My memories of Portugal are fading from me. I’m trying to wrap my arms around them. To pull them close. To conjure the most minute details from the trip at will. The friends I made. The cows with the giant cowbells, standing on the side of the road. Riding through the most picturesque Portuguese cities and having complete strangers yell greetings and cheer me on.
I’m trying to remember the texture of the most exquisitely delicious squid to ever reach my lips. To hear the laughter of the Canadians in my ear and the dirty jokes from the Irishman. I want to feel the ache in my legs again as I attempt to climb to the highest peak in all of Portugal. To recall the laughter as the newly-wed shares his water bottle with a donkey. To feel the thrill and relief while hanging off the side of the “team” car. To lay back once again on my pillow in a palace or a former monastery or inside a walled city.
But even as I sit here processing a week of riding my bike in a country I never planned on visiting, it’s all fading. My time on the road with inGamba is packed with treasures but only a painful few will stick around.
This trip was not a cush roll through the scenic countryside, like in some bad romance novel or Hollywood movie. The crew at inGamba are as serious about pedalling the bike as they are about squid and vino verde.
The Portugal Randonnee is a trip with way too many kilometers covered and too many meters climbed to translate into a definitive description.
From the moment I step out of the car into the Old Quarter of Lisbon the feeling of relaxation washes over me.
I know little of the rich history but yearn to understand. The smell of the ocean reaches out to me and the quality of the light is enticing. I wander the tiny cobbled streets making photographs of anything and everything.
I am staying in a palace, a literal Palace, just below the Castle Jorge.
The purveyor of the Palacio Belmonte is a historian. I can hear her in the other room sharing her knowledge of the palace’s history which I am calling home for the night. It’s not so much what she is saying, but how she is saying it. The Portuguese history has pain, but also much pride.
Joao, the public face of inGamba, is wandering about making introductions, mine included, while conducting business on his phone. The business seems important. He is immediately likable.
Dinner on the first night is like a scene out of a foreign film. The group and I are whisked from the Palacio in black sports sedans (OK, one car and one van, but still), racing through the cobbled street only to arrive at what must be one of the most popular seafood restaurant in all of Lisbon. The line out front is daunting. But with Joao, lines are trivial. We excuse ourselves over and over as we pick our way past the poor people who have to wait, past the packed patrons and finally upstairs to our private table.
From the moment we arrive until the moment we leave, waiters scurry about our table making sure our glasses are filled with vino and our tummies are filled with seafood. The delights from the sea come at a dizzying pace as we are presented with shrimp and crab and clams. It’s not the food or the wine or the early stages of relationship building that make the evening. It’s all those things in concert.
Conversations about jobs and families and past bicycling exploits buzz around the table. The group is a good one. There are four couples, including the honeymooners Ryan and Andrea, from Vancouver. I like them right from the start. They are gamers. They are ready for anything and everything this trip is going to throw at them.
As we’re escorted back to the palace for a brief meeting about sobering things, like riding etiquette, wake up calls and laundry schedules, I become painfully aware my time in Lisbon will be way too short. I promise myself I will return.
The group is offered two options for the first day’s adventure—either the originally scheduled 130km or a more moderate 90km. Things break just about how I would predict by looking at the group, with the skinny ones taking the longer option.
The newlyweds, the triathlete and her athlete boyfriend, the “kid” from Apple, the anesthesiologists hammer, the big fella with the accent from down under and “returning from injury” Gary, all opt for the longer route.
The Jersey girl and her Oregon husband, a dirty-joke-telling Irishman, the New Yorker, the video producer dude, the adorable Canadian financial planning couple and I, all opt for the shorter route.
I think I have chosen wisely, but we will see.
Overnight rainstorms sweep through Lisbon, pummeling the roof of the Palacio and it reminds me of being a kid on vacation in Florida. The storms roll in over the ocean and the rain pounds against the earth with furry.
We wake to wet earth and ominous skies. We take breakfast on the veranda at the Palacio and the conversation has a slight air of nervousness, but everyone is ready to get this party started.
After a short transport we arrive in Alcobaca and are introduced to our bicycles for this ride. It is quite a site to see a row of matching Pinarello Dogmas all dressed in black with Italian colors striped inside the fork legs. And as an added inGamba touch, each bicycle has the rider’s name emblazoned on the top tube, not unlike what you would find on the Pro Tour.
The early kilometers click away as we each find our place within the group. We have a beautiful black Mercedes as a lead car and a van following behind us. We regroup a couple of times and everyone seems to be in great spirits. We finally stop at around the 50 kilometer mark for a caffe and as we sit under an awning enjoying our beverage the clouds open up. It pours down rain for no more than six minutes and it will be the only rain we see all day. We feel blessed.
