Saturday, 4 August 2012

Crushing gravel

Internet weirdos. My dear old mum had warned me about meeting strangers from the internet but so far the ones I've actually met have turned out to be pretty cool people. Donn and Jen were more 'internet weirdos' I had met through Twitter. They had recently flown to Norway and ridden the Jotunheimstien, the hiking trail from Oslo to the Jotunheim mountains that Thomas and I had hiked last summer. Thomas and I had been able to provide some additional information to Donn in the planning stages. Donn invited me to join them but my new bike didn't arrive in time and I was worried that the lack of bike miles in my legs would hold them back. I was also unsure but intrigued about riding such a hiking trail and was relieved to hear that they had completed it, with just a few detours to avoid the boggiest of the bogs. Before flying home again they suggested that I join them to ride the Rallarvegen, The Navvies Road that was used by the railway engineers a hundred years ago to construct the section of the Bergen railway line through the mountains. I was apprehensive at my almost total lack of bike conditioning but running out of excuses. My new bike had arrived and the Rallarvegen was still on my list of things-to-do in Norway so I booked a ticket and a room and took my bike on the train out to the hostel at Haugastøl.

While I sat in the restaurant stuffing my face with stone-baked pizza for dinner Donn and Jen walked in, sat down and I instantly felt at ease with them. The Jotunheimstien had been an 'experience' for them and we talked about that trail long past closing time, the staff wrapping up the uneaten portion of my pizza and shooing us out through the door. Outside, in the cool evening air we met Anna, a Polish artist also intent on riding the Rallarvegen. Donn and Jen had met her earlier in the day and had helped to fix her bike. Anna had ridden nearly 2000km already, from her home in Poland and was heading to Nordkap, Norway's most northerly point. That she was doing this on a simple touring bike with enormous panniers full of food was sobering and inspirational. Suddenly any gear-fetishism or gram-weenie hand wringing I had gone through in preparation for these measly couple of hundred kilometres looked pathetic. Lessons would be learned. Donn, Jen and Anna set off into the gloom, riding just a short way down the trail to camp while I returned to my room for the night, feeling like a bit of a fraud.

The Rallarvegen is a big deal in Norway, one of it's biggest holiday attractions. 20,000 riders a year. Most years. This year has been different. When Beni, Marco and I rode the train through the area just a couple of weeks ago the whole area was still locked in snow and ice. Recently things have thawed out quite a bit but the advice from DNT and the hostel owners at Haugastøl was that there were still sections several feet under snow. Odd, who was staying at a cabin almost on the Rallarvegen itself was less skeptical. He chimed in with some timely information that he had seen a few people riding the trail, in both directions. It would however be eerily quiet on the gravel this year.

Outside Haugastøl hostel in the morning I packed my bikepacking bags and rode past a row of perfectly aligned hire bikes. Not just one row but half a dozen. And this isn't just in one place. Most people only ride sections of the trail and at several of the train stations you can find racks of hire bikes like this, lined up and ready to roll for holiday-makers and those who prefer just to turn with a backpack and ride the most popular sections for a day before abandoning the bike and stepping, unencumbered, back on the train to the city. Donn and Jen rode back up the trail to meet me and we started at the well signposted easterly point of the Rallarvegen. Let the gravel begin.

First incident of the day was Jen snapping the bolt of her seat post. Her seat stuck up in the air at a very uncomfortable angle while we tried to find another bolt on our bikes that would suffice. No joy. Donn raced off back down the trail to the well equipped bike shop at Haugastøl. For the next hour Jen and I put more and more clothing on, initially to keep the marauding mosquitoes at bay but eventually just to keep warm. We studied the map and split the entire trail into sections split between establishments serving waffles and coffee. Donn returned with a replacement bolt and we were soon on our way again.

As we approached the first snack stop we caught up with Anna and rode as a group to the hytte at Storurdi, some 13km from the start and perfectly positioned for elevenses! I broke out my finest Norwegian language skills to order food which was greatly appreciated by the Norwegian family sitting at the next table. Waffles with sour cream, jam AND brown cheese, washed down with coffee. With the fuel tanks refilled we pulled on more clothing to insulate against the bitter wind that rattled down the valley, thankfully at our backs.

The route climbs very slowly towards Finse, Norway's highest train station at 1222m and one of the main on/off points for Rallarvegen cyclists. There were a few small groups braving the chilly conditions, stopping again for snacks and some people weirdly felt the need for a cigarette break too, you know, while out exercising in the beautiful pristine mountains with all that clean air...

The lake at Finse, the location for The Empire Strikes Back when they filmed the Hoth scenes up here, is now ice free. There were still very few hikers to be seen setting off for the Hardangervidda, even now, in late July due to plenty of snow covering the trails leading either side of the Hardangerjokulen glacier which remained a recluse behind a hat of cloud.

