Citybike, August 1998
Story and Photos by Jackie Jouret
Imagine a country in which the main highways more closely resemble Skyline Blvd. than Interstate 5. Imagine what the secondary roads in such a country must be like. Imagine that they're in a country with a landscape more dramatic than any you've ever seen, an entire country that looks like Yosemite, but with more water, higher cliffs and fewer people. The country is Norway, and it's a street rider's paradise.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit Norway in June with Beach's Motorcycle Adventures. The Beach family have been leading motorcyclists to the Alps for over 25 years. They've recently expanded their program to include Norway and New Zealand, with the help of local guides who work in partnership with Beach's Motorcycle Adventures, in our case Nordic Bike Adventure. Nordic Bike's O.T. D�vik provided the bikes, took care of the logistical details and made all the arrangements for accommodation and meals. Our guide, B�rge Bendixen, rode with us and contributed his extensive knowledge of Norway's roads, as well as its history and other relevant information. Arne drove the van that carried our luggage and delivered it to our hotel rooms at each stop, a much-appreciated service after a long day's riding. As with all of the Beach's tours, this wasn't a tour in the conventional sense but rather the facilitation of an adventure. The only decisions that were made for us were where to eat dinner and spend the night, and the only thing required of us was to reach the hotel by 7 p.m. or to call the hotel if we'd be late. Routes were suggested, but we could always find our own way to the hotel if none of the provided options suited us. The format gave us the best of both worlds: The details were taken care of, while we were left with the task of riding, exploring and enjoying the best roads in Norway. Tough job, indeed!
The landscape in Norway will take your breath away. Until you've seen it for yourself, it's hard to imagine just how dramatic it is, and no photograph can really do it justice. The steepness of the granite walls rising above the fjords, the rush of the waterfalls cascading down the rocks, the clarity of the water in the rivers, the lushness of the forests, the desolate beauty of the mountain plateaus—it's amazing how rugged Norway is, and how much variety has been packed into such a small space. Every time you round another bend, there's something new and spectacular to see, even in the relatively tame parts of the country. As you may know, much of Norway's unique landscape was created during the glacial retreats following the end of the last Ice Age. The glaciers created the deep fjords (fingers of the sea which extend inland) and high granite cliffs that characterize Norway's coast. Inland, Norway is mountainous. Although the mountains aren't particularly high (only rising to about 6,500 feet), their frequency and closeness to one another makes Norway's mountains spectacular. Because Norway is so far north (with the southern tip of the country roughly on the same latitude as Fairbanks, Alaska and nearly one-third above the Arctic Circle), there's snow on the mountains until quite late in the year. Summer skiing is possible in several areas. In addition, there are also quite a few large glaciers, which never melt at all. Yet despite its northern locale, Norway isn't an extremely cold country, thanks to the warm ocean currents of the North Sea. It gets plenty of snow in winter, but tends to be rather warm in summer, with average temperatures in the 70s in the southern parts of the country. This year, Norway has been plagued by El Ni�o much as California has, with unseasonably wet weather. It rained about half the time we were there, but rarely hard. Besides, it's hard to have full rivers, rushing waterfalls and green fields without some rain. Norway's natural beauty has been strikingly well preserved, even in areas of human habitation. It's a fine example of what the Pacific Northwest could have looked like today if it hadn't been clear-cut and overdeveloped. Norwegians log extensively, but they never clear-cut a forest unless they're building a farm. Even then, they only cut down what they need to in order to build a house or grow a crop. As a result, the entire country looks like a U.S. national park, and it's just as accessible. Other than small, fenced-in areas where livestock is kept or crops are planted, you have free passage anywhere you'd like to go. Nothing is off-limits; there aren't any "no trespassing" signs to be seen. You can't ride a motorcycle off-road (the terrain is too steep, anyway), but otherwise all land is available for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking or skiing. What a tremendous difference to the U.S., where even land in the middle of nowhere belongs to someone determined to keep others off it!
Where the human presence is apparent on the landscape, it's rarely intrusive. The Norwegians have built their houses, farms and towns in a manner which complements the scenery rather than mars it. You won't find a strip mall or a fast-food franchise along any of the roads in Norway, but you will find nice wooden buildings that house the necessities of civilization, such as restaurants and other businesses. Don't think for a moment that it's quaint or archaic; Norway is a thoroughly modern country with all the conveniences you'd expect in 1998. They just haven't allowed the desire for convenience to override the desire to preserve what makes Norway beautiful and unique.
