Cycle Touring In Norway. August/September 1999
By Tony Keates
After Dot and I came back from our tour of Norway, described in a previous edition of the Newsletter, I showed our photographs to Dennis (brother-in-law and mountain biking mate). He was so impressed by the scenery that he announced that he had to go and see it for himself before he got too old to do it. He suggested that we could do a cycle tour with lightweight camping gear. At first I was not sure whether I fancied it, plus the fact that I would have to buy the lightweight camping gear needed. However I eventually talked myself into it and went ahead and purchased the necessary equipment. This comprised a rear pannier rack, panniers, lightweight tent, 3-season sleeping bag, Thermarest camping mat, a small stove and slick tyres for my mountain bike.
So, on 23 August, I found myself once again aboard the ferry to Bergen. Dennis had obtained a route from the Cyclists' Touring Club, which would take us in an anti-clockwise direction around Western Norway, basically circumnavigating the largest fjord in Norway, namely Sognefjord, which stretches inland for over 200 kilometres from the west coast. We modified the route so that we could take in the three highest road passes in Norway and also the Rallarvegen. This is the road built over the Hardangervidda to enable construction of the Oslo-Bergen railway. It is now a 52 mile, offroad cycle route, but is only open from May to October due to snow conditions.
We arrived in Bergen at 1630 on 24 August, so our first ride was only 12 miles to a campsite at Nestun. Negotiating the rush-hour traffic in Bergen, on the wrong side of the road, and with very heavily laden bikes, was not a lot of fun, but once we got clear of the city centre things got easier.
Our first full day took us to Nordheimsund, a distance of 48 miles. We managed to avoid most of the road tunnels by using the old roads around the tunnels, most of which are now cycleways. For a large part of the ride we were on these narrow roads, in and out of rock-cut tunnels, with a spectacular drop into a gorge on our right. It made for exciting cycling! This was to become a feature of our first few days. After the day's ride, a hot shower at the campsite was very welcome. All the campsites that we stayed at had superb facilities, including hot showers, laundry and cooking facilities. The most we paid was 100 krone (about £8) per night, many were around 50 krone (about £4).
Next day, a ride of 55 miles took us to Eidfjord. Again we were on old roads and cycleways for most of the route, with spectacular views of snow-capped mountains and waterfalls. This day also saw our first ferry crossing - a very pleasant 45 minute cruise and a pleasant respite from cycling.
Day 4 took us 52 miles over the Hardangervidda to Haugastol and the start of the Rallarvegen. However, there was no campsite at Haugastol so we had our first wild camp a few miles along the Rallarvegen. The ride had been an epic, with 30 miles of continuous climbing following the old mountain road, now a cycleway, through Mabodalen to Voring Fossen - an incredible 300 feet high waterfall, plunging in one drop into an enormous ravine. All the way up, our old road kept crossing and recrossing the new road, which climbed in and out of tunnels in an amazing clover-leaf pattern.
Day 5, 28 August, is one of the days I shall remember for the rest of my life! We followed the Rallarvegen for 52 miles, past glaciers and mountains, rushing ice-blue rivers and spectacular waterfalls. As we reached the highest point of the road, 1343 metres above sea level, we encountered large snowdrifts, which extended for 100s of yards in places, with 20 feet high snow banks at the side of the track - and all this at the end of August! In places the track was very rough, in others hard-packed sand and gravel, but all rideable, even with a heavily loaded mountain bike. The highlight of the day was the final descent into Flam. From Myrdal Station, the track drops 868 metres vertically in 12 kilometres, through 21 hairpin bends - a mind-blowing descent and the most spectacular offroad descent that I have ever ridden (thank goodness for Shimano V-brakes!).
