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Perfectly Norway

 “You know America was discovered by the Vikings, not Christopher Columbus, right?” says Bjørn.

We are sitting by the fire talking to Bjørn. Last night he invited us to pitch our tent next to the red brick barn near his century-old family house he is renovating. He has stopped short of building a new balcony, because he would need to excavate to do it, and the probability of encountering an arrowhead or other Viking artifacts is high and unwelcome.

“The paperwork needed to dig is a pain and, if something turns up, it would become a nightmare,” he says.

Gazing out upon the Norwegian Sea, we see the coastline is shrouded in an eerie fog. It feels as if Erik The Red might make landfall at any moment. Norway’s history is long and fascinating, yet no period has captured people’s imagination more than the Viking Age (793-1066), back when Norsemen navigators explored seas and rivers for trade and conquest.

It was a time of expeditions and adventures, the mark of which has been left on Normandy, England, Scotland and Ireland, Russia and Ukraine, Turkey, Iceland and, of course, Greenland and Newfoundland.

For the best part of a month, we have been on a journey of our own, cycling north from Stavanger through Norway’s Fjordland. The idea to cycle between Nordkapp, in Norway, and Cape Agulhas, in South Africa, was born during our previous trip around the Pacific Ocean following the active volcanoes of the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, which included cycling through Japan’s many seismic regions. Adding a theme to our expedition was so yielding, we knew future cycling adventures would follow a similar path. After some reflection during our nomadic travels, we turned our attention to other nomadic peoples. Eventually we were drawn to one particular group that had marched between the northernmost point of Europe and the southern extremity of Africa. Inspired by their explorations, we decided to follow their journey and call our latest expedition “Nomads²–From cape to cape, a cycling odyssey.”  

So we found ourselves packing our purple Surly Troll touring bikes and flying to Stavanger in southwest Norway. We needed a training camp, so we decided to ride north toward Sápmi, traditional territory of the “reindeer people,” the first nomads on our list. We’d continue pedaling during the nightless summer months toward Nordkapp, through Norway’s fjords and highest mountains.  

Since drilling started in the North Sea in the late 1960s, Stavanger has been known as Norway’s oil capital, and it has made Norway one of the richest countries on the planet. The geography of the city is dominated by water; the sea, fjords and lakes surround it. So, it is not surprising our journey here begins on a ferry. National Road 13 (RV13) awaits, and we follow it to the famous flat top of Preikestolen, the steep cliff that rises 600 meters above Lysefjord. We had picked up a free Norway road map which points out designated scenic roads and National Tourist Routes (NTR).  

These 18 routes are carefully selected by the Public Roads Administration based on the spectacular natural beauty infused with bold Scandinavian architecture. We start with NTR Ryfylke, excitedly knowing many more great roads await.  

Looking for a place to rest for the night, we test the Outdoor Recreation Act—a freedom to roam legislature that allows access to uncultivated land—and we are camping on the Suldalslågen, a salmon river running through sand. A municipality employee on a lawn tractor finds us having coffee in the morning. He does not care that we have slept here but wants to know, “Do you like it?”  

He is pointing at Høsebrua, the cubical pedestrian bridge newly installed across the river, a striking example of the NTR’s innovative designs. We offer a polite, yet impartial, answer when the young man throws in, “Well, everybody in town hates it.” So much for Norwegian restraint.

We make every pedal stroke count during the four-km/h slog from the Sauda fjord into the mountains via road #520. The strip of narrow pavement snakes through the towering mountain landscapes to the 965-meter pass, a poetic ride into Valhalla. The road opened just a week before on the summer solstice and was thankfully free of snow.  

The descent is steep into Røldal Valley where we reconnect with RV13, and it is an arduous climb to Røldal Skisenter. Fortunately, the old road is well maintained. It goes over the pass and was the main route before a 4,657-meter long tunnel was dug in 1964. Norway has more than 900 tunnels; some of them cross entire mountain chains, some are underwater and are some the world’s longest road tunnels such as the 24.51-km. Lærdal Tunnel. Some are closed to cyclists and none are enjoyable. In fact, while bike touring in Norway, tunnels will be your main hurdle—possibly the only one—and you will need riding lights even though the sun never sets.  

Between Hardanger and Sogne fjords, we begin to see signs the summer holidays have begun, as we ride along small motor homes sporting various European license plates—though Germany is overwhelmingly represented— and countless motorbikes with neon riders.  

Most carry items they need to survive from their home country, as Norway has a reputation for being prohibitively expensive. Fuel and toll roads are the main expenses and difficult to avoid. We cautiously navigate the supermarkets along the way in search of deals—and expired goods. We come to rely on oatmeal, pasta, canned corn, fish cakes, cod roe, bread, cheese (including the traditional Norwegian brown cheese) and tyttebær jam.  

