[Editor’s note, January 2014: this is the story of a 60 day, 3,000 mile bike ride from my home in England to the northern tip of Europe, Nordkapp, in 2006. Sadly the bike I toured on (which by the end of the tour felt more like a friend than a mere mechanical object) was stolen in 2013.]
I rushed home, clutching my map of Norway and yellow highlighter with a fervent grip, determined to mark out my route and commit myself to this project whilst the momentum of the adventure overwhelmed my faculty of reason.
Spread across the table, the map of Norway looked both exciting and intimidating in equal measure. The yellow line of my route from Kristiansand in the South to Kirkenes in the North seemed to take an inordinately long time to wind its way around, over and under mountains, fjords and islands. I booked the ferry that very day, ordered some pannier racks and tyres and told my family I would be going away for a long while.
Despite thorough preparation in the weeks prior to departure, I suffered a potentially catastrophic setback less than a mile from home. The rear pannier rack with my tent, roll mat and rear panniers on, fell apart on the first hill; a rather auspicious start but luckily not a sign of things to come. It transpired that I had merely forgotten to tighten up two crucial, but well hidden bolts so the problem was easily rectified and never again reared its ugly head. It took me four hard days to cycle across the country from my home near Liverpool to the ferry terminal in Newcastle. By the fourth day my body (actually mainly my backside) was protesting strongly at the whole idea of this tour but the great variety of scenery, challenges and emotions that I felt in those first four days convinced me to continue on to Norway.
Trying to picture the whole route from Kristiansand to Kirkenes in one go was too much to deal with at this stage so I broke it down into week long sections as follows: Kristiansand to Bergen, then Bergen to Trondheim, Trondheim to Bodø, Bodø to Tromsø, Tromsø to the North Cape and finally from the North Cape to Kirkenes. For the first leg I enjoyed the luxury of a well signed cycle path, the North Sea Cycle Way, which would lead me all the way from Kristiansand to the centre of Bergen. At least that was the theory but how did it all pan out on the road?
Rather ominously it snowed twice during my afternoon in Kristiansand and less than 5 kilometres outside of the city I found myself pushing my bike through deep, lingering snow patches on the minor roads through the hills. I soon returned to the coast though, on minor roads that were continually undulating. This was a feature common to all of Norway’s roads and one that I came to love and hate depending on which way the gradient pointed. I suffered several broken spokes in the rear wheel (fixed in bike shops en route), many heavy rainstorms, headwinds and wet camps during this first week in Norway. When the sun did shine though, the scenery was stunning with mountains, fjords and pretty little fishing villages to keep my spirits high. I arrived in Bergen after 7 days of cycling and just over 1000km completed.
I spent three glorious days in Bergen and the sun shone every day which was quite remarkable for a city where it is supposed to rain four days out of five. Over drinks, I shared tales from the road with a host of other travellers from as far away as Australia and South Korea. Bergen was a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with many hidden corners to explore like the fascinating wooden warehouses in the Bryggen. These old Hanseatic merchant’s trading houses from the eighteenth and nineteenth century leaned this way and that seemingly defying gravity in their old age.
It was a lonely road out of Bergen but the sun shone long into the evening and it was exciting to be out on the road again. The route to Trondeim took me along Highway 7 and then Highway 55 over the Sognefjellet, the roof of Norway. With each passing day I penetrated deeper into Norway’s mountainous interior. The road climbed to over 1400m with snow lying thick all around as I rode under the shadow of Norway’s highest mountain, Goldhøpiggen, 2469m high.
Of course, the reward for all the hard climbing was the stunning vistas of great jagged mountains heaped up above the frozen lakes and snowy valleys. The downhills were as exhilarating as they were cold and I was glad to have my winter clothing with me. I joined the E6, the road that went all the way to Kirkenes, and followed it over the high plateau of the Dovrefjellet which reminded me greatly of the A82 over Rannoch Moor in Scotland, pulchritudinous but desolate, sunny but bitterly cold and not somewhere to linger. I was elated to have made it across the mountains in one piece and an easy day’s riding across flatter plains took me into Trondheim. My one and only flat tyre of the whole sixty day tour occurred on this approach into Trondheim. I must have looked a pitiful sight crouched on the roadside mini-pump in hand, panniers cast to one side, fixing a puncture in the heavy rain.
