Norway is widely recognized as one of the most mountainous countries in Europe with more than 300 peaks over 2000 metres high…..so why would anybody want to cycle the length of it?
It was a question New Plymouth couple Peter and Julia Dolan asked themselves more than once when they undertook a three month tour there from June to the end of August this year.
I blame Matthew Norway….and covid. Stuck in the house for seven days with full control of the remote is a luxury I’m not used to.
It was the bike-packing vlogs that got me.
After stumbling across one of Matthew’s odes to his adopted country, during those seven days of isolation, I watched every video Matthew had ever made about Norway.
Of course Norway is not recognized as being a particularly sunny place and all these videos displaying gorgeous vistas with clear blue skies needed to be tempered with a bit of meteorological caution….but when the sun is out, those views are amazing. This tempted me to forge ahead with convincing Pete we should not just cycle southern Norway, but head to the land of the midnight sun, the area above the arctic circle.
Pete was worried about how cold it would be but I happily pointed out it would be summer, we would be by the coast so therefore more temperate and we did have global warming on our side …
After looking at the distances involved we realised we would need the full three months available to us to see this spectacular country. The scenery, the terrain and the weather would all be slowing us down. Not to mention the fact that we’re now five years older than the last time we spent three months on a bike.
All of these things also led to self-doubt. As d-day approached, we started wondering what the hell we were doing, as from past experience, we know cycle touring can throw up its fair share of challenges. Were we up to the task?
We usually lead an active, but comfortable lifestyle. Swimming, surfing, cycling of course, walking everyday and probably, far too many coffees for our own good.
But the challenge is something we enjoy, even if we don’t understand why! The logistics, the physical challenge, weeks and weeks on end with only each other to rely on, it can be stressful. And what if Norway lived up to its extremely rainy reputation? Yikes.
So with some trepidation, we boarded our flight to Oslo in early June. We each took a panier as cabin luggage and boxed our bikes with various camping equipment to meet the 23kg weight restriction. After four flights and 33 hours of travel, we realised doing that trip in one hit is something we definitely did not want to do again.
We caught a shuttle to our hotel, reassembled our bikes and took them for a test run in the surrounding countryside. It felt really good to be out in the sunshine and moving after all that travel.
Next day we began our tour of Norway in beautiful weather for the 50km ride into Oslo.
This was the perfect start to our bike tour, crossing rolling farmland on backroads and staying in our trusty Vango tent at various campgrounds, with the occasional freecamp. Freecamping in Norway is every man’s right, however there are an awful lot of areas that, on a bike, you cannot access.
As we got closer to Oslo we had some testing hills but also had cycle paths so didn’t have to worry about the ever increasing traffic.
Our first ten days we spent cycling to the bottom of Norway to the city of Kristiansand, enjoying hot, sunny weather all the way and plenty of lakes and coastline to take a dip (the water was about 20C). We felt our worries and concerns about whether we could do this trip evaporating. We were doing it … and it was awesome.
Navigation was easy as the ride to Kristiansand was part of the very well-marked National Tourist Route number 1.
This was the perfect warm up for the next section we had planned, which was right up into the mountains and where we got our first taste of the scourges of Norway – rain and midges.
We were camped by a rest area and after a rainy night, we were enveloped in a cloud of midges as we broke camp in the morning. We were unaware these little creatures actually bite you, thinking they were merely an incessant nuisance. We bundled everything on our bikes in an untidy heap and took off from there as fast as we could.
We stopped about 15 minutes down the road for breakfast. When Pete took off his helmet, he had hundreds of red welts all over his face and head. I’ve never been more grateful to have hair.
As expected, the weather was a bit more dicey as we headed into the mountains but the scenery more than made up for it.
We also started to encounter more tunnels as the road struggled to find its way round these steep never-ending mountains. Many tunnels are closed to cyclists so potential routes had to be investigated carefully to make sure we could pass.
Often there would be an alternative route for cyclists, which usually involved taking the old road, before the tunnel was built. Usually this was longer and steeper than the tunnel road, but the bonus was, there was no traffic.
On one particular day, we had five tunnels to bypass in the mountains. As the traffic sped into the dark hole in the side of the mountain, we continued our climb, up and over the top of the tunnel, passing drifts of melting snow on our way. At the top we were rewarded with spectacular views of a partially frozen lake. The sun was shining, we were warm from the climb and there was just us up there, enjoying this marvellous view that all the motorists missed out on.
