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“Screw this!” I blurted out into the world. I desperately hoped to find shelter somewhere in the distance, behind a cloak of fog and clouds. The Børsteinen hut, to be specific, one of the 550 cabins operated by the Norwegian Trekking Association.
This was day four of my bikepacking trip through southwestern Norway. At this moment I had already covered sixty kilometers on the Suleskarvegen, a scenic mountain road weaving through arid alpine terrain.
On-and-off drizzle, wind, and ten percent grades made this one of the more challenging rides I had ever undertaken. I was ready to end this day early, find shelter at the cabin, and dry out my soggy clothes. Yet, it wasn’t meant to be.
The wet weather had turned the path to the hut into a muddy track, the rocks into slippery hazards with accidents waiting to happen. After pulling off the main road and trying to drag myself and the bike along the trail, I had to abandon the plan.
With only the rain and howling wind listening, I cursed out loud at the unfairness of it all. I had to come to terms with the fact that I just had to carry on on the main road then. Another twenty kilometers to go to Lysebotn.
Kind friends had hosted me for a few days in Norway’s capital Oslo before I packed my bike and gear and headed west. I was looking for quiet gravel roads, hopefully taking me into less-visited areas in southwestern Norway.
My departure was delayed, yet I had no rush. Thanks to the location of Norway in the northern hemisphere, I could enjoy a good twenty hours of daylight in June. This meant I didn’t have to account for looking for campsites in the dark.
Once I had left the Oslo metro area, it became clear why Norway is a leader in renewable (hydroelectric) energy. No matter where I was, there always seemed to be a body of water nearby. With at least 450,000 freshwater lakes, I quickly got the feeling that there might be enough lake coastline for each Norwegian to have their own log cabin.
Already on my first night, I used what is referred to in Norway as allemannsretten, the right to roam. It allows the general public to freely enjoy the outdoors, even on privately owned land.
Its details codified into law, it essentially means one can pitch a tent anywhere, as long as you leave no trace and only stay one night. And apply a little common sense. This rule exemplifies the relationship in Norway between public needs and interests, government, and private and business concerns. A careful balance that Scandinavian countries seem to manage significantly better than others.
Finding the coveted, albeit steep, gravel roads on day two of my journey, I was shaken by what appeared to be gunshots. Moments earlier, I had passed a flock of sheep on an otherwise empty forest road, dipping into a valley. The herd eyed me curiously as I went slowly past but didn’t seem to be overly bothered. I, on the other hand, was worried I was possibly disturbing the local hunting season.
Cautiously continuing on a flat, sandy road that traced the outlines of a lake, I eventually happened upon what appeared to be military vehicles. Two men in fatigues stood beside the cars, looking towards the lake. Not knowing whether I was allowed to be here, I continued on. Aware of the polite demeanor of Norwegians, the worst that could have happened, I thought, was for them to excuse themselves for the inconvenience. A sign further down the road revealed the reason for the commotion: controlled demolitions. Better to get out of here.
All that water had to come from somewhere. And, sadly, not exclusively from the ground. Just as Komoot directed me off the main route onto a questionable dirt road, it started pouring from the skies. The trail ahead of me was visible but overgrown, and the foliage wet from rainwater. These signs did not raise my confidence in this decision. My positivity dropped further as I had to make it through two metal gates, luckily unlocked. Sweating profusely underneath my rain jacket, I expected I would have to turn around soon. This didn’t feel right.
As soon as the grade flattened out, the rain stopped, and I found myself, to my surprise, in the most serene environment. The now wider gravel road hugged another set of lakes, the air moist from the rain. I pedaled on, my tires crunching underneath with no other person in sight.
Shortly after the water’s edge, the terrain began to rise, a mountain range visible above the treeline. A handful of wooden blockhouses dotted the landscape, giving the area an untouched, pristine appeal. I kept my eyes on the lookout for a spot to camp and eventually settled for a site by a lake near the village of Øyfjell.
The Suleskarvegen mountain road is best enjoyed in sunny and dry weather. Sadly I had neither of those. After heading out from Rysdal, the day started with a steep climb passing a ski resort area, deserted in the middle of June. Despite the inclement weather, I had company in the form of RVs and motorcyclists, braving the elements.
The scenery around me exposed endless stretches of rocky, barren land. Rolling hills were carpeted with plants and grasses hardy enough to flourish in these conditions. Rain and wind made this ride a demanding affair. The road meandered through the arid landscape, occasionally and without warning, pitching up to grades of ten to fifteen percent.
