Archive for March, 2010

Olhão to Monte Gordo, Portugal (27 miles)

I slept in until almost 9am and really took my time with the morning routine and breaking camp.  Since I have so much internet time that I just purchased, which only works in Portugal, and because I need to do some more research on trains through southern Spain, I decided that today would be a short bicycle ride to Monte Gordo, which is right on the coast of Portugal, across the river from Spain. I didn’t get my tent down and everything packed up until after 1 p.m. in the afternoon, but it was a leisurely  two and a half hour ride ahead of me and I was in no hurry. I reached Monte Gordo and stopped at a small tienda to get some food for the night and for breakfast the next morning. I was really craving a Magnum bar, but alas, they didn’t have any.  I had to settle for three bananas, and a 1.5 liter bottle of water, along with some crackers.  I still had two pieces of bread left from my morning purchases, and a small wheel of cheese, and that would have to do.

House on a Hill
House on a Hill

It was very easy once again to check into the campsite (less than 5 euros for the night again!) and I found a spot that was a bit on the sandy side, but it worked. And would you believe it? This campsite, the one I was staying in because I’d be able to use my cellular internet that I’d already purchased, had free wifi.  Ugh. Although after I used it a bit, their router needed to be reset and I was able to switch over to my cellular modem and continue my work uninterrupted.

I finally think I have figured out a plan so that I can still do a little bit of cycling in southern Spain and see the Rock and Strait of Gibralter, and across into Africa, before continuing by train up the coast to Valencia or Barcelona.

I called it a night early, at 10 p.m. because I needed to wake up at 7 a.m. the next day to begin a complicated day of traveling!

Today there isn’t very much interesting for me to write about. The campsite in Olhão is very nice, even though it doesn’t have wifi. There is a fully stocked “supermercado” and I was able to stock up on bread, cheese, yogurt, Diet Pepsi, apples and bananas, and some candy bars to serve as breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Apparently there is a restaurant, but it is quite a ways down from the entrance and my tent, and I was busy enough that I didn’t get to explore down that way.  My first order of business after breakfast was to figure out how to do laundry.  I had to buy a 4 euro token at recepçao and then I looked for laundry detergent in the supermercado. I could tell that this place primarily caters to RV campers, because there were fifteen kinds of liquids and powders in 20-30 load sizes, but nothing small enough for 1, or even 3-5 loads.

After about five minutes of deliberation and trying to read the manufacturer’s claims on the boxes, I settled on a 800 gram (over 2 pounds!) box of laundry powder for “active” use clothing.  The box had a picture of a mountain bicyclist and a runner on the front, so I’m pretty sure it was the best choice for me and my endeavors. I got my dirty laundry stuff-sack and started the load and while it was going, I plugged in my laptop and battery chargers to the power outlet that was so conveniently located above my washer.  I spent an hour or two (well after the load finished its spin-dry) downloading and geotagging photos, getting a few edited and ready for uploading, and trying to get caught up on writing about the last few days of my journey. Then it was back to my tent where I splayed my clothes all over the top of the tent and on the bushes surrounding my plot, underwear included.  I stupidly brought 9 pairs of cotton underwear with me on the trip, and I am going to pay for it in drying time overtime I decide to do laundry. The rest of my clothes were dry within not much more than an hour, but the cotton underwear was still wet. After two hours in the sun they were still moist, and at three hours, I just gave up and brought it all in.

I only had about 200 minutes of cell-phone internet access left, and I wanted to go into town to refill my card.  The first full-sized Vodafone store I went to told me that I needed to go to the Vodafone store in the mall, which was about a half mile back up the road that I had come down.  I rode back to the mall and in the parking lot across the street, I folded up my bike and locked it to a street sign.  Thankfully the store was on the first level and it was a quick trip in and out.  When I first bought the GSM SIM card for my phone and USB modem, it had cost 15 euros for 10 hours of internet.  I had thought that I could refill 5 hours for half that, but they told me the smallest amount was 10 euros for 10 hours, so I purchased that.   It may not have been the best purchase, since I only planned on staying in Portugal for two more nights, but I headed back to camp and set about trying to get my money’s worth, facebooking, looking up coordinates and routes to future campsites, and I finally was able to even upload some photos to my photo gallery from the past week in Portugal.