They've also kept it phenomenally clean. You won't see trash alongside the roads or on the sidewalks, and the water in the rivers and streams is pure enough to drink. Even though the country has a well-developed industrial base, there's very little pollution, thanks to stringent environmental laws. In all, Norway provides an interesting model for environmental protection/preservation that takes place without sacrificing a healthy economy or one of the world's highest standards of living. Norwegians log, mine and drill for oil, but they do so mindful of the future of the country or the beauty of the landscape to do so. Norway exists on a plane of rationality that's hard to imagine in the profit-obsessed U.S., where no consideration is greater than that for a quick buck, and the future be damned. We could learn a lot by Norway's example.
In Norway, as elsewhere, the road and the landscape are inextricably linked. The harsh terrain that makes for spectacular scenery also makes for spectacular roads. It doesn't hurt that the Norwegian road builders are superb engineers, able to build roads in seemingly impossible places, such as halfway up the side of a granite cliff or over the top of a mountain rather than around it. They clearly appreciate a challenge, and seem never to have taken the easy route to road building or route selection. A distinctive feature of Norwegian roads are multiple switchbacks, such as the 27 hairpin turns at the end of the Lysebotn fjord that take you from sea level to about 3,000 feet in just over half a mile. As you might expect, the view from the top is incredible.
Even the main routes between cities are stimulating pieces of tarmac, with more curves than most of the backroads in California. Some roads are twistier than others, of course, but even if you're on a major highway, you'll probably be having fun. The only drawback to the main highways is that most of them feature quite a few tunnels. From an engineering standpoint, the tunnels are fascinating (some of them turn 360 degrees or more inside a mountain!), but being inside a tunnel means missing the scenery that's outside it, which is probably fantastic. Fortunately, there's often an older route which can be taken that will take you to the same destination by going over a mountain instead of through it; those are a lot more fun. I took one mountain road that took me directly past the summit of one of Norway's tallest mountains, with the road itself rising to almost 5,000 feet. It was a strange experience to pass so close to the top of a mountain on a motorcycle, and it was hard to imagine what the justification for building such a difficult road might have been, other than the view! Another wound its way around a series of small lakes and giant boulders atop a 4,500-foot high plateau. That road, like many of Norway's remote mountain passes, is so narrow that there isn't enough room for two cars to pass. With their multitude of turns and elevation changes, roads like that are best described as single-track for streetbikes. In other words, pure heaven.
Traffic, for the most part, is a non-issue. With just 4 million people in over 150,000 square miles, Norway has the lowest population density of any country save Iceland. Few people means few cars, which means roads that are relatively empty outside the larger cities (there aren't many of those, either.) Tour buses and campers will still get in your way on occasion, but thanks to a near-complete absence of no-passing zones, you can usually get around them with ease. In fact, a lot of roads have no center stripe whatsoever; you simply use as much of the road as you need. Beware on blind corners, however; it seemed that whenever I took advantage of this to get a better line through a turn, I had to readjust to avoid another vehicle that suddenly appeared in my path. Better to slow down and hug the inside rather than take your chances with a truck you can't see coming around that cliff. Pavement is universally good, although it's rarely billiard-table smooth. Where repairs are needed, the entire section of road is replaced, rather than just the hole filled in, so even if the surface isn't perfectly smooth, it's at least consistent. Where road repairs are underway, you won't find flaggers to guide you around the construction. You're expected to find your own way safely through the equipment and other hazards.
Speed limits are relatively low in Norway: 50 or 60 kilometers/hour in towns, 80 on most roads, and 90 on the motorways. That's 30 or 37, 50 and 55 in miles per hour. It's less of a drag than you'd expect, however. I ended up obeying the speed limit or only slightly exceeding it in towns, since those were the only places I ever saw police (about five patrol cars in 12 days of riding), and riding briskly yet not excessively fast elsewhere (around 100-120 km/h, or between 65 and 75 m.p.h..) Not fast, but fast enough considering the roads themselves and that the landscape we were passing through deserved more than just a cursory glance. I wanted to come back to California having seen more of Norway than just the strip of pavement in front of me, but even if you just go for the roads themselves, it's still worth the trip. We simply don't have roads this spectacular in the U.S., at least not in the abundance with which they can be found in Norway.