Unable to find said Børsteinen hut, I had to continue to what should have been, under proper conditions, the dramatic climax of this ride: The 27 hairpin turns from the plateau down into the Lysefjord and to the village of Lysebotn. Yet when I arrived at the top, I could barely make out the next couple of upcoming bends in dense fog. I gripped the handlebars and brakes tight on the white-knuckle descent. Slowly I made my way to the bottom, where I checked myself into the one and only hostel.
“Have you already jumped today?” I overheard someone resembling the actor T.J. Miller, asking in the breakfast room of the hostel the following morning with an American accent. I learned that people pursue the sport of BASE jumping off of Kjerag, an iconic high point at the top of the fjord. The pouring rain did not deter the thrill-seekers nor the helicopter pilot, shuttling jumpers from the bottom of the fjord to the jump-off point, 3,000 feet above.
At 3pm, I boarded a ferry for the picturesque ride along the stretch of water, stopping at small hamlets in the shadow of gigantic rock walls. The Preikestollen, another infamous rock outcrop and destination for hikers and influencers alike, could be made out from the boat. With a bit of a delay, we docked at Lauvvik, from where I made my way into Stavanger to meet up with my Warmshowers host.
Marta, from Poland, came to Norway eight years ago. After the relationship with her Norwegian boyfriend ended, she decided to stay. “When the weather is good, this place is just amazing,” she referred to all the possibilities Norway offers lovers of the outdoors. Despite the frequent weather changes, Marta embraces the situation. The afternoon I arrived at her basement one-bedroom apartment in the south of Stavanger, she was going to try out surfing for the first time with some friends. “There aren’t any seasons. You have to expect rain constantly. You can have wind, rain, hail, and sunshine all within a day.”
Cruise ships are a common way for tourists to explore Norway, the Hurtigruten being one of the most famous routes. In Stavanger, I tasted the impact when a couple of those colossuses, with thousands of passengers, made it into port. The business district around the harbor gets overtaken by passengers, who flood the well-preserved alleyways in the historic city center. Heaps of tourists are enjoying lunch with a drink or two at the restaurants along the promenade, some blasting beer tent music from their loudspeakers.
“We can make this work,” Becky insisted. “A little bit more, press just a little more,” she instructed her friend Amy. Two ferry rides from Stavanger and cycling through more fjord-like scenery had brought me to Lindum campground, located in another placid Norwegian valley. The following morning I tried (and failed) to replace my tire, struggling to get the bead back onto the rim. I had already resigned myself to possibly hitching a ride to the closest town in search of a bike shop when I started talking to the two women from Los Angeles.
The two had rented an RV and were retracing their steps and experiences from their trip to Norway many years ago. Becky, an avid cyclist, was confident that the three of us could get the tire job done. And we did, albeit it resulted in some sore fingers. I was grateful, again, for the kindness of strangers. Especially given that they also provided me with a snack pack full of nuts, energy bars, and two bananas.
Suddenly, all the traffic was gone. Just a few minutes earlier, I had labored up busy Route 134, being overtaken by sedans, sports cars, SUVs, RVs, and trucks, aiming for the 4,657-metre-long Røldal Tunnel. I, however, had turned off into a parking lot just ahead of the tunnel. Before long, I had a perfectly paved local bypass road leading up and over Røldal Pass, all to myself. Yet again, the only witnesses to my heroic feat of climbing up the road were a flock of sheep.
The contrast in the scenery from the lush green valley was stark. A winter wonderland during ski season, the terrain was dominated by arid and exposed rock. Patches of green vegetation poked through cracks and crevices. Small waterfalls were dripping down the side of rock walls. Temperatures towards the top had dropped into the single digits, and I spotted small patches of old snow here and there.
On the other side of the pass, two things were waiting for me: a downhill of epic proportions and more precipitation. The rain showed up again like the good old friend I had gotten accustomed to very well at this point. I was soaking wet pretty soon, at least from the waist down. Given the conditions, I wasn’t in much of a mood to stop for the scenery, as stunning as it was.
The town of Odda was relegated to a place I merely passed through, and shortly after, I saw a sign for Trolltunga. I could only imagine the 12-hour hike to reach the scenic rock outcrop under these conditions.
I had called ahead to a campground on a hillside on the eastern shore of the Sørfjorden. A small wood cabin, big enough for two twin beds and a little cupboard with a stovetop, was going to be my shelter for the night. Before falling into a deep slumber, I spread all the wet items across the room to dry.
Even though the sign clearly stated that the rest stop should not be used for camping, I interpreted it more as a suggestion. Besides, the location could not have been more picturesque. The rest stop was situated right on the water’s edge of Hardangerfjord, it’s steep rock walls rising up just behind the two-lane road.