I had a long chat with the Brit who was car camping with a tent next to me.  He’s working on a house in town that he’ll live in, but he’s traveled extensively around Europe by motorbike. He told me that if he were me, he would hop a train at the border of Spain and skip right up to Barcelona or France, because there are no small roads to ride on the southern coast.  He told me that it’s just lots of resorts and interstate.  I did some reading of other cyclists blogs who have traveled the same area.  One couple, who was cycling around the world said that they wouldn’t wish this portion of the route on their enemies, and another three Australians took trains from Portugal to Seville, Valencia and Barcelona so they could see the cities before continuing their ride into the Pyrenees and France.

Since I only have a limited time to see these countries and so many sources suggesting that I skip the southern coast of Spain, I think I might take the advice. I want to make sure that I am able to see some of the beautiful cycling in France and Italy instead of watching the countryside pass by from a train as I race to the airport at the end of my travels.

Lagos to Olhão (62 miles, 4 hours 58 minutes moving)

Well, it happened, earlier than I was hoping. I started talking to myself outloud today, while I was on the bike. Not many times, but the first time it happened, I laughed and asked myself “Oh man, what are you doing?”… Again, outloud, of course. Thankfully I wasn’t near any pedestrians, or they really would have thought I was crazy! Don’t worry, I’m not going to draw a smiley face on my bike helmet and name it Wilson, just yet! But I did have to ask myself how just how I got here today…

So, my alarm went off an hour early this morning for the 2nd day in a row! I couldn’t figure out why my iPhone kept changing the time an hour ahead, until one of my hostelmates told me that daylight savings time switched here on Sunday! So it was now 9:30 and absolutely pouring rain! I decided I was going to have to stay at the hostel in Lagos for another day and use it as my  first rest day with no biking. I actually started to really like the idea because Lagos is a really cool touristy beach town and I really need to spend some time editing photos to finally post online and catching up on my writing! But then at 11:30 the rain stopped and the sun came out and there was a great 15mph wind from the west (I was finally going to be going 60 miles east to Olhão today) and I knew I couldn’t let that tailwind and free miles escape. By 12:30 I had my bike loaded up and turned in my key and I was off! The road was good, with a few climbs and then resulting downhills, and the tailwind was letting my cruise at 15-20 mph, a huge increase over the 10-13 I’ve been experiencing on my ride south from Lisbon.

Tile Wall and My Photo Substitute
Tile Wall and My Photo Substitute

By mid-afternoon I reached Albufeira and it was breathtakingly gorgeous.  There was a bank of dark rain clouds passing just offshore and it was so cool that you could see the exact line on the water where the rain stopped! Unfortunately, there was another line of clouds just behind me, so I could only take in the view for a few minutes before I knew I better keep moving, if I hoped to get to the campground before dark (starting a 60 mile day after noon is a bit of a chance, though I did have two alternate places to spend the night planned at 24 and 40 miles if I wasn’t going to make it).


At about the 45 mile point, I was really craving a Coca-Cola (real pop is forbidden at home, but being on the bike for 4+ hours per day means you can take those calories any way you can get them!) and about two miles down the road, the clouds caught up to me and let loose with a light rain. As luck would have it, at that moment, I was passing a cafe that had a big Coke sign, and I took that as a sign I should pull off under the shelter of the awning and succumb to my desire. The pop was delicious, and so was the chocolate frosted sweetbread that I also picked up! And in the 5 minutes it took me to scarf down the snack, the storm passed and I was able to head back out on the road, following in its wake. That’s the interesting thing about the weather I’ve experienced in Portugal. I know that in Iowa we say “If you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes” but the phrase is so much more true here!

The wind was picking up with another set of storm clouds blowing in and I was able to take advantage of the tailwind (and probably the adrenaline surge of not wanting to be setting up camp in the rain) to kick up my speed to 22-24 mph! At the start of this week, if you had told me I’d be pushing my loaded-with-nearly-70-pounds-gear bike that fast and not on a downhill, I wouldn’t have believed it myself! Oh, and speaking of speed, I apparently had my bike computer set on the wrong wheel diameter by about 3% so it had been telling me that I was going slower and not as far as I was in reality for the past week! Thankfully I had GPS tracklogs for geotagging photos, that could also be used to double-check my routes!

I reached town at just after 7pm and still had to find the campsite. My Garmin GPS kept turning off right after turning on, and I’m hoping and praying that the battery was just too low, and the solar panel on the back of my bike wasn’t providing enough power. My trusty iPhone GPS came to the rescue, but I hope the Garmin works tomorrow with a full charge, since it has full Europe maps and routing, or I’ll really be lost, literally! It is so nice to be able to ride without glancing at a map, knowing that “Nigel” will tell me, in my right earbud, when and where to turn next!

