Touring Norway’s West Coast on a Cruzbike Quest, August-September 2017
In August, I went to Norway to scout locations for a commercial bicycle tour.
Trips like this are important to the way I do business, which is: (1) I only sell and recommend equipment that (a) performs well in the real, physical world and (b) is good enough that I personally would choose it over other options; (2) a commitment to integrity — if I say something works, it’ll be from the personal experience of discovering the pros and cons of the equipment from long and repeated use; (3) it helps make my perspective clear, which is that of a cyclist-explorer and cyclist-guide; I am, by necessity, discerning and critical; this is contrasted with other perspectives such as that of the adrenaline hound, the collector, or the mercenarial sales person; and (4) I see the bike as a starting point for a new lifestyle; it’s a portal to a universe of fitness, fun, community, personal development, and new life experiences; bicycle and tricycle ownership is “not about the bike,” it’s about the experiences the bike (or trike) enables you to have and the people it enables you to meet.
I’ll start by sharing the conclusion: the scouting trip has resulted in what will be an amazing and very memorable 10-day tour of Norway that I plan to offer next summer. Look for it on these pages early next year.
My Norway tour was epic, to be sure. The scenery was beautiful and picturesque, like it inspired the backdrop for every scary fairy tale I ever read. There were high, wide and powerful waterfalls, towering mountains with strangely shaped peaks, gray glaciers and cloudy green glacial lakes, small picturesque villages in green valleys, farms on improbable slopes dotting the mountains, islands and valleys, sheep ranches on remote mountains, drivers who were respectful of cyclists, delicious fish, excellent chocolate, cattle wandering the roads, not to mention the trolls.
Alongside the natural beauty were relentlessly challenging days: constant steep inclines and declines, rain, slippery metal cattle grates in the road, narrow roads with no shoulders and drop offs to the sides, tight blind turns, few good places to pitch a tent, ferry service that was reliable but infrequent. There was never an easy day. I remember a few days with a few easy hours that ended as soon as the rain started or the next climb began.
The essence of epic life experiences is that they’re tough but worth the rewards. Or perhaps it’s that life’s simple gifts, such as a view of a waterfall, feel most rewarding when you’ve worked for them. On several occasions it happened that I’d ride through some punishing terrain or weather only to turn a corner or crest a mountain and see something jaw dropping. Many times, in those situations, my reaction was to laugh. One time I rounded an unbelievably steep uphill turn to find an enormous waterfall by the road, the river running under an ancient bridge that looked like it could have been the home of a troll or two. Another time it was looking up thousands of feet from a green valley dotted with farms to where the mountain peaks were capped by snow and clouds and realizing that my road – the only road, the one I was going to have to pedal — went up, exactly, there.
Peddling up long hills or through the rain was something I knew how to do. One thing I had to do, about which I had no confidence, was pushing my bike along a dirt road through a cluster of about 10 cows with a hill up to my right, and a hill down to my left, and a gate to keep in the cows beyond. A small number of seemingly life-or-death concerns loomed in this urbanite’s mind: I may as well be wearing skinny jeans: I have no idea what to do here. How do I make a path through these cows? How do I open that gate and get me and my bike through without letting out the cows? (A loaded Cruzbike most definitely doesn’t hold a line when you push it.) Is there any useful knowledge anywhere in the remote recesses of my mind about how to act around cows? Or how cows act around people?
I could only remember two things.
One, in college, at the University of Michigan, some guys told me about cow-tipping and that if a cow is sleeping while standing upright, you could run smack into it and the cow would tip over and then run off, panicked. This was something fun to do when you and your friends were drunk. I remembered that, but it was totally unhelpful. Wait, maybe it is: it suggests cows are less dangerous than drunk college kids (but so are most things).
Two, don’t cowboys sing to cows? Isn’t it to keep them calm? At any rate, it can’t hurt. Sing what? A cowboy song of course. What song? I don’t know any. So, make one up! To adapt a George Carlin joke to this occasion: do you realize that someplace out there, there really does exist the world’s dumbest song? And someone is singing it right now? That someone was me, right then, right there. I’m so glad there was no one to hear me.
I also made friends with fellow travelers, even if only for as long as our paths crossed. Something that was remarkable, and was the basis for self-effacing amusement as I pedaled alone, was how rare cyclists were on the Norwegian roads I had chosen. Did I not get the memo? It seems I was discovering the hard way what native Norwegian cyclists might already know: bicycling in the region I chose to ride was too hard to be fun. In fact, I only met one other touring cyclist over ten days of riding. He was a British guy named John who was riding to the Arctic Circle, planning to work on a farm through the winter. It turned out we had a similar sense of humor and adventure and hit it off. We rode together for three days till our routes diverged.
