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The Discoverer

For over a decade now, the bike and I have had a relationship grounded in ambition. National titles, racing in exotic, far-flung places like Mongolia, or pursuing an FKT on the famed White Rim have all fueled new ideas and goals for the bike.

As it is for many children, the bike first meant unbridled joy. Reckless abandon. Playtime. As my search for purpose began to challenge my confused, teenage brain though, bike “racing” captured my heart. All of it. Many things had by that point of course, but this quickly proved different. For one, a certain famous Texan had been busy winning the Tour de France, and he lived just minutes from our family. Through him, my relationship with the sport began as fandom, but quickly developed into fanaticism.

 

The Discoverer: transports your spirit and alters the direction of your life.

In my mind, The Professional and The Child are two overlapping circles like a Venn diagram. The place in which these two circles overlap is exceedingly small, the frequency with which they coexist vanishingly rare. That place between, where a challenge demands that The Professional and The Child work together for a long time, is where I’ve found true peak experiences.   They are the grandest adventurers, the largest physical challenges, the deepest pushes into the unknown. They are when decades of unwavering dedication, true grit, unbridled joy, bottomless exhaustion and true discovery are all called upon to take on the adventure of a lifetime. The Discoverer transports your spirit and alters the direction of your life. This was Iceland.

 

 

Meeting The Discoverer

As seems to be the case with many good ideas, I can’t remember whose it actually was.   Chris Burkard, a fellow cyclist, friend, and renowned photographer, had invited us on a special trip to tour his newly created Westfjords Way route, but I think he could tell I was waffling. The Professional had a tight grip on my steering wheel.   He made mention of additional endeavors we could pursue after the Westfjords ride—FKTs and other challenges—in an attempt to appeal to The Professional and entice me up to Iceland. Never less, I nonchalantly mentioned them to my partner, Nichole, but remained wary.   They’d be big efforts, the least of which being the near-700-mile Westfjords bike tour itself. Two key race weekends, OZ Trails and Marathon Nationals, would come just 20 days later. Enough time to recover, not enough to rebuild.   But from both sides, Chris and Nichole kept working on me. In their own ways, one unintentionally appealing to The Professional, the other The Child. That’s how it feels in hindsight at least. After a couple weeks, bouncing some FKT-style routes and concepts back and forth with Chris, the eureka moment finally happened: in more than a thousand years of overland travel throughout Iceland, beginning with Naddodd the Viking in 830 CE, no one in recorded history had made a complete crossing under human power in a single, self-supported push.   What does that mean? It means picking some gear, loading it up on your back and bike, and getting yourself from one coast to the other without stopping for a rest and without outside help. No motors, no ration drops, no food caches, no pacers—just you, your will, and (in this case) 40,000 square miles of volcanic rock and sand in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.   A start and finish line defined by ocean waves on opposing coasts? Ride until you run out of land? Now we were talking. The Child could convince The Professional to skip any race weekend for this.

 

 

The Iceland Agenda

Outdoor folks love to quip that “mother nature doesn’t care about you,” but with some of the most notorious weather and one of sparsest population densities in the world, Iceland really doesn’t care about you.   At just a few clicks below the Arctic Circle, the country can receive snow in any month of the year. The infamous Icelandic Highlands, which make up the majority of the island, are totally devoid of inhabitants and very nearly devoid of any life at all.   Sure, the country sees a massive crush of tourists annually, but only in the vibrant coastal areas. Very, very few travelers venture into the country’s interior, save for those on guided overland tours or the hardiest bikepackers and hikers. None make decisions based on crossing the terrain fast.   The more we talked about it, the more excited I got. This was not an FKT concept, nor really a test of speed. This was a trial of completion. A first ever. An “is it possible?”   Though my career has taken me down the exit ramp and onto the lonely road of elite athletics, adventure and discovery have remained a constant fascination of mine. My favorite movie is “The Right Stuff”, a 3.5 hour historical drama all about selecting and training the first NASA astronauts. My favorite book is “The Endurance”, which details Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 attempt at a first ever crossing of Antarctica—to this day considered by many the greatest ever story of human survival and resilience.   Though nearly every frontier on this planet has been explored, every great crossing or summit achieved, as a bike rider this plan felt like it could give me a taste of true, old-school adventure. And maybe, just maybe, an experience that would fall into that elusive space occupied by The Discoverer. Within days, I was all-in and we had our tickets booked to the land of fire and ice.   The trip would begin with an 8-day tour of the Westfjords Way, riding alongside Nichole, Chris, Rugile Kaladyte, Lael Wilcox and a small media crew to capture the wistful and, at times, very challenging journey.   Following the completion of the tour, my attention swung to “Crossing Iceland”. Though I had been nervous about riding 700 miles and then, days later, jumping into a 20, 30, 40(??) hour effort, getting my ass kicked by Iceland for a week first with friends was helpful.   Touring the Westfjords helped me understand the climate, demands of the terrain, fuel my body would need and what equipment choices might help. However, unlike our bike tour, there would be no quaint coastal cafés with waffles and hot chocolate. No cheerful local farmers waving good morning. No stately Icelandic horses, manes blowing in the wind. In the interior of Iceland there isn’t so much as a gas station o     r country store. Instead, there are glaciers, volcanoes and icy rivers. There would be a film team within sight for a significant portion of the effort and, as always, I’d carry an inReach beacon, but, as far as I was concerned, succumbing to a rescue would be far worse than putting my mind and body through hell. I’d have to plan and pack accordingly, ready for when things would inevitably go wrong.   On paper, 257 miles should be more than doable in a single push, but I was quickly learning that things work differently in the interior of Iceland. Things started going wrong before I even got started.   The weather window that appeared in the forecast would necessitate a much earlier departure day than expected. In order to avoid a predicted snowstorm in the highlands, I’d have to depart just 48 hours after finishing the 700-mile Westfjords bike tour.   Furthermore, there would be a steady headwind for 200 of the 257 miles, temperatures in the 30’s (Fahrenheit) and steady rain. The Professional had latched on to an arbitrary goal of sub-24 hours, but I quickly had to let go of that.   That was just the beginning.   Just 36 hours before my proposed start, a thermal vent opened under the Myrdalsjokull Glacier, melting an enormous amount of ice that in-turn created a flood and wiped out a portion of my originally planned route. As Chris, a couple of local cyclists and I scrambled to plan a 40-mile reroute around the damaged area, doubt began to creep in.

