Sunday, August 7, 2011

Biking Nations: The Portugal Trip, Part III

I woke up on my third and final day in Lisbon determined to make it one for the ages. By the end I wanted the beautiful Portugal to change its Facebook status from “it's complicated” to “in a relationship with the DIYBIKING.COM founder.”

But I was embarking on a complicated trip. I had to first find my way to the Rossio station and head to Sintra, take the bike off the train and ride all the way to Cabo da Roca before heading to Cascais, where I would take another train to Algés before working my way back to my hotel – all before returning the bike to Bike Iberia and meeting my wife at the end of her last day at the Urban Sketching Symposium.

This meant I had to contend with four different train stations and several unfamiliar routes – all with a language barrier, no cell phone, no real sense how many miles the trip would be and a proven poor sense of direction. I also wasn't sure where I would have lunch during all of this. But I thought the challenge would be a good motivator for me.

I charged the bike GPS the night before and reset it for zero right outside the hotel. I also brought along two bottles of water, some protein bars I had brought with me for the plane, and three maps: one of Sintra, one of Cascais, and of course, one of Lisbon. As you can see, I tore the piece of the Lisbon map out so I could guide myself to the station.

I set off, desperately wanting to make a good first impression on this ride. As it turns out, I did: I located the Rossio station easily and stopped the GPS trip timer at 1.45 miles before looking for my train, which, thankfully, wasn't hard to find.

I remembered how annoying it can be to take a train on Metro North in Stamford (no racks and lots of restrictions) but when walking along the train I found a car with a picture of a bicycle on it. That was a good moment.

The train left precisely at 10:21, and I immediately mapped out the route of the Sintra journey. Two days earlier, Ana had helpfully highlighted the suggested path, which would take me through the historic district, up the steep and twisty road of Estrada Da Pena (where the bus my wife and I took three days earlier handled like a Mini Cooper as it made the ascent) before turning right on 247-3, where I would ride mostly through woods toward Cabo da Roca.

Around 11:00am, I made it to Sintra station. Above me I could see the Moorish Castle...and it dawned on me I'd be biking about 2/3 of the way toward it to get to 247-3.

I switched the bike GPS timer back on and noticed my elevation was just under 700 feet, which meant the train had climbed around 400 feet on the journey to Sintra. Now the rest of the climbing had to be done on the bike.

As I climbed, I could feel the force of gravity trying to pull me back toward the station. I looked at the GPS and saw I was already at 946 feet above sea level. I wondered if I should have insisted on toe clips for the rented bike. No matter. I shifted to the lowest of the low gears and pounded the pedals as hard as I could – even though the bike's speed slowed to the single digits.

My legs burned as I was greeted with the sight of some cyclists gleefully heading down. Even though the temperature felt to be in the low seventies and I didn't feel like scaring tourists, I removed my jersey. The elevation figures kept climbing. I made switchback after switchback - how do the buses do it? - and felt like I had already gone thirty miles.

Finally, I made it to the 247-3 junction, where I stopped, sucked in as much oxygen as my lungs could hold, and looked at the Bike GPS. My elevation was at 1,398 feet, and I had gone less than two-and-a-half miles since leaving the Sintra station. In Stamford, two-and-a-half miles isn't even a warm up. Not in Sintra.

After taking a breather and drinking some water, I noticed a car with bikes on the back drive past me and turn left toward the Moorish Castle. It stopped and some men got out to remove the bikes. I realized they had driven the car up for the purpose of cycling back down, and I then wondered if there was a Portuguese translation for the word "Pffffffft!"

There was still more climbing to do on 247-3, but on this lonely road I didn't mind because I felt as though things were finally leveling out.

It was a quiet ride through the trees, but there were still things to see. Soon, I even got teased with some of the incredible views to come.

When things began to tilt downhill, I saw a couple of cyclists and realized I had seen more bikes inside of two hours than I had seen in four days of being in Lisbon.

