No Sleep ‘Til Ísafjörður: The 2023 Arna Westfjords Way Challenge

The Arna Westfjords Way Challenge is an ultra-endurance cycling race that traverses the seaside perimeter of Iceland’s Westfjords region in four stages over five days with 600 miles of mixed surface riding and 37,000+ feet of elevation gain. The route was originally established by accomplished endurance cyclists Lael Wilcox, Chris Burkard, Payson McElveen, Nichole Baker, and Rugile Kaladyte and formatted into a stage race by the team at Cycling Westfjords in 2021. Now in its second year, the event features a variety of innovative aspects that make it unique in the world of ultra cycling, which benefits the local communities and also the riders’ experiences. Josh Weinberg was on the ground covering this year’s event and, below, shares an insightful event recap and massive image gallery from this strikingly beautiful part of the world.

By Way of Westfjords

The Westfjords are one of the most remote regions in Iceland, an island country that, itself, is relatively isolated from the rest of the world. It’s a 280-mile (or about a five-hour drive) journey from the country’s capital of Reykjavík to the Westfjords regional capital of Ísafjörður. Geologically speaking, the region is the oldest part of Iceland; its dramatic mountain ranges were formed by volcanic activity around 16 million years ago and subsequently carved by glaciers, resulting in the 3000-foot peaks that rise straight from the sea today. The mountainous area—and its absence of continuous stretches of lowlands —is in contrast to other regions of the island, making it relatively inhospitable to farming and, thus, sparsely populated with only 7,000 permanent residents (0.02 people per square mile).

A peninsula close to the Arctic Circle, weather in the Westfjords is typically harsher than inland locations such as the capital city, or more popular tourist destinations to the south and east. Even during summer months, wind speeds can regularly reach 15mph, with gusts much higher, and temperatures can dip close to freezing when storms blow in from the north. But depending on which side of a fjord you’re on (or how high up a mountain pass), you can find yourself moving through dramatically different microclimates, for better or worse. And the weather isn’t the only dynamic natural phenomenon visitors to the Westfjords experience. Known as “Midnight Sun,” the region’s far north location means that, during summer months, the sun does not set below a visible horizon line. The opposite, or “Polar Night,” also occurs in winter blanketing all of Iceland in nearly constant darkness.

So, why would nearly 100 cyclists congregate in the Westfjords each year for a stage race in such a remote place with potentially forbidding weather and a sun that never sleeps?

Back in 2019, Halldóra (“Dóra”) Norddahl wrote a thesis at the University of Hólar evaluating tourists’ self-reported cycling experiences in the Westfjords. Dóra, now one of the Westfjord Way Challenge event directors and part of Cycling Westfjords, wanted to explore the types of cycling most travelers sought out to determine if the region was living up to visitors’ expectations. Not surprisingly, she found most cyclists travel to Westfjords to experience its stunning natural beauty amidst the minimal auto traffic, escape crowded areas, and connect with locals.

Elements of challenge brought on by the remote location, burly topography, and variable weather were also desirable for most travelers she profiled in the study. While my two-sentence distillation of her work doesn’t really do it justice, Dóra’s research helped inform the creation of Cycling Westfjords in 2021. Today, in addition to facilitating the Westfjords Way Challenge, the organization provides self-supported cyclists with information and trip-planning assistance through the Passport Route service, connecting people and places via bike touring.

Around the same time Dóra, Tyler Wacker, and Lynnee Jacks were forming Cycling Westfjords, professional adventure cyclists Lael Wilcox, Chris Burkard, Payson McElveen, Nicole Baker, and Rugile Kaladyte were working with Visit Westfjords to refine and publicize the Westfjords Way as an enticing reason for cyclists to visit and tour the region. Ultimately, the Westfjords Way route traverses coastlines and mountain passes, using paved roads and dirt tracks, past grand waterfalls, and abundant hot springs over 600 miles with more than 35,000 ft. of elevation gain.

