Hitting Our Bike Touring Stride in Spain and Portugal (Plus a Major Trip Pivot)

The Via Verde de la Sierra is simply fantastic.

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…?

One of those times where all you can do is laugh! I Facetimed a friend who is going on his first tour soon to share the 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.

Why do the steepest roads always look so FLAT in the pictures?! Somewhere outside Ronda working our butts off.

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.

East to west: Valencia to Porto!

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.

Sailing along on the coast of Portugal, the big wave town of Nazare in the background.
Sometimes bike touring isn’t all that straight forward…

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?

No kitten photos, but we have butterflies! This little guy sucked down about 12 droplets of water that Chelsea gave him.

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

As good as it gets!


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.

No cars on these roads! Hard work, but worth it for the quiet.

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.

Only one way to go in Spain – UP!

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.

The light at the end…

All the Rest Days

Hanging out on Ronda’s city wall at sunset.

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.

Alhambra in Granada and a fine time hanging out with our friends Hilary and Don. (They’re on a midlife gap year exploring the world cuz they’re COOL!)
Getting up high on a hike outside Granada.

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.

The coastline near Lagos whaaat!

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…

All the food is the reason I go for runs on “rest days.” Techy trail running outside Granada!

Into the Cork Forests

Cork trees and Chelsea!

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.

The cork is harvested roughly every ten years and the shiny trunk is numbered to keep track of the year.

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.

Noooot a bad spot for lunch.
Odeceixe Beach in SW Portugal is a must-visit for anyone coming through this region!

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.

Not the easiest riding. (Or pushing.)
Ohhh you sneaky, sandy Eurovelo 1…

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.

I mean, who wants to ride a bike when you can carry along a cliff?

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.

Power up! Fresh-squeezed OJ and coffee

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.

Old gun turrets overlooking the Portuguese coast. Not pictured but there: howling headwinds.

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.

Graffiti covers many Portuguese trains and the bike storage area is nooot exactly easily accessible. They’re cheap and operate on time though!

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.

Drought and global warming are everywhere. Fires burnt a ton of Portugal’s forests in recent years. That road surface? Rough!
Smooth sailing on the ciclopista for a bit!

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.

One last hike-a-bike through Porto to drop the bikes off for shipping.

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.

That’s all for this bike tour, folks!

First Impressions: 10 Days Bike Touring in Spain

If travel is a physics experiment, bike touring is a particle accelerator. Pedal off into the world and careen about, smacking into culture, language, food, physical hardship, boredom, satisfaction, splendid scenery laced with agricultural land, and all the emotions accompanying such a journey.

For better or worse, touring exposes you to greater ups and downs than motorized travel. I love it for that, and also sometimes yell four letter words at a headwind when I’m hangry. (Wind, the OG honey badger, doesn’t give a fuck.) Hills blazed in ten minutes in a car are an hour, two hours on a loaded touring bike; a passing rainstorm watched from a train is a scramble for gear and a sloshy moment for us.

Yet we choose to do this and it’s a privilege to have that choice. Some of you get it, and some think we’re nuts. You’re all correct.

A mildly rocky start, but not as bad as farming in Spain. This is what they all look like!

The First Ten Days

I’m channeling my inner European and writing this from a cafe in Granada, snacking on pan con tomate and sipping mint tea, cigarette smoke from a nearby old man swirling in the air. This means a) I’m basically a native Spaniard and b) we survived the first leg of our trip.

We’ve got 340 miles behind us, 40+ hours of pedaling to get from Valencia to Granada to meet our friends Jen and Dave. Ten days (with one rest day) to yell WAKE UP at our bodies.

Damn. You. Headwinds.

The first days of a bike tour are hard. Physically difficult to adjust to pedaling 5+ hours per day. It’s not just tired legs; my upper body is sore too. Emotionally tough as minds sync up to a new pace, a deliberate process of waking up, eating, and pedaling most of the day.

There’s little time for activities other than biking, logistics (food, lodging, route planning) and “oh damn, I’m too tired to do anything but stare at my phone.” I’m barely able to stay on top of work, but decided to document the trip on Instagram and Strava after six months off social media as creativity catalyst.

I’ll say this: Chelsea is tough as nails. After three years of no biking due to hand pain after our 2015 tour, she launched into this trip like a champ. Straight into the hills of Spain, which do NOT mess around. Our achy legs attest to that. Past tours kicked off with similar mileage, but half the vertical gain. Adjusting indeed.