Before long, I had scoped out what I felt was the best location to pitch my tent. Right down by the water, on the rocks, a spacious rest and viewing area had been built, complete with picnic table and barbecue pit. I wasn’t the only one deeming this a prime camping location, with a handful of RVs occupying the tiny parking lot adjacent to the rest stop.
About six miles south of downtown Bergen and my declared finish line, I had just locked my bike to a lamppost. I had found kind Warmshowers hosts, Redun and Tim, gracious enough to host me for a night at their house in the suburb of Nesttun. I entered Litleré Mat cafe, located in the pedestrian area of the suburb. What better way, I thought, to celebrate the end of a journey than with coffee, cake, and ice cream.
Keeping an eye on my bike while enjoying my coffee from inside the cafe, I saw a slender, tall man in his thirties, with short brown hair and dressed in hiking pants and a t-shirt approaching my bike. He and his young son, between eight and ten years old, were eyeing my rig curiously. “Nice bicycle! Where do you come from?” he asked me after the two had stepped inside, and I had outed myself as the vehicle owner. After telling him my route, he seemed pretty impressed. He confirmed that gravel bikes were getting increasingly popular in Norway as well. “Have a nice stay,” he finally told me before purchasing something sweet for his son at the counter.
As much as I enjoyed this little encounter, it was also the first time a local would be curious about my setup and itinerary. I realized the northwesterly wind from the Arctic wasn’t the only icy thing in Norway. Friendly, yes, but warm is undoubtedly not an adjective to describe my experience with Norwegians after ten days of cycling. “The best hike is the one where you don’t see anyone else” isn’t a popular expression here for no reason. Serendipitously I would later come across The Social Guidebook To Norway, an illustrated book explaining behaviors and social norms with entertaining and well-chosen examples and explanations.
On the other side is a very neutral, relaxed, and friendly demeanor that is something to cherish. Had I run into any problem, I knew that I could count on the willingness of locals to help and pull me out of my predicament.
On the road, I was treated with respect by almost all drivers. The scenery that unfolded outside the main population centers was of untouched beauty, underscoring the Norwegians’ connection with nature and their intentions of preserving it for future generations.
Norway is expensive by any standard, and one has to stomach the highly variable weather conditions. If you look past that, though, cycling through this country will be a pleasure for everyone enjoying nature at its finest.
Norway boasts quite a selection of national cycle routes, which offer plenty of inspiration for your own adventure. Oslo was choses as the starting point because of its major international airport and the chance of visiting friends.
I centered on a tour of about 900km in length, starting in Oslo and ending in a location I could take some mode of public transport back to Oslo. I eventually settled on going to Stavanger first and then heading north, ending the tour in Bergen. Komoot was used to plan the route, optimized for “Gravel Riding”. Additionally I used Google Earth and Google Street View to verify the route.
I flew into Oslo Airport, which is well connected internationally. From there I took the Airport Express Train (Flytoget) into Oslo, where the public transport system is extensive.
From Bergen, my destination, I took a train back to Oslo Central. It’s a 6-7 hour journey, passing through some of the most scenic terrain in the south of Norway. Like many other things, the ticket was not necessarily cheap (roughly 1,000 NOK, which translated to about USD 110 at the time).
The route I picked traversed areas of Norway where I would usually pass through at least one major or minor settlement within a days ride. Norway has as extensive selection of grocery stores and convenience stores (e.g. Meny, Coop, Rema 1000, Kiwi), which make restocking and refueling easy.
Tab water is perfectly save to drink. In the more remote regions, I refilled my water bottles multiple times from the countless waterfalls I passed by without any issues.
While the majority of the ride was on tarmac, the WTB Riddler 700x45c came in handy on the occasional gravel roads in encountered. Those, however, were very much exclusively compact dirt roads without any technical aspect to it. From that perspective, the Checkpoint in combination with the gravel tires was the ideal bike for the route.
- Norwegian Trekking Association. Maintains 550 cabins and huts (ranging from basic accommodation/shelter to hotel-like service).
- The right to roam: joys and responsibilities in Norway. More details around the right to roam in Norway.
- Allemannsretten and the Outdoor Recreation Act
- NorCamp. Service to find campsites in Scandinavian countries, with an online versions as well as apps for Android and iOS.
- NAF Camp: Camping in Norway. Site by the Norwegian Automobile Association to find campgrounds.
- Bikepacking Around Norway. Bikepacking event, possibly useful for route inspiration.
- Cycling in Norway. Valuable info on cycle touring in Norway.