"Foolish Australian cyclist rescued from Norwegian mountain snowstorm."
That's the headline I don't want to see above my name, I muttered as I stood on the deserted railway platform in Finse, 1200 metres above sea level in the middle of the widest lump of southern Norway.
It was after 1pm and the train from Oslo had just dropped me in this car-free zone. Armed with a bicycle, panniers, a minimalist amount of clothing and camping gear and a pair of middle-aged legs, my plan was to cycle to Bergen, on Norway's west coast, and then head south to Denmark and, finally, Copenhagen.
It had all seemed like a good idea while drinking a cup of tea on my lounge in Sydney. But no one had told me there would be snow on the ground in early August. Big fields of it - depleted and grubby, perhaps, but still lending an icy chill to the wind chasing a wall of portentous-looking clouds in from the east.
At least my evening destination would be almost at sea level – the toasty-sounding tourist spot of Flam, on the narrow Aurlandsfjord. But that was more than 50 kilometres of cycling away, on a rough, unsealed road. Time to get going before those clouds caught up with me.
A man with a vague plan
"Don't worry about whether your trip will work out. Just go!" is a famous saying by Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler, and it's my maxim too – based more on lack of organisation than a philosophical leaning.
I'd sort of studied a few maps online (and even bought one the day before, in Oslo), chatted to a friend with a leaky memory who'd travelled a similar path a decade earlier, and glanced at a few online blogs. But in a first-world country, staying mostly on roads, how hard could it be?
As it turned out, some of the toughest kilometres were those first 50. The Rallarvegen is well-travelled and dotted with homesteads, but doesn't appear to glean much maintenance.
As I weigh 100kg, I use a sturdy Surly frame, heavy duty Mavic A719 rims and Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres (accept no substitute!), but I still winced at every pannier-laden bump for the first hour. Breaking down on a tour is one thing – doing it on a limited-access road on the first day is quite another.
After 10 kilometres sans catastrophe, I began to relax and enjoy the spectacular scenery – and the fact that it was almost entirely downhill. The threatening clouds only rained on me a little bit; I chatted to a young solo hiker who said the nights were freezing and her tent leaked, and met a couple of cyclists ruing their decision to travel in the opposite direction.
Several hours later, the road cut a series of vertiginous switchbacks down a mountain cleft, and I dropped onto a verdant valley floor, reminiscent of Switzerland. In Norway, carrying a tent means never having to plan accommodation – you can sleep in a field if you wish, while campsites are plentiful and should always have a spare corner. The man with a vague plan had made it through day one.
Everywhere a tunnel
"You'll have to go back up the valley to get out of Flam," the woman at information told me - either by leg power, or an expensive train trip. All the road options had long tunnels forbidden to cyclists, she explained. Already, my lack of research was biting me in the bum.
Salvation from the more knowledgeable campsite staff – I could catch a scenic ferry to Gudvangen, and skirt the subsequent road tunnel using a byway favoured by walkers. She didn't explain that some sections had a gradient of 25 per cent. I became a walker, or rather, a bent-backed pusher.
Tunnels are terrifically popular in the land that gave us The Hall of the Mountain King. Some are, indeed, impassable for cyclists; some you can ride through, which can be a discombobulating experience ("go towards the light!"); and many can be avoided using the pre-tunnel roads that are infinitely more enjoyable and scenic than the damp walls that envelop motorists.
On day three, making my way to Bergen from the Hardangerfjord, I met a German couple who had just travelled much of my intended route in reverse. We teamed up for half a day of tunnel semi-avoidance while I milked them for information, maps they no longer needed and a few chocolate biscuits. So much for planning.
Buildings by bicycle
Bergen, like all the Scandinavian cities I visited, is surely best seen on two wheels. The centres of Stockholm, Oslo, Stavanger, Kristiansand, Aarhus and Copenhagen are fascinatingly picturesque, compact and calmed of traffic, with bike lanes in all directions.
The occasional cobbled street lends a Paris-Roubaix sensation, and sights can be scouted and revisited with disgraceful ease, while every tree, pole or fence serves as a parking spot.
