Updated: Mar 28, 2022
An adventure ride on the ring road of Iceland with a stop for a beer in the Arctic Circle...
I was returning from a business trip to Chicago, flipping through the airways magazine when I see an article about a guy who had rented a BMW GS 1200 in Reykjavik, Iceland. He spent the weekend exploring waterfalls and hot springs within a day trip of the city. …Really? …Can you actually do that in Iceland? …This sounds awesome! I had to know more. Being captive on the plane I took advantage of the WiFi and shot an email to the tour company appropriately named BikingViking.com. When I landed, I was thrilled to have received a reply from Thor. Seriously, the owners name was Thor! How perfect is this. Turns out that, Yes, you can ride motorcycles in Iceland. And, for about three months of the year enough snow and ice melts so that you can navigate the ring road around the entire country. From this road you can see black sand beaches, hot springs, waterfalls, geysers, glaciers and dormant volcanoes all within a stones throw of the Arctic Circle!
The Land of Fire and Ice needed to be my next adventure. I started going through my mental checklist to determine if I could make this happen? Do I have the skills, the fitness, the gear, the perseverance to deal with poor weather riding conditions? …yes, yes, yes and Yes! Then, the question of should I do this? This was primarily driven by time and money. Could I free up enough time away from work and family? And was this experience worth the cost to me? I had pretty much determined the answer was yes to both questions, especially since Thor was handling all of the logistics, when this thought crept into my head “even if it’s a bad idea, that doesn’t mean it won’t be a good time.”
Now I just needed someone to go with me. Since I primarily split my riding time between Ducati’s on the street and Honda CRF450X for my off-road fix, I did not have a pool of BMW Adventure riding friends to approach for this ride. I opted to go outside of my circle of riding buddies and approached a friend who I knew shared my enthusiasm for trying new things, especially those that had just the right amount of risk that something could go wrong. Bill was a rather easy sell, but when I threw out my recruiting pitch “…that doesn’t mean it won’t be a good time” any apprehension he may have had was gone.
Our trip was an adventure from the start. Fueled by the excitement for our upcoming ride we seemed to have no problem talking our way into some upgraded business class seats for our five-hour flight from Washington DC to Reykjavik. While enjoying our newfound creature comforts, we began to tackle our next potential hurdle, that Bill did not have a motorcycle license. Our plan was a simple one, we convinced ourselves that Thor couldn’t possibly be a detail guy. When it came time to present our drivers licenses, we would just distract him with a barrage of questions and hope he does not notice that Bill had no motorcycle endorsement. Our genius plan worked, and off we went on our newly rented bikes.
For being such a big motorcycle, loaded with a week’s worth of gear, the BMW GS 1200 is a very forgiving and user-friendly bike. Lots of low-end torque, a smooth power delivery and confidence inspiring low seat height allowed us to navigate the only city traffic of our trip with ease. In no time at all my GPS had us heading out of Reykjavik and into the rural Icelandic countryside.
Day one was filled with fantastic sites of waterfalls, geysers and glaciers that could be viewed in a US National Park-like setting along-side tour buses and other selfie-stick wielding tourists. This experience changed dramatically once we were beyond a day trip from Reykjavik. Suddenly, it was very rural, towns and gas stations were far apart, and there were almost no people. We would pass the occasional farmer or other adventures camping along the ring road. Experiencing some of what life in Iceland is really like was truly a gift. Day after day the sites were just as impressive as they were on day one. But now, we would experience them in their natural state with no lines or dedicated tourist viewing areas.
Circling the country counter-clockwise we enjoyed a view of the ocean and black volcanic sand beaches to our right for portions of every day. The land is rather barren with frost heaved cracks in the dirt and mossy vegetation but no trees. One of the locals, explained there are no trees due to the extremely short growing season. He laughed and said “the joke in Iceland is if you get lost in the forest, stand up!” Waterfalls make up for the lack of trees, and the running water made the landscape feel very alive.
As we rode on, we would typically only encounter other people in small villages or port towns at the end of each day. But everywhere we stopped people would ask where we were going and seemed genuinely interested in our two wheeled adventure. That gave us the opportunity to relive our day, which is one of the best parts riding.
