Off the Bike

I was trapped. The Arctic Race of Norway, a world class cycling race, was scheduled to pass Reine on our day off there. The only road out of town would be closed for much of the day, curtailing my plans for a day ride to Å where the road ends at the bottom of Lofoten. It was a silent message to get out of my rut.

Rich was enthralled with the idea of the race. He spent hours scoping out good photography spots, eager to see it and get artistic shots of the racers. His goal was to capture the string of cyclists from afar, framed by the dramatic scenery. Long before the start of the race, he loaded up his equipment and set out to claim his spot. Oozing with anticipation.

Mildly interested in the cyclists, I arrived at the corner where they would pass closest to town shortly before the start of the race. I wanted to see them up close. To feel the breeze as they whizzed by.

Just minutes after the starting gun nine kilometers away, the lead cars came into view literally coming around the mountain in the distance. Followed in close pursuit by the pack of cyclists. In short order, they shot out of the tunnel at the bottom of the hill and advanced up the slope. A short column of cyclists had pulled out front with a seething mass of rainbow colored jerseys and madly rotating pedals right on their heels. That early in the race, they were tightly packed. Gone in a flash.

On my way back to our rorbu I spotted a Viking ship in full sail, just leaving the wharf. It was from the Lofotr Viking Museum, all of its crew in full costume. No doubt it was drawn to Reine as part of the race festivities. Rounding the corner it sailed right past our rorbu.

Not bad, a cycling race and a Viking ship. But the highlight of my day was yet to come. Wanting to do something unique, I had signed up for a kayaking trip in the afternoon. Piling on all my warm and waterproof clothes I headed for the paddling center.

My tour was led by Marco from Belgium, and I was joined by seven other assorted kayakers. All of them French speaking. I was assigned a kayak with a young woman from France. As soon as we launched, she turned around and said, “My English not good.” I thought it wise to get “gauche” and “droite” sorted out right away. She assured me she understood the English words for left and right. I needn’t have worried, she was a competent paddler.

The skies were leaden and the clouds hung low over the mountains. It wasn’t a glorious day for scenery, but I didn’t care. I was kayaking in Norway. In a fjord. We followed Marco across the fjord to the base of a mountain, the one they call the Queen. From our position the sheer rock face rose straight up, mossy greenery clinging part way up then solid gray. Truffle seaweed floated in abundance on the water, and Marco handed out samples to taste. The brown salty leafy leaves tickled my mouth, but had a pleasing flavor.

It was calm enough to venture out into the open sea. Still well protected, we paddled among the rocks, watched cormorants perched in a row, slid through a narrow crevice. The pace was leisurely, the temperature mild. Our paddles dipped through the water, light waves slapped against the boat. There was nowhere else I wanted to be. Not even on a bike.

Rough Riding to Reine

The rain splattered windows frame the gray water of the harbor, reflecting the dull skies above. Flanked by soaring mountains of rock draped in clouds, red buildings trimmed in white line the opposite shore next to long wooden piers. A sturdy fishing boat motors past. I sit in our cosy rorbu, this one refurbished from an original fisherman’s cottage, with rough scarred log walls and a creaky uneven floor. More red buildings surround this one, capped with sod roofs, angled toward the water.

Clearly the weather pattern has changed. After 13 days of near perfect sunshine, yesterday we donned our rain jackets for the first time. We had no choice but to cycle in the rain, as we had a ferry to catch. This was no ordinary transit, it was a bike ferry!

Hidden away down a small lane, the crew members waved us over to board the small wooden fishing trawler. As they lashed our bikes to the front deck, we checked out the boat while awaiting our fellow cyclists, pleased that the rain had stopped. Once they were on board, we were off.

I never gave it a thought. It was a calm day, and only a 45 minute trip. I settled into a plastic chair on the lower deck breathing in the crisp air as we headed out to sea. That right there was the problem. This was not a sheltered trip between islands. It was a journey out and around to the next island. That became apparent as soon as we cleared the breakwater.

The lack of wind was irrelevant. Strong currents and waves coming up from the south created huge swells. The bow crawled up each one and dove down the other side. The railings rose and dipped from side to side. Gamely, I juggled my body to counteract the movement of the boat, certain I could handle it. But the waves won, and the mate gave me a sympathetic look as he brought me a bucket. Which I put to use. When we left the boat, the captain engulfed me in a big bear hug. And I hugged him back.

Despite the misery that gripped my body uncontrollably and left me weak and sweaty, I don’t regret the trip. I just hoped that the eager group of cyclists who boarded for the return trip knew what they were getting into.