We decided to take Day 6 (29 August) as a rest day, to recover from the exertions of the previous days and to prepare ourselves for the following day, which would be another major climb. We took a fjord cruise which took us from Flam, along Aurlandsfjord and down Naeroyfjord - the narrowest fjord in Norway, only 500 metres wide at its narrowest point, with vertical cliffs rising 1800 metres on either side - to Gudvangen then returning to Flam. The weather was warm and sunny and the scenery that of Norwegian fjords at their best.
Next day, 30 August, saw us bracing ourselves for the long climb over the Aurland-Laerdal Summer Road, heading for Kaupanger and Sognefjord. The morning was bright and sunny, the climb long and hard - 16 miles of 1 in 12 gradient - but as we neared the summit of the road at 1306 metres above sea level, the weather started to deteriorate rapidly and soon it was cold, windy and very wet. By the time we reached the bottom of the descent we were both almost hypothermic, however a mug of hot soup and some solid food in a bus shelter restored life to us. From Laerdal we took our second ferry to Kaupanger and a very basic campsite - just a field, a tap and a toilet, having covered 41 tough miles.
Day 8, 31 August, was a shortish day of only 38 fairly easy miles, allowing time for a restocking of our food supplies, and a relatively easy day, our overnight stop being Skjolden. Next day was to be Sognefjell Pass, the highest road in Norway!
As we had anticipated, this was a very tough day. The climb over the pass, highest point 1406 metres, was 21 miles of 1 in 12, steepening to 1 in 10 in places, and once again the weather was atrocious - very cold and wet, with sleet at times near the summit. Another survival epic! Fortunately, the owner of the campsite at Learmoen, on the other side of the pass, offered to dry out our clothes for us - we were very grateful! The total distance covered in the day was 40 very hard miles.
Day 10, 2 September, dawned bright and sunny and after another shopping session in Lom, and a visit to its very attractive stave church, we headed north through Otterdalen, heading for Grotli and the start of another highlight of the trip - the Old Stryn Road. Unfortunately there was no campsite at Grotli, so we started on the Old Stryn Road and after a few miles, set up our second wild camp, having covered 54 miles. The site was spectacular - overlooking a glacial lake and surrounded by mountains and tundra vegetation - the colours of the various berries and leaves were incredible - all shades of red, orange and yellow.
Day 11 started well, bright and sunny, with a very strong but warm wind in our faces. The packed gravel surface of the Old Stryn Road gave superb riding and the views were spectacular. Reaching the highest point of the road at 1139 metres above sea level, we prepared for the descent. This was awe-inspiring! Initially we were on gravel but eventually we hit tarmac. The descent got steeper and steeper, with several hairpin bends, and the view down the valley to the fjord below was breathtaking. As we reached the valley, the weather deteriorated rapidly and soon we were in heavy rain. Six miles short of our destination, Stryn, Dennis had a rear tyre puncture. Unfortunately, both of his spare inner tubes burst when inflated and he also found that his tyre had split. Eventually we set off again, having used one of my spare inner tubes and our spare tyre. I had complained about having to carry this but now it had paid off - we would have been in a mess without it. Arriving in Stryn, we purchased a new tyre and inner tubes and then set up camp. The campsite was noisy, due to loud music and fireworks, which went on until midnight - not a restful night's sleep!
The following day we had a late start, having spent the morning washing and drying out after the previous day and strolling around the town. After lunch at the campsite, we set off for the sort ride to Loen, our next destination. The weather was glorious, with a cloudless blue sky, warm sunshine and no wind, a complete contrast to the day before. The campsite in Loendalen was superb - we looked out from the door of our tents towards the tongue of a glacier, with a rushing blue-green river below us.