Probably because of the incredible roads, bikes are gaining wildly in popularity despite taxes which place new bike prices at more than double what they are in the U.S. A VFR 800, for instance, costs 159,900 kroner in Norway, or about $21,320. We pay just $9499, plus whatever local taxes apply (in San Francisco, that brings the total to $10,306.) The BMW R1100RSs used by the other riders in my group sell for over $30,000. Nonetheless, there are now over 55,000 bikes on the road in Norway, compared to just 6,500 in 1985. It seems the Norwegians are finding out for themselves how great their roads really are for motorcycling, even if the riding season only lasts for six months in a year of good weather. Norway is also a popular destination for riders from other European countries; we encountered a lot of German riders (who all seem bound for the North Cape, the northernmost point on the European continent), plus riders from Denmark, Holland, Britain and Sweden. They all seemed to agree that Norway offered the best riding they'd ever experienced.
Riding in Norway also has a distinct advantage for the solo motorcyclist. Because of the landscape, it's necessary to take a ferry once in a while to get where you want to go. Ferry landings and the boats themselves are natural places to meet other motorcyclists (bikes are allowed to embark and depart before other vehicles in Norway, so you can go to the front of the line at every landing.) Unless you want to, there's no reason to travel alone. The bikes provide a built-in conversation starter, and if you're both heading in the same direction why not go together? There's a lot less isolationism among European motorcyclists than Americans; no one's too busy being cool to talk to a stranger, particularly another motorcyclist. There's also a lot less tribalism based on one's choice of machine; BMW riders aren't aloof from riders on Gold Wings, nor are riders of the latest dualsports shy about talking to people on ancient Moto Guzzis. If it's got two wheels and a motor, your choice is respected.
Scandinavia has a reputation for being expensive, but those of us who are used to San Francisco prices probably won't find it too much so. Gas is expensive in Norway; about $5 per gallon (although it's sold by the liter). I was spending between $14 and $20 on gas each day, depending on how fast and far I rode. Ferry rides usually cost about $4 for a quick ride across a fjord, with longer rides costing about $10. Hotels were included with the price of the Beach tour, and our accommodations also included breakfast and dinner. At breakfast, you were welcome to pack a lunch from the buffet, which meant that all meals were taken care of. If you didn't pack a lunch, you could expect to pay about $10 for a sandwich, soda and coffee, just slightly more than you'd pay in SF. Of course, you could always buy food in a grocery store, which wasn't expensive at all (again, about the same as in SF, although the prices for fresh fruits and vegetables were higher. Very little produce is imported, and prices are high as a result of Norway's scarcity of arable land.) Alcohol is ridiculously expensive, about $6.00 for a draft beer. It's a good way to discourage drunkenness, however.
Our accommodations were always top-notch; those travelling independently would find that such accommodations could be had for about half of what they'd go for in the States. If you're on a budget, you'll be able to find a bed for the night for as little as $7. I have no idea what that might be like, but I suspect that it would be a lot better than a similarly-priced lodging in, say, Mexico (if you could even find one that cheap there). In a country where even the train station toilets are as clean as those in most houses, it's hard to imagine a dirty hotel room. In any event, one person can stay in a nice place for just over $50, something that's virtually impossible here. Buying things in Norway gets expensive, even if you get a refund check for the VAT (around 23%). I didn't bring warm enough gloves with me and had to buy some at a bike shop: $170. (They're Spidis and kept my hands warm and dry, but it's still a lot of money for a pair of gloves.) A waterproof, non-leather riding jacket goes for about $600, a pair of Prexport boots about $400. On the plus side, the selection of gear in Norwegian bike shops is excellent, even in small towns.
Norway is different to the rest of Europe in that it doesn't have a lot of the art museums, castles and other remnants of an aristocracy that usually comprise what we term "culture." In Norway, the culture revolves around more down-to-Earth pursuits than collecting paintings. Norwegians, as a result, build museums to fish canning, skiing and road building, things which might not sound thrilling on the face of it but which are actually rather fascinating when examined in detail. There are also numerous open-air museums into which have been gathered old farm buildings so that visitors can see how rustic Norwegians of previous centuries lived. These are quite interesting, especially if after seeing modern Norway you wonder why your ancestors ever left the place. Take a look inside an 18th-century farmhouse and you'll understand—theirs was an extremely difficult life in a harsh environment.