Chelsea “The Hammer” toward the end of a long, hot, so-many-hills kinda day.

Snapshots and Impressions of Touring in Spain

Rather than a recounting of each day, here’s a taste of the montaña rusa (rollercoaster) that is our experience of bike touring in Spain. Yes, it’s hard, but there’s a glimmer of light down the tunnel of leg pain. We KNOW we’ll get stronger if we just.keep.pedaling.

That was the first 10 days: moments of glory and plenty of “damn, this is hard.” Please don’t feel bad for us; we CHOSE to travel this way and knew (mostly) what to expect. It WILL get easier.

Ride up enough 10% grades and biking gets easier.

Snapshots, Or a Day in the Life of a Bike Traveler

Day 2, middle of nowhere near Alcala del Jucar

After a first day pedaling through fragrant orange groves, today is vineyards, sweeping views, quiet roads, sunshine. Life is good!

Well, until pain in Chelsea’s knee flares up. It’s bad enough that she has to walk steep climbs. Ruh roh. Why? Because I forgot to mark her seatpost before packing up her bike for the plane. #fail

Too bad fresh olives off the tree don’t fix knee pain.

This is trip-ending pain. I’m stressed, melancholic…but all I can do is carry more of her gear. Is it tendon? Muscle? She’s basically pedaling with one leg. For the next four days, she’ll battle this until massage and the body’s magical ability to heal triumph. Her ability to push through impresses me to no end.

The day’s highlight is a long, twisting descent into a river valley, where we relax at a picnic table. As always, you’ve gotta pay the piper – it’s a bruiser climb out a barely-rideable 12% grade. I pedal ahead, then run back to help Chelsea push her bike uphill to rest her knee.

Food break with a view at the top of the climb.

This mutual support while bike touring strengthened our relationship in the past and feels good to revisit. Silver linings and optimism are the name of the game with bike touring. And perhaps always?

We soldier through into a headwind as storms threaten. Is bike touring ever easy?! Rarely. Satisfying? Yes.

50 miles, done. Time to sleep another 10 hours!

A “rest” day in Alcala del Jucar:

Our rest day is chock-full of catchup, both work for me since I work remotely during this trip as well as logistics mapping out the next couple days. It’s Saint’s Week and lodging is scarce (at best) and grocery stores are randomly closed. Not ideal in small villages where siesta hours already shut down everything from 2-5:30 pm. Getting in the swing of things!

My usually bulletproof stomach is off and I barely touch my pan tomate for breakfast and stare at food, uninterested. A starvation diet for riding 20+ hours/week is not ideal. It clears in a few days, perhaps a mix of over-exertion and dehydration? Me not eating sets off alarm bells for anyone who knows me, but I’ll survive.

The classic Spanish breakfast: pan con tomate.

Not to fear: we book the LAST room in all of Albacete, a city of 200,000. Turns out it’s because there’s a kid’s kung fu contest – mixed with Saint’s Week, it’s a volatile combo. Almost as volatile as the wind.

Days 4-6: Into the teeth of the gale

Tilting at windmills, but still smiling. For this photo, at least.

“It’s NEVER windy here,” says everyone we meet. Mmm hmmm. For three days, we beat our quads and spirits against the onslaught. Wind turbines spin merrily away as we crank uphill into the wind. Next trip, I’m Googling “prevailing winds” and buying a sail for our bikes.

Whatever. It’s just weather. It will pass. My stomach is feeling better and so long as I eat, I don’t swear (too much) at the *&$@!$ headwinds. Grind it out.

The roads are quiet and the scenery undulates and flows under our wheels. Lodging is varied and fun – ancient Airbnbs, “casa rurales” and “complejos,” farmhouses and old estates for cheap. We both have entertaining audiobooks and that always helps.

Cheap real estate!

Day 7: Cruising on a Via Verde….

FUN! We eat a giant breakfast of soy yogurt, fruit, and granola from a huge grocery store haul the day before, fountains splashing all around us. We’re staying in a “casa rural,” an apartment in the country that is cheap and pretty with custom wood and metal work.

Our route for the day is one of the Via Verdes (greenway), disused railway lines reconditioned for use by walkers and cyclists. Spain is criss-crossed by dozens of these. This one, from Reolid to Beas de Segura, is a real treat: crushed gravel, rolling hills through vineyards, ruined houses along the side, picnic benches, and a niiiice overall descent to our stay for the night.

Loving the Via Verdes!
Loving the Via Verdes!

