Sunday, September 19, 2010

Norwegian Bike Adventure

During my first trip to Norway in the summer of 2005 for a 2-month sabbatical, I had brought my bike along and enjoyed cycling around Oslo. Getting out of Oslo by bike, however, is very difficult if not impossible so my only ride outside the city was with Stig Tollefsen, a local Norwegian I met at work. I had returned to Oslo last year for a 2-day meeting and immediately set back on the 18-hour journey home. Making my third trip to Norway this summer for a 2-day meeting of the International Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis Study Group, I was determined to make the trip worth my while before heading back.

I contacted Stig for recommendations for a 2-day bike tour and help with locating bike rentals. Stig is a hardy Norwegian type, about my height who in ubber-John Steggall fashion bikes to work year-round even in the cold, dark Oslo winters. He kindly offered me to stay at his home, leave my luggage there and use his 63 cm steel frame Tommasini and suggested that I consider starting my trip in Fagernes. He also offered me a ticket to ride in the Vatternrundan the day after my planned trip. The Vatternrundan is a 300-km ride in Sweden with over 20,000 participants – something for the Davis Double Century to aim for - but I would have to catch a plane home that day.

I arrived at Stig’s home for dinner and enjoyed a traditional salmon and potato meal with his wife Mona, children Johannes, Marie and Peter, and another friend Benedicte and her son Axel. Johannes is 11 and speaks perfect English. We talked about the World Cup and bike racing. Surprisingly, rather than being a big Thor Hushvold supporter, he was a big fan of Cadel Evans, at least until he found a YouTube video of him slapping the hand of someone trying to pet his dog. After dinner, Stig and I sat down to map out my route and make some adjustments to the Tommasini. At 11:00 pm I was off to bed with the sun still high in the sky.

Day 1 Fagarnes to Gjendesheim (72 km, 560 meters elevation gain)

At 5:00 AM the sun was up and so was I. After stirring around in my room a bit, I joined the family for breakfast. Stig dropped me off at the Sandvika train station where I hopped on a bus for the 3 hour ride to Fagernes. After a quick stop at the Tourist Information Center to get my bearings and a kebab pita for lunch, I changed into my cycling gear, cinched up my backpack and headed north on Route 51.

The climbing started right away but was gradual. The bike fit perfectly and my legs felt great. I was starting to enjoy the scenery when 30 minutes in I had my first flat tire after hitting a hard crevice in the road. I quickly changed the tire using a CO2 cartridge I picked up in Oslo to replace the ones that had been confiscated from my checked bag in Frankfurt. I was hoping this was not an omen of things to come.

Up the road, I passed the beautiful green scenery awash with abundant purple and yellow flowers and spotted with red barns. I had to stop when I passed the Guinness Book of World Record’s Largest Witch’s Broom.

At Beitostolen, the surroundings quickly changed. The luscious fields were replaced by rocky mountains. I took a quick break to eat a Clif bar and was back on my way. The skies became grey and the wind grew colder and stronger in my face. The further I went the bleaker the area became. With only my racing jersey and a lightweight long-sleeve jersey Stig had given me, along with my bare legs, I was getting quite cold and my legs were starting to tire.

I was also starting to feel the altitude as my breathing began to labor and my head throbbed. I had finished my 2 bottles and filled them with water flowing down from the melting tundra without hesitation remembering that Stig had told me that there were no parasites in these waters.

There was a brief downhill stretch going to Bygdin but I had still had to work because of the strong headwind. I thought of stopping at Bygdin to warm up and put on the long sleeve thermal I had in my pack but decided to press on. Continuing to climb, I became colder and colder and my legs began to feel weak. I thought of the green lusciousness of the valley below and turning back to Fagernes. I wondered why Stig would ever send me this way. Did I mention that in addition to cycling and his work at the university, Stig is a part-time lumberjack? Thanks to him, I was suffering Norwegian style.

I felt some relief when I came across a line on the road with “KOM” painted under it. Just ahead was the Valdresfliya Hostel (elevation 1384 meters) where I warmed up with a hot tea and waffle with jam. I put on my thermal and asked the owner how much farther to Gjendesheim.

“13 kilometers. All downhill,” she said with a smile.

“Excellent!” I replied.

At Gjendesheim, it was much warmer. I checked into a nice hostel run by DNT (the Norwegian Trekking Association), had a shower and a nice dinner of tomato soup and cod with bacon. I laid in bed reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and fell asleep.

Day 2 Gjendesheim to Ringebu (110 km)

I awoke at 4:30 AM with the full morning sun beaming through the window. I finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and then went down for breakfast where I met a Swedish family, a Brit, an Aussie and a German couple. One of the Swedes was trying to sell a Specialize Roubaix which new cost him over 8,000 euros.

After breakfast I took a quick hike to get a better view of Gjendes which is supposed to have a peculiar green color, but not today. It was a beautiful lake nonetheless.

I changed back into my cycling gear and was back on the road by 10:30 AM hoping to catch the 15:24 train to Oslo from Ringebu. There was a nice steady descent and it was clear the worst climbing was behind me. Unfortunately, 45 minutes onto the ride I had my second flat. I found the whole in the tube and was set to patch it when I realized that I must have left my patch kit in my luggage at Stig’s. I carefully checked my tire for rocks, glass and thorns and put on my last spare tube.

I continued down route 51 through wooded forests following the Sjoa River until I came to road 257, a 32 km stretch once named the most beautiful road in Norway. After a nice long descent I stopped in Heidal to eat the sandwiches I had made at Gjendesheim.

Back on the road, I followed route 257 along the Sjoa River as it ran through a deep canyon. At the end of 257, my plan was to go south on an old road on the west side of the river that paralleled the busy E6 highway which ran on the east side. After an unsuccessful attempt at finding the old road, I stopped in a Shell station, bought some water and asked the clerk if there was another road besides E6 to Ringebu. She looked at me oddly, clearly not understanding my English. After checking my map for a third time, I decided to take E6 about 8 km south to Kvam where there should be a bridge where I could cross the river and get on the old road. During the entire trip I felt totally safe on the Norwegian roads. The speed limits are pretty restrictive in Norway and the drivers were always courteous when passing. E6 was another story and I was glad when I was able to finally get off it.

The remainder of the ride to Ringebu was relatively uneventful although the backpack began to feel like lead and every minor hill took a major effort. With 10 km to Ringebu the road turned to dirt and I prayed that I’d make it to the train without a flat. I guess it worked.

At 16:30, I arrived at Ringebu too late to catch the 15:24. After a sponge bath and some refueling, I took the 17:54 back to Oslo, exhausted but satisfied.


John_Steggall said...

Nice report Big. Quite a scenic tour Stig sent you on. Good thing you know how to fix punctures. Also, it warms my heart to to find out those Norwegians know how to commute. That Tommasini must have been the biggest one ever made (63 cm???).

Jason G said...

Agree w/ Steggall on flats. Two in 2 days? You big dudes sure know how to put the hurt on your equipment! Your trek sounds like an incredible and memorable trip. Your pictures and descriptions brought back a lot of different memories of trips I've had in beautiful and remote places. The world is much better to see by bicycle. Of course, when you have the time. Thanks for posting.