As we posed for our Bon Voyage picture at SeaTac airport, my sister in law called out teasingly, “You two look like you’re in an ad for AARP magazine!”
Here we were, heading out for a huge bicycling adventure, and somehow it slipped my mind that Rick and I are, well, mature. Not in the “acting mature” sense. No, more in the well-ripened sense.
I do forget. Mostly in the morning when I’m still laying in bed thinking about the possibilities that lie ahead. But as soon as I put my feet on the ground, and my plantar fasciitis kicks in, I am quickly reminded that I’m gonna need to warm up a little to get the ol’ body ready for the day.
So when we forgot to set the alarm and overslept, and the hotel breakfast buffet was packed with a bus load of French pilgrims on their way to Fatima, and getting our gear and bikes ready felt awkward and bumbling, it wasn’t the start I anticipated for our first day of our epic ride from Lisbon to Amsterdam. We ended up leaving 90 minutes later than we had hoped. The upside was no rain and low winds.
Once on our bikes, I felt like a clumsy seal getting back in the water. We were finally moving!
With navigation synced, we rode through Lisbon with little trouble. Cycling through the busy pedestrian areas brought back memories of riding through a Bangkok open market. One foot ready to step down at a moment’s notice, two finger breaking for quick stops, razor focus and attention for anything unexpected. So when an older lady, dressed all in black walked very slowly into our path, looking neither left nor right, owning her street, I was able to quickly stop and avoid an embarrassing, if not injurious, collision.
We had pretty smooth bike paths and easy navigation for the first 25 miles. Lovely water views and cute beach front restaurants. We took a break in Cascais and lunched perched on pilings overlooking the ocean. Fishermen with super long surf rods entertained us, along with a single seagull that we fed our leftover bread. Fresh and ready for our last 15 miles we headed out. Just a couple hours, tops, to our hotel in Sintra.
The town of Sintra is a world heritage site buried in the hills above Cascais. Filled with gorgeous old homes of the rich, it snuggles around a castle and is surrounded by a pine forest park. Fairytale-like beauty.
But did I mention the hills?
As a cyclist, I’m not against hills, really. They offer a change of pace, usually a good view at the top, and a rewarding downhill on the other side. So when we hit the first long ascent, it was fine. About five miles at 5 percent, using my gears – this was doable. Cruising down the other side I knew we had a couple more hills. No problem. But then we turned right while the cars turned left. I should have known. We were going on the “old scenic” road.
A quick primer about roads as they pertain to cycling. Old roads are just that – old. These byways have their pros and cons. Wonderfully, they tend to be very low traffic and the cars that do use them are going slow. And they go slow for a reason. You see, old roads don’t meet modern standards. And European old roads often date back to Medieval if not, Roman times. They are very narrow, often have rough surfaces (e.g. cobblestone), and rather than climbing hills with switchbacks to lower the slope grade, they just go up. And up.
Which is what this road did. For miles and miles. So steep that when I stopped mid slope, I had to go down before going back up to get some momentum. Even in my granny gear. There was one point on a 14 percent hill that I tried to think of a way of quitting. And, at that instance I knew I was in a Full Karma Moment.
Let me explain.
When my kids were little, we would sometimes end up by chance, on ski slopes that were really hard. They would complain, cry or in one infamous instance, hurl a ski pole, javelin style, into a nearby snow bank. I would get angry, and loudly remind them that “There’s no airlift out of here. You’ve got to just do it.”
There was no airlift. I had to just do it.
And somehow we did. It was possibly the most difficult set of hills I’ve done in my life. Rick thought that they may have been more difficult than the hills we encountered 10 years ago in the mountainous Dalmatian Islands of Croatia, where our trip leader, Lada, would say, “It is just a small hill. Maybe 500 meters. You can do it!” But Lada wasn’t there to cheer us on. Just an old guy that gaped at us and gave us a fist pump accompanied by “Bravo!”
I actually really appreciated that.
We eventually made it to Sintra, too tired to really care about anything but a shower and a comfy bed. Our traditional pension, Espaca Edla, was a quaint shop house with rooms upstairs. Of course. Stairs. It’s Europe. Luckily we only had to haul the bikes up one set to the storage area.
The next morning we were certain it would be easier. The first day stats had us climb 2250 ft over 40 miles. This day not only had fewer hills but a shorter distance at just over 30 miles. So we set off in the rain with a warning from a nice guy that cobblestones can get slippery. First up? a hill. The steep kind. When Rick stopped abruptly, being right on his tail, I had to brake. Unable to start again at that point on the hill, I was forced to walk. This is sometimes harder for me as my legs can generally handle more than my arms. While resting, we agreed to yell “stopping!” to give each other warning. Married for 38 years and just figuring out that communication is key. I guess that’s one way to keep it fresh.
Things mellowed and the rain stopped. We coasted down gently to the sea. As we approached what looked like a cliff, I checked my navigation. “Rick. Is this the right way?”, I questioned. We stopped and compared our GPS maps. “Yes. This is right. And it says, single-track.” Ok. A mountain bike path. We’ve done a few of those before.
But not like this. And not with 40 extra pounds of gear.
The path meandered lazily atop the most spectacular cliff with breathtaking views. It was truly amazing. A reminder of why we were even doing this.
And then it started raining again . And the path turned inland and up. And up. Up some of the most sketchy hills I’ve encountered since hiking in the Himalayas. Deep ruts and slippery as slime. Red clay mud clinging to our bikes like cement. There was no way to ride this. So we walked. And pushed. And pulled. At one point going up a really difficult bit, I must have made a guttural sound because Rick called back, “Do you need help?“ Oh, I wanted to say yes but I was too busy making sure my bike didn’t fall on top of me causing me and my bike to slide down the hill in a muddy mess. Instead, I pushed harder than I thought I ever could and slogged to the top. This continued for more than a mile back to a gravel road.
Never been so glad to see gravel.
From there our ride to Santa Cruz was a blur of fatigue. My mind zoned into a daydream during which I carefully chose a name for my beloved, reliable bike.
Kate, like the saloon owner in an old west town. Getting the job done without complaint. Throwing back a shot with the big boys, and not taking any guff. Just pushing through the ups and downs and making sure to pay attention to all of it.
She’s my girl.
So, this ain’t no AARP ad. It’s the real stuff that happens off camera. And frankly that’s the best stuff. Challenging and life affirming. Reaching deep down to make it happen. So focused you can’t even feel how much your rear-end hurts or the way your knees are yelling or how your bladder feels as you roll over jarring cobblestones. Thankfully the bliss of eating the freshest oranges, or enjoying spectacular views or the smell of jasmine along the ride seem to erase much of the discomfort.
And better yet, we did it. No airlift needed.