The only real climb of the day comes at the end and is a reminder of what we have in store for us tomorrow. The ride today is just under 90k with 1100 meters of vertical. But tomorrow will bring more than double the climbing, in the same distance.
We spend the night in a converted convent and dinner is another celebration. I can’t help but notice a theme emerging at the late night meals. The meal starts with sparking wine, then bottles of white, followed by bottles of red and finally a lovely port to round out the meal. I try to pace myself, as do the riders on either side of me. But there are others who seem to be prepared to go the distance. I sleep well for the first time on the trip and I am grateful.
I wake early to the sounds of the team bus we will use as transport for our gear and bicycles. The conversation at breakfast is all about the climbs ahead and for good reason. Our second day in the saddle brings the biggest climbs of the week.
A double paceline forms from the gun, with the added bonus of having Portuguese professional rider Tiago Machado sitting on the front. The group takes turns riding beside Tiago, chatting him up about his life in the pro peleton.
The pace up the first climb is pretty brisk and I forget to take time to enjoy the countryside because I’m staring at my stem.
Over the top of the first climb we find a wide-open, rip-roaring decent and I attempt to chase Joao off the backside of the mountain. Even though he has taken on a little post-career paunch, Joao knows how to handle a bike. Hammering down the sweeping descent and using every inch of the road from side-to-side, he actually sets a Strava record on the way down.
If the first climb was difficult, the second climb is soul-crushing, leaving riders strewn all over the mountain. Climbing up above the tree-line the terrain looks more like a moonscape than a landscape.
I try to enjoy the sweeping vistas of Portugal, the mountain lakes and the company of my fellow riders, but the climb never allows you to settle into a rhythm. The road deceptively keeps changing grade, causing the body to constantly wonder if it should get into the follow van and take a nap.
It was agreed universally at dinner that even though the ride was a serious day’s work for everyone, we were all glad to have done it. The reward of an epic day in the saddle is a couple glasses of wine, maybe a little port and the sharing of stories.
It becomes pretty obvious while looking over the new route sheets at breakfast there are no flat routes to be had in Portugal. Today we will attempt to do another 2,000 meters over 100k.
There is a chill in the air this morning and we start with a monster descent off of the mountain. The first climb is to the highest point in all of Portugal, and from what I can gather while I huff and puff, that’s the only notable thing this mountain.
Not even the pleasant banter from my riding partners can eliminate my particular disgust with this heartless ascent. Although, the panting Irishman is still able to get in a couple of pretty good ones about hunger and duck balls.
The descent off the other side of this god forsaken mountain is a different matter. This is the most beautiful descent I have ever ridden. Ever. Anywhere. The skinny European roads sweep down past giant cows, wearing giant cowbell, twisting and turning into a picture perfect valley filled with white-washed houses with the distinctive terra-cotta roofs. This is the Portugal I want want to remember. Not the moonscape climbs or any of the suffering, but this little village. It is magical and everyone agrees.
I come across Shawna and Andy on a brief stretch of cobbles through the center of town. They are headed for the second climb of the day. Shawna is the triathlete of the group, often seen heading out on a run as we complete the ride of the day. At first I hate her for this, but she grows on me to the point where I actually cheer her post-ride exploits. Andy is the smiler. He is always in good cheer and ready to go. Going through town Shawna slows to chat with me, but Andy will have none of it. He wants to push on. Chatting will have to come later.
The second climb of the day starts gradual and stays that way. For the first time all week we can settle into a rhythm and have a conversation. My riding partner is the newlywed Andrea. I have never met anyone who can bitch like a sailor, but come off so pleasant. Her husband is a lucky man.
The switchbacks take us up and over our route over and over again. It is as close to bliss as I can get with my exhausted legs. At about 10k from the top we are pulled from the route and driven to the top. Today’s lunch is back in town and we need to be off the roads. I am partially grateful and partially bummed. Andy and Shawna just avoided getting swept. That Andy is a wise man, with a big smile.
Starting the day with a 22-plus kilometer descent and ending it along a stretch of cobbles into a tiny walled village where a poolside lunch buffet awaits, makes you admit that it doesn’t get much better than this.
I start the next morning attempting to shoot some photographs from the saddle and instead I double flat. In the shadows of the initial descent I crack a pothole about as hard as one can without being thrown from the bike.
The rear tire explodes immediately and I pull to the side of the road. Being a big man, I have experienced this many times and instinctively pull the wheel. But instead of reaching for my repair kit, I hold the rear wheel over my head. Within seconds the follow car pulls up and pops on a new one. Not only am I back on the road, but I am back on the road with a push from the mechanic. So pro. Unfortunately, about 45 seconds later I hear a scuffling noise from the front end and then the familiar KABOOM. I pull the wheel, raise it over my head and presto I have a new wheel again.
