(published first in The Grapevine, Reykjavik Iceland)
words and photographs by Gabrielle Motola
I own two motorbikes in London, one for looks, the other for speed and comfort. Neither of these bikes or any of the thousands of miles I’ve ridden on them adequately prepared me for what I was about to experience when I went off-roading in Iceland for the first time. My motocross sensi for the day was Jói who is an accomplished postural therapist and has also been motor-cross and enduro biking since his early teens. From the kitchen, I felt rather than heard the rumble of his black Ford Explorer truck turn into my street. As fantasised, it was a flatbed towing two large bikes and a smaller one. Small as it was, a 250 is powerful enough to mess you up if things go wrong. We went to pick up his friend Árni, filled up the truck and the petrol can, got a hotdog or two and some drinks. I think I have eaten more hotdogs here in Iceland in a month than Fenway Park season ticket holders have in a year.
We arrived at our final destination, about 30 minutes East of Reykjavik on Highway One, which was a flat dirt plain surrounded by mountains with a single trailer structure containing a changing room and some toilets. Several dirt tracks and practice courses surrounded it. As if I wasn't feeling out of my depth already, cue Gunnar Nelson the MMA and BJJ fighter riding up to say hello.
Off roading requires a serious amount of gear which made my usual road gear seem like a nightgown. The kneepads came first. Four straps long and deadly, you could crack someone's pelvis with them. Or rather, prevent a steel rod from entering your leg on one ride as Jói's pads had done. Then came the trousers, shirt, breast and back plates, another shirt, armoured jacket, helmet, goggles, and gloves. The boots are like downhill ski boots on steroids which made me look like a storm trooper. I wondered how was I going to use my toe to shift gears in these? The helmet, though my size, was so tight that I could feel my cheeks puckering through the gap in my molars. I'm told it's supposed to be like that. And you get surprisingly used to the discomfort after a while.
I'm getting a good back sweat on from the fear. But forward and onward.
Jói fuelled the bikes and checked them over. He set me up on my bike. After what seemed to be ten minutes he handed it over to me. Almost as soon as I touched it, it stalled. Sitting down and trying to bring my booted leg up to my chest to kick the starter for the first time gave me a cramp under my ribs. I worked on my technique. It started at last. He directed me to the beginner's track to get the hang of the bike. Round and round I went surprised at just how bad a driver I was. Turns were impossible at any respectable speed, I had no clue what I was doing with the gears as I had no feeling in my foot, and the slipping and sliding of the back tire was freaking me out.
After a few more turns around the track, I got better at dealing with the slip and slide and relaxed some. Just as I returned the bike to stand it up and rest for a bit, Jói and Árni returned from their (bigger) practice track. They were getting ready to hit some other track nearby. A lot of the day's conversation was in Icelandic. Good practice for me but bad for surprises.
Árni motioned to me to follow him in the opposite direction and we set off around the corner...and into the valley. We rode up a gravel path laden with coarse rocks and larger rocks tenuously embedded in unstable gravel. Inquisitively, I asked 'So if I see a big rock in my way I avoid it right? I don't try to ride over it?"
"Avoid the big rocks." Jói said, deadpan. Of course he then completely contradicted himself. I followed Árni, suppressing a rising panic. The adrenaline was nice though, as was the scenery. After we hit a particularly colourful patch of larger rocks, mixed with sliding gravel on an incline, I stalled the bike. Getting it started on an incline was no easy task and I became exhausted from the effort. I was challenged by the repetitive pumping at the kick starter for one, and two, finding neutral with my stormtrooper boots was about as precise as playing the game 'Operation' with a hammer. I finally got the bike started and tried to make an ascent up the chunky gravel path.
My fear was foe and after 20 meters or so I slipped and slammed onto my left side. I tried to stop the bike from getting scratched up as it belonged to Jói´s son. It wasn't a bad fall but bad enough to stop me there. We stored the bike in a ditch and Jói took me on the back of his bike the rest of the way down. Atta atta atta atta as we bounced down the mountain. "So this is how it ends!" I thought. But he is a master of this machine and after I stopped panicking I realised how smooth the ride was in comparison to mine. Relaxing is one of the keys to getting the hang of riding off road. Not looking down is the other key.
We arrived in this expansive valley, scooped out like a fluted punchbowl between mountains, made up of lava rocks, coarse stones and boulders. There, a track had been dragged out in the base of the bowl. Jói and the guys got to work. First in the undulating dirt and gravel path. Then the rocks.
While in the valley, instead of riding, I photographed, and was relieved to do something I was familiar with. For a moment I forgot about the return journey. I was going to have to pick up that bike and ride it back down that hill and around the mountain or push it walking. And I was not going to push it walking. We arrived at the bike and Jói brought it onto the path. I got myself in position on the alternative path facing downhill. I saw Jói waiting for me on the other side and as I came down he motioned "YOU GO GIRL" with his fist. Then I stalled. Great. After kicking it to hell it started and promptly stalled again. Jói came over and firmly stated something like "What are you doing looking down? You know where first gear is! Why are you looking at your foot? It's there! Always!” He then repeated Árni's advice about looking ahead on the path and not down at the 'rocks of death' beneath. This serious directive which went straight to my muscles; and they obeyed.
It was only then that I had my first glimpse of the joy of the off-road world and as it opened up to me, I drove home in first, then second, third, feeling the slight shifting of the ground underneath me evening out into a gentle purring path of soft terrain. The shocks of the bike felt more and more like I was sitting on a Lazy Boy sofa. I began to trust the machine, look ahead and enjoy.
The best way to see the countryside is on a motorcycle. Better yet on an off-road one. Take a Land Rover if you require a shielded sense of safety, horses if you love animals, or walk if you love to take it slow. But if you ride motorcycles you know what I'm talking about.
A literary thanks to @valurgunn