’re driving a clean and dry bike through whatever weather you encounter–while other cyclists are spending a lot more time on maintenance.

The other big advantage of full-size folding bikes like the CHANGE Folding Adventure Bike–the ability to take it inside hotels to reduce ride-off theft–isn’t as strong in Iceland as elsewhere, as the crime level here is extremely low. So you can generally leave bikes outside (if it’s dry) even overnight and not worry about your bike, for a change.

bikes outside waiting

Even if you do have a full-size folding bike, it won’t fit in an airline overhead-compartment miracle bag. A standard hybrid, gravel, or mountain bike folded in half is still 35″ x 30″ x 14″, which means you’ll still be visiting this place to pick up your bike…

odd-size luggage

…which you’d be dong anyway, with whatever bike you bring. So let’s start our Q&A there.

Cycling Questions & Answers

What do I do with my shipping case or box?

Whatever you carry your bike in is going to be big, because it just had a full-size bike in it. A hard-shell case offers the most protection, but has zero compactness at the destination. A soft-shell case can fold down to half size or less, with some reduction in impact protection against other suitcases. And a bike box offers good protection while changing size form big and bulky to  . . . flat and ungainly. No matter which you choose, you’re going to have to get rid of it at the Keflavik airport.

Right now, we know of three reasonable good options. Call first, however, to verify that your preferred choice is still valid:

  • Cycling Iceland recommends taking a bus to Reykjavík with your box and luggage and starting cycling there–a task that is easier with a smaller bike box. The Reykjavík campsite / City hostel also offers tools, an assembly stand, and storage of bike boxes.
  • From Keflavik airport, bike boxes can be stored at Bílahótel (building marked “Geysir”, 800 m away at Arnarvöllur 4, tel. 455-0006, www.luggagestorage.is, see Keflavík map)
  • Also from Keflavik, your can store boxes at Geysir Car Rental, for a small daily fee (of 5-10 Euros per day, that still adds up).

Our recommendation in general is to avoid bike travel in and out of any airport. Use another method, such as the bus, as all airport-related avenues are typically designed for heavy vehicle traffic–in this case, Highway 41 is a noisy, busy highway with a wide shoulder.

Where can I get a good map?

You will absolutely need a good map, if not more than one. This is a particularly good road map of lowland and highland roads that is free to download.

If you have a full-size folding bike, you might also consider the public transportation map on that same Cycling Iceland page. While Icelandic buses don’t include bike racks up front for typical bikes, they will be able to accommodate the large bags that folding CHANGE bikes fit into. 

This means that, if you are willing to adapt to the local bus schedule and routes, you can dispense altogether with the substantial costs of a car, insurance, and gas. Just bus & bike.

What do I need to know about Iceland roads and traffic?

Some key points to be aware of:

  • Main roads are paved, but narrow, often with heavy traffic, so minor roads are highly recommended. Gravel-capable tires are your friend.
  • Bicycles are required to have headlights and taillights when traveling in darkness.
  • All off-road/off-track cycling is strictly prohibited due to sensitive plant life.
  • Always know the weather conditions, from the Icelandic weather website. If you are going into the highlands, there is a SafeTravel app worth downloading.
  • Be prepared to always be adding and stripping off layers for maximum comfort.
  • It may be 200 km between bike shops (and food), so pack accordingly, and check out your bike before you travel (drive train, brakes, tires/tubes)

What do I need to pack?

If you didn’t have any help from anyone for 200km, what would you need? (This list applies even if you have a full-size folding bike; yes, you could just put your bike problems on a bus to visit the nearest bike shop, but you’ve still lost a couple of vacation days with the long round trip.)

For your bike:

  • A robust adventure/trekking bike or, for the highlands, a mountain bike with fat knobby tires. Low gears are essential for steep climbs and headwind.
  • Good bike lights and a high-visibility reflective vest improve safety when cycling on main roads, at night and in tunnels.
  • Parts that wear out, such as tires, brake pads, chain and bearings should be in observed and checked good condition.
  • Tools and spare parts for field repairs. The most common problems are flat tires, broken spokes, a broken chain, loose or lost screws and nuts, split derailleur and brake cables and broken aluminum luggage racks. We recommend the Ultimate Bike Tool, which puts everything you need to tighten anything loose (to keep it from breaking) or fix a chain in a small case.

For you:

  • Warm, windproof and rainproof clothing; gloves and a warm hat may be necessary at times even in the summer.
  • Your tent must be able to withstand strong winds.
  • Food for days (water is less necessary; you can get it along the way, as long as it’s not downhill from farms).
  • Maps, compass, sunscreen, cellphone, phone charger, zip-lock plastic bags to keep things dry.

Do I need to learn a foreign language?

Almost not at all. Icelanders, on average, are extremely fluent in English from a young age.

Place names? That’s different. They’re all in a thousand-year-old language that combines smaller words into larger words for local clarity. For example, Eyjafjallajökull is a mouthful, but if you know that it’s the combination of “island” (Eyja), “mountain” (Fjalla), and “glacier” (Jökull) then it’s not only easier to pronounce, but you know something about it already. Similarly, you’ll see Foss (for waterfall) everywhere. (We kept looking for a waterfall named Dentylfoss but never saw it.)

Most visitors don’t learn a single phrase of Icelandic. Want to stand above the rest without much effort? Takk Fyrir means “Thanks.”

waterfallis in iceland are amazing

Thinking of visiting Iceland? What other questions are we missing? 

Biked in Iceland already? What information are we missing?

Happy riding adventures, in whatever exotic land tugs at your heart.

Bob Forgrave


Bob Forgrave is president of Flatbike, an
ecommerce company offering full-size folding bikes
and kits to make any bike take up half the space.

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