The ring road is really just a giant circle, so it’s hard to get lost. Kind of like a NASCAR track, when in doubt turn left. But we did veer off our GPS programed route several times for some added adventures. This included riding nearly 40 miles on a dirt road so we could view a waterfall from the opposite side, and finding a natural hot spring and stripping out of riding gear in sub-freezing temperatures to jump in. But the greatest challenge occurred on a detour to the northern most point of our ride. We followed 30 miles of dirt roads to arrive at the coast on Route 85. We were ready for asphalt after several miles of bouncing over wash-boarded dirt. Unfortunately, we traded one problem for another. Turning onto the asphalt we encountered intense gusting winds. Heading southwest along the coast the road became windy and narrow and to our right the cliff edge was getting progressively steeper. With the wind having no problem pushing our big bikes around we slowed our pace, stayed to the left as much as possible and toughed it out to the town of Norðurþing. Arriving in this port town the hills were blocking the wind, the sun was shining, and we were greeted by a pub serving the Viking Lager. Best beer of my life! Over a beer we both confessed to being more than a little uneasy in the wind but then agreed, “if it all ends here, being blown off a cliff while riding a motorcycle to the artic circle makes for a great story!”
Spontaneous adventures are never without their challenges. If they were, they wouldn’t be an adventure. For us, running out of gas in front of a sign reading “don’t ask for gas”, two minor “crashes”, and scheduling our flights home on two different days were just a few of the unanticipated bumps in the road. But I wouldn’t trade any of them. They all have provided material for stories the have been retold countless times. And that value is priceless.
If you are considering this as your potential next adventure, I highly recommend it. Other than our wind experience in Norðurþing, the ride is not overly technical. Riding the ring road is about enjoying new sites, surviving the elements, and bragging rights for having ridden a motorcycle to some of the northern most destinations on the planet. For more details on how we made this trip a reality see below:
· The Bikes - We all love our own bikes but shipping one to Iceland is certainly not the best option. Renting from Thor and BikingViking was a great choice. We rode BMW GS 1200 models with heated grips, panniers and GPS navigation.
· The Gear- We did need to bring our own riding gear. Insulated and waterproof Olympia riding suit, Full-face Shoe helmet with tinted visor and a chin curtain, Gaerne Adventure Boots, Alpine Stars insulated gloves. And multiple base layers that could easily be added and removed for changing weather conditions.
· Skill Level – This was not a technical ride and the vast majority was paved with options for some dirt road exploring. However, it is long approximately 275 miles/day, with wildly changing weather conditions. Every day we saw the sun but also encountered storms, wind, and even some snow with temperatures ranging from 25 – 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
· Travel logistics - Not wanting to become an expert on Icelandic travel I opted to leave this up to Thor and Biking Viking. They provided us with the bikes, planned the route, loaded the coordinates onto the GPS and booked the accommodations (Hotels and AirB&B’s) with food that far exceed our expectations.
· Greatest challenge - Weather! I’ve never been anywhere in the world where the conditions change so quickly and so often. Riding in the sun and seeing a black storm cloud rolling in off the ocean can be very intimidating. Then add the fact that there are no trees in Iceland to provide any shelter from the wind and rain, and it does get quite challenging. But, just as fast as the wind and rain starts, it blows through. And you are left wiping your visor under a rainbow watching the water fall off moss covered cliffs, kind of like you just rode into a Disney movie.
· What could go wrong – My partner on this ride had not really ridden since college (and that had been a while.) But we both figured his overwhelming sense of adventure and enthusiasm would make up for this lack of recent motorcycle experience? Before we left, I did take him out for an afternoon test ride, loaning him my Kawasaki KLX 250 dual sport. A far cry from a BMW GS 1200 we’d be renting, but it’s all we had. And with that off to Iceland we went! The size and weight of the BMW presented an immediate challenge in getting him started. With the rental staff watching, I maneuvered his bike for a “photo op” making sure it was pointed in the most direct route into the street hoping to avoid a drop in the parking lot. And thinking, if he crashes at least he will be out of sight. The plan worked and the crash didn’t occur until much later in the trip.
· Cost (per Person) – Airfare from Washington DC $625. Bike Rental and accommodations $2,750. Plus fuel and meals.
· Time Required - Our trip occurred in August and was 9 days total. Seven days on the bike and a travel day on each end.
· How physically demanding is this ride – Due to the distance approximately 1,900 miles and weather changes this ride is an endurance test both physically and mentally. I would rate this ride as a 6 on a scale of 10 for the importance of physical fitness in completing this ride.
· Who will go with me – This could also have been listed as one of the greatest challenges. Finding someone who thought riding where there could be snow and ice was a good idea? In this case my good friend from work was the perfect fit, despite not really being a bike guy. His sense of adventure and willingness to just let the trip happen were just what was needed to make this epic experience a reality. Thanks Bill!