THE FJORDS AND THE FURY | SUNNMORE NORWAY
Dirt's Swedish contingent take on the trails in Sunnmore Norway
DIRT’S SWEDISH CONTINGENT TAKE ON THE TRAILS IN NORWAY’S COASTAL SUNNMORE REGION
“No mistakes, focus", I hear myself mumble as my front wheel rolls over the first rock, plummeting me into a high commitment, high consequence, piece of trail through a crag in the mountainside. In front of me a series of scattered rocks, feeding into a slippery patch of mud, before the next rock drop.
DIRT ISSUE 129 - NOVEMBER 2012
Words Tobias Liljeroth. Photo Mattias Fredriksson
To my right, just shy of the trail, there’s a 100 metre cliff, where a fall inevitably would send my flesh tumbling onto a swampy meadow way, way down there – meaning adieu to all things earthly. A scene more worthy of big mountain skiing than mountain biking.
Behind me in all directions, jagged mountain peaks, still covered in a thick layer of snow (even though it’s the end of July) piercing a blanket of dark grey, Mordoresque clouds, foreboding a storm.
In front of me, past the crucial point of the trail just ahead, a half–metre wide strip of brown dirt twists and turns its way through the green heather. Even further ahead rays of sun glitter in the emerald green inlet of sea water, with even more even more jagged peaks and imposing rock walls shooting up through its surface, almost 1,500 metres below us. The narrow body of water being one of many of Norway’s most famous natural phenomenon, the fjords.
We’re in the Valldal area of the Sunnmøre region of western Norway. A place penetrated by countless fjords making their way far into the country’s land mass from the mighty North Atlantic Ocean. It’s like the canals of Venice, only made by Mother Nature herself some million years ago by massive glaciers carving through the bedrock, leaving a natural monument of beauty that few places in this current world of ours can match.
Because of the high mountains, deep valleys and the roaring ocean, life here has been very isolated up until very recently, with some of the small villages in the area not having road access until some 30 years ago. In other words, to survive in these strikingly beautiful, but sometimes extremely harsh (especially in winter) and remote surroundings you had to be self sufficient. The sea obviously has an almost never ending supply of fish and shellfish, whereas the mild summers and moist climate has made the mountain sides and valleys highly fertile. The road sides of the narrow valley floor being lined with an endless number of potato fields, and the local specialty: strawberries. In fact, Valldal is the number one producer of strawberries in Norway, highly unlikely for a place with one of Europe’s biggest annual snowfalls come winter.
The mountain sides are dotted with white furry creatures, which is one of the main reasons we’re here in the first place. Through the centuries, local sheep farmers have hiked the forests, meadows and ridges, creating an almost endless network of footpaths and trails in the process. Trails that have been kept in place, and even extended, by generations of Norwegian outdoor enthusiasts going for the national pastime, a weekend hike with family and friends, something deeply rooted in the very core values of Norwegian culture.
In this modern day Sunnmøre lives more from tourism than farming. People from all over the world flock to the fjords and the nearby Troll Wall, the tallest vertical rock face in Europe.>>
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Today, hiking boots are slowly being replaced by mountain bikes, but the trails still remain very much the same. Finding the right ones that suit our two wheeled means of transportation on the other hand, is another thing, and in most cases takes a healthy share of local knowledge. Something, we don’t have any of, being Swedes and everything. Mattias, the photographer’s, vague memory from a trip a few years ago being the only hint of it. Basically, we’re lost, in a place where all the rumours have told us there’s some of the best riding in Scandinavia to be found.
The words of a local brewer, whom we bumped into after our first not so successful mission, claiming he’s seen people on full suspension bikes from Liahornet, the mountain above his home village of Liabygda, is our only hope to find the epic riding we’ve only heard of.
We park by a closed gate and follow a beaten–up gravel road up the hill to a small, ancient, hamlet overlooking the valley from its position high up on the mountainside. But the hiking trail that leads further into the mountains from there on is anything but a walk in the park. It’s littered with unfriendly, sharp, rocks everywhere, covered in knee deep mud. It’s steep and sloping away to the side. It is damn near impossible just walking up it, riding a bike down would be almost unthinkable.