Day 13, 5 September, is another day that I will never forget. We cycled up Loendalen to the Kjenndalsbreen Glacier, then walked right up to its snout. On the way we passed a memorial to two major landslides which occurred in 1905 and 1936. In 1905, 400,000 cubic metres of rock slipped into the fjord. The resulting wave completely wiped out two communities and lifted a steel ferry boat, carrying it 400 metres down the valley, where its rusting hulk can still be seen. The villages were rebuilt higher up the valley, but in 1936 an even bigger landslide occurred. This time 1,350,000 cubic metres of rock slipped into the fjord and again both communities were wiped out. The scar on the mountainside can still be seen and is higher than the Eiffel Tower. The names of all those who died are inscribed on the memorial and the same family names occur time and time again. In such beautiful surroundings it was a very sobering experience. However, the sight that greeted us when we reached the glacier more than compensated for this. The front of the glacier was about 30 feet high - deep blue ice with ice caves, out of which ran incredibly cold, grey, glacial water. We sat here for over an hour, savouring the experience and unable to tear ourselves away from this awe-inspiring work of nature.
It was with great reluctance that we left Loendalen the next day, on what was to become the longest ride of the whole trip. We covered 63 miles in all, due to the fact that the campsites shown on our map were either closed or had ceased to exist. After a long climb from Uttvik, we had a steady level or downhill ride beside the fjord from Skei. Once again the weather was good to us.
Day 15, 7 September, was a short day of only 20 miles, but we needed it after the previous long day. We still had a long climb over Gaulefjellet, but the campsite, opposite a huge waterfall was very pleasant. The next day we would be heading for Vadheim and the ferry to Bergen and the end of the journey.
Day 16 did not go according to plan. After a relatively easy ride we reached Vadheim, only to find that the ferry service to Bergen had not run for at least 10 years! Our route was originally ridden in 1976 and obviously had not been updated since. We had no choice but to carry on to Nordeidde to catch an express boat to Bergen. Unfortunately, when we reached Nordeidde we were too late for the last boat, and as there was no campsite, we spent the night in the waiting room.
Day 17, 9 September, dawned wet and windy as we embarked on the express boat but the sun came out later. The 3 hour trip to Bergen was very enjoyable, especially as we threaded our way between the mainland and the off lying islands. Arriving in Bergen at about 1130, we spent the day sightseeing, before booking in at the YMCA for the night, as the nearest campsite was about 10 miles away, and we were due to embark at 0930 the next day for the return crossing to Newcastle.
It had been tough at times, but the scenery had been spectacular and the glacier incredible. I enjoyed every minute of it and would certainly do a similar trip again.
For the technically minded, who might be contemplating such a trip, I append a list of the equipment used.
Lightweight 2-man tent
3-season sleeping bag
Thermarest lightweight, self-inflating camping mat (much more comfortable than a Karrimat)
Gaz 270 gas cooker and spare gas cartridges
Mess tins, plate, dish, mug, knife, fork and spoon set and Swiss Army Knife (indispensable!)
Dehydrated meals for 3 days (Raven, Wayfarer etc.)
Good supply of energy bars e.g. Muesli bars, Nutri-grain bars
Water purification tablets
3 pairs cycling shorts, 3 cycling tops, 1 pair cycling shoes
2 long-sleeved thermal tops
Fleece jacket, Goretex cycling jacket, nylon overtrousers
2 pairs Ron Hill Tracksters (1 thick, 1 thin)
Off-bike clothes e.g. tee-shirts, sweatshirt
Track mitts and Thinsulate gloves
3 changes of underwear and 6 pairs of socks
Sunglasses and sweatband for head
Lightweight, super-absorbent travel towel, shower gel, toothbrush and toothpaste, toilet paper
Bike Spares and Tools (shared between us)
We used mountain bikes fitted with rear panniers and pannier racks and slick tyres (26 x 1.5)
4 inner tubes, 1 folding tyre, puncture repair outfit (1 each)
Spare spokes and spoke key
Spare V-brake pads
Spare block, bottom bracket and chain
Sprocket, bottom bracket and crank removers
Selection of appropriate tools (mainly mini-tools + small adjustable spanners)
Front and rear lights (LED type) for unlit tunnels
Bum bag and 2 x 750ml water bottles each (we drank energy-replacement drinks e.g. Isostar)