We continued on to the next tunnel, still climbing but thrilled with the route we had chosen. Now the clouds were closing in, the temperature dropped and the way ahead looked like an impassable wall of snow and rock. This was starting to look very serious and doubt filled our previously joyous hearts as we donned all our warm clothes and rain gear and pedalled towards the dark mouth of the second tunnel.
This tunnel was 6km long and definitely closed to cyclists. We were really beginning to think we should not be here. There was a man in a high-vis jacket controlling the traffic so we went to check if it was OK to cycle the tiny road up and over the pass. I was thinking/hoping he would say “no, no you can’t do that. Let me give you a ride through the tunnel in my heated truck.”
But he said “yes, ok” like it was no big deal, so we set off with some trepidation up the old road.
So there we were, two kiwis slogging our way up a Norwegian mountain pass, totally on our own with 4 metre walls of snow at the side of the road. I hoped we didn’t get a puncture.
As it turned out, the rain held off and the views were spectacular and we made it safely past the other tunnels, gradually dropping down in altitude. If we had been here a week earlier, we probably would not have got through this section.
Out of the mountains we sped downhill to the village of Roldal to the relative sanctuary of a campground and a supermarket.
The next day we had another testing climb up the roldalfjellet. Again there was a long tunnel for motorists while we climbed up and over the pass on the old road. These testing climbs with nobody else about, accompanied by majestic views, were weirdly becoming my favourite part.
Which was lucky, because we had a doozy the next day. We started off cycling through a shaded gorge on a slight uphill gradient, enough to keep us warm in the early morning shade.
We emerged from the cool darkness after about an hour of riding uphill and into mountain meadows with small villages. We knew we had climbed a fair old way when we passed a skifield. Thinking we must be nearly done with this uphill section, we rounded a bend into a valley and at the end of the valley loomed a huge wall with five steep switchbacks cut into the face. As we pedalled closer towards our unavoidable fate, we consoled ourselves with the thought that we could at least see the top now.
We’re in full sun, sweating profusely as we push those pedals round, inching slowly to the top, anxious to feel the relief in our legs when we reach the flat. We’re getting close and get our first glimpse of what lies ahead….and it ain’t flat ground. The road stretches off ahead of us, uphill, carving a path through the melting snow as far as we can see.
Well, it wasn’t going to do itself, so on we struggled and were nearly at the top when we pulled over for a breather and got chatting to a Swiss couple in a campervan. We asked if they could take a photo for us and they said “yes, anything for such a brave effort!” However ‘anything’ did not extend to changing modes of transport we discovered.
We carried on with our last ditch effort to reach the top, probably only another 500 metres, rounded another bend, hoping to at last see the summit, but instead all we could see was the road ahead traversing off to the left over what surely must be the top. We couldn’t actually see where the road tracked through the snow at the top though so we were a little worried, very over it and our energy severely depleted.
We agreed we needed some food before we tackled that, so sat in the shade of an electricity box to eat some lunch. Three and a half hours after leaving camp and we were spent and absolutely dreading the climb up the beast that sat before us. But we had to admit the views were magnificent and the weather perfect. And we knew what we’d signed up for. This was Norway, not the Netherlands. But we did wonder if we had bitten off a little more than we could chew at this stage. I think that’s one of the best things about cycle touring though. You can have a whinge, a cry or a full blown tantrum, but you still have to get yourself together and get back on your bike because nobody is coming to rescue you.
So after lunch, that’s exactly what we did. We took a look at that road stretching up to our left and with resignation to our fate, climbed back on our bikes and started pedalling.
We rounded a bend which revealed another spectacular scene, made all the better because we could see our road stretching off to the right…..along the flat! A spontaneous yee-ha went up from both of us and suddenly our smiles were back as we soaked up the beauty of our surroundings, quickly forgetting the pain it took to get there. Now we were cruising, inhaling the fresh mountain air, feeling the sun on our backs and happy to know we were now on the downhill stretch. And what a downhill…..it seemed to last forever! We had to take breaks to give our hands a rest from hauling on the brakes.
More spectacular views awaited us on every turn as we headed for Vikoyri on Sognefjord.
This next section had fjords and waterfalls everywhere.
The great thing about travelling by bike is you can stop almost anywhere to take a photo, but for motorists it’s a frustrating battle for the few parking spots that exist along the fjords.
Every day we had some sort of testing hill but we also had the views. This mountain section had been the part that had worried me the most. Yes, it was hard, but it was also totally worth it as we got tremendous views every day and great weather to enjoy them.