The campsite at Olhão itself looks awesome, and I’ll explore more tomorrow, since I have the full day to my own devices, although, I know that I really need to do laundry!

São Miguel to Lagos (33 miles, 3 hours 17 minutes moving)

Picturesque Town...
Picturesque Town…

It was a short cycle this morning to Lagos, an absolutely gorgeous little town on the southern tip of Portugal.  I fell in love instantly, and not because I saw my first McDonalds of the trip right as I got into town.  I was so happy to have made it to the southern coast!  My Garmin took me on a rather weird and roundabout way to get to the Pousada de Juventude Hostel that I had chosen from the listings in the Lonely Planet Mediterranean guide, because it had said that it had free wifi.  When I got to the hostel, I found out that it would be 17 euros per night, which includes breakfast, but that they had turned off their wifi internet and hoped to have it back by summer.

I decided I would try and see if there were any other hostels in the area with wifi and said I might be back.  I wandered, pushing my bike up and down the hilly cobblestone streets looking for another hostel. Three Monkeys had wifi, but they had no vacancies.  I saw a sign for a hostel called the “Stumble Inn” and it said they too had wifi, but after spending 30 minutes looking for it (I had to go back to the original sign, which had a map, at least three times before venturing back out among the city streets) but when I finally found the place, it seemed to be shuttered up well and no one answered my door buzzes.  So back to the Pousada I went, and I checked in, changed and then headed out to have my first meal in a restaurant of the whole trip.

There was an Indian place that had caught my eye during my hostel-searching, and they also served pizza, which I had been craving almost since the plane landed.  I ordered up a Sagres beer, some samosas, which are a delicious fried Indian food that I first tried when my friend Shruti brought them to a party, and a Hawaiian pizza with ham, pineapple, mushrooms, and mozzarella cheese. What a perfect meal! I was on the phone when the waiter came to take my empty beer bottle and I must have made the wrong gesture because all of a sudden he was back with a fresh one that I didn’t necessarily need, but I was thirsty enough to drink anyway.

Perfect End to a Day...
Perfect End to a Day…

After dinner, I headed back to the hostel and took care of my nightly digital ritual and also met a masters student from the UK who had just spent the week in Portugal studying sustainable development (if you’re reading this, I’m sorry that I have forgotten your name! Send me an email sometime if you end up biking Ireland and need a riding partner!).  He told me about the time he rode from the southern tip of England to the northern tip of Scotland in two weeks, a distance of about a thousand miles. It makes my first week’s mileage seem a little lackluster!

(39 miles, 3 hours 24 minutes moving)

Today I had two options in mind when I set off.  There was a town called Vila Nova de Milfontes only about 13 miles down the road and I had been contemplating going to a Surf Hostel there and taking a day off complete with a surf lesson.  I’ve always wanted to learn to surf, ever since my family visited Hawaii when I was in the 5th grade and I had an hour or two on a board.  Now that I’m moving to Ventura, California for the next three years for my medical residency, I’m surely going to have to give it a try, and it would be nice to have a little bit of a head start.

Vila Nova de Milfontes

Vila Nova de Milfontes

Unfortunately I didn’t have much luck.  On all of the web information about the Surf Hostel, I couldn’t find an address, so when I got into town, I went to the tourism office and asked.  The girl working there told me that the Surf Hostel isn’t actually located in Vila Nova de Milfontes, but is actually in a small town a little ways up the coast, and even she couldn’t find the address. She showed me some other hostels in the area on a map, but the prices were 30-45 euros per night, so I decided to give up my plan of surfing lessons and push on.  I wanted to at least make my trip into town worthwhile and grab some pizza at a restaurant, but once again, the pizzeria (Pizzazeria if you’re reading this, Sarah Thompson) was closed for some reason that escapes me.  Instead I ate some food on the side of the roundabout leading out of town and received a few of the “you go!” beeps of encouragement from cars who were driving by.  After lunch, I decided to finally get out and try using my solar panel to power my Garmin GPS, since the battery hasn’t been lasting quite as long as I need it to each day for my rides.

