No it’s not the latest episode of Game of Thrones (though most of us wish that would hurry up already), this is Iceland’s Glacier 360; a three day, 300km MTB race across some of the most remote and stunning wild lands on the planet. Experienced adventure racer and XC ultra athlete Catriona Sutherland got involved in the type two fun!
“That’s got to be the last hill, surely it’s all down from here.”
Not the wisest words to utter in a race, that’s for sure.
We’re in the final day of the Glacier 360, a three-day mountain bike stage race that covers near to 300 kilometres of volcanic trails that circumnavigates the country’s second largest glacier, Langjökull. In its second year, the course follows some of Iceland’s most isolated terrain, where more common than fellow man is the hiss of hot geysers and the vastness of glacial plains. Against forceful winds, the route traces unforgiving rock, sand and river beds.
To join me for this adventure, I enlisted Naomi Freireich, a proven competitor in the world of endurance mountain bike racing and recent UK 24-hour mountain bike champion. Whilst not really knowing each other prior, her past accolades gave the suggestion she’s be just the right teammate to take on this most northerly of adventures.
The Land of Fire and Ice
An easy flight away from Scotland thanks to WOW Air, as we made our way by bus from the airport towards Reykjavik, the first note to strike was the sheer sparsity of the Icelandic environment, a lunar-like feel thanks to the lack of vegetation. We remarked at the volcanic lumps and my mind turned to tyre choice and chamois selection.
After the previous night’s snores from our dorm room in Reykjavik, we slept soundly and in relative luxury the night before the race. A leisurely start saw us breakfasted and bused to the start line, a band of biking brothers (and sisters), waiting for the countdown and the race be on.
The Black and White Miles
As 10 am struck, the shouts signalled the start and riders took off up the dusty track, billowing geysers left behind us as we took off into the unknown. As the pedals turned, the release of pre-race tension was replaced with gritty focus. Picking our way up the pack, a shout from Naomi signalled an unruly seat post, and with as much calm and efficiency as we could manage, secured the bolts and tried to get back to our rhythm.
What’s to remember is that you’re here for the long game. Go out too fast and you’ll rip your legs and lungs until they’re redundant from the race. Keeping composed, we steadily climbed our way back up the ranks. Dry, dust stretches of dirt road panned ahead of us as we rose constantly, a seemingly endless set of rises. As we were rewarded with a swooping, gravel descent, loose rocks and grit flew in the face of the unexpected audiences – tourists venturing into the Highland’s wilderness were unsuspectingly greeted with whooping, giddy riders keen to let loose.
After close to 50 kilometres on the clock, the sight of a lone gazebo stood out against the land of fire and ice. Rushing to grab at bananas and water bottles, we’d overtaken the Elite Women’s second team, sparking further adrenaline and competitive urge. As we turned the 90 degrees to head north towards Husafell, we were thrown back by the brutal headwinds, forcing our legs to turn as we made our way up the second climb of the day. Fighting the elements, our heads were down and minds busy – motivational mantras playing over and over – willing us through to the next feed stop some 30 kilometres away. As the pace pacified, I noticed the turn of the landscape and the incredible sculptures formed from mounds of lava rock. To the right, the piercing blue of the Langjökull Glacier jumped out against dark, volcanic sands and it felt somewhat surreal. As we dug deep towards the top, we saw tour buses mark the moment we’d start our eagerly awaiting downward journey to the finish. To the left stood Ok, the first glacier in Iceland to lose its icy title.
We weren’t planning on losing ours and so we pushed on, relishing the descent. Smiles were interspersed with mild wincing thanks to the chattering of the front suspension and the drumming of my saddle. Iceland’s gravel roads are fiercely rutted and repetitive in nature so there’s little forgiveness from poorly chosen gear.
Crossing our first river with five kilometres to go, the excitement and energy was electric. Naomi and I were hot on the wheels of the Elite ladies and first in our category to mark the close of the day. Over the line, we weaved our way towards the promise of food, and were greeted with a huge smile, hug and kind words from the women’s team in front, half-jokes of changing categories for the rest of the race.
