Hitting Our Bike Touring Stride in Spain and Portugal (Plus a Major Trip Pivot)
So, you might ask, how is the Spain and Portugal bike tour going?
After pushing hard our first 10 days, it was raining and we were ready for rest in Granada. A concerned friend texted to ask Chelsea if she was having fun. Wait, people bike tour for fun…?
After the obligatory breaking-in period for bodies (and psyches), we hit a flow after Granada. Memorable, beautiful days of biking rail trails, picture-perfect towns, and scenic Portuguese coastline were the reward for our pedaling.
Yes, it’s fun sometimes! AND…bike touring is also never easy. That’s half the point. Find your edge, push through tough situations, and see what’s on the other side. A pilgrimage, not a beach vacation.
Certainly not for everybody, but there’s magic in in the pace and daily exhaustion of traversing the Earth’s surface on a bicycle. Hard pedaling, rain, wind, hike-a-bike, and the daily adventure amplify the good parts.
Ups (and Downs) from the Past Two Weeks!
We cranked hard from Granada up to the hilltop town of Ronda and its magnificent sunsets. Dude, Spain: you are HILLY. Then out of the mountains to Seville to head west across southern Portugal to Lagos, hugging the coast to Porto in the north.
Pace-wise, we’ve pedaled less than past tours but on more intense terrain. It’s easy to burn daylight by sticking to slower back roads, paths, and all manner of routes versus charging it on pavement like we did in the U.S. My average speed was 20% slower on this tour because of the terrain.
With biking, exploring on rest days, hanging with Chelsea, working, and daily logistics for lodging, food and route selection, I haven’t prioritized writing. However, I’ve cobbled together a few Instagram posts. These highlights from the last few weeks are adapted from those posts, plus additional color I didn’t add to the Grams.
There’s Always Time to Help Out
This 50 mile bike adventure is brought to you by the letters K, I, and H.
K for the kitten my amazing wife heard meowing loudly at lunch. She knocked on doors to see if anyone had seen the mom, tried her best to speak Spanish to an older gentleman, and then bought food to feed the hungry little one. It’s heartbreaking seeing constant need during our travels and small efforts like this are a drop in the pan, but it’s better than nothing. What if everyone did a little something?
I is for ice cream. Specifically Ben and Jerry’s. We ran out of energy (aka bonked) and devoured a pint of their vegan Chunky Monkey like wild-eyed hyenas . Food, shelter, food: needs are simple on a bike tour.
H is for hike-a-bike during our last 5 miles, sunset on the horizon. We ditched a busy highway for a gravel road that degraded into doubletrack, then soft, unrideable terrain through olive groves. What could have sucked instead created a magic evening.
Birds were chirping, flowers were firing, and we still had a chocolate bar to eat. A fantastic finish with mountain views as wheat fields rippled in the breeze. The off-kilter stuff ALWAYS creates the most memorable moments
The next day, we woke to the smell of shit in the ag town of Campillos.
It’s a day of contrast and perspective building. The stink in the air is from dozens of pig factory farms and their waste holding ponds. We’re an hour’s drive from Ronda, a popular destination, but nobody leaves the highway to see where their jamón comes from.
We climbed (climbclimbclimb) into the mountains surrounding Ronda, laboring up STEEP farm roads. A wizened old man in a donkey-drawn cart eyed us like we fell from a UFO. Our reward: solitude and sweeping views, plus OH WHAT how good does chocolate taste when you’ve worked that hard?
A low moment hits and I consider kicking my bike down the steep embankment to whoop as it crumples into a heap. (As always, food fixes everything and my hangry alter-ego NARG retreated back to his cave.) Simply drinking water in an olive tree’s shade is a sweet moment.
Contrast: we absolutely will better appreciate all the comforts of home when we’re back home. Mmm, drinking fizzy lemon water in our shady yard in Bend. Even van travel feels luxurious compared to bike touring.
The Perfect Day of Touring
On the pedal from Ronda out of the Sierra Mountains, we find the perfect mix of hard work (3,000 feet of climbing), cool “pueblos blancos” (one built into a cliff, the other with a castle on top), and light traffic. I even felt (dreamed?) a tailwind for awhile.
The highlight: finishing the day with 15 miles on our favorite rail-to-trail yet, the Via Verde de la Sierra. Long tunnels, expansive views and a smooth surface. As good as it gets.
These aren’t the days you tell stories about so your friends can laugh at your misfortune. These are to enjoy and relish. The whirring of the bike freewheel through a tunnel while coasting downhill is a happy tune indeed.
All the Rest Days
Rest days! Not the top reason to bike tour, but certainly top 10.
With no agenda for this trip in Spain, we’ve enjoyed great time off the bikes. A week at the start to explore Barcelona and Valencia for our anniversary. Trail running and hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Exploring Granada and group dinners with friends.
In Ronda, we watched sunsets from the hilltop city’s spectacular location. Most tourists day trip to the city and it’s crazy midday. At night, we wandered the charming, winding streets like tourist vampires, drinking in the silent, winding streets and views.
Lagos. A beautiful location in SW Portugal with excellent vegan food. Suddenly, all the menus are in English – it’s a popular sun break for northern Europeans. As with most “rest” days, we explore and hike over 10 miles. Spectacular coastline views and a festival celebrating the discovery of Madeira (the island, not wine) are our reward.