The Rallarvegen continued to snake it's way along the valley, still climbing and now interrupted by snow fields. These were short at first, just a few metres but it wasn't long before we hit the longer drifts, pouring down off the hillsides, still unmoved by the 'summer'. Plenty of people, it seemed, had been past this way and there were footholds and wheel troughs to guide us across to the next stretch of gravel. There were also holes in several places where running snow melt could be seen below. You did not want to put your foot through that.

Anna's heavy bike required some manhandling around some of these sections. When asked later what she would have done without our help across the snow fileds she replied stoically that she would have removed her panniers, ferried them one by one across the snow and returned for her bike. Her fantastic attitude didn't stop there, reveling in the natural beauty of the area, despite the low visibility on this section and giggling with joy at the discovery of a honey bee hitching a ride on her panniers across the snow.

Pretty soon we passed the highest point at Fagervatn of 1343m. From here on it would be pretty much downhill for the rest of the day. We were just too late for refreshments at the Fagernut hyyte (the Canadian pronunciation had me in childish stitches) so we bundled ourselves up in jackets and sheltered in the lee of an adjacent building for a late lunch. The slightly smooshed left-over pizza slices from last night were greasy, delicious and well earned.

The snow fields became more and more infrequent as we descended and some of the sections, full of firm gravel and swooping corners, were an absolute delight to ride. Big ring, big grin.

Eventually even mile after mile of downhill caught up with us and we tired as the evening wore on. After the train station at Hallingskeid we started looking for campsites and after a few 'meh' sites we stumbled across a doozy, sitting on a small peninsula sticking out into Nedre Grøndalsvatnet. The ground was firm and dry and a breeze helped to disrupt the flight plans of squadrons of mosquitoes. We set up the shelters while a wall of cloud billowed out of Øvre Grøndal across the lake and smothered our lake in a thick murk, blotting out the evening sky. This began an evening of cloud and sunshine pitched in an epic battle of supremacy over our little corner of Norway. Donn and Jen both took trips up to the old demolished snow sheds below the railway line and came back with armfuls of wood. It was slightly damp and rotted but Anna and Jen managed to get a fire going. We sat around, enjoying the light show, watching Donn try and lure some trout to the surface and sharing food. Only after the fire had gone out, everyone had gone to bed and I was stood in the dark cleaning my teeth did the lake start to swirl with trout taking the evening's hatch off the surface.

The next day dawned with giant swathes of blue filling the sky between the valley walls. It was a little chilly but a good breakfast, plenty of coffee and some pedaling to get the blood flowing soon had us warmed up. The Rallarvegen continued to swoop down revealing pretty valleys, each one filled with flowers, lakes and rapids, the water alternating from silent aquamarine to roaring, frothing white and back again.

Around Seltuftvatnet the trail started to level out and eventually climb past Reinungavatnet, across the tracks of the Flåmsbanen (Europe's steepest standard gauge railway) and then very steeply up the last kilometre to Myrdal train station at 864m. The trail was loose, rocky and full of tourists. Myrdal station is a hive of activity in the summer. Tourists flock here as part of the classic 'Norway in a Nutshell' tour jumping from the Bergen train line into the Flåm valley, mostly by taking the Flåmsbanen but some prefer to walk the picturesque 20km downhill to Flåm while others, like ourselves, prefer to ride bikes. Here we devoured pancakes and parted company with Anna who didn't need to ride down and up the Flåm valley on her quest to reach Nordkap. I gave her some advice on the best way to get to Voss and the prettiest road through the Rondane before we all hugged and waved goodbye.

The Myrdal-Flåm section of the Rallarvegen, like the Flåmsbanen railway it mirrors, is like a branch line, off the main route. They both plunge off the platform of Myrdal station, the train through tunnels, snow sheds, artificial cliffs and horseshoe bends. The Rallarvegen continues this theme only down even steeper terrain using, in places, unguarded gravel switchbacks to drop down the valley. In places the Rallarvegen merely arcs and curves around the contours before backing itself into a corner where it must unravel in another series of switchbacks. It makes for an electrifying ride. The firm surface and wide trail begs for speed while the warning signs, level crossings and other travelers require a modicum of restraint. Further down the valley the Rallarvegen changes into a smooth road for the final kilometres into Flåm. Here we zigzagged through throngs of tourists heading for the fjord cruise boats to a supermarket and bought food for another day or so on the trail. We sat on some grass in the shade of a tree and ate lunch knowing that, unlike the tourists who where either heading back to Voss and Bergen by boat or back up to Myrdal on the Flåmsbanen, we were going to have to ride back up that bastard...

Lunch done we packed up and started the 20km climb. We soon developed a great tactic to break up the relentless grind. Foraging. Almost straight out of Flåm and we picked a litre of raspberries for free from bushes just opposite a farmers gate where he was selling small boxes for a pretty penny. As we ploughed up one particularly steep road section some smart ass on a bike whizzing past us in the opposite direction sang out "God tur!"...