In Vikøyri, Hopperstad Stave Church stands straight as a rocket, even though it was built in medieval times. Its wooden structure is believed to have been erected around 1140, just at the closing of the Viking Age. Most will argue Christianity stamped out the pagan Viking culture in Norway, first championed by England-raised King Haakon The Good in the mid-10th century and later more efficiently by King Olaf I (995) and Saint Olaf II Haraldsson (1015).  

Norwegians are still ocean champions at heart. A prime example is the old man in Leikanger who gets excited over our bikes parked in front of the Kiwi MiniPris supermarket. “I know about Quebec, the French colonies; I navigated on the St. Lawrence. We would go to Duluth, Minnesota, and get rice to bring back to Germany,” he says.  

Leikanger is on the Sogne Fjord, the largest fjord in Norway. It stretches 205 kilometers inland from the ocean to the small village of Skolden where the road starts to ascend on Sognefjellet.  

The National Tourist Road leads steeply to Northern Europe’s highest pass (1,434 meters) and a surreal view upon mainland Norway’s largest glacier, the Jostedalsbreen Glacier, and Galdhøpiggen, at 2,469 meters, Norway’s highest mountain. Its notoriety as one of the world’s top bike routes is richly deserved, and we see a good dozen loaded bikes on the way up.  

At the top, overweight bikes are replaced by bony road bikes driven by neon-green riders. We have come face-to-face with Tour de Jotunheimen, a 430-km., two-day road race, and Tour de Sognefjell, its more approachable 137-km. long little sister. The smell of freshly cooked dough in the icy air gets us excited, but security is tight at the waffle station. Up the wild and lush valley west of Lom, we reach NTR Geiranger-Trollstigen. Since tourism was in its infancy, tourists from all over the world have visited Geiranger and Trollstigen…and they still do.  

From the viewpoint at Flydalsjuvet, we count no less than five cruise ships floating on the narrow Geiranger fjord. Buses buzz on the tight switchbacks leading down to the fjord and up the northern route out of it. By now, we have grasped that Norway is a spectacular place throughout, so there is no point in lingering in the overcrowded fjord, UNESCO World Heritage site or not. The sun is scorching as we slowly climb up road #63 at the bottom of the Valldal Valley, our noses tickled by the smell of fresh strawberries. These gigantic berries are bombarded by the restless midnight sun and sold at roadside kiosks.  

At the top of the verdant pass, among the jagged Romsdal mountains, are a few sheep and some keen mountain bikers enjoying the alpine. We postpone our descent of Trollstigen until the next morning and join them for the night. We’ve been warned about trolls—the small shaggy creatures with supernatural powers inhabiting Scandinavian forests and mountainsides, but we have yet to meet one.   Trollstigen—The Trolls’ Ladder—is a road built on a rock face, an engineering masterpiece with 11 sharp hairpin bends. It is a hair-raising slide down to the Isterdalen Valley.  

Upon reaching the waters of Romsdal Fjord in Åndalsnes, we note the high mountain section of our tour is over. We’ll be closer to sea level on our way to Trondheim and, for a while, we will be riding by the sea. National Tourist Road Atlanterhavsvegen contains seven bridges linking islets that scurry along the ocean’s edge. The day after staying at Bjørn’s house, we are eating by the Fastad Coop when an excited road cyclist interrupts a tranquil breakfast. “Canadians? You have to meet my friend Suzy from Toronto; she lives close by,” she insists. Dressed in cycling gear, she adds, “The Atlantic Road is great but road #680 along the coast of Nordmøre, via Kyrksæterøra and Aure, is just as good and not as busy.”

We look forward to two great coastal roads to Trondheim. Norway does not disappoint.   The bustling city of Trondheim was founded by the Viking King Olav Tryggvason in 997 and remained the capital of Norway from 1030 to 1217. Coronations have been held at its gothic Nidaros Cathedral since 1164; the last time in 1991 when Harald V climbed on the throne—although since 1906 the democratic country refers to the ceremony as a “consecration.”  

It is a lot of history around which to wrap our heads, as we ready ourselves to push further north. Our training camp is over. We feel strong and excited about what’s lying ahead as we ride into the never setting sun.  

Janick Lemieux is originally from St. Hyacinthe, Quebec, but moved to western Canada in 1991. Since then, she has traveled the world, first with a backpack, then from the saddle of a mountain bike.   Pierre Bouchard was born in Quebec City. He left Université Laval’s Faculty of Philosophy classrooms in 1990 to undertake what Descartes called the study of “The Great Book of the World” on his bicycle. Follow their adventures at www.nomadesxnomades.com.

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