It became clear mid-afternoon that I wasn’t going to make it all the way to Lagos, so I looked in the GPS for another “Parque de Campismo” near my route, and the listing for Såo Miguel was the only one that came up.  When I pulled in, it looked like a really neat facility, if it had been regular camping season.  There was a cafeteria (closed), swimming pool (closed), game/internet room (closed), supermarket (closed), ice-cream shop (closed), and restaurant (closed).  Well, you get the picture. It seems to be a recurring theme for me on this trip.

Setubal to Porto Covo (67 miles, 5 hours 55 minutes moving)

I’ll be brief in my narrative for this day.  The stupid Garmin GPS turned off without my knowledge, and I found myself way inland on the wrong road.  I had to ride for about five miles on the shoulder of a 4-lane interstate to get back on the coastal road, and added about 10 miles to what was already going to be a long day of riding. Thankfully the view of the ocean was beautiful as I arrived in Porto Covo, and I can see why there are so many surfing schools in the region.  The waves are huge! I’d estimate at least 10 footers from what I saw.

Sunset in Porto Covo

Sunset in Porto Covo

I got to the campsite just before sunset, and after setting up the tent I went back to the reception office to sit and perform my daily photo-downloading/tagging/device-recharging ritual.  I had quite a fright though when I plugged in my short power extension cord and there was a flash of light, a puff of smoke, and the circuit breaker in the office tripped, turning off the lights and radio.  There was black char on my 3-to-1 outlet splitter, and the only thing I could figure out was that the 220V current had blown the little LED light bulb in the end of the short extension cord.  Closer inspection of the cord reveled that it was for 120V power, although I’m not sure why it didn’t happen in the previous four days I’ve been using it to plug in my devices.  Thankfully I hadn’t plugged in any of my actual electronics when I plugged in the cable, so everything else was fine and we flipped the circuit breaker and got back to work.

(20 miles, 1 hour 55 minutes moving)

I took advantage of the big breakfast again this morning, this time talking to the pilots I had met last night, and two German girls, one of whom had absolutely amazing English.  When I complimented her on her “awesome English”, she quipped back “You too!” I hope that my English is good after nearly 28 years of practice…

When I got to the ferry terminal and tried to purchase a ticket, they told me that I was at the wrong terminal and I needed to go about a kilometer up the road.  This confused me because I really thought that the research I had done on the internet the night before had told me the name of the right terminal.  Apparently I can’t read Portuguese even a little bit.

I biked to the other terminal up the road, bought a ticket, and decided that I also better hit the ATM in case it was a while before I’d come across one again.  As soon as I finished my transaction, I started hearing bells and horns ringing and I realized that my boat was getting ready to leave, with or without me!  I quickly walked/ran my bike up the gangway and got onboard just in the nick of time. It was a quick trip across the river on this catamaran-style ferry and when we reached the other side, it began pouring rain.  This was exactly how I dreamed my first real day on the road of my European bicycle adventure would start out.  I propped my bike under the awning and began the process of putting on my rain jacket and pants, and my water-proof shoe covers in place, and then made sure that the garbage bag “rain cover” for my shoulder bag was securely fastened in place.  I finally figured out how to get the shoulder back attached to the rack with a carabiner holding it tight to the seat-post bag and it felt much more secure (and much better to not have the heavy bag on my back).

I decided that I’m going to have to brave the rain somedays, and it might as well be now, and I was off. The route for the day was pretty easy and I started to get pretty good at navigating the roundabouts. It was only about 20 miles total to Setubal, where I was going to spend my first night camping.  It was raining when I arrived at the campsite and I started setting up my tent on the beach side, but the camp attendant came out and told me there was a chance of strong winds tonight, so he suggested I move to a nice grassy area with a picnic table behind the reception office. I had to wait about five minutes for a break in the rain and then I made a beeline for the spot.

Beach at Setubal

Beach at Setubal

I had the tent up and the bike folded, locked to the picnic table and covered pretty quickly and then I went into the reception area to plug in my laptop and charge my other various batteries. The campsite attendant was so nice that he ran an extension cord out to my picnic table so I could move out there, without my even asking, and for no extra charge!  It got dark at about 7:30 pm and without any more light than my headlamp, I decided to go to bed early. It rained a few times overnight, but my tent kept me dry, and I slept for almost 12 hours!

(16 miles, 2 hours 30 minutes moving)

This morning I woke up and scarfed down a huge (free!) breakfast at the hostel. I figured I would need lots of calories even if I only planned on riding 20 miles to Setubal. It’s a heavy bike, and I haven’t been bicycling much this winter, since I was in Guatemala without a bike for the entire month of February.