It’s a (much-needed) easy day, a break from the rude awakening this first week from hills and headwinds. A cyclist rolls up beside us and we chat with British Monty for an hour about his adventures. Turns out he’s bike toured through Bend and near my hometown in Idaho, along with all over Spain. Small world. Always.

Our stop for the night is a complejo, an old estate that hosts a lot of weddings. The owner (Arturo) is a cheery, helpful cyclist who offers the use of his bike repair gear and chats with me. My Spanish is improving, but man, my brain hurts when I get off the rails from “we need to book a room” or “do you have…?” and venture into general conversation. Patience, practice…

An excellent day on the bikes.

Day 8: Beas de Segura to Ubeda

The skies are hazy and it’s hot. I’m thankful for a 2nd day in a row with no wind. A guy collects wild asparagus along the road and we keep seeing him at each pullout as we slowly roll by up a 1,000 climb.

We spend the day pedaling through endless olive groves, a monoculture of the “Spanish liquid gold.” (Tell a Spaniard that Italy’s olive oil is better to set off some fireworks!) Despite the ham-lovers in Spain, eating here as a vegan is quite easy since things are cooked (ahem soaked!) in olive oil rather than lard.

Charging through miles upon miles of olive groves.
Charging through miles upon miles of olive groves.

Mmmmm, food…

We find a cafe and relax awhile, Chelsea fueling on coffee. Then we hit the grocery store Dia (right before the 2 pm siesta closure) and score vegan croissants and chocolate pudding. Later, I sit by the ruins of an old house and dip croissants in the pudding, grinning like a maniac. I don’t eat like this at home, but hey, when in the middle of nowhere with a huge climb incoming…

That powers us up the final climb, a winding 2,000 footer. I FaceTime with a couple friends during the climb, chatting with them to pass the time. For such a long trip, staying in touch is a priority for me and it’s nice to see friendly faces.

Hazy views of olive groves.

Our stop for the night is in Úbeda, probably named because it contains the word BED and we have two comfortable, queen-size ones in our hotel. Bike touring makes you appreciate the small things!

Day 9: North of Granada on a road busy with holiday traffic:

​​Thirty minutes ago, we laugh​ed​ hysterically as we scoop​ed​ food into our mouths by the side of the road​ like disheveled bike vagrants​. Now we ​huddle ​under a tree as the sky unleashes fury, rain lashing the ground.

“Hey, pass me that bar of chocolate.” We gobble half of it. The ups and downs of bike touring, plus the constant companion of hunger, packed into less than an hour. The simple things are all that matter in these moments.

Mountains popping out between rainstorms. When it’s pouring, there just aren’t as many photos…
The simple things: a washer for your clothes and a warm fire in our Airbnb.

We woke that morning to pouring rain. ​We’ve got gear, but it still sucks to pedal a big day getting soaked. These days make sunshine feel so good, but also can make you question whether you made the right choice leaving the warm, comfortable hotel room just to pedal like some lunatic through the Spanish countryside. If we didn’t need to meet our friends, we’d stay inside!

Actually, after feeling tired yesterday, today I’m good, joking about the annoying swish swish of my rain pants and how terrible the weather is. Chelsea, on the other hand, might give her bike to any passing car in return for a ride to Granada… Luckily, bike touring is a team sport. I spoon feed her cold lentils from a can in the rain – “living the dream, baby!” She stares at me like I’m crazy.

Lunch break (a different day) under the pines!

​Waiting out rain and 4,500′ of climbing means we are toeing the line for a sunset finish in a cold drizzle. ​Luckily, our buddies Jen and Dave drive out from Granada to meet us at our Airbnb for the evening. When they offer us a ride with 9 miles​ to go​ (all climbing), ego be damned: hell YES we accept the ride. This ain’t the Tour de France and we don’t have to pedal every single mile.​​

As we climb up an ​endless ​hill in their van, the temperature drops​ ​and sleet, then hail ​thunders on the roof. I turn the heat up and grin. Bike touring is all about contrast, and right now it’s reeeeal nice to be warm and dry ​in the company of good friends.

What up, Dave!

Tomorrow, Chelsea will go for a hike with Jen and Dave while I pedal solo into Granada. A perfect day on the bike. Well, mostly: doubletrack mud sticks to my tires so badly I can’t even move a couple times. Find that silver lining – at least there aren’t any cars? The sun is shining?

I calmly tear off a fender and pedal on. Sometimes, it’s all you can do.

Resting up in Granada and exploring the Sierra Nevada mountains. Life is good!