“That’s got to be the last hill, surely it’s all down from here.”
Never say that in a race. Never say that even if you’re sure you know the profile and your watch enticingly tells you the final few kilometres are in sight. Never say that when the force of gravity is superseded by the mighty force of the wind through a cosmic landscape with nowhere to hide.
We’re racing in Iceland. A place of magical, Narnia-like proportions where more common than fellow man is the hiss of hot geysers and the vastness of glacial plains. Marking its second year, Glacier 360 is Iceland’s first and only mountain bike stage race. Covering near to 300 kilometres of volcanic terrain, it circumnavigates the second largest glacier, Langjökull. Against forceful winds, the route traces unforgiving rock, sand and river beds. Enlisting a fellow hardy Scot for the task, I was joined for the adventure by Naomi Freireich, a proven competitor in the world of endurance mountain bike racing. Whilst not really knowing each other prior, she echoed a tough and resilient figure who’d be game for this most northerly of long distance endeavours.
As we made our way by bus to towards Reykjavik, the first note to strike was the sheer sparsity of the Icelandic environment; a lunar-like landscape thanks to the lack of vegetation. Viking settlers raided the once blooming birch trees for fuel and left it barren. Centuries later, its been compounded by harsh climates, constant gusts and hungry livestock. As we remarked at the volcanic lumps, my mind turned to tyre choice and chamois selection.
Race Is On
Arguably sitting within the Arctic Circle, Iceland’s seemingly endless hours of sunlight allowed for a civilised 10 am start and a longer lie. Banking sleep is a must, given the potential to be kept awake by ceaseless snores from camp. Treated to a hotel bed, we’d spent the night before in relative luxury, waking fresh to then take a short bus ride to the start. With around 80 competitors, Glacier 360 had a warming appeal; an informal, intimate affair with personalities spanning the globe who gathered in anticipation of the rugged route ahead.
The Black and White Miles
Lined together, a band of biking brothers (and sisters), the countdown signalled the start and riders took off up the dusty track, billowing geysers left behind as we rode into the unknown. As the pedals turned, the release of pre-race tension was replaced with gritty focus. Picking our way up the pack, a shout from Naomi signalled an unruly seat post and with as much calm and efficiency as we could manage, secured the bolts and tried to get back to our rhythm. What’s to remember is that you’re here for the long game. Go out too fast and you’ll rip your legs and lungs until they are redundant. Keeping composed, we steadily climbed our way back up the ranks. Dry, dust stretches of dirt road panned ahead of us as we gained height constantly, a seemingly endless set of rises. As we were rewarded with a swooping, gravel descent, loose rocks and grit flew in the face of the unexpected audience – tourists who had ventured into the Highland’s wilderness and were unsuspectingly greeted with whooping, giddy riders keen to let loose.
After close to 50 kilometres on the clock, the sight of a lone gazebo stood out against the land of fire and ice. Rushing to grab at bananas and water bottles, we’d overtaken the Elite Women’s second team, which sparked further adrenaline and competitive urge. As we turned the 90 degrees heading north towards Husafell, we were thrown back by the brutal headwinds. With determination, we forced our legs to turn as we made our way up the second climb of the day. Fighting the elements, our heads were down and minds busy – motivational mantras playing over and over – willing us through to the next feed stop some 30 kilometres away. As the pace pacified, I noticed the turn of the landscape and the incredible sculptures formed from mounds of volcanic rock. To the right, the piercing blue of the Langjökull Glacier jumped out against dark sands and it felt somewhat surreal. As we dug deep towards the final top, we saw tour buses mark the moment we’d start our eagerly awaiting downward journey to the finish. To the left stood Ok, the first glacier in Iceland to lose its icy title. We didn’t wish to lose ours and so we pushed on, relishing the descent.
Smiles were interspersed with mild wincing thanks to the chattering of the front suspension and the drumming of my saddle. Iceland’s gravel roads are fiercely rutted and repetitive in nature so there’s little forgiveness for poorly chosen gear.