 

 

Crossing Iceland

Just over a day later, on September 11th at 4:15 a.m. and with doubt only just clouding excitement, I rolled out from the clocktower in Akureyri, Iceland’s northern capital city. After a quick stop to ceremoniously dip my back tire in the coastal waves, I skimmed across smooth pavement in the early dawn, watching rural Iceland rise to greet another day.   Following 30 opening miles of fast pavement, the route quickly deteriorated into a 3,500-foot four-wheel-drive climb that gained the Plateau. Fueled by the exhilaration of the day, I crested a horizon line and got my first view of the Highlands. It took all I had not to slam on the brakes and just stare. I’ve ridden my bike all over the world, but absolutely nothing compares. It is otherworldly. Lunar. Mordor. A place you should not be.   Excitement switched to fear. I wanted to get in and get out.   But, of course, Iceland had other plans. The steady headwind kicked up, and though the route now trended gradually downhill, my average speed slowly plummeted. The F Roads of the Highlands are very minimally maintained, passable only by the most capable overland vehicles. The unrelenting washboard punished my body for 115 miles that took a humbling 11 hours to traverse.   Glacial streams to refill my bottles and Duro pack were few and far between, and the wind-whipped rain fell steady. But my gear was good. A drop bar gravel bike with comparatively high-volume, 2.0 tires allowed me to tuck in and hide from the wind a little while also absorbing the unrelenting hits.   Lady Luck did smile on me in one unbelievable way: a 6’ 6” Spaniard named Marc.   The planned route had two major river crossings which had been lurking in the back of my mind for days. Caused by glacial runoff, these rivers can change in depth and course on a daily basis. With temperatures hovering around freezing, I knew water levels would likely be slightly lower, but one misstep would be an instant curtain call on the whole attempt. I’d brought a second set of neoprene socks to pull on before the crossings, so that I could keep my primary set dry, but they wouldn’t be much help if I chose the wrong path across and found myself soaked to the bone.   But then, just half a mile before the first ford, a notably tall bike rider—the only other cyclist I’d meet all day—appeared out of the mist. He and some buddies were tackling the Highlands over the course of a week, taking turns driving their overland follow truck.   His name was Marc, from Barcelona, and I’d never been so happy to see a stranger in my life. I quickly explained that I was trying to push all the way to Vík on the southern coast that same day and, with an amused grin, he asked if I’d like him to guinea-pig the river crossing. It was the perfect morale boost in a moment of need.   It seemed fate was with us both, and with his long legs to test the path ahead we made our way successfully across. Little did I know that a predicted snowstorm was now fast approaching, and Marc and his companions would later be forced to hunker down in one the Highland’s only lodges for several days.   After saying our goodbyes and good lucks, I took off with renewed resolve.   Hours after the water crossing, as the headwind further stiffened and the rain stayed steady, I once again began to truly suffer. My rain gear had finally succumbed, and I gradually began losing function of my hands.   To that point, 140 miles in, The Professional had acted with precise execution. I’d gotten 200-300 calories down in 150 calorie increments, every 30 minutes. I’d paced well, pedaling hard at all times but far from running empty. I’d methodically rotated through layers to maintain warmth, but never so much to break a sweat and get cold from the inside. It wasn’t quite clockwork, but close.   And yet, even the very best gear can’t keep out swirling arctic rain as a ride reaches the 13-hour mark. The chill in my core was concerning, but losing all hand dexterity even more so. I was unable to shift, squeeze a bottle or open a food wrapper. Thirty minutes later and I didn’t even have the hand strength to get into pockets.   After hours of moving through it I had made peace with the sinister Highlands, but now fear began to creep back in. I’d come so far, and the descent off the Plateau was now just an hour away. The ice, the lunar sand, the wind, the emptiness was all starting to close in. I was competing with no one, but started to feel like I was running out of time.   When I really start to suffer, I psychologically hunker down. Vision starts to close in, thoughts become simpler and every decision becomes focused on maximizing forward progress. The same goes for fear. I stop hearing things, don’t see the mountain ahead, just the big rock I need to steer around 17 feet up the road. All attention is focused on one problem at a time.   When suffering and fear are combined, that experience is magnified in a way that demands every trick I’ve learned: shifting with my fist instead of fingertips, drinking liquid calories rather than messing with solid food, flapping arms around to promote circulation. During this ride, I spent hours in that headspace.   But those tricks of the trade would not be enough to get me through that crux—I had to call on The Child. When The Professional was on his hands and knees, The Child—who gives up last—stepped up.   I yelled at myself, out loud, to remember where I was, what I was doing and everything that it had taken to get there. I thanked people out loud. Yes, I talked to myself in that driving rain in the middle of the godforsaken Icelandic Highlands. I reminded myself, out loud, how fortunate I am. Fortunate to be healthy. Fortunate to have this opportunity. Fortunate for everything that had led to that exact moment.   And then I cried.   I cried tears of joy, tears of genuine pain and tears of inspiration. And when I’d had that little cry, tears camouflaged by the thousands of icy raindrops that had hit my face that day, I was unstoppable. The Discoverer had been summoned and I was unstoppable.   Shortly thereafter, I finally crested the southern edge of the Highland Plateau, and began a gentle descent towards the southern coast. At that time, I still had over 100 miles remaining, but it didn’t matter—I was on fire. It was like I’d just started a new ride, legs as strong and resilient as they’d been in the opening miles.   Even as darkness fell, my spirits soared. Even as icy headwinds kicked back up, created by the crazy mini weather patterns of the great glaciers that cover 25% of Iceland’s landmass, I sped ahead. Nineteen hours and 45 minutes after departing Akureyri, I carved a lazy semi-circle through the foamy surf of Iceland’s southern coast outside of Vík, closing the loop I’d opened when I dipped my tire in the northern coastal waters that now lapped an entire expanse away.