We get more and more frustrated with every metre we haul ourselves and our bikes upward. As we wade through yet another short section of swamp, just above the treeline, we spot a few tyre marks in the ground. Evidence that other mountain bikers have been up here recently. But where the hell have they descended? It surely can’t be this trail.
As we move on up the hill we see the distinctive shark fin mountain that the brewer pointed out for us disappear in the distance. It’s late in the day and even if we wanted and gave it a hard push we couldn’t reach the summit today. We have no food, no map and no clue.
On top of that, bad weather is moving in. As the wind picks up I pull the hood of my jacket over my head and dwell in my own misery on a big plateau overlooking the surrounding mountains and the fjord way, way down there in the valley.
The scenery is simply stunning in its raw beauty, but to be honest, I couldn’t give a shit. I’m sweating like a pig, yet I shiver from the sudden cold. I’m hungry. I complain like a five year old. I just want to get off this damn mountain, right now. I don’t care that we’ve climbed for ages to get where we are. I just want this over with. Done.
FIGURING IT ALL OUT
It’s in that very same moment that I spot a familiar sight on a small, almost hidden, piece of trail a few hundred metres away…skid marks. Hikers call them a curse. Right now, for us, they’re a blessing. Proof of a bike trail. Or at least a trail where someone has attempted to ride his or her bike, and that’s good enough for us.
We split a kvikklunsj (Norway’s favourite outdoor chocolate…if you don’t know the mountains like a local, you might as well don a few of their traditions at least) between the three of us and hit the trail, greedy like fat kids for dessert.
The ground is perfectly tacky and drained. The first few turns are almost banked, giving perfect support to the tyres, before the world drops away behind a rock roll. It feels like dropping off the edge of the earth, diving right into the fjord some 900 meters below us. It’s one of the steepest, flowiest, and certainly the most beautiful rock gardens I’ve ever had the pleasure of digging my High Rollers into. Turn after turn of perfectly grippy soil meandering through the dry heather. All my whining and complaining are long forgotten, now it’s all about reaping the rewards of our uphill struggle.
The trail suddenly changes from a dry, barren, alpine landscape, to a lush green forest with crooked mountain birch. My brakes squeal as I try my best to stay on top of my bike through the steeper sections with small pieces of mud hitting my face, as the rear wheel skids and bounces through the damp dirt.>>
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The trail changes once again as it rolls and twists its way into a drier, more dense forest with bigger trees. A flock of sheep bleats and run away from the trail as we blast through the opening of an ancient stone fence, staring back at us with a mix of surprise and anger.
The trail changes once again, twisting and twirling through sparse pine trees. We play around with small jumps and doubles, hurl ourselves over a series of rollers and dive head first into insanely, rear–tyres–scrubbing–our–butts, steep pitches before the trail spits us out at a small gravel road leading us back to our truck. We look at each other with surprise. Stoked to have turned such a massive low to a massive high in a matter of just a few pedal strokes.
As we round off the day at a bar with the most expensive après ride beer and pizza any of us have ever enjoyed – the booming Norwegian economy, fuelled by the country’s recently found oil reserves, has made the prices on food and alcohol sky rocket to ridiculous levels – everything suddenly makes sense for me. I came here with the expectation of epic all–mountain trails and tours. What we found was something completely different. Like a mix of all–mountain and downhill, but in an alpine environment. The Norwegians call it toppturssykkling, which translates into bike touring. Kind of like the summer equivalent of ski touring, another Norwegian national sport. But without skis, uncomfortable boots and, of course, snow. Pedal uphill where you can, drag you and your bike upwards in whatever fashion you find suitable where you can’t. Then blast downhill on old hiking trails. Simple as that.
Once we get our heads around this, everything becomes crystal clear, the possibilities in the area are seemingly endless. The next couple of days we discover and explore trails all over the area. Our search leads us to a bunch of great trails in the Valldal region, with detours to the nearby villages of Fjørå and Liabygda.
Pedalling and pushing up old farming roads, dropping into trails we have no real clue where they’re leading. Exposed sections in the rugged high alpine, steep, techy, gnar in the dense forests covering the lower parts of the mountains, flowy stuff in between. We even come across quite a few parts bearing the distinct evidence of someone with a shovel smoothing out Mother Nature with riding mountain bikes in mind.