During their planning, Chris and Lael envisioned an endurance stage race around the Westfjords Way route that would balance the route’s challenging terrain with the region’s distinct culture and hospitable—if sparsely populated—residents. In her Reportage, Lael wrote in detail about what such a race could be:

“Our idea is to set up an ultra-endurance stage race with 100 riders. There will be four stages– each one 240km to 300km that ends with the possibility of accommodations, food, and a hot spring. Riders will be self-supported, carrying what they need along the way, taking care of their bikes and themselves. Unlike many self-supported races, due to the high winds, they’ll be allowed to draft and work together. They will have 24 hours or so to complete the stage and get ready before the next one goes off. They’ll self-record their times with photos. There might be some incentives to get time reductions– soaking in hot springs, jumping in the sea, eating all the waffles, and meeting special people along the way. The race will be in late June, a week after the summer solstice, with nearly peak daylight. At least one stage will start at night. Your finishing time is when you jump into the harbor at the end in Ísafjörður.”

Tyler and Lynnee (also Ísafjörður residents along with Dóra) met up with Lael and Chris on their 2021 scouting tour and spent a couple of days riding together. The idea of a stage race was briefly a topic of conversation among the group but, at the time without much local infrastructure in place, it was a fleeting concept. Following our publishing of the group’s trip reports (which contained Lael’s relatively detailed race format architecture), however, Cycling Westfjords was moved and voted late in 2021 to host the inaugural Westfjords Way Challenge in June 2022.

With under eight months to plan, the team fast-tracked preparation to welcome up to 100 riders to the Westfjords in a semi-supported format that includes lodging (or camping) accommodations, limited gear transport, meals, volunteers, and twenty Cultural Connection opportunities.

Cultural and Personal Connections

Having both studied Coastal Communities and Regional Development in Ísafjörður, Tyler and Lynnee had developed an appreciation for the character-defining elements of the small towns through the Westfjords and recognized the potential for regional development the race could bring. In an email exchange, Tyler told me:

“We visited many of the institutions of the region—from sheep farms to fish farming— [and] we discussed ideas of innovation and diversifying economies to avoid lock-in and path dependency. We think that cycling can help the Westfjords continue to flourish. By requiring participants to stop at designated points of interests, our “Cultural Connections,” provide space for cultural exchange as well as economic benefit for these small businesses around the Westfjords. With 21 cultural connections in 2023, these are all places that have benefitted from the race. Last year in our inaugural year, Riishús Cafe in Borðeyri quoted the race day as their best day of the year. This race is really a larger concept for regional development, one that uses bicycling as a form of sustainable tourism while connecting with the people of the region.”

Their knowledge of the area and Lael’s recommendation to incentivize “soaking in hot springs, jumping in the sea, eating all the waffles, and meeting special people along the way,” inspired Cycling Westfjords to make these Cultural Connections an integral component of the race. Unique to this semi-supported event, riders of the Westfjords Way Challenge must stop at no less than two Cultural Connections during each stage in lieu of traditional aid stations or checkpoints. The concept of stopping the race clock to immerse yourself in the culture of a place for as long as you want proved to be the most impactful aspect of the stage race for me and, I’m guessing, most of the race participants, too.

While some riders were out to race and used the connection stops strategically, most other folks who were merely trying to survive on their bikes found more than just waffles, hot pots, and wool sweaters at the stops. In just five (long) days, I witnessed groups of complete strangers form intense bonds over the shared race experience, facilitated by the Cultural Connection stops. With nearly constant forceful headwinds, riders realized very early on that grouping up with a rotating paceline was the most efficient method for moving through the terrain. Some folks would leap frog between the bunches and then would regroup at each stop. The connection stops became a way to check in and care for each other, bonding over the shared experience of the physically and emotionally taxing ride. I think it was the insightful Nicole Sin Quee who related the experience to an “adult summer camp,” which is certainly fitting although nothing about the race week felt like summer to me.