Unique to Norway are the numerous stave churches, wooden buildings from the 11th and 12th centuries. The stave churches, built from tarred wooden planks arranged vertically rather than horizontally, were the first buildings devoted to Christianity in then-pagan Norway. It's hard to imagine that any wooden building could have survived for nearly a thousand years, but quite a few of these did, and they're incredible architectural treasures. Some, like the stave church in Borgund, feature carved ornamentation that links them to the Viking period.
Norwegians are devoted to sports and the outdoors. During our stay, many houses had their flags flying at half-staff following the death of a famous skier, who also received a state funeral. In Lillehammer, site of the 1994 Winter Olympics, there's a museum of Olympic history near the ski jump. A bit further up the road in �yer, however, there's something even cooler: the Olympic bobsled run. You can take a run down the mountain year-round for about $20. In summer, they use a sled with wheels, which isn't as fast as those which run on ice but still gets up to a speed of about 65 m.p.h. and can pull 2.5 Gs in the corners (on ice, they pull 4.5 Gs!). I took a ride and was blown away; the turning velocity of the wheel-bob makes motorcycle roadracing seem tame, especially when it goes nearly upside-down through the banked turns. It's a can't-miss activity in my book.
Today's Norwegians are direct descendants of the Vikings, but you'd never know it from their behavior. It's hard to imagine a group of people so unfailingly polite and hospitable. Nearly everyone speaks English in addition to Norwegian, which makes Norway a remarkably easy country to navigate (although road signs are printed in Norwegian only). It's also easy to enjoy: Crime is virtually nonexistent, you won't be harassed by strangers on the street in Norwegian towns and cities, and there's no poverty to depress or inspire guilt. It isn't particularly exotic—the people look more or less like white Americans albeit much healthier, overall—but it's different enough to let you know you're in a foreign country. If you require the discomfort and hassles that only travel in the Third World can provide, Norway might seem tame because of its cleanliness and civility. Those are qualities which I found delightful, however, and which made the experience of being there so enjoyable.
As you might expect in a country with so much water, there's a lot of fish to eat in Norway. If you want to, you can have fish at every meal: several styles of herring and salmon for breakfast and lunch, plus a cornucopia of fish for dinner that might include trout, halibut, mussels, shrimp, crayfish or eel. Crabs weren't in season during our trip, but they can be found on the table later in the year. Bigger cities will have open-air fish markets in which you can buy all of the aforementioned plus whale meat; Norway and Japan are the only two nations which continue to hunt whales for food. Most of the Norwegians I spoke to disapproved of whaling, but it's still done in small quantities nonetheless under the pretext of tradition. Only slightly more politically correct are the moose or reindeer steaks that can be had in restaurants, or the sausages made from the same. (They're delicious, by the way, but be warned if you try to get them through U.S. Customs: they're likely to be seized.)
As part of the Beach Adventure package, we ate dinner and breakfast in our hotel. Both were usually smorgasbord-style meals with a nice variety of foods available in addition to fish. Hot meats and vegetables, cheeses and breads were in ample supply at dinner. Desserts were simple custards, cakes or ice cream. Breakfast could consist of delicious breads and jams, cereals and fruits as well as the more traditional fish, ham and cheese. From the breakfast buffet, one could pack a lunch, which usually meant ham and cheese on whole-grain crackers. It was a cheap and satisfying way to go, particularly since there are so many great places to have a picnic in Norway.
Five of us met in Kristiansand along Norway's southern coast for the start of the two-week tour. Our group was comprised of Peter and Karen Brine, a sports-equipment manufacturer and his wife from Hanover, New Hampshire, Blair Fuller, a writer from San Francisco, Ann Riley, a real estate salesperson from Burlingame, and myself. The Brines rode two up, as did Fuller and Riley. (Interestingly, Riley had never ridden on a motorcycle prior to agreeing to join Fuller on the tour. She took a couple of practice runs around San Francisco, then set off for Norway. By halfway through the tour, she wanted a bike of her own and declared she'd never again travel by any other means!)
From Kristiansand, our tour worked its way as far north as �ndalsnes and returned via the west coast. (BMA also offers a three-week trip to the North Cape, the northernmost point on the European continent.) Thanks to the extensive local knowledge of the team from Nordic Bike Adventure, we saw the best of what Norway's southern half has to offer. Our guide, B.B., made sure we stopped at all the noteworthy sites and took all the best roads, and acted as our cultural interpreter, as well. He also proved to be a repository of information about Norway's economy and industry. As he spends his "real life" working as a control room engineer on an offshore oil rig, B.B. could explain a great deal about Norway's latest source of wealth.
