Having cycled from Kent to Paris together in 2016 and across France, Belgium and the Netherlands in 2015, George and his friends Tom, Lewis, Nathan and Jack are no strangers to two-wheeled adventures.
For the 2017 edition of the tour both Norway and Iceland were in the running, and George can't really remember why they chose Iceland - perhaps the circular loop that gave the impression that it was just 'made for a tour'.
Flights booked, they got a bit of training in - some commuting and some longer weekend rides - to get themselves in tip-top shape to tackle Iceland's notoriously tough circular tour. They packed up their road bikes (a Decathlon B-Twin 520 with a 105 groupset and heavy duty Schwalbe tyres for George) and headed into the North Atlantic. While their tour took place in the 'heat' of the summer, temperatures in Iceland rarely exceed 12C, even in August. So the guys packed some shorts and t-shirts alongside long-sleeved jerseys and team anoraks.
They took two tents - a two-man and a three man - with the plan of stopping at campsites as they made their way round.
Setting off from Reykjavik, the guys tackled the route anti-clockwise as they headed along the south coast of the island. With a good tail-wind they made fast progress and bombed the first half of the ride.
When they tired towards the end of the day, they would check the map for the nearest campsite and decide whether they could reach it by nightfall, or whether to wild camp for the night. Sometimes they would camp next to the famous N1 service stations which provided the opportunity to stock up on food (noodles to cook on the camping stove were usually the order of the day) and to make use of the picnic bench and port-a-loo facilities. There was usually a nearby stream for filling up water bottles too. Campsites, when they came to them, also offered great natural showers.
The scenery was fantastic, the roads well-tarmacked, the waterfalls impressive, beaches peaceful, and the natural lagoons a soothing soak for weary legs. They passed diverse landscapes that gave them the feeling of cycling through English country fields and, then, a few minutes later across a volcano with volcanic lava. Two highlights were the incredible Jökulsárlón glacier lake and stumbling upon a free hot spring after an 80 miles day. The lake is a stunning mirror-clear passage for large chunks of ice as they journey from mountain glacier to sea during the summer and the hot spring was a beautiful natural (is slightly sulphur-smelling) jacuzzi.
Life was good and the lads were wondering what all the fuss they'd read online about Icelandic winds was about!
The first sign of trouble came when the group arrived at the bottom of the Öxi pass, about a third of the way round. The road is a shortcut between the towns of Höfn and Egilsstaoir and lops off 60km of the winding N1. The gravel pass shoots up from sea level to a 539m high ridge with stretches of road at 17% incline. George looks back on the day spent crossing it as 'one of the worst days of [his] life'.
Two of the guys managed to stay on their bikes and chug their way up in the saddle, but three of them ended up spending hours sliding on slippery rocks as they pushed fully-laden bikes over the ridge. But you know what they say about the greatest challenges yielding the greatest rewards? The group was rewarded with some amazing and almost-other-worldly mountain views.
The Öxi pass was the undoubted lowpoint of the tour...but they were not through the worst of it as, turning back in the direction of Reykjavik, they were met with a strong and relentless headwind. The group was separated and George and two of the others found themselves well behind the two leaders. Making very little progress they decided to call it a day and jump on the bus to catch the other two up.
A bus soon appeared but unfortunately didn't have room for the boys and their bikes. Of course, Iceland is an island of just 334,000 people, 117,000 of whom live outside of Reykjavik, so the whole country outside of the capital is very remote and buses don't come quite as frequently as they do in London. The next bus? 24 hours later! So they put their tent up, spent the day in it, and crossed all extremities that there would be space for them and their bikes the following day.
Salvation arrived in the form of a bus with space for three bikes and three bikers the following day and the group was reunited. The wind continued and made the final push back to Reykjavik a bit of a slog as there was no option but to press slowly onwards if they were to be back in time for their flight.
Make it they did at the end of a tough but terrific couple of weeks. The whole group made it around with only two broken spokes to tell of their epic journey - and those happened just 20 minutes after arrival when a cross-body bag flew off and into one of the group's wheels.
The only thing they would change if they were to do it again? Leave a little bit more time. George would have loved to explore the rugged rural centre of the country and met several people who had told tales of stunning crossings by mountain bike.
A stunning country explored in the best way - in the saddle - and a very worthy winner of Beeline's Ultimate Trip 2018 competition.