The Further Away, The Better (Video)

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The Further Away, The Better is a new video from our friend George Marshall and Rapha in which 86-year-old Rough Stuff Fellowship member Ron Bartle recounts the tale of his 1958 expedition across the interior of Iceland. Find Ron’s inspiring story and a short interview with George here…

Video and photos by George Marshall (@georgemarshallphoto), archive imagery courtesy of the Rough-Stuff Fellowship (@rsfarchive)

Following his own trips to Iceland in 2015 and 2019, filmmaker George Marshall recently sat down with longtime Rough Stuff Fellowship member Ron Bartle to chat about his incredible 1958 crossing of Iceland’s interior. About as humble as they come, Ron initially suggested to George that he wasn’t sure why anyone would be so interested in his story, but he was nonetheless happy to tell it. Although separated by about half a century in age, the pair of cycling lovers spent an entire day chatting away until the sun went down. This short video is the first product of their conversation.

Splicing together images of bicycle trips across Iceland in 1933, 1958, 2015, and 2019, The Further Away, The Better briefly paints a picture of a life well spent on the bicycle and tells the story of Ron’s trip, what made it unique, and how that same spirit lives on today, even though the bikes and gear have changed. Watch it below, then continue on for a selection of images and my interview with George about the process of putting the video together.

“We just liked getting away. Away from civilization, I suppose.The further away, the better.”—Ron Bartle

What’s your connection to this project and how’d you get involved?

Framebuilder Tom Donhou asked me to join him on a ride across the Sprengisandur back in 2015. Tom had designed and built a new bike (the DSS2) for long rides on rough roads and he wanted to go somewhere that would find the bike’s limit. This was the period just before gravel bikes really exploded. I was riding one of Tom’s older Continental tourers, which was a very early adopter of disk brakes on a road bike but it only had enough clearance for about a 30mm tyre.

  • George Marshall Photo, Bike Touring Iceland, Tom Donhou
  • George Marshall Photo, Bike Touring Iceland, Tom Donhou

We set off straight from the airport with fully loaded panniers, a heavy camera backpack, and enough food for seven days. The lava rock roads of the Sprengisandur provided the limit Tom was searching for and possibly beyond. To cut a long story short, we hit a fierce wind storm in the centre of the desert. We rode through the storm for a day or so. We crashed a lot, walked a lot, fixed punctures a lot, got hungry a lot, and kept going and going until we were stopped by a warden who instructed us to take shelter at a refuge with her and wait out the storm. We waited there for a few days eating scraps we found in the kitchen left by other cyclists and hikers. The storm didn’t die down and we ended up hitching a lift out with two guys who were doing maintenance on a fibre optic cable that ran across the desert. We were disappointed to end the journey like that and promised to return.

  • George Marshall Photo, Bike Touring Iceland, Tom Donhou
  • George Marshall Photo, Bike Touring Iceland, Tom Donhou
  • George Marshall Photo, Bike Touring Iceland, Tom Donhou

When I returned to the UK, Max Leonard, one of the publishers of the Rough Stuff Fellowship book, sent me photos of the Rough Stuff Iceland expedition back in 1958. The fact that they made it across against greater odds which only deepened my itch to return. The opportunity to have another crack arose in 2019, when Rapha asked me to organise an unsupported ride in Iceland to photograph their new Explore range. I convinced them to let me go back to the Sprengisandur. Tom Donhou had a broken collarbone and was unable to join, so three Rapha regulars Marius Nilsen, Kirsti Ruud, and Oyind Nordengen were signed up. This time, we made it across thanks to better but still very windy conditions. I made a short one-minute film and processed all the photography in time for the Rapha Explore launch. Time constraints prevented me from making a longer documentary film. After releasing the film, I felt like it didn’t tell enough of the story. Roll on to 2021, with all Explore trips on hold and time on my hands, I decided to dig out the hard drives and revisit the story.

George Marshall Photo, Iceland, Rapha Explore

In your experience, just how inhospitable is Iceland’s interior for cyclists?

The warden at the refuge told me, “In Iceland, the weather is boss.” I asked her when was the best time of year to come and she firmly replied, “Never.” Without the right precautions, the Sprengisandur could be dangerous. Two weeks after our trip, a cyclist travelling alone and in their 40s sadly died on the same route. The F26 road that crosses the Sprengisandur is only 232km, but I think on the slower days Tom and I only managed around 50km. If a storm hits, 232km suddenly becomes a long way. Other than the warden’s hut in the centre and a hot spring 60km north of that, there’s nothing for hundreds of kilometres. Only sand, ice, and rock. If a storm picks up and you can’t pitch a tent, or you lose your tent, or you have a crash, or you get wet, you may be in for trouble as temperatures drop at night to freezing even in September. On the bright side, there’s cellular signal the whole way across and there is some occasional traffic on the road—about one vehicle every couple of hours—but less traffic the further you go and none in a storm when you may need it most. There’s an excellent mountain rescue service that requests all cyclists submit their travel plan and notify the mountain rescue when you safely arrive at your destination. More information can be found at SafeTravel.is.