The structure of the tour made sure that each day's riding and scenery surpassed the last. Bear in mind, however, that we declared the first day's riding among the best we'd ever had, the scenery among the most beautiful we'd ever seen. The Nordic Bike guys only laughed, knowing what lay in store for us over the next two weeks.
Because a Beach tour isn't a tour in the conventional sense (with everyone riding en masse), we were free to ride at our own pace each day on the route which we selected. We road together on the first day to get accustomed to our bikes and driving in Norway, but after that we were free to pick from any of at least two suggested routes for the day. The routes would vary in terms of distance, road quality and attractions, each of which was described in detail in the route book. None of the routes were quite long enough to satisfy tour member Peter Brine, however, so he ended up tacking on a short loop at the end of each day's ride just to make sure he'd found enough twisties. Fortunately, his wife Karen (who rode pillion) didn't mind.
Although we essentially rode from hotel to hotel each day, we did have a few two- and three-day stays in particularly scenic locales. Our three-day stop in Fagernes, for instance, enabled us to visit nearby Lillehammer on one day and to skip riding and explore the town during a particularly nasty rainstorm on another. Ordinarily, however, the group rides in any weather, although the route might change to avoid snow falling on the mountain passes. No one seemed to mind this policy, because we'd all brought effective rain gear. My FirstGear Kilimanjaro jacket and Hypertex overpants, for instance, kept me dry even when it rained all day, and they kept me warm even on snow-covered mountains although I wasn't wearing particularly warm clothing underneath. They even doubled as skiwear when I took in the summer skiing at Stryn!
As I mentioned earlier, our hotels were universally top-notch. Some were historic, all were extremely comfortable and well-appointed. Each of our hotels also had an excellent restaurant. Most of them also had swimming pools or other exercise facilities, which were really nice to use at the end of a long day on the bike..
Where the bikes themselves were concerned, the two couples in our group rode two-up on BMW R1100RTs while I rode an R850R fitted with an accessory windscreen. All the bikes were equipped with saddlebags and tankbag, which was great for carrying incidentals. Our luggage was carried in the van, which also carried tools, spare parts and tires, none of which were needed on our tour. The BMWs were probably the perfect bikes for two weeks' riding in Norway. I didn't ride the 1100, but the R850R is fast and good-handling enough for spirited sport riding (thanks to the excellent Telelever front end), but still plenty comfortable. Even after spending all day in the saddle, I never got sore on the BMW. Nordic Bike also has some R1100GSs, Funduros and other bikes available, but for solo riding I like the simplicity of the R850R.
After each day's ride, our bikes were washed and serviced, a detail that's typical of the level of service provided by Beach's and Nordic Bike. From the moment we were met at the airport by the Nordic Bike folks, nothing was overlooked, and everything was done to ensure that we experienced Norway in the most enjoyable and stress-free manner possible. The net result was that each of us proclaimed this the best trip we'd ever taken, with absolutely no hesitation about taking another Beach or Nordic Bike tour or recommending them to others.
Beach's has three more Norwegian tours are scheduled for 1998. Tours will run from July 18-August 2, August 1-August 16 and August 15-30. Cost is $3900 for a rider, $3075 for a passenger. That price includes the use of the bike, all hotel rooms and all breakfasts. Evening meals are also included, except those on free days (of which we had four). Gas, lunch, alcohol and incidentals were each individual's responsibility.
If you go, fly SAS to Scandinavia. No other carrier is as well-equipped to get you where you want to go within Scandinavia, particularly when problems occur. Those of us who flew Air France and British Airways were regretting it once we realized how much better the SAS experience was. Second, arrive in Oslo or Copenhagen a day or two early to get over jet lag before starting your ride. Don't tack extra days onto the end of your bike tour, however; they're guaranteed to seem boring and anticlimactic after such an excellent adventure!
You can contact Beach's Motorcycle Adventures at 2763 West River Parkway, Grand Island, NY 14072-2053, telephone (716) 773-4960. They're also on the internet at http://www.bmca.com. (You can also find out about Beach's tours of the Alps and New Zealand via the site, plus info on bike rentals overseas.)
Copyright � 1998 CityBike Magazine. All Rights Reserved.
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