We are Vikings!

Travel Stories: Rain, freezing temperatures and "glaciers the size of New Jersey" were among the obstacles Suzanne Schlosberg faced as she pedaled with the Road Cycling Club of Reykjavik, Iceland.

05.02.01 | 1:14 AM ET

BrrrrrrPhoto illustration by Michael Yessis.

I have heard numerous fitness enthusiasts boast about bicycling in the Dolomites, the Pyrenees, and the Swiss Alps. However, I have yet to hear anyone talk about conquering the terrain in the European road cycling Mecca of Iceland.

Perhaps “road cycling Mecca” is an overstatement. Perhaps I should say “country where a group ride means cycling with more than two people.” Iceland—an island of 280,000 just below the Arctic circle—may have freezing temperatures, gusting winds, driving rain, four months of near darkness and glaciers the size of New Jersey, but the country also has some diehard road racers. About seven of them.

I first learned about Icelandic road cycling via the Internet. My eight-day vacation landed right in the middle of my racing season, so I was hoping to locate a bike there for at least one ride. I found the Web page for the Road Cycling Club of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital and soon received an e-mail from the club’s president, Albert Jakobsson, who kindly offered to find me a bike and take me on a ride.

Upon arriving in Reykjavik I called Albert, who said his English was poor and he would prefer to discuss logistics in person. (Albert was exaggerating; everyone in Iceland speaks perfect English. When I mentioned this fact to an Icelandic woman, she explained, “Oh yes, we watch a lot of ‘ER’ and ‘Chicago Hope.’)

Albert, a bearded, blond, 38-year-old computer technician, arrived at my hotel eager to chat about road cycling in his country. Albert, it turns out, is the head honcho. He organizes the races, updates his club’s Web site and serves as the race official, even when he is competing. “Itīs pretty obvious who wins,” he said, “so I don’t really have to be at the finish line.” Albert was in the process of planning the season’s first race, scheduled for the following week. He was hoping for a field of seven.

Don’t be fooled: Icelandic road cyclists may be few but they are fierce competitors. They train year-round-even in the dark, even in sub-zero temperatures, even in the snow (they use nail-studded snow tires on mountain bikes). I asked the obvious question: Are you people insane? “If you want to compete, you must train,” Albert replied. I didn’t see why the seven of them couldn’t get together and make a pact to sit out, say, January (average hours of daylight: 3; average temperature: 0).

The day that Albert and I were scheduled to ride, temperatures hovered in the mid-thirties, winds blew hard, it rained almost nonstop and the sun peeked through the clouds for somewhere between 30 and 40 seconds. I feared our ride would be cancelled, but Albert showed up at my hotel at 5 p.m. sharp. He was dressed from head to toe-cap, jacket, tights-in the bright blue uniform of Italy’s famous Mapei cycling team.

“Wow!” I said. “Where did you get the clothes?”

“I’m sponsored!” Albert joked.

Since there are no road bike shops in the country, Albert went to Germany a while back and bought about four years’ worth of shoes, tires, tights, jerseys, jackets and other essential gear. He also makes purchases via the Internet.

We drove back to Albert’s place, and he gave me the bike he’d borrowed from a friend: a Trek 5200-the very same bike I ride at home. This was rather a miracle, not unlike arriving in Raratonga to find that a local villager has your favorite “Law & Order” episode on videotape.

As soon as Albert and I set off, it became clear that road cyclists are the same worldwide. It wasn’t the dedication; it was the excuses. “This is my slow week,” Albert said, explaining the moderate pace. Then, to dampen my expectations for his performance on the climbs, he started whining about the weight he’d gained since the birth of his 5-month-old son.

After a half mile we hooked up with a bike path that wound around the outskirts of town. I cannot say the scenery-mostly flat, mostly brown-was pretty. The entire country has about 17 trees. The rest, according to my tour guide, had disappeared by the year 1400, chopped down by the natives who needed them for iron smelting, or some such medieval pastime.

As Albert and I meandered around the bike path, the skies grew dark and the winds fierce. After 9 miles, Albert pulled to a halt. “We must stop,” he said. “From here you need a mountain bike.” As we retraced our path, rain drops-driven by the brutal crosswind-began pelting me in the face like BB gun bullets.

By the time we reached Albert’s house, I’d had my fill of the Icelandic cycling scene. I asked Albert why he bothers to ride a road bike in a country that has no good roads, no road bike shops, no sun, no daylight half the year, and almost no reprieve from the wind and rain.

“We are Vikings!” he said.

“I am not a Viking!” I replied.

I wanted to add, “I am just a Jewish girl from the Valley!” But I didn’t think that would translate well in Icelandic.

Suzanne Schlosberg is a Bend, Oregon-based writer.

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