Payson McElveen Just Biked Across Iceland in Less than a Day

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Endurance cyclist Payson McElveen has set the fastest known time (FKT) when crossing Iceland in fewer than 24 hours on his bike.

On Saturday, September 11, the 28-year-old who is based in Durango, Colorado set out from Akureyri, a city on Iceland’s northern coast, and arrived in Vík, the country’s southernmost coastal town in 19 hours and 45 minutes. The journey was rugged, remote, and made challenging by turbulent weather.

The north-to-south speed crossing was the brainchild of McElveen and adventure athlete and photographer Chris Burkard. McElveen said that while a fast ride was part of the goal, moreso was his desire to pedal into a personal challenge and to become intimate with the country he was traveling through.

Iceland’s Highlands can be crossed only during the Icelandic summer. For the rest of the year the highland roads are closed. (Photo: Evan Ruderman)

“The competitor in me will always enjoy racing to throw down a fast time, but this project was less about an FKT effort and more about just seeing if it was possible to ride across the whole country in less than a day,” he said. “Ever since the success of the White Rim FKT in 2019, I’ve been thinking about other geographically focused routes to do a big effort on. To me, those are the challenges that inspire me most these days. Start at one landmark and ride as fast as you can until you literally run out of road or trail. In this case that was hitting the ocean on the southside of the country.”

McElveen’s ride took him on a 257-mile trek through Iceland’s highlands, a sparsely inhabited plateau that covers most of the country’s interior. His route through the mostly uninhabited and sparsely vegetated volcanic desert utilized “F” roads, rugged, minimally maintained doubletrack suitable only for high clearance overland vehicles. About 139 miles of the total 257-mile route was unpaved. With no refuel points along the route, McElveen started with over 7,000 calories of food to fuel the journey.

McElveen’s accomplishment represents both a physical feat and something more akin to an expedition.

“More than just an athletic achievement, Payson’s ride pays homage to thousands of years of overland travel through this wild country and in many ways is impossible to truly describe to anyone who hasn’t sunk their tires deep into it’s remote and endless gravel roads,” Burkard said. “Having personally ridden through it, around and across it, slogging thousands of miles of Icelandic gravel – I know a thing or two about Iceland’s terrain by bike, and this achievement can only be compared to a near-mythical achievement. Fitting for Iceland, to say the least.”

McElveen did river crossings in thick neoprene socks in order to keep his riding shoes and socks mostly dry. (Photo: Evan Ruderman)

The weather on the day was characteristically unsettled — McElveen rode into a headwind for much of the day, sloshed through over seven hours of rain, and dealt with temperatures as low as 31ºF (-1C°). He cautioned future riders of the route to take timing into consideration.

“It’s funny how our ‘weather window’ would qualify as the worst riding weather you’d probably have all year elsewhere,” McElveen said. “Iceland’s weather is some of the most dynamic in the world, especially in September. I would strongly recommend riding in the warmer, dryer months of the summer, and take more clothing and food than you think you need.”

“Iceland is the most beautiful country I have ever been to, but with volcanoes, glaciers, desert, and weather that will make you feel extremely small and vulnerable. After this ride, I have a full appreciation for giving this wild country the respect and admiration it deserves.”

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