Words by Red Bull Media House / Photos by Evan Ruderman/Stachehouse Productions
The 13-minute piece beautifully documents McElveen’s successful attempt at traversing the subarctic island country in a single bike ride. McElveen became the first person to cross the country from coast-to-coast under human power in less than a day, completing the 257-mile route in 19 hours, 45 minutes.
“Crossing Iceland '' highlights the challenges and freedom of self-supported adventure, which for McElveen required negotiating the infamous Iceland Highlands, a 15,500 square mile, lifeless expanse of volcanic rock and sand. His journey began at 4:15 AM at the Akureyrarkirkja church in Akureyri, a city on Iceland’s northern coast. Between him and the finish line, the turbulent ocean wash of Iceland’s southernmost coastal town, Vik, McElveen weathered strong winds, steady rains, glacial rivers, and subfreezing temperatures. He was racing the clock and also an incoming early season snow storm, for what he describes as the “ride of a lifetime.”
Renowned photographer and adventurer Chris Burkard, an Icelandic team of filmmakers and overland guides joined the Durango-based rider to capture this historic ride. For him, it was less about the record attempt than the personal challenge and opportunity to experience the otherworldly country. “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 seeing if it was possible to ride across the whole country in less than a day. This ride has solidified my interest in geographically-based challenges like this. 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,” the 28-year old rider explained.
McElveen utilized The Highlands “F” roads, which are rugged, minimally maintained, double-track suitable only for high-clearance overland vehicles. With no refuel points along the route, McElveen carried more than 7,000 calories to fuel the journey.
Chris Burkard says that the feat inspired him for historical reasons, “More than just an athletic achievement, Payson’s ride pays homage to thousands of years of overland travel through this wild country. It’s nearly impossible to describe the experience to anyone who hasn’t sunk their tires deep into it’s remote and endless gravel roads. But this film captures the highs and lows of his impressive journey in a way that can only be compared to a near mythical achievement. Fitting for Iceland to say the least.”
McElveen’s ride took advantage of a tight weather window, yet he still faced turbulent weather conditions, which he says despite the rough terrain was the biggest challenge. “It’s funny how a ‘weather window’ in Iceland would qualify as the worst riding weather you’d have all year elsewhere,” McElveen remarked. “Iceland’s weather is some of the most dynamic in the world, especially in September. I knew we were pushing it a bit in terms of the time of year, but I really wanted to try to complete this ride before we left. I chose my gear carefully, which was crucial in completing the ride.”
Burkard agrees that the environmental changes are a defining aspect of adventure in Iceland, “This is an environment that’s so unforgiving that they literally tested the lunar rover on this landscape. To move through The Highlands with just the clothes on your back and the gear on your bike in under 24 hours…it’s mind blowing. Honestly when Payson set out, I was worried about what might happen if he got too cold, if the wind picked up, when moving between glaciers. But, even more so, I was rooting for him from the beginning–to see what he could do to marry his athleticism with the pure adventure that Iceland has to offer.”
Payson says he’d love to see others attempt the coast-to-coast route at record attempt speed, but wants to make sure people understand the potential dangers of the route, “The interior of Iceland is an extremely harsh place. When I got up there and saw it for the first time, it felt completely otherworldly – like I was visiting an alien planet. It feels like you’re not supposed to be there. I had the distinct sense that I wanted to get through it and back down to safety as fast as I could. For others interested, I would strongly recommend riding in the warmer, dryer months of the summer, with more clothing and food than you think you need. Iceland is the most beautiful country I have ever ridden through, 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 land the respect and admiration it deserves.”