Further up the climb we celebrated the top of one of the steep switchback sections with another foraging session. This time wild strawberries were our target. They taste so good it's almost like fake strawberry flavour, used as we are to the bland, freakishly bloated, cultivated strawberries found in our supermarkets.

The one tunnel that the Rallarvegen passes through on this section is a sensory mind game in both directions, but especially when going up. Careering down you travel just quick enough for the almost total darkness to speed past before it becomes disorienting. On the way up you take much longer through the tunnel. The lack of reference points in the middle does really weird things to your sense of balance and you start weaving all over the place.

In the end we decided to stop in the valley overnight around Kårdalfossen. We found a great picnic table just off the trail and hung out there for the evening. Donn plied his flies in the pool below the falls without success but he came back with a fine specimen of one of the Amanita family mushrooms that we fried in a little oil and shared...

...while Jen brewed up another pot of bedtime tea combining a herbal tea bag I had in my food sack and some fresh herbs foraged from the woods. Their foraging skills were great to watch and I no longer look at hedgerows as just a bunch of bushes! When we couldn't keep our eyes open any longer we retreated to a wildly overgrown meadow behind the pine trees. In the long grass and wild flowers we pitched our shelters and went to bed.

The next morning's itinerary included drying out our condensation-saturated shelters, breakfast with an inquisitive fox cub, coffee and climbing back up to Myrdal station by the fairly short but incredibly steep switchbacked climb we had carved down yesterday. Luckily we had a kilometre or so to warm up on the gently rising trail running through the farm at Kårdal. Soon though we were scrabbling for the granny gears which came a little too soon for me. I was sure I had a couple more gears to go but had to grimace on when I realised I was already in the biggest cog. The lack of a real 'grinder' gear and suspension to keep the front end from deflecting on the Fargo 2 meant I had to walk a couple of the loose, rocky sections and watch Donn's back wheel slowly crawl away from me. Once we hit the better graded trail again I hopped back on and after a pretty intense climb we rolled out onto the platform at Myrdal station together, drenched in sweat. Jen joined us soon after and we had another coffee to celebrate. I went off to study the train timetable.

The Rallarvegen for most people ends here and indeed much of the literature and maps perpetuates this assumption but across the mountain of Urdshovd lies a few more kilometres of the real Rallarvegen. Unfortunately to access this last section requires either a 5-6 hour hike on steep trails or a four minute train ride straight through the mountain. That was the option we wanted to take but we had missed a train by 20 minutes and had to wait a couple of hours for the next one.

So we descended a short section of the Myrdal-Flåm valley again but turned off back along the Rallarvegen route we rode yesterday morning until we got to the glassy lake at Reinungavatnet. There we settled on a peninsula and between dodging mosquitoes and fiery ants we sat in the sun, snacked and fished in the crystal clear waters. Unfortunately the trout too were having a midday break.

We rode back up to Myrdal station and jumped on the local train to Uppsete. Four minutes we were scheduled to be on the train but somehow the guard got to us and charged us for the privilege of standing up with our bikes through the tunnel.  Alighting at Uppsete I was on familiar ground but in unfamiliar conditions. I have worked often in the areas around Uppsete and Mjølfjell but only during winter when working as a ski guide to school groups. Luckily the ski trail is also the Rallarvegen in summer and we trundled along the recently renovated trail and swooped down to the hostel. There we found the 'Slutt på Rallarvegen' sign (End of the Rallarvegen). It was over. The Rallarvegen from one end to the other, including the Myrdal-Flåm arm in both directions, 148km, done. I could have ridden that trail and terrain for weeks.

But that wasn't the end of our ride. We planned to catch the train back to Bergen from Voss so we still had a roughly 40 kilometre ride ahead of us. After stopping for lunch at the waterfalls below Mjølfjell train station we  began the road descent to Voss. From my intelligence gathering and vague recollection of being driven down the road once last winter I was under the impression that it was downhill for 30 kilometres. Well, it wasn't quite all downhill and a couple of uphill sections kept us honest but the rest was a whizzy valley road descent with the odd switchback and never ending sunshine. We rolled straight into the train station at Voss and immediately boarded a train bound for Bergen. It was empty which was good because our bikes and gear took up a lot of space and we stank. Unfortunately a tourist bus pulled into the car park as we waited to leave and the train filled up almost to maximum capacity. Then we were delayed due to a technical fault but eventually we were heading back to Bergen in the glow of the evening sun, the fjord walls golden in the light. We traveled west, towards the coast and grey clouds but also, most importantly, warm showers.

Huge thanks to Donn and Jen for inviting me to ride with them. You guys made the trip fun and it was nice to share the experience with someone. It was a fantastic introduction to bikepacking and a sublime bike trail. Access for anyone who wants to ride the Rallarvegen is easy by train either from Bergen or Oslo.

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