In the largest city I visited, Bergen, and the roads immediately surrounding, I saw only seven other cyclists with touring bags. This was August and, in Bergen, two of Norway’s National Cycling routes crossed. Why weren’t there more cyclists? The town of Bergen had a bike-share system, but cyclists were fairly rare. I had incorrectly generalized from trips to (flat) Denmark and (fairly flat) Finland that cycling was popular everywhere in Scandinavia. It was too broad a generalization for too big a region.
The route I chose took me from city to country, fjord to fjord, island to island, over mountain passes, through tunnels and over bridges, up and down double-track dirt roads and single-track dirt hiking/mountain bike paths. Going by the numbers, according to “Ride with GPS,” over 10 days of riding I covered 490 miles and ascended and descended 55,530 feet of elevation. Considering that this was a “fully loaded,” solo, self-supported tour, with panniers weighing 35-45 lbs. with clothes, tools, shelter, stove, food and water, that 55,530’ of elevation gain was hard-earned.
The “hills” were grueling — constant and steep. The elevation profiles look like saw blades and 25% grades were common. A few times I rode back and forth on the road, making switchbacks to lessen the incline, but that was rarely possible or safe because many roads had blind turns and occasional car traffic. Also, switch-backing on a Cruzbike, while riding with the high cadence I needed to ascend the hills, is sometimes harder than just trying to ride straight due to the unique characteristics of the Cruzbike front wheel drive.
I remember having to push the bike up a hill on a paved road only once though, and that was in the town of Bergen before I sacrificed the luxury items in my luggage (my mandolin, a guidebook, a warm night-time layer, some bungee cords and a few other items I could either do without or could improvise an alternative solution if need be). I also went to a bike shop and bought the smallest front chain ring they had that fit my bike, changing my 44-tooth ring for the 39-tooth that I used for the tour.
Anything you get on the way up, you also get on the way down. During one long and steep descent I became cold from the wind chill and drizzling rain and became mildly hypothermic. My hands were numb from the cold and tired from feathering the brakes and, near the end I began to lose coordination. Meanwhile, for a long time, the road was too narrow to safely pull over and dig out my warm gloves. I kept going thinking it had to end soon. It didn’t. The road turned at the base of the mountain and kept going down till it eventually reached a fjord. I stopped, put on another layer, warmed my hands and ate some cookies while admiring the view of the fjord. And then the dolphins began surfacing just off shore.
It’s tempting to say I preferred the climbs because nearly always there was a rewarding view at the top. But, as the trip progressed and the repeatedly challenging days wore me out, admittedly, there began to be times that I was facing a long climb and felt positively unexcited. A rest day always makes me feel better but timing was not on my side. Typically, at the 6-day mark, I’ll take a rest day. This time, in the 6 to 9-day period, the weather was predicted to be good, but then the rain was coming in again. I didn’t want to take a break and lose a day because the mountain roads would surely become more precarious in the rain. My spirits would probably be lower, too. Also, I was covering so much less ground than I anticipated that I was becoming concerned about getting delayed in the mountains and missing my flight back to New York City. Although I had built “zero days” into my trip plan, I no longer felt I had a day to spare.
About the Bike: Cruzbike Quest 26, customized for the trip
For gearing, I had a 39T chain ring, plus a SRAM Dual Drive, plus a 12-36T 9-speed cluster. Gear inch range was 20.6” to 114.8”. I became intimately acquainted with my three lowest gears: 20.6”, 23.2” and 26.5”.
Before leaving, I spent a lot of time debating whether to take a Cruzbike Quest, a Cruzbike Silvio 2.0 or an HP Velotechnik Grasshopper fx. The Cruzbikes had the advantage of being more capable on the hills but were going to require customization for a tour as challenging as this. The Grasshopper had the advantage of being an expedition touring bike, ready to go “out of the box,” with full light system, strong racks, fenders, full shocks and the ability to fold quickly.
Besides needing to put the bike in a suitcase for the flight to Norway, since it was a recumbent bike and not a standard frame bike that would easily fit in bike racks, I also anticipated needing to fold it to take it on a train or bus. Some tunnels are closed to bikes. In those cases, standard practice is to take your bike on a bus through the tunnel but there’s a limit to the number of bikes on each bus (two, in some cases). Also, one of my bailout plans involved catching a train. So, rapid folding might turn out to be crucial for getting the bike onboard the train. The Grasshopper fx had every advantage except for one that was crucial to the trip’s success: only the Cruzbike performs on the uphills like a standard-frame bike. That was the determining factor.
