After completing The BIKE Transalp at the end of July, we extended our stay in Europe to incorporate the Glacier 360 – a brand new event hosted in Iceland.
The 3 weeks in between the 2 events seemed quite a challenge as we sought to recover from the Transalp and gain some form for the Glacier 360 all while living in Europe on a budget and paying for everything with a weak currency. Let’s just say we quickly got to know the local supermarket specials and Yolandi has become a master at Bookings.com, AirB&B, Car Rentals.com and Google maps!
By Ben Melt Swanepoel
Fortunately we have some really good friends living abroad whose local knowledge and friendly hospitality made our stay a LOT more comfortable and interesting. We have also learned that here is also no better way to experience a country/region than to immerse yourself in local culture through the locals – even if you don’t speak their language!
All said and done the 3 weeks flew by in a daze of travel and exploration filled with experiences which both humbled and amazed us. Before we knew it we had made our way to the airport via a lift, a bus and a train ride and took to the skies for our next adventure.
So, Iceland… Not much ice, but a lot of wind and a lot of rain…sometimes…
On 14 August we arrived in Iceland, landing at Kevlavik airport in driving rain and a freezing gale. While driving us from the airport to the capitol, Reykjavik, our shuttle bus driver assured us that the weather wasn’t always so bad, but that Kevlavik did have some of the worst weather on the island. So much so that Boeing apparently tests their airplane’s bad weather capabilities at said airport. Listening to this we just thought to ourselves we hadn’t brought nor owned enough warm clothing for this particular trip. In short, we were in way over our heads.
Race organizers put us up in the Kex youth hostel for the 2 days prior to the start of the event and our tiny room soon became a hive of activity as we built bikes, repacked our bags and hung up our shampoo-in-the-shower washed clothes to dry wherever we could find space (smells great but it’s tougher on the hands than you’d think ;).
Before we knew it, it was time for race registration and briefing which conveniently took place at Kex Hostel. Afterwards most of the 31 participating teams along with staff, volunteers and our bikes were driven out to Laugarvatn where we would spend the night prior to the race. Reykjavik is a vibrant city, but it was refreshing to get out into the countryside especially as the weather had broken on cue leaving blue skies overhead. Our accommodation at The Golden Circle Apartments was really comfortable and after eating some hearty local cuisine (Reindeer meatballs and Icelandic yogurt called Skyr included) at the Héradsskólinn Boutique Hostel, we were off for an early night while the Northern Hemisphere sun defiantly shone late into the night.
The next morning dawned crisp but dry and after breakfast it was a short bus ride to Geysir from where we would start at 10am. Everything had run smoothly up to this point and we arrived to bikes all lined up and ready to roll. All that was left to do was sign on, warm up –while watching the Stokkur geyser erupt – and get the party started.
The Glacier 360 takes its name from circumnavigating the Llangjokull glacier located in the South Western corner of Iceland. The route took us from Geysir to Húsafell, to Hveravellir, and finished at the Gullfoss waterfall. The hot springs at Hveravellir and the Gullfoss waterfall are some of the most popular sites to visit in Iceland and seeing all of it by bike was a unique and extraordinary experience.
Race organizers, Made in Mountains, are passionate mountain bikers and outdoors sportsman who wanted to deliver an event which they would have liked to do. In fact I think the hardest part for them wasn’t the long hours required to organize and host the race, but the fact that they couldn’t participate! Made in Mountains is also a start-up company and organizing Iceland’s first ever mountain bike stage race must have been akin to cooking for the in-laws while mothering a teething baby – you want to please the in-laws, but you also want to comfort the crying baby…
They did a magnificent job, especially considering this was their first attempt. The level of devotion was such that Oskar Omarsson even sold his soul to assure good weather for the race. Thankfully it worked and for every mile we biked in fair weather I thought of Oskar and the celebrations we would have in his honour before sending his soul to Valhalla. On that note, weather in Iceland can change in an instant and life on the island is largely governed by it. Despite never needing it, we always had extra warm clothing and rain jackets with us…just in case.
The mixed teams were really strong at the event with only 3 to 5 men’s teams able to finish ahead of the 3 leading mixed teams every day. Peculiarly, all 3 leading mixed teams were South African with the 2 non South Africans (Jennie Stenerhag and Carmen Buchacher) currently living in the Cape and riding professionally for South African sponsors. It just shows the level of mixed racing in South Africa which bodes well for our sport.
Stage 1 started pretty fast on rolling roads and the small bunch soon split up leaving teams to ride in isolation. This wasn’t a problem as light winds, absolutely stunning scenery and meandering roads made the stage fly by. We covered the 95km in 4 hours finishing as the 3rd mixed team behind CBC and Velocity Sports.
Stage 2 was the ‘Queen stage’ with 111km and 1600meters of ascent. With a tailwind pushing us, the opening 20km were very fast until we reached the river crossing where we had to carry our bikes across a freezing flow. After that the going got tough as we followed farm tracks which rose and fell relentlessly as we steadily ascended toward the Icelandic Highlands. A particularly rough and rocky section finally spat us out on to a wide open dirt road where a howling headwind pummelled us all the way to the finish where a warm tent, some good food and hot springs awaited us.
After spending one of our coldest ever nights ever in a tent we awoke to a beautiful morning with air so crisp and clear you could taste it. The wind picked up a little before our 9am start but we soon dropped into the Valley of the Thieves for some fast singletrack across the Tundra on the 3rd and final stage. This was followed by another rocky singletrack section which brought us to a seemingly endless natural singletrack alongside a river.
About halfway through the 85km stage we turned on to a dirt road which steadily rose before a break neck speed descent off of the Highlands. A final fast section on tar brought us to the Gullfoss waterfall, the biggest waterfall in Europe, where we passed under the Red Bull banner for a final time finishing 3rd again and 3rd overall.
After celebrating the final stage with some good old hamburgers and hot dogs grilled on the spot it was time for the quick bus ride back to Reykjavik. The event wasn’t finished quite yet as Made in Mountains spoiled all the competitors the next day with a boat ride to Viðey Island where prize giving was held and we celebrated the inaugural Glacier 360 while watching fireworks light up the sky.
There is no denying that Iceland is a unique place as proven by the ever growing number of tourists who flock to this volcanic island surrounded by the North Atlantic Ocean and only made habitable by the Gulf Stream which stabilises the weather. Being able to mountain bike in such a remote and extraordinary place is a privilege and Made in Mountains is on to a winning recipe by sharing their passion through the Glacier 360.
Sure, the weather might turn and you’ll have to fight a headwind, some rain and possibly even some cold, but isn’t that exactly what war stories are made of. Or you could just ask one of the other race organizers to offer their soul in return for good weather.
Either way, the Glacier 360 is set to become one of the must do events on mountain bikers schedule around the world. We suggest you do it sooner rather than later!