Shakedown Ride to Arna’s Bolungarvik Dairy

A story about the Westfjords Way Challenge would not be complete without mention of Arna and their lactose-free dairy operations. As the race’s title sponsor, Arna is a big part of the reason the event is able to provide scholarships, rider support, and employ staff. Located about 20 miles north of Ísafjörður in the small coastal town of Bolungarvik, Arna’s factory was the first “unofficial” Cultural Connection many of us had after arriving in the Westfjords. I had flown in the night prior and the short ride on scenic Óshlíðarvegur – which is conveniently closed to motorized vehicles due to rock slides, washouts, and the opening of a bypass tunnel in 2010 – was a welcome warm up to the ensuing big mileage days. And the weather was stunning. Warm Arctic sun on the skin without a cloud in the sky; a cruel tease from Viking gods Freyr and Thor preceding the incoming storms.

Donning pink hair nets, blue shoe covers, and plastic jackets served as a funny icebreaker for our group of partially kitted-out cyclists while we were shown where the protein-spiked soda water and lactose-free mjólk products we’d be consuming all week was manufactured. Back in Ísafjörður that evening, the group congregated at Hotel Ísafjörður for a rider briefing before scattering to camp spots and hotel rooms in hopes of blocking out the sunlight for one last good sleep before the event frenzy kicked off early the next day.

Stage 1: Ísafjörður – Hotel Laugarhóll / 158 mi. & 7,650 ft.

Weather was on everyone’s minds leading up to the race, which was a good thing because the looming forecasted week of storms called for extra preparations. Similar to other mountainous or coastal locations I’ve traveled to, I got the standard weather response from most locals: “If you don’t like the summer weather here, just wait an hour and it’ll change.” And while I hoped the adage held true here too, it certainly did not during the race. Low clouds greeted the group at the race startline in Ísafjörður’s town center, after which the riders promptly set out into strong headwinds and steady rain.

It’s hard for me to pick a favorite day of the race week because they were all so memorable, but day one is certainly a contender. Around 40 miles in, the first stop was historic Litlibær for coffee and waffles where riders were able to huddle inside for a brief warmup reprieve. Towards the afternoon, and around halfway through the stage’s mileage for most, there was a nice break in the weather and the first opportunity to warm up in hot pots that are abundant throughout the Westfjords. First up was the picturesque Hörgshlíðarlaug roadside pool and then, further down route, were the geothermal springs at Reykjanes Hotel, referred to as “Iceland’s largest swimming pool.” Throughout the day, the field of riders splintered and it quickly became clear that some were out to race as they blew through optional connection stops, doing their best to get out of the elements and finish the stage as quickly as possible. Others embraced the long days, enjoying multiple opportunities to stop, warm up, and refuel. Ending at Hotel Laugarhóll, the staff went out of their way to ensure riders arriving late into the night had food and accommodations. With yet another hot pot to enjoy, Laugarhóll was a perfect spot to end a long, soggy day.

Stage 2: Hotel Laugarhóll – Vogur Lodge / 151 mi. & 7,675 ft.

For some, the wheels started to fall off on day two, both figuratively and literally. While some folks dug deep and embraced temps even colder than the previous day, the route had quite a bit more gravel road surface, and seemingly the mix of salty rain and muddy conditions caused quite a few mechanicals. Bottom brackets failed, freehubs seized up, and old injuries flared. But there was no shortage of epic scenery and many of the most quintessential cultural connections to motivate the majority of the group to push on.

The road departing out of Hotel Laugarhóll was one of the most incredible sections of gravel I’ve ridden; smooth and grippy with fresh moisture from the lingering low-pressure system it weaved along rolling hills and bypassed a section of major highway giving riders a peaceful morning wakeup. Drangsnes Hot Pot was the first official cultural connection of the day, but because it was only about 20 miles into a 150-mile day, few took advantage. Personally, I’d need to cover at least double if not triple that mileage before wanting to deal with ripping off my Rapha shoe covers in exchange for a brief soak.

I decided to jump in a course car once I reached Holmavik and the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, as the weather made riding full-on survival mode where pacelining was imperative and in no way conducive to a yo-yo-ing photographer. Towards the evening, riders began arriving at Holar Farm, which already has a legendary status among past and present participants. I mean, have you ever seen an aid station with a talking raven, spread of cakes and coffee, farm animals, and the most wonderful family staying up until wee late night hours greeting and cheering on each rider to roll through?! Nope, you probably haven’t but it’s representative of what makes this event so special.

