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Graham Bell swaps his skis for a road bike and takes a boat-trip around Norway’s crinkled coastline.

It was the 2013 Norwegian ski film Supervention that introduced me to the concept of ski touring from a boat. The idea of sailing round Norway’s fjords, picking a different mountain to take on each day, seemed incredibly novel. Over the years I have been lucky enough to ski some of the world’s most remote and scenic places, from Patagonia to Alaska and Japan to New Zealand.

I have used helicopters, snowcats and snowmobiles as uplifts, and stayed in my fair share of mountain huts, campervans, igloos, and snowholes in the name of adventure, but I had never explored the mountains from a boat. So when the opportunity arose to join a tour around the Norwegian fjords using the same boat, HMS Gåssten, that featured in Supervention, I leapt at the chance. The twist? We wouldn’t be ski touring in winter, but cycle touring in summer.

My invite came from Matt Bailey of Fjord Adventures, who was looking to put together a recce trip of five days of cycling on the quiet roads that meander round the fjords and over the hills between Molde and Ålesund on the west coast of Norway.

We’d be in the saddle for at least 50 miles a day, with our biggest challenge a 95 mile slog to take on the impressive Trollstigen (or ‘Troll’s Staircase’), a switchback mountain pass with 11 hairpin bends. It was crucial that we rode as a self-sufficient group, as we would have no vehicle support. But the advantage of staying on the boat each night meant we could travel light as we ticked off the miles each day.

 

All aboard

On landing in Molde, Matt’s instructions are simple.

“Tell the taxi driver to take the ferry across the Langfjorden, then turn left and keep driving down the road until you see the boat”.

Loading our bags onto the small tender, we get a close-up view of our home-from-home for the next few days. The HMS Gåssten was commissioned by the Swedish Navy as a minesweeper in 1973, and her hull was constructed entirely of oak, to avoid any metal to metal contact with mines. She saw active service as part of a NATO task force detailed with clearing mines left over from World War Two in the Eastern Baltic waters off Estonia, Latvia and Finland until 1999. She was then converted into a naval coastguard vessel, patrolling in the Baltic, and is credited with saving 19 lives.

Relaxing on the boat after a long day in the saddle © Matt Bailey.jpg

In 2013, the Gåssten was purchased by Sven Stewart, who dreamed of turning her into a live-aboard boat for those looking for a moveable home from which to ski in the winter and cycle in the summer. Last winter she had a major refit, with a new saloon on the foredeck added to provide a cosy eating and lounge area. And now, here she is waiting for us to come aboard - a vessel ready for winter and summer adventures alike.

We’re shown around the boat by Matt, skipper Sven and his first mate and partner, Tash. I settle into my cabin and meet the other members of the group. Gerry from Switzerland, Ethan from Texas, Lorna from Scotland and Matt are all busy tucking into tea and cakes freshly cooked by chef Caroline.

I unpack in the bow cabin, with two single bunks set in a V shape at the very front of the boat. After fuelling up for tomorrow’s ride on pan-fried salmon and white chocolate cheesecake, I fall asleep to the sound of waves lapping gently against the hull of the boat.

The following morning, the weather looks good riding - a short but sweet 53 miler is planned to get us started. We start by hugging the coastline to Åndalsnes, famous for attracting daredevils who come to climb and base jump on the mountain known as the Troll Wall, which towers over the town.

Nearby is the Troll’s Staircase, a glorious ribbon of switchbacks leading up the summit at 850 metres, and our biggest challenge on this trip. From below, the road looks like it has been glued onto a cliff face, with a massive waterfall crashing down through the middle of it. We will be riding up here again tomorrow, so we take the chance to do the tourist thing and walk out to the viewing platform for photos - in our socks so as not to damage our cleats.

We don’t hang around - soon we’re screaming down the descent back to Åndalsnes to meet the Gåssten. Back on board in the sunshine, we can’t resist a refreshing swim off the side of the ship, a great way of getting the lactic acid out of the legs.

 

 

Taking on the impressive Trollstigen hairpins by bike ©Getty Images.jpg

Rock steady

The following morning we wake to find that some new neighbours have arrived in the night. The enormous Queen Elizabeth cruise ship has moored up at the Åndalsnes dock, dwarfing the tiny Gåssten. We go ashore by tender, squeezing our way under the cruise ship’s massive bow. Our destination is the fishing town of Ålesund on the coast, a distance of 84 miles that includes two climbs and two ferry crossings, so the plan is to stick together and keep the pace up.

Our plan soon goes awry, however, as we spread out up the leg-killing Troll’s Staircase, each riding at our own speed around the hairpin bends that just keep coming at us. We’re brought to a sudden stop by road workers, who are abseiling down the cliff face to check the safety of the rock above us.

We regroup after the long descent and head towards our first ferry crossing. The weather has started to close in, and the short hop across the Storfjorden gives us a chance to make clothing adjustments in the small café on board. Rolling off the ferry, we are straight into our second climb, 500 metres of ascent past the Stranda ski centre. A long descent takes us down to our second ferry crossing, from which we have a flat 12 mile run to our destination, the beautiful town of Ålesund. Here, the nimble Gåssten has managed to moor at the docks right in the centre.