DELIVERING THE GOODS
Our last day we take the 20 minute ferry ride to nearby Stranda, made famous by its biggest employer, the Grandiosa pizza factory, supplier of Norway’s (oddly enough) modern national dish, frozen pizza.
Somewhere along the road to Hellesylt we stop and unload our bikes before one of Norway’s hundreds of road tunnels. The country has spent billions and more billions on ferries, tunnels and bridges to connect their remote areas to each other and the mainland. Our object for the day was a remnant of the old days though, pre oil money and modern transportation, an old post road between Bergen and Trondheim (Den Trondhjemske Postvei) leading over a high pass that has been adopted by hikers through the past century. The narrow road is almost grown over, more reminiscent of a singletrack.
The trail twists it’s way up 35 sharp switchbacks up the steep mountainside. In more than a few places it’s either too steep or rocky to pedal up, or both, we have to resort to our trusted method of carrying our bikes on our backs. The only difference, this time we know we’re heading the right way, there are actually signs on this trail.
We sweat like pigs as we reach the top of the climb, the sun shining from a clear blue sky. Something pretty unusual by the Norwegian coast with its more than unpredictable, and rapidly changing, weather. The scenery that rewards us is simply out of this world. Way, way below us the mighty Geiranger fjord unleashes its stunning beauty in front of our eyes, without doubt the single most famous and photographed place in Norway. A lonely cruise ship breaks the still surface of the greenish water. Steep, lush, mountains rise out of the water, thrusting their white clad peaks towards the cloudless sky.>>
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We look at each other with our collective jaws dropped, stricken by what must be one of the single most amazing places we’ve ever had the privilege of visiting. What’s even better, we’ve got our bikes and at least 800 vertical metres of descending waiting for us. A smooth and blazingly fast, ancient, road in the middle of a wide valley surrounded by majestic peaks leads us onto yet another hamlet with old, rugged looking wooden buildings.
We pass right by a couple of families with kids out on a weekend hike, taking a break cooking pancakes on a gas stove – a prime example of the Norwegian outdoor tradition in the flesh. We exchange happy cheers, there are no hard feelings from the hikers like in many other parts of the world, no grumpy faces or complaints about us blasting by on our bikes – simply because the local tradition states respect for both the nature and other people, whether it be by foot or bike. The mountains and trails are for everyone to enjoy.
The trail becomes narrower and drops away in a never–ending series of switchbacks. There’s a myriad of rocks, some super techy parts and hairpin turns mixed with some of the best pieces of singletrack we’ve ever ridden. It’s full–on, flat–out for what seems like an eternity.
And way down there, the fjord glitters in all its glory. It’s a magical moment. I could give anything to make this moment last forever, to stay here and just take it all in. At the same time, well, this masterpiece of a trail just begs to be shredded in one go. After all, now that our initial fury has worn off, we can’t just sit around on our asses. This is Norway, and it doesn’t get much better than this here. Which, after all, means a lot.
Fly to Ålesund (84 kilometres) or Trondheim (376 kilometres). Then rent a car for the remainder of the trip.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed at the Juvet Landscape Hotel in Valldal, an architectonic masterpiece situated on the brink of a river, overlooking the mountains. Breakfast and dinner’s included.
If you prefer a budget solution and self–catering there’s a wide selections of cabins to rent in the area. Information and booking through the tourism office in Valldal.
A modern, slack, all–mountain rig with around 150mm travel front and back is the ideal choice for the Sunnmøre trails.
WHAT TO BRING
Don’t forget to bring a backpack with tools, a snack, water and a rain jacket as most of the riding takes place in remote places, and the coastal weather has a habit of changing rapidly for the worse. There are very few quality bike shops in the area so make sure you bring some extra spares and inner tubes.
FOOD AND DRINK
Food in Norway is an expensive affair, avoid eating out as much as possible if you’re on a budget. Stock up in the local grocery stores but be aware that they’re all closed on Sundays.
Make sure not to miss are the beers Slogen from the local brewery Trollbryggeriet. A wide selection of tasty brews with the golden ale Fjord being our absolute favourite.