Elated, hungry and a touch battered – we attacked the table of food. Bellies were filled full before sinking into the first of the hot springs that helped sooth the aches and growing pains from my savage seat.
Water World Climbs
Despite the disruption caused by deflated beds and the walrus-like wails coming from nearby tents, our legs and minds were focused. With a fast and furious start, the leading pack launched off the line. We went with them, holding for a time, but soon settling into a progressive rhythm, better suited to the 70 km of uphill. Gradually we gathered height – riding through a lusher, wetter heathland – favoured by fisherman and route planners who love a river crossing! Knowing our shoes and socks would soon succumb, we hit the first of the banks. Using a basic rope, the gushing, freezing meltwater was soothing and shocking all at the same time. Whilst others less accustomed to the wetter ways of ride life stowed their shoes and risked barefoot, Naomi and I plunged right in.
As we left the rivers behind, vegetation faded. Instead, the dusty dirt paths took on a harder, rockier face, delivering punchy, loose climbs that poked at us and made momentum our friend. Given our luck with the Icelandic conditions, the freezing shower that passed over us felt long due and well timed to mark the highest point – forcing a stop and the dawning of waterproofs. Out here, you’re truly alone.
As the rocks progressed in size and ferocity, so too did my growing disdain for my hardtail, the second day being much in favour of a full suspension bike. Picky rock lines offered up a fresh challenge; a technical treat that was fun to negotiate but relentless in its ability to punish our backsides. Once over the best and worst, I breathed a quiet sigh of relief – my tyre intact – I relaxed and enjoyed the well-earned descent and our final splash through the riverbeds. Hitting the road was momentary relief and Naomi kicked the pace to take us to the finish. Playing games with my watch and trying not to count the kilometres, the rough, rutted road wreaked havoc with my aching body, but we kept the pedals firmly in motion.
In the final 20 kilometres, the wind fought back against us, so too did the road, which became looser and increasingly steep. In sight, the familiar flags waved in the wind and gushes of steam rose out from natural geysers, akin to smoke signals calling all back together again. Day two was over after 111km on the clock, and we sunk into the natural hot pools, happy for the respite and the chance to share stories with our fellow riders.
Valley of Thieves
Marking our final morning, we set off from Hveravellier Highland Centre, which had been camp for the night. Worn bodies were revived and ready to go thanks to the luxury of the natural hot water. As we charged off towards the Thjofaalir valley for the last 95 kilometres of the race, I had it in my mind it was all downhill.
Not so. Leaving the road, rapidly we were faced with an abrupt, steep climb that had riders almost biting at their bars. Thankfully a narrow descent arrived in quick succession, which was a delight to Naomi and I who lapped up the technical sections. Populating this seldom trodden trail were aggressive, baby-head boulders that made line choice testy, one section calling for a carry. Slashed into the ground were tight trenches that served as pesky pedal catchers – resulting in a game of rider roulette deciding which was best. Wind lashed as a constant reminder the entire stretch.
Whilst this sounds brutal, there’s a certain pleasure in this kind of suffering; a satisfaction and a steeliness that builds. Channelling that energy, we rose to the top and hit a tarmac road. From here, we cheered! Not because we weren’t really enjoying it – in truth, it’s the very reason to race in a country as untamed as Iceland. Picking up a male pairs team in the final stretch, we shared efforts to reach the finish archway. As we pedalled in together, elated emotion invoked huge smiles, cheers and even an 80’s style air jump – a sign we’d not lost our sense of humour! Celebrating, we were delighted to have taken first place pairs in the women’s open category. Huge hugs all round.
Back at race base, we devoured burgers and local brew and had one last dip in the hot pools, concluding our Glacier 360 experience with a smile. Indeed, Iceland is the land of fire and ice as well as some of the most brutal yet beautiful trails I’ve had the opportunity to ride.
To register for next year’s event, visit the Glacier 360 website.
Words: Cat Sutherland
Photos: Paul Williams, Johny Cook, Cecilia Glimberg Ronne and Juliette Rowland