I try to chase back onto the front group, but they are flying down off this mountain somewhere out in front of me.
After a couple of brutal days in the mountains of Portugal a day spent pedaling along some rolling terrain is much appreciated.
During our coffee stop today a couple of riders are offered a little something extra for their coffee. They assume it will be Kahlua or some sweet liquore to add a little punch to their pick me up. What they get is a concoction somewhere between jet fuel and rubbing alcohol.
We are saved by the brave Chiquinho, the inGamba assistant mechanic, from countless stray dogs and I am eternally grateful for the slow-moving paceline.
I continue to be amazed at the ever changing Portugese landscape. It’s far more beautiful than the one I had envisioned in my head.
The day ends with a trip to the birthplace of Manuel, Joao’s dad, where we are served the most authentic and most delicious meal of the trip so far—including melon with cured meat, succulent steak and the most tender octopus I have ever wrapped my lips around. And even though I am relegated to the back of the bus, it is still a kick to be traveling on a professional cycling team bus from hotel to hotel.
I don’t think I can push my body any harder, or take another day in the saddle. But here comes another day on the road with inGamba. Just getting out of my plush bed inside the walled city of Marialva, Portugal is a challenge. My quads are tight and the calves are tender to the touch.
I shower and eat, trying to look calm while I assess the group. I am hoping they are feeling a little cooked too, but they all seem relaxed and ready to go. I want to hate them for this, but can’t.
We roll out, descending through the cobbled street of the walled city which we climbed the afternoon before.
It is an unreal scene: A group of cyclists riding state-of-the-art Pinarellos pedaling through a town where it appears time has stood still.
The group strings out along the river and I figure I better settle in for a long day of loneliness. But just as I resign myself to this fact the group comes together on the roll out of town. The most glorious double pace-line forms and we spend the rest of the day rolling through the amazing Portugese countryside as one unit. Stragglers off the back are brought back into the fold by the strong, young men on the inGamba payroll.
Except for the one giant descent where those of us who don’t go up so fast can’t help ourselves but to race to the bottom, the day is spent in conversation and relative ease. The final kilometers are spun away along the Duoro river.
We find ourselves spending the night at the Quinta da Pacheca winery, where we enjoy some delicious local port and the braver of us climb into a vat of grapes to help stomp grapes the old fashion way. It is a day of days.
Just two days left on this miraculous trip and I am forced to choose between a day in the saddle or a float down the Duoro River aboard a 40-foot yacht. The group is split down the middle, and as much as I am torn, my hamstrings place the final vote and I head for the river.
Of all the amazing bike riding skills I have witnessed this week, it is the bus driving of Luis Almeida which truly impresses. Watching him maneuver the Portuguese Cycling Federation bus out of the parking lot this morning is truly a spectacle.
The float down the Douro is definitely about as good of a recovery day as one can have. I finally succumb to the hum of the boat and the greatest nap in the history of naps falls upon me.
So one final day in the saddle. How do you make it memorable? You invite along a pack of Portuguese cyclicts.
From the gun, a paceline forms and the pace for the day is set at about 30k an hour, which to some might not be on the rivet, but almost everyone in the group has five or six tough days in their legs already. I try to find myself a nice little spot in the back and hide out. With the first 50k going by in a blur, I start to feel a little melancholy about the trip coming to an end.
It’s a cliche, but the group has become a rolling family of sorts. We have started to understand each other’s idiosyncrasies and have learned to appreciate who we are as a group.
With the end drawing near, everyone starts to get a little frisky. I, of course, start talking shit, but when the group jumps, the fast kids go up the road and I can’t back up my smack and pop off the back like a bad seed.
I can see the group up the road motor-pacing behind the team car, but I end up stuck in no-man’s land. Luckily for me, the newlyweds come by and pick me up. And I find a nice spot behind the tattooed wonder, Ryan, and his wife. They drag me through the headwind to the end.
We finish our adventure at the Design Wine Hotel, on the border of Spain. There is one last spread prepared for us. Our ride bags our laid out one last time. We share stories from the road one last time. It is truly something amazing we have shared over the last seven days. The food, the wine, the open road. We have been pampered and watched over. Every need has been met. This has truly been the trip of a lifetime.
Let’s do it again.
This post is dedicated to
Bruno Miguel Gomes Castanheira
Bruno worked for inGamba and passed shortly after the Portugal trip ended. Worked is really not the right word. He was one of the many people who made this trip special. He was always there with a smile and helping hand for those who were struggling to stay with the group. Although we didn’t understand a single thing the other person was saying due to language barriers, it did not stop us from talking. He was an incredibly expressive young man and strong as an ox. You will be missed, Bruno. But not forgotten.