Words and photos by: Luc Sokolsky
My trip to Norway two years ago was the typical Nordic visual feast. Fjords on the left, glaciers on the right - nothing but beautiful surreal riding anywhere you look. This year, I decided to return to that fantasy world for a little summer riding, but I wanted to dig deeper this time around. I wanted to see past the fjords and glaciers and barns and learn a bit more about what Norway is really about, who Norwegians really are. Thanks to their progressive schooling, nearly the entire country speaks fluent English, so I was able to find what I was looking for.
I’d been back in Norway for two hours, and I was already attending a dinner party - a true testament to the Norwegian hospitality enjoyed by tourists. I was planning on spending a week in Oslo to visit friends and try to get a taste of the local culture by immersing myself in their lives. While at the party with my host Mats, he mentioned a new phenomenon. He said, “In Norway, Creating a startup is the new starting a band.” Urban legend has it that Norway has the most metal bands per capita, so this seemed like a great jumping off point.
Staying up late and drinking wine with the locals is one way to beat jetlag. Luckily, there’s a lot of very good coffee in Oslo. As I chatted with the barista at Supreme Roastworks about the history of excessive coffee consumption in the country - an obvious way to counter the dark, cold winters; especially on fishing boats - this proliferation of metal bands turned start-ups came back to me. Looking around, I didn’t see a single person working on their laptop. Where were the techies? The barista assured me of the social implications of coffee, people come to linger with their friends rather than to work.
If they did exist, I was more likely to find Techies in the Barcode Project, a new development on the dock next to Central Oslo. Located with similar proximity to the rest of Oslo as Soma is to San Francisco, the comparison is easy. Yet unlike the amalgamation of overly large buildings without architectural interest in Soma, Barcode is a unified architectural project. It is cheeky, a row of 12 narrow buildings built at different heights so as to resemble a bar code when seen from head-on.
In Norway startups are the new death metal garage band as a large amount of these young characters come from music. There seems to be a rationality in Norwegian culture that persuades people to find more lucrative and mature work. Everyone I met has an eye on the future. With impeccable (and affordable) education, this generation is leaving behind the country’s farming and fishing history for innovation in tech and other modern fields. There is a commonality, going from garage bands to start-ups. Both are shrouded in creativity rather than fitting into a system and both incur a heightened individual expression. But has the music within them really died?
In Norway, there are familiar pieces of start-up culture. There’s a commitment to the work being done and a belief in its importance. But there’s also a commitment to life outside of work, and a near reverence for leisure. My host, Mats, may work in tech, while building a startup, but that doesn’t stop him from rock climbing, playing music and soaking up as much sun as possible. My friend Even finds work fulfilling, but admirably, leaves it at the office. It's a means to explore his passions of music and cycling. The metalheads and the punks are starting start-ups and working adult jobs, but the music hasn’t died.
For their love of leisure, Norwegian’s have it rough. I thought Norwegians were always outside, but it turns out I just only visit in the summer. The winters are brutal. They're dark, cold and long, so when it is nice out, people take advantage. With that in mind, it only made sense to join in and take advantage of the incredible country.
The entirety of Norway is stunning, and both their gravel and paved roads are sublime, so it's hard to go wrong. Growing up as far west as possible (in the Bay Area), I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of going North. So we flew to Tromso, far north of the Arctic Circle. By the time we rolled out for a week of camping and cycling, we were five strong, a crew of San Franciscans out to make up for not seeing much greenery in months. Our route was along the water at least seventy-five percent of the time, usually with towering steep cliffs on our opposite side. We took gravel side roads where the only traffic we endured was sheep. It stayed light until 11pm and we lingered in camp with bacon and coffee. We rode at a spirited pace but were always down to stop for a photo or a Skoleboller.
If we could change two things about our trip, I’d have gone a month earlier and for a week longer; we could have used more time to truly explore, and we were always cold. Fortunately, the good company and spectacular views made up for these slight inconveniences. In the end, we rode a few hundred miles from Tromso, through the island of Senja and the northern Lofoten Islands, where we took a speedboat back to Tromso. You can find my route on Strava, Ornot. (Ed - note, Luc isn't on strava, but Kurt is)
I must stress that my observations are purely observational, everything is experiential rather than empirical. Nevertheless, reflecting on an excellent voyage, I feel that I better understand Norway and its inhabitants. As striking and dramatic and the landscape may be, Norway is made richer by its people. We were invited by Norwegians to join them on their favorite rides, and for pizza and beer after. One night while camping, a woman reopened her grocery store for us so we could eat, and the next night a couple offered us to camp in their yard when we could find no flat ground. Despite all of this warmth and generosity, the Norwegians are remarkably humble. Over and over I was asked, “by why would you travel to Norway?” And that’s exactly why. It's a land not for tourism, but ripe for discovery.