We landed in Nusfjord, a fishing village with exceptionally well preserved wooden buildings lining the harbor. It was worth exploring, and walking its perimeter and gingerly climbing up a rocky outlook on the opposite side helped get me back on my feet before mounting my bike again.

Cycling under leaden skies does not invite lingering for photos or exploring. But the remainder of the day remained dry and I did my best to imagine the scenery in better light.

We had several tunnels on that stretch. But the two long ones still had the old road in tact, which made delightful bike trails right on the water’s edge.

It was the last full day of cycling on our tour. I looked forward to staying in Reine, reputed to be in one of the prettiest spots in the Lofoten Islands. Approaching the village, I spotted our rorbu in the distance, pleased with our home for the next two nights. Right on the waterfront. At the foot of a mountain. Where I now contentedly peer out the windows.

Legendary Lofoten

It’s impossible to.plan a trip to Arctic Norway without hearing of Lofoten. Before I could even correctly pronounce the name of this archipelago (luf’ uh tn) I knew of its reputation for spectacular scenery – rugged mountains that drop precipitously into the sea, deep fjords, picturesque fishing villages and isolated beaches. When we chose among our bike tour options, we immediately gravitated to Lofoten for the second half of our trip.

Along with its reputation for beauty naturally comes tourism. It’s popularity overruns the inventory of lodgings we were told, and the main highway would be a busy challenge for cycling. After relishing the unpopulated and scenic wilderness of the islands to the north, we braced ourselves.

July is high season here, followed closely by August. But to our delight the feared crowds have not materialized. By cycling the smaller roads and sticking to the coast, we still have the place to ourselves. Our pace is relaxed. We can dally and soak up the scenery as we go. Since we are on a tour, our lodgings are already secured, our dinner booked. If those commodities are tight, it’s no worry for us.

On our first two nights we got our taste of “rorbu” or fishermen’s cabins.  Tourist hype alludes to these accommodations as rustic and shared, perhaps even privately owned. A throwback to the fishing days, and a way to expand lodging options for this popular area. True life revealed them to be modern copies of said structures. Cabins in name, modern in construction and amenities. Ours had a comfortable living space with kitchen facilities and a bathroom downstairs. Steep ladder like steps led to two attic bedrooms above.  Conceivably one might have to share with strangers, but we were spared that experience. Once I got past legend, accepting the reality wasn’t hard.  And I couldn’t argue with our waterfront location.

This tour is more relaxed than the first. We cover fewer miles per day and we stay two nights in several locations, enabling rest days, day trips or booking other adventures. On our first we cycled to Henningsvaer, a nearby fishing village.

Photos tell the story best, as we work our way down the coastline from island to island and experience legendary Lofoten for ourselves.

Beach activity on a warm day

A rare glimpse of civilization on this stretch

A study in gold

Cycling the narrow edge between mountains and water

Morning calm

An idyllic spot for a picnic lunch

A well earned rest and view at the top of a pass

Blindsided

The words sent a chill down my spine. “I need you to cycle in front of me so I can follow you over that bridge.” Their meaning was more dire than appeared on the surface.

It was the first morning of this 18-day cycling tour in Norway. We were only a few miles out of town, and riding on a wide protected bike path. The safe and easy riding suddenly took on an aura of danger. As I passed him, Rich confirmed my fears. “I’m having trouble seeing again.”

Rich has been battling dry eyes for months. The problem intensified when he drove a car or did outdoor sports that involved air movement. Between excessive blinking and hazy images, his vision was decidedly impaired. Through lengthy research and trials, he accumulated a vast array of drops, goggles and glasses that helped alleviate the symptoms. He’d been biking through it all and thought he had it licked. That morning proved otherwise.

We made it over the bridge and seven more miles with Rich close on my fender. When the bike trail bike ended we proceeded with dread as cars sped by in close proximity. Fortunately, we were in a remote area of Arctic coastline, so traffic was light. As the day passed, Rich’s vision improved – as inexplicably as it deteriorated – and we completed the day’s cycling safely.

In the morning, Rich’s vision was good. But that was the norm for him. We could only hope it would last. I cycled in the lead once again, keeping a close eye on Rich in my rear view mirror. It was a quiet rural road and I inevitably gained a little distance on him when the road climbed. Going around a curve Rich disappeared from my mirror, so I stopped to wait. And wait. Far longer than it should have taken.

