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Peak practice

Cycling in mountainous, jagged Norway is not for the faint-hearted, as Simon Akam discovers

The road to Sognefjellet seemed to go on for ever. Even though we had camped halfway up, on an alpine meadow with broad views of the fjord below, there were still endless switchbacks to reach the pass. As we climbed, pedalling slowly in bottom gear, vegetation gave way to a blasted vista of rock and old snow. Whippy poles marked the route across this desolate moonscape, and lactic acid coursed through our thighs. Eventually, reaching the summit at 1,434 metres on Norway's mountain spine, we stopped briefly to check yesterday's puncture repairs and gorge on marzipan. Then, with increasing excitement, we turned to the descent. After all, for two-wheeled travellers, the downside of the highest mountain road in northern Europe is definitely its best feature.

For a number of reasons cycle touring in Norway is a questionable proposition. For one thing, the Scandinavian nation's landscape is rugged and mountainous and its road network has the highest density of tunnels in the world. Many of these excavations, dug with petrochemical loot from the country's abundant oil reserves, are marvels of engineering, spiralling up and through mountains for great distances. But they are not ideal for bicycles.

Moreover, although Norway's coastline is stunningly picturesque, being toothed with deep fjords, that does make efficient navigation problematic. If the jagged shoreline from the North Sea up to the Russian border was hammered flat and straightened out, the resulting distance would be greater than the circumference of the earth. Getting anywhere inevitably involves much switchbacking.

Nevertheless, male pride and ill-considered wagers are potent motivators, and after I foolishly made a bet in a university bedroom about cycling to the Arctic, there was no way to back out. I was, however, fortunate enough to find an accomplished masochist for an accomplice, in the form of an old school friend with a penchant for lightweight rowing and alarmingly sophisticated heart-rate monitors. And so, fuelled by a heady mixture of inexperience and bravado, we field-stripped our bicycles, mummified them in cardboard, and took the KLM slingshot around Amsterdam to Bergen, in south-west Norway.

The plan, such as it was, was vague. We reasoned that we could legitimately claim to have fulfilled our mission if we reached the Arctic Circle, the arbitrary line that circles the top of the planet between the 66th and 67th degrees of latitude. Therefore, on a freshly purchased Sykkelruter map, we plotted a route that would take us inland from Bergen, across the mountains to Trondheim, and then north up the coast of Helgeland to where the Polarsirkelen makes landfall after its long traverse of the North Atlantic. It all looked feasible as we scrutinised the map in the warm youth hostel with the idle northern sun hovering late into the July night.

When we set out the next day, it soon became clear that the journey would be a much more challenging undertaking. For a start, our cyclists' map was printed at the distressingly small scale of 1 to 1,000,000, and so we could pedal for hours only to cross a thumbnail distance. The far north began at once to seem very far away. We also soon realised that the tunnels, marked as innocent triangles on the same map, were in fact terrifying, tomblike affairs, often unlit, where logging trucks hurtled past and in which the air was thick with fumes. Some were even barred to non-motorised traffic altogether.

All the same, once we had adjusted our route we were able to make progress. After a few days we crossed Vikafjell, our first real mountain pass, stoked by rough local cheese that we had procured from a friendly native. As we shot down the far side, past tethered reindeer and banks of neve snow, it seemed for the first time that we might actually achieve our objective.

We continued over endless passes, culminating in mighty Sognefjellet, and I scratched a daily tally in my diary. This Bridget Jones-style list began as simply kilometres travelled and punctures sustained, but soon extended to include metres of ascent, broken spokes and tyre changes. Beyond Trondheim and on to the shattered coastal littoral of Helgeland, the purple prose of earlier entries got pared down to little more than a maintenance log for the bikes. But still the kilometres passed.

In a fitting irony, it eventually transpired that we would hit the Arctic Circle, our holy grail, in the middle of a fjord where there was no road to cycle on. Nonetheless, as we sloshed across Melfjord on a little ferry, the mists lifted and we saw a globular steel marker on the barren shore. I realised then that I could remember almost every twist and turn in the road from Bergen, hundreds of miles to the south.

Even though we had accomplished what we set out to do, we decided to carry on for a few days to reach the Lofoten Islands, a spiky and cloud-shrouded archipelago in the Norwegian Arctic. There, in deteriorating August weather reminiscent of the Lake District in January, and with 1,600 pedalled kilometres and 18 days in the saddle behind us, we caught the Hurtigruten coastal express steamer out of Stamsund to take us back to Bergen.

As the MS Nordnorge tumbled in heavy seas in the Vestfjorden sound, the ship's steward looked on in horror as we spread our damp tent to dry in the bar and unrolled our sleeping bags on deck to avoid paying for a cabin. At last, after three slightly fraught days during which the ship's consignment of geriatric tourists treated us as objects of deep and unshaven curiosity, we arrived in Bergen, daubed the bikes with prophylactic lithium grease, and flew home.

Back in England, we were no clearer in our own minds just why we had made the journey, and the reindeer pelts that we had bought in an attempt to "pimp" our tent at once began to moult. And yet, I am still sure that even though Holland might have been a more sensible choice, Norway offers a cycling proficiency course that is one of a kind.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The New Depression