If you’re going to do a week-long mountain biking trip in Iceland, it’s wise to ride a mountain bike, at least once, before you go.
It’s uncharacteristic for me to do so little preparation prior to visiting a new country, especially one I’ve wanted to visit for years. But it was a much different trip than the kind I’m used to. This one was pre-planned and guided. All I had to do was show up at the designated meeting place on time.
Ease breeds laziness in my world. I barely cracked open my Moon travel guide before getting overwhelmed by the Icelandic alphabet which contains 32 letters, many of them stacked lavishly together to form words like, “Mér þykir það leitt.”
And I put off reading the trip documents sent by my Aunt Nancy’s travel agent until exactly one week before our departure date. When I finally scanned them, I learned that we’d be mountain biking instead of road riding.
I’m a competent cyclist who rides a converted gravel bike to work every day. Even though my tires rarely meet natural terrain, how different or difficult could mountain biking really be?
Luke, a mountain biker, knew the answer to this question and suggested I practice before leaving.
“Do you want to try riding my bike, just up and down the alley?” he asked?
“Nah, I’m good.” I said full of false confidence.
As a naturally athletic person, I tend to pick up new sports easily. I’ve never known what it’s like to be considered the lowest common denominator. This trip to Iceland taught me what that feels like.
“I have an idea,” our guide Anna said to us on the first day. “Let’s try a new trail!” She then proceeded to drop us off at the top of an actual mountain. I hopped on my bike and tested its shocks. “Bouncy!” I said to no one because the rest of the group was already heading down the trail.
Conditions were rough. It hadn’t rained in nearly a month and the trail was loose, baseball-sized chunks of gravel. I rolled unsteadily down the first part of the hill. It was steep, but straight. We stopped to admire a smoking mound of land (it’s an Iceland thing) before continuing on. From there, the trail narrowed and involved a tight turn with a steep scree field dropping off to the left.
Aunt Nancy and I hung back to let the competent riders go ahead. First down the trail was our guide Mike. He tried to ride out the turn and fell partially down the scree field. Rick went next. Same fate. Lisa made the turn, but wiped out on the descent shortly after.
Aunt Nancy turned to me with a look of genuine concern and asked, “You’re not going to ride that, are you?”
“NOOOO!” I said, thoroughly spooked as the horror of our current situation set in. This was the first day of our trip. All of the experienced riders were bleeding and there were four more days ahead of us. Aunt Nancy and I were not going to make it out alive.
We did the sensible thing and walked our bikes along parts of the trail that were simply too much for us to navigate. In some places, it was packed with hikers. In others, dense smoke obscured turns. Our group had stop and wait for us several times, which made me self-conscious. However, we were the only two who walked away from that mountain without ripped tights or skin.
After that ride, Aunt Nancy and I decided we wouldn’t be the best riders in the group, but we would be the most fun riders in the group. Having a sense of humor about your weaknesses makes it far less awkward for everyone involved.
Aunt Nancy assumed a “zen puffin” persona and stayed comfortably in the back, riding slowly and steadily. The group could wait and she always arrived with a smile.
I decided to hang behind the women riders and watch what they did. It’s how I learned to ski as an adult. While Luke’s Dad threw a rope around him at the age of four and let him rip out ahead, I threw back a shot of Goldschallger and followed my friend Monique’s lines. Eventually, I got the hang of it.
Things got a lot easier once I realized the same principles of skiing apply to mountain biking: trust your equipment; let it move beneath you; hold the turn just a little longer; and ease up on the brakes – it’s more fun if you carry some speed.
By the end of the trip, I was (mostly) able to hang with the group. Our final ride was through a lava field that involved navigating deep sand, water crossings and undulating hills. I made it out with only a minor case of trench foot. I even opted to ride an extra five miles back to the hotel while maintaining a decent pace and a conversation.
I don’t know if this is a lesson regarding preparedness, resilience or que sera, sera. But I now know, you should learn how to mountain bike before going on a mountain biking trip in Iceland.