The lovely Norwegian coastal town of Ålesund ©Getty Images.jpg

A great fire destroyed all the old wooden buildings in town in 1904, and although only one person was killed, 10,000 were left homeless. Over the next three years the town centre was completely rebuilt, using stone and bricks in the Art nouveau style. It’s now something of an architectural marvel, a whole town that seems to fit together perfectly, like something plucked from a fairytale. We explore the harbourside before heading to the pub at the Brosundet Hotel for a well-earned pint.

 

 

Social climbing

After breakfast we set sail for perhaps the most beautiful fjord in western Norway, the Hjørundfjord. Our journey will take a couple of hours, heading out west to the sea before turning back into the calm waters of the fjords. As we round the peninsula, we work out that the only lands west of us are the Faroe Islands, and then Greenland. Sven finds us a landing point just at the mouth of the Hjørundfjord. It’s no more than a tiny inlet with a solitary fisherman’s hut perched on its shores.

When we clamber out of the tender and climb up onto the road, it’s a single track. Sven will take the Gåssten into the fjord from this remote spot, and we will cycle a 37-mile U shape around the coast, then back over the mountains to our meeting point at the small hamlet of Store Standal.

These are the quietest roads we have encountered so far, which is saying something - seeing a car approach feels like a major event. Heading back up over the mountain, it’s so eerily quiet that I start to think we’ve taken a wrong turn, especially when the road changes from tarmac to an unsealed surface.

We pass the most beautiful green mountain lake, with a couple of grass-roofed cabins perched on a plateau above it - it looks like something sraight out of a retro Visit Norway poster. Swiss Jerry, a keen mountain biker, takes the lead as we fly down the gravel track, keeping an eye out for our moveable home on the horizon. There’s nothing quite like pedalling for hours into the wilderness and then spotting your boat home waiting for you in the fjord below.

Beautiful calm waters of Hjørundfjord ©Getty images.jpg

We load up the Gåssten with the bikes and chug further into the Hjørundfjord. The only place that I can compare this to is remote Milford Sound on New Zealand’s South Island, except that the Hjørundfjord is even quieter. We dock for the night at the village of Sæbø next to the Sagafjord Hotel, and head to the hotel’s bar for a pint. The weather forecast for our last day isn’t looking great, so Matt prepares a 62 mile loop with the option to cut it short to 44 miles if things really close in.

We set off the next morning in the kind of driving sideways rain that seems to make a point of pelting you straight in the face, and decide unanimously to ride the shorter route.

Our biggest challenge is to find a way to avoid the busy E39, the main road between Ålesund and Bergen. Sure enough, a wrong turning (by me), in the town of Volda takes us straight onto the E39, and to the entrance to a gloomy four mile-long tunnel. Fortunately, the tunnel is temporarily shut for road works, and we end up on an old road parallel to the highway, eerily quiet and overgrown. A final tiny singletrack road takes us back over the mountains to the small hamlet of Bjørke and our rendezvous with the Gåssten, anchored right at the southern tip of the Hjørundfjord.

Sailing back towards Ålesund that evening, our bikes stowed on deck, our motley crew of cyclists sit down together for our final dinner on board HMS Gåssten. Tomorrow we’ll head back to real life – but the lingering ache in our legs will remind us of our shared journey through Norway’s wildest corners by land and by sea.

 

Bikes lined up on the deck of the boat, Norway © Matt Bailey.jpg

Three iconic Norwegian road rides:

Den Store Styrkeprøven

You know you’re in for a big challenge when the name of a cycle race translates as the ‘Great Trial of Strength’. This tough 337 mile-long race takes place between Trondheim on the fjords and Norway’s capital, Oslo, under the midnight sun each summer.

styrkeproven.no

 

The coastal route

In it for the long haul? You can cycle a whopping 2,800 miles along Norway’s coast by hopping onto National Cycle Route One. The country’s longest cycle route winds though the fjords and all the way to the Russian border.

visitnorway.com

 

Sognefjellsvegen

The zippy 182 mile-long route known as National Cycle Route Six starts in the UNESCO town of Røros, climbs up into Norway’s mountains and deposits cyclists in the heart of the fjords, making it a great way to see the country’s charms from the saddle if you’re short on time.

fjordadventures.co.uk

 

Travel info:

What to pack

The key to staying warm when cycling Norway’s fjords, where the weather can change for the worse in an instant, is good layering. Don’t forgot padded shorts, a hydration pack-compatible backpack and good quality waterproofs for tackling Norway’s showers.

Our trip

Graham’s five-day cycling adventure aboard HMS Gåssten with Fjord Adventures costs from £3,750 per person, including guided cycling and other activities, accommodation in a shared cabin and freshly prepared meals every day

fjordadventures.co.uk

Getting there

Fly with Scandinavian Airlines to Oslo from London from £184 return and onwards to Molde and Ålesund from Oslo from £102 return.

flysas.com

Food and drink

Try Norway’s delectable fresh seafood, sample klippfisk (salted dried cod), and finish up with lefse, sweet pancakes.

Where to stay

Sagafjord hotel

This traditional hotel in the village of Sæbø looks over the fjords, and makes a great base for skiing and cycling. There’s also a cosy bar for a post-cycle pint. Doubles from £156.

sagafjordhotel.no