Lisbon! We skip the final miles into the city via train but still enjoy a gnarly 4 miles riding to our Airbnb. Steep cobblestones, train tracks, delivery trucks, honking cars, tuktuks, tourists, and general city chaos, oh my. I’ve seen worse, but can’t recall where! Where’s the bike lanes, Lisbon?!
Our reward: a cool city, the world’s oldest operating bookstore (1732!), and the best meals we’ve had on this trip. The Food Temple, AO-26 and Daterra delivered the goods. Word of advice to Daterra: don’t let bottomless-appetite bike tourers get access to your amazing buffet again. I only ate seven plates of food…
Into the Cork Forests
A day on backroads and byways in SW Portugal. Chelsea wanted to see cork forests and we found them!
As usual, it required some hike-a-bike to find the goods, but suddenly we’re high above the valley amid cork trees.
We hit Portugal’s Eurovelo 1 out of Lagos and pedal north on a bumpy dirt track, tough without front-suspension. This will repeat up much of the Portuguese coast. Fair warning to anyone considering riding EV1: even on 50mm tires, we got hammered.
We pass an Italian couple that are touring with their one year old baby; I love seeing people continuing to adventure with kids. Soon after, a punchy climb takes us to the top of a castle overlooking the red-roofed town below. I’d never live in a drafty stone building (think how much it costs to heat!), but I sure love the views.
On this day, we wrapped things up with a sunset beach picnic in Odeceixe. This is one of the nicest beaches I’ve seen and reminds me of Cascade Head on the Oregon coast. We humans love to anchor experiences relative to things we know, after all.
Equanimity in the Dunes
Vacations: beaches, sleeping in, pretty views, lunch in secluded coves, maybe a little exercise…
That’s how we STARTED this day. Then the Eurovelo delivered a curveball of 1.5 hours pushing our loaded bikes through deep sand. Luckily, I handled it with aplomb, swearing like an enraged fool as I wrestled my way up sand dunes.
My wife, Master of Equanimity, pushed through silently, more concerned for the shallow-rooted plants than the hard work. How does she do it?! I’d have happily burnt two tons of sensitive flora to leave that sandy hellhole.
Chelsea’s only stress: a cliff-edge traverse carrying our bikes and gear while hikers eyed us like we’d escaped the loony bin. “Hey mommy, why is that red-faced man sweating so much?” SHUT UP, YOU LITTLE BRAT. Kids these days.
We finished this fun lil’ afternoon diversion up 200 rickety steps. Thanks to the hiker who carried two of our bags; we must have looked half-dead and in need of assistance.
From there, we rolled into a pretty town and enjoyed an ocean view, fresh-pressed OJ and C’s fav, coffee. Back on track just like that.
Ahh, vacations are so relaxing.
Snapshot of the Eurovelo 1 up the Portuguese Coast
Two cyclists going opposite directions stop to chat. “Man, this headwind is killer today huh?” “Same for ME. I’ve been fighting it all day.”
All to say: prevailing winds exist, but you just neeeever know. For most of our days pedaling north in Portugal, we got lucky and had crosswinds or a tailwind! I chortled every time I see another cyclist heading south “with the wind,” but got what I deserved: instant karma served piping hot in the form of shrieking headwinds for the two days into Porto.
Keeping It Classy
To escape Lisbon’s chaos, we caught an early train. Cue bike wrestling on stairs and escalators. Tourist next to me at the ticket machines: “how do I get to…” Me: “I have SIX minutes til my train leaves and THIS MACHINE WON’T TAKE MY FIVE EUROS. RWARRRGH.” Made it with all of 2.5 mins to spare.
The biking: a ridge climb on dirt to sweeping valley and ocean views. Into Nazaré, home to the largest-ever surfed wave, for a reminder that tourist towns suuuuck. Hotel touts yelling at us: “quartos!” Nope, we don’t need a room, obrigado (thanks). I’m no mathematician, but the correlation between the number of tour buses and how much I hate a town is strong.
The climb out is a punishing 16%, but then we hit the Atlantic Ciclopista for the rest of the day, a paved cyclepath next to the highway. It dips into cool beach towns where we guzzle cold, syrupy, delicious Lipton tea and snack sitting on ocean-side benches.
We roll into a fancy remodeled hotel coated in sunscreen, crushed fruit dripping from a bag onto on the floor. We’re sun and wind burnt and other patrons eye us like we might rob the place. “Hi, we’d like to destroy one of your nice ocean view rooms please.”
Keeping it classy.
A Major Trip Pivot
And THAT, my friends, is where this bike tour ends. Three weeks before our planned finish, we waved goodbye to our bicycles from Porto and shipped them to Barcelona. Why?
Portugal’s beautiful coastline was a treat to bike tour and was our favorite part of our trip. However, during the last week of pedaling to Porto, Chelsea’s hands took a beating from the rough dirt and gravel terrain. (Picture miles on chopped up road that rattles your spine and nerves.) Pain that sidelined her after our 2015 European tour is back.
And soooo PIVOT. Six weeks in, we called it to avoid worse damage to C’s hands. (She’ll be fine, don’t worry.) An adventure concludes and a fun vacation begins! Initially I was bummed, but letting go vs cranking onward is the correct path.
In an afternoon of frenetic computerating in Porto, we lined up a completely different angle for the remaining three weeks of our trip. I’m writing this with a view of the ocean from Madeira, a tiny adventure-packed island off the coast of Morocco. Rental cars and flights to other islands are booked. Vacation 2.0 is underway!
But THAT…is for another blog post.