May 17th is Norway’s National Day: a holiday to celebrate their Declaration of Independence and formation of a Constitutional Government in 1814. The residents of Trondheim were out in throngs on the streets to partake in or watch the colourful parades up and down the main streets. It was a treat to bear witness to this celebration of such an historic moment in Norway’s past and one of the few times I really saw the Norwegian people letting their hair down properly. This was also the day that I met Markus, the German cycle tourer, also en route to the North Cape and staying in the Youth Hostel.
We shared the road together from Trondheim to Bodø, nine days of beautiful coastal scenery. Rather unfortunately there was a ferry strike in Norway and as we were following Highway 17, involving many ferry crossings, this made our route a rather dicey proposition. Several times we found ourselves at a dead-end waiting at an empty ferry terminal for a ferry that would never arrive. Somehow in each case we found locals who were able to help by offering lifts in their private boats thus saving us the unappealing prospect of back-tracking our route to the South (the very word became an anathema to me as my journey progressed!).
On day 29 I encountered my first and sadly, only elk of the tour. It ran along the stony shore beside the road clearly startled by the sight (or perhaps the smell) of two cyclists, before leaping the barrier and then crashing off into the woods above the road. It was an enormous creature with a great big ugly head and it looked perfectly at home in this woody, mountainous countryside near the Arctic Circle. This was duly crossed on day 33. This was something of a milestone in the route, marking roughly the half-way point and justifying the title of Arctic Bike Tour that I’d told my friends and family I was going on.
Markus and I stayed in Bodø for just one day which was time enough to take in the Aviation Museum and rest our weary legs. The next stage of the journey began with a ferry journey over to the southern end of the Lofoten Islands, somewhere I’d long hankered to visit.
We stayed in the Youth Hostel at Å on the first night. It was an arrestingly beautiful, peaceful little fishing village lying on the southern extremity of the island chain. It was here, of all the places I visited in Norway, I felt most enchanted with. After a stop that I felt was too short, we were once again underway, heading north and battling headwinds. At Stamsund Youth Hostel on day 38, I bid farewell to Markus as he stayed put to await his girlfriend, who flew out to join him in the Lofoten. I continued onwards, alone again.
The islands were like a miniature version of mainland Norway exuding the wild beauty of a land unchanged for hundreds of years. As I progressed North onto the Vesterålen Islands the terrain mellowed with the spiky mountains giving way to rounder hillocks. A rare treat awaited me in Andenes at the northern end of the island chain. I camped next to the beach and watched in awe as the sun shone all through the night. The midnight sun was a phenomenon I had dearly looked forward to seeing and it didn’t disappoint.
One ferry journey and two further days of riding saw me to Tromø, the last city I would encounter on my journey. Here I met Flip, a Dutch cyclist with many fascinating theories about “Bermuda Tunnels” and the age-old headwind vs. tailwind debate. His theory was as brilliant as it was simple. I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say that most cyclists would consider themselves headwinders (ie. always fighting a headwind). Now, Flip reasoned that he was more likely to meet cyclists approaching from the opposite direction and so if they were fighting a headwind he would be enjoying a tailwind. We cycled together for two days in still airs which was in accordance with Flip’s theory as my headwind had cancelled out Flip’s tailwind. At the town of Alta our routes diverged and I was alone on the road again. Alta marked a turning point in the weather which steadily worsened over the following days into a settled pattern of rain and strong winds. All of my equipment became wet; the mountains were swathed in clouds and appeared foreboding rather than beautiful. The allure of wild camping quickly disappeared when the first puddles started appearing in the tent.
Steady progress north though had finally brought the top of Europe within reach. After a night in a hostel in Honningsvåg, I set off to cycle to the North Cape, accompanied, as I had now come to expect, by rain and wind. Reaching the North Cape on day 52 was nothing of the anti-climax that such hyped moments often are; instead I was full of joy and wonder at the very adventure of being here on my bicycle.
Suitably buoyed, the final leg of five days to Kirkenes was completed with a broad grin that not even a broken chain or further inclement weather could remove. I was not only weary and happy but also deeply sad that the adventure had come to an end. I had spent 60 days amongst the great fjords and mountains of Norway, met many great characters along the way and covered over 3,000 miles on my bike. All that remained was to creep back south again using a combination of planes, buses and ferries to see me home.