“I took a tumble,” he said when he caught up to me. Again, the words were an understatement. Not seeing clearly, he misjudged the edge of the pavement, ran off onto the dirt and fell into a ditch. He was cycling again, but gingerly. “I bruised my ribs, maybe even a fracture,” he said. It was quite a wake-up call. As bad as it was, images of what could have happened flashed through our minds.

We came up with a new strategy. I cycled behind Rich, forcing us to stay together and allowing me to keep close tabs on him. “Just yell at me if I veer into the road,” Rich requested. “Yell as often as you need. I won’t get mad.” That alone revealed the depth of his fear.

We’re taking this journey one day at a time. Slowing down. Choosing the shortest routes. Taking breaks when needed. Sometimes mental health breaks. “It’s incredibly wearing having to constantly focus on that white line on the edge of the road.” Yikes. Add breaks to see the amazing scenery that surrounds us.

Despite it all, Rich is still enjoying the trip. Norway is all we hoped it would be. Wilderness, coastline and mountains. Good cycling with reasonable distances each day. Accommodations in extraordinary locations. Fresh local fare for every meal. Perhaps most importantly, Rich can still see well enough to take his legendary bird photographs. While standing still.

In short, he’s coping. We’re making it work. Despite being blindsided by this unfortunate twist of fate, we’d still rather be here. Pedaling through this beautiful Arctic countryside. Carefully.

Divide and Conquer

Compromise isn’t always the answer. In the interest of marital harmony, there are times when doing your own thing is the best route to take. This was one of them.

The tour itinerary offered three options for the day. 1) Cycle from Sortland to Storvagan, a distance of 83 kilometers. 2) Add a detour to skirt the northwestern edge of the island, adding 46k. 3) Cycle 28k to Stokmarknes and take the Hurtigruten ferry to Svolvær, then cycle 7k to reach Storvagan.

Anyone who knows me, can easily predict my preference. Being a purist, I wanted to stay on my bicycle, not a ferry. And I hankered to do the full 129k. Still nursing his sore ribs from a tumble early in the trip, Rich sensibly opted for the ferry. I agreed with his choice, I just didn’t want it for myself.

Rich was opposed to me cycling alone. We had limited means of contacting one another, and my mechanical skills with a bicycle are woefully lacking. He had a point. Roadblock.

Salvation came with breakfast. We shared our respective plans for the day with Hector and Alexi, the other couple on our tour while scooping up meusli and slicing fresh warm bread. “We’re going to do the full route with the detour,” they told me. My mind raced and my heart leapt. “Would you mind if I cycled with you?” I asked, holding my breath.

What else could they say? “Not at all,” they replied. And I already knew Hector was capable of changing a flat tire. With a grin on my face and Rich’s support, I rushed to get ready for the longer journey.

Rich and I left together, enjoying the tailwind and waterside route. When I split off with Hector and Alexi, it became a mad dash to catch the short ferry we needed to the next island. We arrived with just five minutes to spare, granting us more time to For our extended route.

Our scenic detour began directly on the other end of the ferry. Instead of the busy main road, we took a small local lane that clung to the water’s edge. It drew us out to the open sea then circled back inland around the perimeter of a fjord. Then repeated the routine. The temperature swung with our location, hot and sunny inland, brisk and cool in the ocean winds.

The whole tenor of the day changed on that road. “We like to stop and take lots of pictures, and see things,” Alexi warned me. They also drifted apart then reconnected as interests and paces dictated. I took their lead and relished the freedom to savor the silence of the countryside, the majesty of the mountains towering over me. Hurry didn’t apply here.

Mid afternoon we cycled out to a small fishing village just off our route. Eating the sandwiches we’d made from the breakfast buffet (standard practice for this tour) on the edge of the harbor, we spied a local coffee shop. It called to us, and we lingered over lattes and cappuccinos and shared a decadent slice of chocolate torte. The sun beat down on our sheltered picnic table, rare warmth on this trip.

Turning inland to complete our detour, we found ourselves surrounded by mountains. Nothing but towering peaks in all directions. I realized they hadn’t given us the elevation profile for this detour, and a niggling feeling invaded my serenity. At first, we followed a fjord, which kept us on the flat. I couldn’t see any kind of mountain pass or road carved into the soaring hillsides. I cycled on, marveling at our lack of altitude gain. So far.

Nature came to our rescue. One fjord ended next to a lake, followed by another lake. Then a fjord originating from the other side. We slid right between all those peaks over delightful rolling hills and smooth pavement that delivered us all the way out to the main road.

