The Long and Winding Road

A journey into the history books across Iceland’s rugged, desolate and beautiful interior.

Courtesy of the Rough-Stuff Fellowship

We all have roads that lodge in our mind. Trips we want to take, routes we want to do. It may just be a particular stretch of local lane we want to check in with, a certain view, an anonymous hill or nameless col. Or we may set our sights on bigger goals – larger vistas and harder challenges.

One such place that has entered the collective cycling psyche is Iceland. It has its famous coastal ring road, Route 1, but the real adventure has always resided in its desolate, rugged and beautiful interior. Perhaps the most legendary route across is the Sprengisandur.

Sprengisandur is a high desert plateau crowned by an 826-metre pass in the eastern central ranges of the island. Known as a crossing since the time of the Icelandic Sagas, the name derives from the ‘sand’ of the volcanic ash deserts and the verb sprengja, which can mean something like ‘to ride a horse to death’. It consists of around 170 miles of punishing terrain between the end of the tarmac near Reykjavik and the northern stronghold town of Akureyri. Miles of undulating, windswept lava fields that range from deep dust to lacerating boulders, passing between glaciers with meltwater rivers to traverse, all under unpredictable and extreme weather.

Plenty have tried to cross, and plenty have failed, including photographer and filmmaker George Marshall, who travelled with his old friend, framebuilder Tom Donhou, in 2015 to test Donhou’s newest gravel bike prototype. They rode for two days in high winds before making it to the lonely mountain hut of Nyidalur, where they were ordered by the warden to go no further. After four days without food at the refuge, and with no sign of the storm easing, they were forced to hitch a lift out of the park.

Courtesy of the Rough-Stuff Fellowship / Raymond Bottomely

George and Tom were not, of course, the first to try the Sprengisandur. In 1958, only five years after the first motorised crossing, the UK’s Rough-Stuff Fellowship, the world’s oldest off-road cycling club, planned its own trip – which, if successful, they believed would be the first ever crossing by bike. It was to be organised by ‘Iceland’ Dick Phillips: Dick had tried Sprengisandur in 1956 only to be repelled by the raging rivers in spate. On his return, were to be Bernard ‘Beefy’ Heath, road captain, and Raymond ‘Cheesey’ Bottomley, cook and chief photographer. Another man, John ‘Inky’ Hinchcliffe, had a last-minute problem and was refused release from National Service. So with only one week to go Ron Bartle, 24 years old and an experienced touring cyclist, was drafted in as mechanic and fourth wheel. The short notice perhaps explains his lack of a nickname in the documents of the expedition. But it certainly did not hurt his case that he was the right height to ride the custom-made reinforced touring bike – fixed wheel – that had already been made by Viking.

Courtesy of the Rough-Stuff Fellowship / Raymond Bottomely

“The tent was only a three-man tent, one of Black’s latest, in Terylene,” Ron says. “It had an extension to the ground sheet so we could weight it down with rocks or sand, and we slept with our feet out of the door, covered in cycling capes, because there wasn’t room inside.” Other kit on the extensive kit list included darning needles, spare socks (“Recommend plenty, lava plays havoc with socks, making them unwashably dirty in no time”), a canvas bucket, and an inflatable dinghy and stout line, with which to make the multiple river crossings.

It took them 10 days to cross the desert, to the first farmstead at Myri, before telegraphing home from Akureyri their success.

Afterwards, they embarked on a lecture tour, showing slides of their adventure. “There was a notice in the Cyclists’ Touring Club Gazette, as it was then, describing this forthcoming lecture by the first people ever to cross Sprengisandur by bicycle,” said Dick Phillips, in an interview in 2015 (Dick sadly passed away while the Rough-Stuff Fellowship Archive book, which reproduced a lot of material from the Iceland Expedition, was being produced). “And then Horace Dall wrote in and said, ‘Actually I did that in 1933.’”

Courtesy of the Rough-Stuff Fellowship / Raymond Bottomely

So the RSF riders were not the first either. Horace Dall – at that point the unknown Icelandic cycling pioneer – was an astronomer and maker of optical instruments, who had adventured far across the world, mainly on his own. He produced photos and an account of his trip on a heavy three-speed Raleigh and in tweeds, guided by the stars and a poorly detailed map, solo across a terrain that even today can be dangerous, even fatal for well-prepared adventurers. Dick continues: “We had to agree we were not the first people to cross Sprengisandur by bicycle. We were the first people to do it completely unassisted – because he had a boat across the Tungnaá – but he must get the credit. He was a man who didn’t give up. Some people overcome obstacles by cunning, some people by perseverance, but Horace Dall, I think, was someone who overcame problems by not noticing they were there, and just pressing on as if there wasn’t a problem until it was past.”

George Marshall went back to Sprengisandur in the autumn of 2019 with Rapha riders, to test some of the new Explore collection. Again, bad weather threatened to cut short their crossing. But this time, the ranger at the hut recognised George from his last visit, gave them advice to keep pushing on fast, and they raced in front of the storm to make it across intact.

Since that time, Covid has curtailed so many of our freedoms, leaving all of us dreaming of larger horizons once again. Never mind Iceland, even the local trails may at times have seemed impossibly remote. Preparation and planning are what is left to us, along with perseverance – though not perhaps of the kind that Horace practised on his trip. And, if there’s anything we’ve all had to learn, it’s patience. Sprengisandur has existed since the Middle Ages: it will be there next year, and the year after that. So too, probably, will your road. You’re unlikely to be the first; you certainly won’t be the last. Let’s all hope for plenty more smooth (and not so smooth) miles ahead of us.

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