I decided to take a Quest 26, customized with many of the same components as a Grasshopper fx and assembled to the quality standards of an HP Velotechnik. [Footnote: the Quest 26 has been replaced by the QX100 which has the same frame but a different drivetrain and handlebars.] It seemed a good compromise. The Quest would fold if necessary, but not quickly. (If I had to catch a train, I planned to take it apart in the station before the train arrived.) It had disk brakes, which are absolutely vital for touring in a rainy, mountainous region, but I’d upgrade them to Avid BB7s. Suspension is necessary for touring in unpredictable terrain and, though it only had rear suspension of middling quality, it would be okay for my relatively light payload. Mounting a light system was a problem but I had enough spare parts that I thought I could install something satisfactory, though I’d need to be my own guinea pig for a few items. For a rack, I had two Cruzbike-manufactured choices and knew their current model would work for sure. As for the fenders, I didn’t know what I’d do; probably something ugly.
For the rack, I decided to use a discontinued “heavy duty” Quest rack which is rated for an 85 lbs. payload. I liked that it is a simple piece of welded aluminum, with only a few bolts to break or come loose. I also liked the fact that, by being so strong, the loaded bike could be manhandled by the rack — by train conductors, bus drivers, ferry deck hands and me. Also, I could easily tie on excess luggage such as extra food supplies, if necessary…and the mandolin.
For fenders, it was easy to install a rear fender but not one that looked normal with the 20” rear wheel I decided to use. Whatever. It will work. But the front fender didn’t. There wasn’t any clearance with the 2″ Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tire I wanted for the front drive wheel. I decided I’d head out into a rainy country, probably on dirt roads, without a front fender. It’d be gross but I’d survive.
For electricity and lights, I decided to do something peculiar. (Which, in the realm of recumbent bikes, means in the range of normal.) I had a very nice 20″ Peter White wheel with a SON dynamo hub and disk brake mounting. I decided to use that, instead of a 26″ wheel with dynamo hub for several reasons. One, it’d let me improve the aerodynamics of the Quest by lowering the rear. Two, a bike with 20″ rear wheel would be smaller, lighter and easier to get onto buses, trains and to pack in the suitcase. Three, there’d be more clearance between the three parts at the rear — the rack, fender and the wheel — which I sometimes needed when the bike was loaded and the swing arm and shock absorbed major bumps. For electricity, to recharge my iPhone and the backup battery, I used a Sinewave Cycles Revolution USB charger that attached to the SON dynamo hub along with the lights.
The light system and SON worked well, as I expected. The Sinewave Revolution USB charger seemed to work fine but it introduced a variable into the system that I didn’t understand. Specifically, I began to suspect there was a minimum speed at which I needed to ride for my phone and backup battery to charge, but I didn’t know what that speed was. Along with that, I suspected that speed might change when I ran the lights, which I often did on overcast days. I also discovered several times that my phone would have a healthy charge at one moment, but mysteriously lose its charge a short time later. The same happened with the backup battery. There were also a few times that I thought the phone or battery were charging but I’d discover it was nearly dead.
As for the 20” rear wheel, it worked great! It resulted in a new rake angle for the front wheel which, I thought, much improved the Quest’s handling both loaded and not. I would definitely use this set-up again.
As an aside, for bike shoes I wore mountain bike winter boots with cleats. Besides the wet and cold weather, often, while looking for campsites and water sources, I’d end up in marshland. I was glad to have boots. Also, they kept my feet warm on the sick downhills. Just a tip. Mine are made by Giro.
One thing that didn’t work well at all when it rained was the Lifeproof case for my iPhone.
In terms of performance, at the end of the day, I think I chose right. There were moments when I would have preferred a Grasshopper fx, like on the insanely steep downhills, for some rocky and rough sections, when I was crossing cattle barriers on the roads, when pushing the bike around, loading/unloading luggage and parking. Also, when I was in the lowest gear for long periods, I’d begin to get tired and momentarily lose the coordination between feet and hands that is crucial to riding a Cruzbike. At those moments, I’d wish the bottom bracket didn’t move! However, at the same time, I don’t believe I could have gotten up the mountains I was on, with full luggage, on anything other than a Cruzbike.
That is the clincher as I look back on the trip. As soon as one has to push a bike up a hill, a 50-mile day with 5,550′ elevation gain (an average day) suddenly changes from a hard 5-hour day at a slow, average 6 mph to a grueling — have you ever pushed a loaded touring bike from sea level up to a 3,500′ mountain pass? — 10-hour day at 3 mph, average, that is if you make it at all. For me, this is where the Cruzbike’s unique ability to climb makes it the right recumbent for cases where inclines are an essential obstacle.