Afternoon was waning by the time we approached Svolvær, and we could see the enormous Hurtigruten ship heading for port. Racing it to the terminal, we arrived just as it reached the dock and delivered Rich with his bicycle.

“We went right into the Troll Fjord and spun around in that narrow space!” he reported. I responded with enthusiastic praise for cycling the opposite coast. The seven kilometers to our hotel passed quickly under our tires and we gushed about our respective experiences over a late dinner.

The energy of that evening was as palpable as the tension in the morning. It was the right thing to do. To divide and conquer, reuniting refreshed and fulfilled.

Tunnel Etiquette

We interrupt this bike trip to bring you… another tunnel. We’ve cycled through far more long tunnels in three days than we have in all our years of bike touring. Yesterday alone we cycled more than 5 kilometers underground. But it’s a welcome disruption, given the alternative! And we’ve mastered the art of navigating these dark caverns.

First – turn on blinky lights. I have them on my bike, front and rear. And atop my helmet.

Second – Replace sunglasses with regular clear glasses.

Third – Put on headlamp. Oops, I forgot to put it in my panniers…

Fourth – Hit the button to illuminate the sign. “Cyclists in Tunnel”

Fifth – Start pedaling and hope for low traffic. Watch out for the pillars that often mark the edge of the road.

Not all tunnels are created equal. Some are wide, well lit and have good pavement. Others not so much. One tunnel started out fairly bright but degraded to near darkness in the middle. This one was a lot darker than it appears, due to Rich’s flash. But you get the idea.

Our longest tunnel was 2.2k long. One was a constant incline for 1.2k. Anther was downhill all the way. But seeing the light at the end of the tunnel is always a relief!

When there is no sign to warn motorists of our presence, they provide reflector vests for cyclists. There is a receptacle that looks like a post box at each end of the tunnel, to pick up and return the vests. The size XL swamps my body but I wear it anyway. I have a vested interest in staying alive.

Although the whole purpose of tunnels is to avoid going over the mountain pass, it often requires a decent climb, perhaps even involving switchbacks, to reach the entrance. But the payoff is in the views en route. After a grueling ascent, we reached this unique roadside viewpoint, with a 44-meter long curvy platform for ogling the fjord down below. we weren’t the only cyclists stopping there for the view. And the rest.

Not all scenery involves tunnels. I rather enjoyed scrambling over the rocks to get closer to the Devil’s Teeth.

Today we did the unthinkable. We skipped a tunnel and a bridge in favor of the old road over the pass and around the fjord. Even Rich agreed it was well worth the extra effort.

Next time we’re likely to return to our senses and mind our manners, as we pedal through the tunnel.

Arctic Perfection

Anticipation is half the fun of taking a vacation. And in dreaming about that upcoming adventure everything is always perfect. The weather, the activities, the food and lodging, the scenery. When bike touring, throw in good roads, little traffic, easy navigation and smooth riding. Today, day one of cycling in Norway, was all of that and more.

Our route took us 62 kilometers from Tromsø to the far outer edge of that region of Arctic islands. Starting off with 22k on a wide bike trail was an unexpected bonus, and a nice way to ease into the ride. That was followed by roads that got narrower the further afield we got, yet cars always made room for us. I couldn’t help but wonder how they could have such good pavement when they have brutal winters like ours.

Most of our biking followed water. First we skirted the outer edges of the islands as we moved from one to another. As long as we were next to the water, it was easy flat riding. Yet we had plenty of mountains to ogle in the distance.

Moving inland, we had a steep climb to get up into a mountain valley. Just like Duluth, as soon as we left the water it got warm! Traveling down the valley the rocky outcroppings were dotted with pools of leftover snow and ice.

At the end of our descent at the far end, we met Nordfjorden. We cycled right on the edge of this fjord where a narrow band of azure blue water followed the shoreline. My favorite part was going all the way down one side and back on the other around a narrow inlet lined with houses and boats bobbing in the water. The tidy colorful houses with steep roofs epitomized my expectations of a Norwegian scene. Even the lawn ornaments complied.

That let to wider sections that eventually opened out to the open sea. The stiff ocean breezes were chilly but invigorating!

Our final stretch took us out to a small island facing the sea. More azure water greeted us in the sheltered areas, along with sandy beaches. It seemed a study in contrasts.

Reaching our lodgings on a quiet cove while still under clear blue skies clinched it. Cycling in Norway was all I’d envisioned it to be. And then some. No matter how the rest of the tour goes, the first day attained perfection.