After a short while, I came to a junction point I was not expecting. I could read the signs and tell where Sintra was and where Cascais was, but nothing on Cabo da Roca. I ended up turning left to follow the road that led to Cascais, keeping my fingers crossed I'd find a sign for Cabo da Roca

I descended some more and built up a lot of speed as the bike moved gracefully on the road and through the trees. Finally, I came to a bend in the road that featured a rock on the side that must have been at least 15 feet high. I decided to stop, climb the rock, and have a look around. Was I ever glad I did that.

I turned around and took a picture of the road I had just descended. There would be no turning back on this trip.

I only had to ride a couple of hundred feet before I came to a junction point that had the sign that I wanted...but something looked off.

It was clear I had to turn right to go to Cabo da Roca...but Sintra was in the same direction. I then realized I must have made a mistake decision to go off the beaten path at the first junction point, which meant I'd be riding an even longer distance than I originally planned to get to Cabo da Roca and would have to backtrack toward Cascais more than I had expected. But I still knew where I was (mostly) and how to get where I was going, so I considered the date to be going smoothly.

And then I had to climb again...through wind.

Actually, it wasn’t wind. It was a powerful, invisible and otherworldly force that could have had its own episode of the X-Files.

A two-parter, even.

When the road was level I had to put all of my weight down on each pedal to get the bike to crawl along, and on places where the road would dip downward I still had to pedal or else the bike would coast to a stop. As the road twisted, the wind would hit from different directions and I really had to work to keep the bike from drifting too far into the road. It would be with me on the switchbacks (thus lulling me into a false sense of security) before pressing against me when my direction changed.

Feeling weak, I ate some cashews and drank some more water before pressing on to Cabo da Roca. My hard work through the wind was already paying off in scenery.

Finally, a few minutes shy of 1:00 in the afternoon, the downhills shifted in my favor as I took a left to descend toward Cabo da Roca. I passed a few residential houses (complete with garbage cans out front) and restaurants before finally coming face to face with my goal.

I descended some more and arrived at Cabo da Roca, the most western point of mainland Europe. It was 1:00pm and I had traveled 15.6 miles since setting off that morning.

I was hungry but didn't want to have a full lunch, so I instead tided myself over with a croissant sandwich at the little touristy eatery there. I didn't care because I had something to eat, a place to refill my water bottles, and more breathtaking views.

I knew I needed to head back to Cascais and hopefully have a bigger lunch before finding the train. That meant climbing and hitting that wind once again.

This was going to be a great date, I told myself. I set off up the road and was again drawn to the numbers on the GPS showing how far I was above sea level. It was as tough as I expected, but I knew the wind would eventually make it even tougher...and it did.
Two miles in and a couple of hundred feet of windy climbing later, I stopped to rest near the green trash bins in front of one of the nearby houses. I looked at them carefully and thought it must be bulk pick up day or something because next to the cans was a small pile of discarded umbrellas. One of them caught my eye…and gave me an idea.

You can take me out of my workshop, but you can't...well, you get the idea.
So what I did was open the clear plastic child's umbrella (complete with unrecognizable cartoon characters pictured on it) and attach it to the bike’s handlebars by wedging the handle in the handlebar bag bracket. I figured this makeshift faring might allow me to move faster when the wind was against me and act as a sail when the wind was with me.

Here's the thing: it worked. Or at least it felt like it did. I should ask the Mythbusters to look into it.

Within minutes of cresting the hill, I was rocketing along the road at speeds over 25 miles an hour. I could still feel the wind against me but it did not feel crippling as it did before. Since the umbrella was clear, I could even duck my head down and look through it like a windshield of a sleek Italian motorcycle. I drew stares from the motorists and from some of the other cyclists, yes, but I think the latter was just mad they didn’t think of it first.

The same road that had been like riding through syrup not an hour before I was slicing through like a hot knife. Before I knew it I was back in town where I had to turn right to head toward Cascais. I glanced at the GPS and noticed my mileage was at 20.3 and my elevation was 501 feet. 