It was supposed to be a rest day but by the afternoon I couldn't help myself, and cycled up the steep road to the Floyen viewpoint, eschewing the funicular. After all, I told myself, the high mountains are behind me and the coastal roads really should be flat. They weren't, as I soon discovered while island-hopping south towards Stavanger, on lonely roads skirting limpid lakes - but it's best to tell yourself these things sometimes.
The sun had better come out tomorrow
Norway endured a heatwave this year - the mercury hit a record 33.4 degrees (!) in Oslo. Alas, that was in July, and by mid-August, normal rain service had resumed.
I always chat to every touring cyclist I see, in case they have useful info (and maybe biscuits). The bloke loading a cycle trailer with camera and camping gear at the campsite near the Preikestolen – possibly the most famous vista in Norway – told me he'd been waiting for the sun for five days, and was giving up.
After a rainy night, I packed my soggy tent under skies socked in with leaden clouds, and set off up the abusively steep four-kilometre road to the trailhead, stopping after a few hundred metres to hide my panniers under a bush.
Within 90 minutes of fast uphill hiking, I'd reached the famous view – at least, I thought I had, because I could hardly see a thing through the mist. A handful of optimists were huddled on the famous cliffs, no doubt willing the clouds to lift in a babel of mental languages.
It worked. Like a burlesque dancer, the view slowly, teasingly, revealed itself, and kept it all off for several hours as flocks of noisy, bussed-in visitors arrived and turned the promontory into selfie central.
Somebody up there likes me – and his name is Freyr, the Norse god of sunshine. But not for long – I got soaked on the ride back down to my cached bags, and then spent the next two days being occasionally pounded by rain squalls that sometimes travelled horizontally.
It only made the Preikestolen experience more cherished – not to mention the sunny afternoon of cycling the coastline from Mandal to Kristiansand, past picture-box coves.
After a ferry to Denmark, an easy leg from Hirtshals to Aalborg, and a night of beer-sipping in a student pub (Norwegian booze prices, begone), I was, well, a bit lost.
A Norwegian woman on the ferry told me she had once cycled route 507 to Aarhus. It turned out to be annoyingly busy - and in Denmark, land of the bike lane, if cars are passing you at speed, you're probably on the wrong route.
Soon I was heading east on a side road, looking for the alternative that must surely exist. I was about to give up when I saw something fantastic – a man apparently riding across the tops of the crops in the field. A raised bike path!
So began a magic day of rural cycling, dipping in and out of villages, passing walkers and other riders, with occasional stands of trees planted to ward off the pesky wind. I met a couple in their late 60s, cycling five kilometres to a friend's birthday party. On hearing I was "all the way" from Australia, they insisted I stop in for a beer, which was chased by a coffee to restore the equilibrium.
The path later joined the fabled North Sea Route, at times becoming little more than a dirt track through grass, as the setting sun stretched my cycling shadow across empty fields; by nightfall at 9:30, I was in a campsite loungeroom swapping tales with three fellow cycle tourers.
Magic Saturday was followed by miserable Sunday, with sporadic rain and a 25km/h headwind trying to push me back to Norway. Headwinds are like eternal hills with no rewarding view at the end, and easily make up for the fact that Denmark is by and large a billiard table.
All too soon, however, I was reaching the end of the tour. A fun half-day in Aarhus; a fast ferry to Odden, teaming up briefly with two young Danes returning from the Netherlands by bicycle, who invited me into their family farm for lunch (I must have looked like a starving man by now); discovering the magnificent Frederiksborg Palace after changing course on a whim; and three days in Copenhagen, one of cycling's holy cities, which is a story in itself.
Why cycle tour?
"It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle."
So wrote Ernest Hemingway, and he's right – in my self-powered journey of some 1100 kilometres, every day was a separate adventure, with the rough times only making the smooth more sublime. It might sound hardcore to some, but hey, I was on one of the most energy-efficient forms of travel ever invented, and sitting down at that. It's amazing where you can get to if you just keep chipping away.
To me, travelling by car, bus or train is like window shopping – interesting, but not committed. If you really want to buy into an experience, get onto a bike.
Ever toured Scandinavia by bicycle? Or anywhere? Tell us about your pannier plans.
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