  • George Marshall Photo, Iceland, Rapha Explore
  • George Marshall Photo, Iceland, Rapha Explore

What do you think it’d be like to recreate the 1958 Rough Stuff trip using their same bikes and equipment today?

Without a doubt, Ron and his companions faced a bigger challenge in 1958 than we did in 2015 or 2019. Bikes, tents, sleeping bags, stoves, clothing, and food have all become significantly lighter. Regardless of all the advances of the last 50 years, I’d say the biggest difference would be the road itself that made it harder for Ron in ‘58, Horace Dall before them in 1933. Oversized 4×4 vehicles drive there regularly nowadays, creating a bumpy old road of sand and rock, but a road nonetheless. From Raymond Bottomley’s photography and Ron’s description, it’s clear the road simply wasn’t there in 1958. It was nothing more than a lava field of boulders for some stretches. Also, all the major rivers now have bridges, whereas Ron and his crew had to take a heavy inflatable boat and the crossings took hours.

It’s interesting to see the change from 2015 to 2019. Progression definitely accelerated. In 2019, we had bikepacking bags as opposed to panniers, carbon frames instead of steel, hydraulic brakes, 40mm tubeless tyres rather than 30mm tube destroyers. When I did the journey in 2015, my knuckles swelled up in the mornings from the road rattle and I couldn’t clench a fist. In 2019, I borrowed a Canyon Grail with the hover bar, which I know some people love to hate more than Brexit, but without a need to steer or brake much the hover bar really took enough sting out the road so I could still use my hands—ideal for a photographer.

Watching the film, I like seeing the progression in bikes and clothing, but the funny thing is Ron and the Rough Stuff guys come out as the most aspirational. They surely come out the heroes. Something tells me that their kit and approach will age better in the long run.

Rough Stuff Iceland, Ron Bartle

Off-camera, how was spending the day with Ron Bartle?

I was nervous to visit Ron. There was a lot to go wrong. I’d never met him and he lived on the other side of the country. Sometimes, you point a camera at someone and they freeze up and lose the ability to talk. Other times they can’t talk to start with. My family and I had to strictly quarantine for a week and I had two Covid tests before seeing him. At 86, I’d worried what he could remember from his trip over 50 years ago. There were many reasons the film concept might not work. Fortunately, the creative team at Rapha supported the idea and I gave it a shot.

  • Rough Stuff Iceland, Ron Bartle
  • Rough Stuff Iceland, Ron Bartle

All my concerns were put to rest when I was unloading my car outside his house and I saw him pick up my 25kg camera bag and carry it into the house, smiling. For 86, he’s extraordinarily strong and full of cheer. He tells a great story with warmth and his characteristic humility. He was a lovely man to spend an afternoon with, humble about his achievements but eager to share his stories of a lifetime of cycling throughout the world. He was like a window into a bygone era. He spoke of riding in a time before cars dominated the road, dodging a war whilst riding solo across Tunisia. In 1956, he cycled thousands of miles round Europe and Africa whilst the world was recovering from WWII. He lived on the road for six months on just £65! The stories rolled and rolled all day.

Eventually, it got too dark to film and I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. He made me cheese on toast and gave me apple pie before my long journey home.

Lastly, what’d you take away from your conversation?

Three things struck me during the long drive home. The first was Ron’s incredible physical strength for a man of his age and ability to recollect river names, places, and memories of events over 50 years ago were remarkable. He is a walking, talking, turbo training testament to a life well spent on the bike. Secondly, without wanting to be too sombre, I felt a sadness for Ron and elderly people like him. I lost my grandparents years ago and I haven’t spoken at length to someone of his generation before or considered what life is like at 86. He lives alone and was clearly very pleased for the company. He recalled story after story, often noting at the end that that person had since passed away. Ron’s social life still revolves around the bike. He rides every week with a local charity to a local cafe, which has sadly stopped this year due to Covid, but he looks forward to starting again when restrictions are lifted.

  • George Marshall Photo, Iceland, Rapha Explore
  • George Marshall Photo, Bike Touring Iceland, Tom Donhou

Lastly, and searching urgently for means to lighten the mode, I was also struck by the similarity of Ron’s experience in 1958 to my own experience in 2019, and possibly to Horace Dall’s before him in 1933. Put your space-age handlebars, lightweight breathable fabrics, 4G, GPS, Di2, blah blah blah to one side, and the very essence of all the journeys across the Sprengisandur throughout the decades is the same. The vast landscape conjures up the same emotion, wonder, and peace today just as it did decades ago. The horizon is the same, the rivers are still cold. I like the notion that all who have made the journey experience the same silence of the morning in the desert when the wind drops, and everyone has the same highs and lows. I hope the journey and experiences repeat for years to come.

Stay tuned for an extended version of George’s video interview with Ron Bartle in the coming months. And keep your eyes out next week as the second Rough Stuff Fellowship Archive book will be launching on kickstarter!

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