I was once again a streak of light as I headed toward the coast, stopping at a fascinating and abandoned house on the way. In minutes I had gone less than two miles and was already at 134 feet above sea level.

As the road began to level out I pressed on, eventually coming to the stunning Praia do Guincho beach. At first I thought beachgoers were flying kites at the beach until I got closer and realized there were people on surfboards using kites to pull them along. I wasn't the only one thinking critically about wind and aerodynamics that day.

I pedaled along the coast, enjoying the ride thoroughly. At one point I pointed the camera behind me and got a picture of Cabo da way off in the distance.

As I rode along the bike path along the road, I came to a number of restaurants. Even though I was hungry they looked like the sort of places that may not appreciate a sweaty cyclist, and I wanted to wait until I got to Cascais to eat anyway.

I continued on. Don't let the photo fool you: there were lots of cyclists on the path that day enjoying themselves.

I got closer to town and stopped to take a picture of a passing boat.

Minutes later, I came to Boca do Inferno, near where my wife and I stopped in the cab for pictures the day before. During high tide, the water is quite a sight as it rushes through the rocks.

When I passed Boca do Inferno, I stopped again to remove my umbrella faring and put it in a trash can, grateful it had helped me through over twelve miles. Then I headed into Cascais where I successfully avoided the Saturday traffic to come to this:

My vegetarian wife had pointed Dom Manolo out to me the day before and said: “you'd love it.” Desperately needing food at this point, I parked the bike where I could see it (I sat outside) and quickly ordered the Chicken Grill “portion” (quotation marks theirs) off the menu that was printed in English, as well as an ice tea. When my food arrived, I knew I was in for a treat.

The chicken was perfect, and I ate every last bite, leaving most of the fries. It felt like the kind of meal one would eat when celebrating, and it almost was: I still had another leg of the trip to complete.

Wanting to get to the Cascais station quickly, I asked a passing waiter for the check. I do not know whether he could speak English or not, but he wordlessly took a pencil and wrote the number “9” on the paper tablecloth in front of me before walking away. This is definitely my kind of place, I thought as I pulled out my shrinking supply of Euros.
I made it to the train without incident with the odometer at just over 29 miles. As the train moved I paid close attention as it moved along toward Lisbon since I wasn't going all the way there, but rather to Algés. Once again, everything went smoothly and before long I was back on the path I had last been on two days before. Only this time, there were a lot more cyclists and families on the path since it was Saturday.

I rode as slowly as I could to enjoy the scenery, but fast enough so I could get back to my hotel by 5:00 so I'd have enough time to cool down, shower, return the bike and go to the Urban Sketching Symposium.

When I left the path, I knew this was where the day would be won or lost: I needed to get to the hotel without losing my sense of direction.

I followed the trolley for a short while (see the picture at the start of Day One) and finally – and I do mean finally – rode to my hotel without getting lost. Whoever won the Tour de France stage that day would not have been as happy as I was.

I looked at the odometer: 38 miles, and I still had two more to go before returning the bike to Bike Iberia. I rested a short while before showering and changing clothes. Then I removed the bike bag from the back and set off to Bike Iberia. Once again, I did not get lost. It was a smashing third date.

When I arrived at the shop I thanked Ana and the others there profusely while removing my bike GPS mount and my little frame bag. I also strapped my helmet on the back of my small REI backpack I had brought with me and reasoned I could carry it on my back the rest of the day. I chatted with the manager while assuring him this would not be my last date with Lisbon. It took a while, but I had bonded with the city, the city had bonded with me, and I had ridden 77 fun and challenging miles in three days.

Just as I was leaving to walk to the symposium, three cyclists with their bikes loaded with gear stopped at Bike Iberia to ask the manager for directions. I couldn't hear what he told them but the trio soon rolled past me down the street. I almost wish they had asked me for directions instead. After all, I know some great places to go.

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)


  1. I'm an Urban Sketcher who was in Lisbon and will be in Santo Domingo. I came to your 3-part Lisbon adventure byway of your wife's introduction. Enjoyed it very much! Thanks!

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