Payson McElveen explains how he completed the adventure of a lifetime
Payson McElveen embarked on one of the most formidable rides of his life on just three hours sleep.
He had no choice if he was going to complete the journey. Iceland’s weather is dynamic and unforgiving. He needed to take advantage of the small window he had for a safe departure.
The plan: To cross Iceland in 24 hours entirely under human power. To do it, he custom fitted a brand new Checkpoint and set out from the town of Akureyri on the North coast for Vik on the South.
Watch the video below:
The idea came about in August, roughly two and a half weeks before McElveen was supposed to leave for Iceland to chart a tour of the Westfjords Way. A good friend named Chris Burkhard knew that McElveen liked taking on geographical challenges — previously, he rode all of Bentonville’s 140-plus miles of trails in a day, and attempted to record the fastest known time riding the entire Colorado Trail — and pitched him on doing something after their Tour had wrapped up.
“Eventually we agreed that riding from one side of the country to the other in under 24 hours would be a pretty cool benchmark,” McElveen says. “When the Vikings first landed on Iceland, and they were getting a feel for this strange new island, they were traversing some pretty insane terrain, the likes of which humans had never seen. And ever since then, there’s been this really cool Icelandic tradition of overland travel.”
To their knowledge, no one had attempted to cross Iceland entirely under human power in one day. But how to do it? Iceland is a relatively round nation; crossing East-West, North-South, vice versa and everything in between were all potential routes.
I really had to let go of everything I knew about trying to go fast and just accept that just doing it and completing it was actually the goal.
They settled on starting in Akureyri on the North coast, and ending as soon as McElveen’s front wheel touched the water in Vik in the South. They chose those two points despite the fact that McElveen would be riding against a prevailing headwind. That was a calculated choice.
“It’s just the way the terrain works out,” McElveen says. “You have this big 3,000-foot climb right off the bat, and then just this unbelievably rough highland doubletrack for 130 miles that’s a false flat down. And if you’re doing a false flat up, even with a slight tailwind, it would have just been an absolute death march with a lot of unrideable stuff.”
McElveen initially wanted to do his ride on the Sept. 14th or 15th, giving him roughly a week’s rest after riding the 1,050-kilometer Westfjord’s Way loop, but the forecast was grim. To do the ride safely meant riding as soon as conditions were conducive to success — i.e., low winds, and as little precipitation as possible.
The forecast for the 14th and 15th was foreboding, so McElveen pushed up his plans to the 11th. In the two days he had to rest, he also had to gather supplies and pack his bike. (You can watch McElveen detail everything he packed here). Over eight days of riding the Westfjord’s Way bike tour, which featured up to 14 hours of riding in a day, McElveen was able to dial in aspects like bike fit, nutrition and the best clothes for really cold temperatures, like waterproof gloves and socks.
Still, he and his team were scrambling to make sure everything was ready to go until midnight on the night before he embarked. His alarm rang at 3 a.m.
“So it was not ideal in that regard,” McElveen says. “But I was much more interested in doing it on two hours of sleep and having everything I needed, rather than sleeping six hours and getting out there and being like, ‘Oh damn, I forgot my insulated gloves, I can’t finish.'”
The good news for McElveen: While the elements would be treacherous, the ride itself wouldn’t be a max effort. Nor did he want to push himself too far into the red, leaving him physically and mentally vulnerable in case conditions turned on him. Even on a “good” day in Iceland, McElveen says that his ride was the worst weather he’ll ride in all year, and featured temperatures as low as 31 degrees, 200 miles of headwind and seven hours of sideways rain.
“I really had to let go of everything I knew about trying to go fast and just accept that just doing it and completing it was actually the goal.”
McElveen’s only miscalculation on the day was forgetting an extra pair of gloves. Sometime between hours 10 and 12 of his ride, the constant drizzle finally soaked through his thermal waterproof gloves. His hands got so cold that he could barely squeeze a water bottle or open a wrapper.
He just appeared from the mist, and he had this thick Barcelona accent, and he's like, 'Hey, I'm riding through to the next lodge, I'm happy to guinea pig these river crossings for you ...'
Fortunately for McElveen, he soon descended from a plateau, the temperature around him rose and the rain eventually stopped. He was then able to dry out his gloves by hanging them on his aero bars like a makeshift clothesline.
“After a few hours of wind from riding they actually dried out, which was nice for the last couple of night riding hours when it got pretty cold again,” McElveen says. “But that was really the diciest moment, to be honest.”
Otherwise, McElveen’s equipment came through for him. The Trek Checkpoint itself was pivotal to the trip’s success. The tire clearance and internal storage made the ride much more manageable, as did his RockShox Rudy gravel fork and SRAM XPLR drivetrain.
McElveen also needed good fortune to complete the journey. He knew he’d have to make two two major river crossings that required him to walk through the water. To keep his feet dry, he worked out a system in which he would took off his cycling socks and shoes and put on neoprene socks as he waded through the glacial currents.
As he came to the first crossing, he met the only other cyclist he’d encounter en route, a 6’6 Spanish man wearing shorts who offered to test how deep the rivers were.
“He just appeared from the mist, and he had this thick Barcelona accent, and he’s like, ‘Hey, I’m riding through to the next lodge, I’m happy to guinea pig these river crossings for you since you’re going all the way through and I just have 10 more kilometers to go,'” McElveen says. “We only crossed paths for like two kilometers the entire day, but it was the two kilometers that I needed the most help.”
In the end, he called the trip one of his top five experiences. He can’t pick a favorite memory because he has so many. From sneaking out in the pre-dawn light, in which he felt he was “stealing away time,” to summiting a glacier plateau “and knowing that somewhere way off beyond the horizon over there is where I had to go.”
Every moment of the ride was a unique challenge, right to the very end when, with 30 miles to go, the temperature suddenly dropped and a block headwind set in. to battling a sudden temperature drop and block headwind with fewer than 30 miles to the finish and understanding the enormous power of Iceland’s terrain.
I was like what the heck is going on here, we're so close, why is this happening one more time?
“I was like what the heck is going on here, we’re so close, why is this happening one more time?” McElveen recalls. “And then I remembered that there’s this huge glacier, just looming in the night, right next to me. And they’re so big and they’re so cold that they create their own weather patterns.”
That moment, about 17 hours into a grueling, sleep-deprived trek, gave McElveen one final and all-important lesson in Mother Nature’s power.
“I just remember thinking, ‘This is Iceland giving me one more reminder of how small you are.'”