Crossing our first river with five kilometres to go, the excitement and energy was electric. Naomi and I were hot on the wheels of the Elite ladies and first in our category to mark the close of day one. Over the line, we weaved our way towards the promise of food and were greeted with a huge hug and kind words from the Elite leaders; half-jokes of changing categories for the rest of the race.
Elated, hungry and a touch battered after 95 kilometres, we attacked the table of food. Bellies were filled full before sinking into the first of the hot springs that helped sooth the aches and growing pains from my savage saddle.
Water World Climbs
Despite the disruption caused by deflated beds and walrus-like wails coming from nearby tents, our legs and minds were focused. With a fast and furious start to commence our second day, the leading pack launched off the line. We went with them, holding for a time, but soon settling into a progressive rhythm, better suited to 70 km of uphill. Gradually we gathered height riding through a lusher, wetter heathland – favoured by fisherman and route planners who love a river crossing! Knowing our shoes and socks would soon succumb, we hit the first of the banks. Using a basic rope, the gushing, freezing meltwater was soothing and shocking all at the same time. Whilst others less accustomed to the wetter ways of ride life stowed their shoes and risked barefoot, Naomi and I plunged right in.
As we left the rivers behind, the flora faded. Instead, the dusty dirt paths took on a harder, rockier face, delivering punchy, loose climbs that poked at us and made momentum our friend. Given our luck with the Icelandic conditions, the freezing shower that soon passed over us felt well placed to mark the highest point – forcing a stop and the dawning of waterproofs. Out here, you’re truly alone so best heed caution.
As the rocks progressed in size and ferocity, so too did the disdain for my hardtail, the second day being in favour of a full suspension rig. Picky rock lines offered up a fresh challenge; a technical treat that was fun to negotiate but relentless in its ability to punish our backsides.
Once over the best and worst, I breathed a quiet sigh of relief – my tyres intact – I relaxed and enjoyed the well-earned descent and our final splash through the riverbeds. Hitting the road was momentary relief and Naomi kicked the pace to take us to the finish. Playing games with my watch and trying not to count the kilometres, the rough, rutted road wreaked havoc with my aching body, but we kept the pedals firmly in motion.
As the wind fought back against us, so too did the ground, which became looser and increasingly steep. In sight, the familiar flags waved in the wind and gushes of steam rose out from natural geysers, akin to smoke signals calling all back together again at camp. After 111 kilometres we were longing for nature’s restoritive warm waters.
Valley of Thieves
Marking our final morning, we set off from Hveravellier Highland Centre, which had been camp for the night. Worn bodies were revived and ready to go thanks to the luxury of the hot pools. As we charged off towards the Thjofaalir valley, I had it in my mind it was 85 kilometres of downhill. Not so. Leaving the road, rapidly we were faced with an abrupt, steep climb, which had riders almost biting at their bars. Thankfully a narrow descent arrived in quick succession; a delight to Naomi and I as we lapped up the technical sections. Populating this seldom trodden trail were aggressive, baby-head boulders that made line choice testy, one intense section calling for a carry. Slashed into the ground were tight trenches that served as pesky pedal catchers – resulting in a game of rider roulette as we hastily decided which was best.
Having said to myself “That’s got to be the last hill, surely”, quickly my self-assurance vanished. However, there is a form of satisfaction from such sustained suffering; a steeliness that builds and makes you mentally strongher. Channelling that energy – we rose to the top and hit a tarmac road. From here, we cheered! Not because we weren’t really enjoying it – in truth, it’s the very reason to race in a country as untamed as Iceland. Picking up a male pairs team in the final stretch, we shared efforts to reach the finish. As we pedalled in together, elated emotion invoked huge smiles, cheers and even an 80’s style jump – a sign we’d not lost our sense of humour! Celebrating, We were delighted to have taken first place pairs in the women’s open category. Huge hugs all round with each other and new found friends – racers, photographers and volunteers alike.
Gullfoss waterfalls boomed and gushed and we had a moment to gather photos and make our way to the buses. As we devoured burgers and local brew, one last dip in the hot pools concluded our Glacier 360 experience. Indeed, Iceland is the land of fire and ice as well as wind, baby-head boulders and some of the most brutal yet beautiful trails I’ve had the opportunity to ride.
For more information about the race visit www.glacier360.is
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