From Alesund we joined the famous Eurovelo 1 and finally met some more bikepackers. We had been on the road for a month and only met about five others. At the Alesund campground we had ten others all staying there.
From here the route was coastal and involved lots of ferries and bridges to get from one island to another. Very scenic but in a totally different way. As we headed inland to Trondheim, we started getting more hills. We were still feeling tired after our time in the mountains so we stayed in a hotel in Trondheim for two nights to recover a bit and give us time to explore this colourful city on foot.
People had warned us that the next section was boring and we should just catch a train to Bodo. That is pretty harsh, but in a country full of spectacular scenery, the first week after leaving Trondheim was the first time we hadn’t said “wow” at least once a day.
But Norway still had plenty of wow moments in store for us, and in the meantime we met some real characters and warm-hearted people.
The scenery picked up again at the Seven Sisters mountain range near Sandnessjoen. We really enjoyed this section as the stunning mountains and rocks made a reappearance with the good weather and there were not too many hills.
We reached Bodo where we planned to catch the 10.30pm ferry. Even at this unsociable time the ferry was jam packed for the four hour trip to the Lofotens but we managed to get a good three hours of sleep.
After all the traffic was taken off we pedalled to the famous Reinebringen steps. This walk up nearly 2000 steps is the most famous walk on the Lofoten Islands. Because of this, it gets very crowded during the day so we decided to take advantage of the never-ending light and climbed it at 3am! Unfortunately, as we climbed, early morning fog started to roll in so we sped up our efforts to beat the fog.
Having shed layers on the way up, at the top we were now hastily putting them back on as the fog brought arctic coldness with it. When the sun was shining, it was easy to forget we had crossed the Arctic circle days ago.
We had come a long way to see this view, so we sat and waited. It was a magical time, just us up there, watching the changes minute by minute. Big valleys full of cloud, slowly dissipating out to sea or into neighbouring valleys. A time lapse video would have looked amazing but we didn’t have that sort of battery life to play with.
As the sun began to rise higher in the sky, the clouds began to disperse, the warmth started to return and the mountains began to fully reveal themselves.
This view seemed almost too beautiful for this world … like we’d gone that far north, climbed so many steps that we’d somehow managed to find our way to heaven.
We lingered in Lofoten for several days, soaking up the scenery and the beautiful weather we had to go with it. Leaving such stunning scenery is hard to do, but Norway wasn’t finished yet.
More wow days awaited us on Vesteralen and Andoya and we still had the luxury of time to wait out the odd day of wind and/or rain.
In Senja we were again treated to majestic mountains and white sandy beaches, where we could pitch our tent for free.
Our last little summer fling was on the island of Sommaroy where magical beaches with clear turquoise water awaited us. We plunged in for our last swim in Norway, guesstimating the temperature at around 12C.
We finished our trip in Tromsø on another blue sky day. As a final treat, we got to see reindeer walking down the roads in the suburbs. Could this trip have gone any better? I don’t think so.
Total kms 3125 (Biggest day 94km)
Total days riding was 66 (out of 85).
Punctures 3…1 from glass, 2 faulty inner tubes.
17 days with some amount of rain, but only 6 that stopped us cycling and 17 days where temp didn’t get above 15.
What about an ebike?
For those wondering if you could do this trip on an ebike, Pete says:
In Europe ebike tours would be very practical. One guy we met travelled with 2 spare batteries and the first thing he did when arriving at a campground was to put his battery on to charge. Other than that he was doing exactly the same as us. He had panniers and a trailer to spread the weight (he liked some extra comforts like a folding chair). The main thing would be having those spare batteries.
Budget-wise, Norway is the perfect destination for a dieting teetotaller … Eating out is expensive, alcohol is ridiculous. Drinking out would be $20-25 per glass. A single beer in supermarkets is over $6.
Salmon however is very cheap compared to New Zealand.
Petrol was the equivalent of $NZ4.25 per litre – no wonder around 80% of new cars sold in Norway are electric.
At no time in Norway did we ever feel unsafe, says Pete.
The crime rate is low and Norway are actually closing their prisons.
“We were locking our bikes, but you never felt as though you needed to, it’s just the culture we have in N Z.
“Drivers are drivers the world over. There are good and bad.
Self-preservation is key and that means trying to predict the outcome of a situation with a vehicle before it goes too far. Plus a bit of luck.