 

 

Balance

It is the most memorable bike ride I’ve ever done, and a personal testament that I am finally finding balance in my relationship with two wheels.   I am still the driver of the lonely road. I genuinely love its twists, its bumps and its blinding speed as much as when I first took that exit ramp at 14 years old. I also know that I won’t always need The Discoverer in my life to feel fulfilled. Those peak experiences are not for everyone, and they’re certainly not for anyone frequently. But finding The Discoverer has helped me prove to myself a willingness to explore side roads, to pick up a hitchhiker or two, to stop for a roadside attraction. Learning to love the bike in new ways has proven to me that, when it’s time to take the exit ramp off of the lonely road for good, I’ll be okay.

 

 

The Professional: militant focus, unwavering dedication and a work ethic that simultaneously satiates ambition and sucks the oxygen out of every other facet of life.

The Professional represents an archetype most celebrated by the public. It’s the larger-than-life athlete our culture idolizes. Impossibly inspiring, its persona is more a representation of the act than the person behind it.   Watching The Professional on TV is what ignited my teenage dreams. But The Professional is also the driver of that lonely road: no side trips, few copilots. Both a wonderful fantasy and nearly unbearable weight, it makes heroes of a few. As far as I can tell, those that manage longevity on the lonely road get good at tempering The Professional by embracing The Child.

 

 

The Child: unbridled joy, boundless exhilaration, spirit set totally free and flying.

  You find The Child racing down an alley with your friends with absolutely nothing at stake; ripping a trail without touching your brakes for the first time ever because the hero dirt is better than you knew was possible; a 20-mph tailwind on a glassy-smooth stretch of tarmac. During moments such as these, there’s a good chance you’re laughing so hard you can’t catch your breath, and breathing so hard your laugh keeps catching. Or maybe you’re just letting out a “whoop!” at the top of your lungs for no one else to hear but the indifferent trees. Gratitude straight from the soul—for bikes.   It may come as a surprise to you that these childlike moments often interrupt The Professional, stealing the moment like a small agile falcon dive bombing an austere, slow-cruising hawk, just for the fun of it. To this day, those childlike moments are completely unpredictable for me.   Sometimes they come when inexplicably strong legs urge you to finish the last interval faster than the first. Other times, when gritting through four hours in the rain rewards you with a double rainbow in the fifth hour. I have to think this is what keeps many coming back. It has for me.   The Child never totally goes away, even when The Professional is locked in to driving that narrow road. The Child is what makes the many days of suffering, bad weather, ugly contract renegotiations, mechanicals, crashes … worth it. And yet, as powerful an experience as The Child is, it is not the most powerful. The most powerful feeling on the bike that I have ever known comes through a third kind of experience– The Discoverer.