It was LATE when many folks started trickling in at Vogur County Lodge. Blighted by equipment failures and other issues, a few riders scratched while others persistently made their way getting only an hour or two of sleep before suiting up again for Stage 3.

Stage 3: Vogur Lodge – Patreksfjörður / 153 mi. & 9,150 ft.

The race crescendos on the third day. There’s more climbing than in previous days and refueling opportunities are sparse. With spent legs and more strong winds, it was a true test of endurance and perseverance.

Similar to the start of stage two, the dirt road climb out of Vogur Country Lodge was gorgeous and moody skies accentuated epic landscapes and vistas. The first cultural connection of the day was Handverksfélagið Assa Store in Króksfjarðarnes, where a traditional breakfast of bread, cheese, and vegetables was waiting along with warm soup and coffee, and a huge selection of locally knitted goods such as sweaters, scarves, mittens, and the like. Many riders hunkered down and even power napped in the store before heading back out on course into more headwinds.

After departing Handverksfélagið Store, a nearly fifty-mile stretch of paved rolling hills was punctuated by a couple of very steep and seemingly remote climbs. Riders were presented with stunning views of the fjords from atop these steep mountain passes and later in the day were rewarded with a few more cultural connection stops including a meal at Flókalundur and an optional hot pot soak. Most folks, however, waited until further down the road to enjoy the Birkimelur hot pot, located right on the beach, where Tyler was posted up with freshly brewed Kaffitár coffee. With the objective of making it to Patreksfjörður’s community center that night, some riders didn’t arrive until the early hours of the next morning. Thankfully day four was a rest day before starting the final stage promptly at midnight. While in Patreksfjörður, there were plenty of wonderful excursions and other things to do (including a trip out to Látrabjarg cliffs to observe puffins!), but most people stuck around town to catch up on sleep, enjoy the local community hot pools, and carbo-load at the FLAK brewery fish fry.

Stage 4: Arctic Fish Midnight Special / Patreksfjörður – Ísafjörður/ 132 mi. & 12,700 ft.

Beginning under the midnight Arctic sun (or slightly overcast skies in our case), the fourth and final stage was an incredible and challenging day on a bike. This was a special stage for many reasons, one of which was the additional riders joining for the final day, which added a noticable boost in morale and excitement. A solid chunk of the stage’s nearly 13,000 ft. of elevation gain was packed into the early part of the day with two substantial climbs into the mountains north of Patreksfjörður. While there was finally relief in precipitation, low and dense clouds darkened the sky and made for frigid conditions at higher elevations. Down in Bíldudalur, delicious waffles and coffee were served at the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum, which is a must-visit for anyone traveling through the area.

More mountain passes led riders out of Bíldudalur to one of the most majestic mountain ranges I’ve been through. Clouds cleared early in the day unveiling views of waterfalls, lakes, and rivers winding through Arnarfjörður’s alpine tundra until arriving at Dynjandi, the largest waterfall in Westfjords. There, riders found warmth in the heated bathrooms before descending into Hrafnseyri. Next up in this varied stage was Svalvogar, a rocky and remote double track that wraps around a fjord from Arnarfjörður to Dýrafjörður complete with multiple river crossings and ripping descents. It was the most technical stretch of the entire race and destroyed at least a few skinny tires. Simbahöllin cafe and Kaffi Sól were the final cultural connections before one more massive mountain pass climb that, at the top, was blanketed in fog with ice and snow piles for riders to carefully negotiate before the final descent back into Ísafjörður.

I want to thank Visit Westfjords, Chris Burkard, the Cycling Westfjords team, and all of the AWFC riders for having me out and welcoming me into this warm, supportive, and inclusive event. Regardless of the weather, this race is incredibly challenging and was not easy on anyone. Nearly one month later, I’m still hearing incredible stories of perseverance and determination, and I wish I had space to share them all here. But, alas, if you’re still reading this 3000 words in, I think it’s time to wrap it up. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend adding the Westfjords Way Challenge and a visit to the Westfjords to your bucket list!

You can find the route and plenty of details over at Komoot