After breakfast I wandered the streets quickly and purchased a large Portugal/Spain roadmap from a bookstore, and stopped into a shop to purchase a pre-paid GSM SIM card to use in my iPhone or USB modem for internet access while I’m in Portugal. It was 15 euros for the card, which gets me 10 hours of internet usage. I am sure it will cow in handy, since I have been mostly using the internet to research hostels and campgrounds and map out my next destinations!

The check-out for the hostel was by noon and just before noon I had everything loaded back onto my bike and was ready (as I’d ever be) to begin the journey. When I got into the street and started biking, I noticed that my speedometer wasn’t reading, and when I looked back on my rear wheel, the spoke magnet that reaches the sensor was nowhere to be seen! I looked on the ground where I’d started riding and then brought the bike back into the hostel and had them open my room for me once more, but I couldn’t find it. “Ok… just a little setback” I told myself, and I got out my iPhone to use Google Maps to find a bicycle shop in Lisbon. I figured that I would be more likely to find a shop in a huge city than in one of the smaller towns along my route, and I knew that it would be much harder to pace myself and plan my days if I had no idea how far I had ridden and how far I still needed to go! I found a shop that was about four miles away, punched the coordinates into my GPS, and was off.

Lisbon is a pretty picturesque city, and as I started this extra errand, I was trying to stay positive and remind myself that I probably shouldn’t be leaving the city without at least having a good look around. The shop was harder to find than I expected, and even with the GPS, I took a number of wrong turns. By the time I made it there, I had ridden 8 miles, and when I arrived the shop was locked up tight. There was a sign on the door with the hours posted, and according to the sign it should have been open. This must have been my first exposure to the inconvenience of long lunches with store closings in Portugal. I waited for about 20 minutes and then decided to check around the block and find something to eat for lunch so that I wouldn’t have to do that after getting a new magnet.

In a store around the corner I found Magnum Ice Cream bars!! They didn’t have my favorite flavor (Caramel) so I had to settle on one with almonds. If you never been outside of the United States, Magnum Ice Cream bars are the most amazing packaged ice cream dessert ever. It is ice cream on a stick, dipped in a layer of chocolate, and then (in the case of caramel) dipped in a layer of caramel and then covered once more with a layer of chocolate! They’re totally worth the 342 calories that each treat provides, and I’ve given great thought to securing the rights for distribution in the United States, although it depends on the language in the new healthcare bill. In fact, just to prove the point, when I returned home from Australia a few years ago, I actually searched all over the internet for a company that would sell me some and ship them to me in dry ice!

So for lunch I had two Almond Magnum bars and got another 1.5 liter bottle of water for the road. When I got back to the bike shop, it was now open and after waiting five or ten minutes for the owner to finish talking with another customer, I asked about the spoke magnet and he gave me one free of charge! I thanked him profusely and went to install it on my bike. By now it was nearing 3 p.m. I punched in the address on my GPS to get me to the ferry terminal to take me across the river to Barriero and an hour later when I had covered another 6 miles in stop and go city traffic, I finally arrived. The traffic was so slow that sometimes I hopped off my bike and pulled it up onto the sidewalk, and then walked it to the next intersection, bypassing tens of cars waiting helplessly to get through the next light.

 Statue of King José I, by Machado de Castro (1775) in Praça do Comércio

Statue of King José I, by Machado de Castro (1775) in Praça do Comércio

When I reached the ferry terminal it was 4 p.m. and there were some dark rain clouds blowing in from the ocean. I had a second thought about starting this 20 mile bike so late in the day and decided that after such a long detour, I might be best off going back to the Lisbon Lounge hostel and checking in for another night, starting fresh the next day. I’m glad I did, because just minutes after I got my bike inside at the hostel, the sky let loose with a nice downpour. It only lasted 10-20 minutes as seems to be the norm, but it wouldn’t have been pleasant on the bike.

Back at the hostel, while doing some more internet research, I met two pilots from the US who are currently living in England. Apparently their plane had broken down so they decided to come to Lisbon for a few days. In another “random small world travel moment” I found out that I go to medical school with one of the pilot’s younger brothers. What a small world it is.

I took advantage of the 8 euro hostel meal that night and had a delicious feast of bread, rice, salad, wine, and marinated ribs (actually my first time ever eating ribs), with a tasty fruit salad and glass of sweet port wine for dessert. The chef gave us a bottle of hot sauce, which was chili peppers in whiskey and after asking around to make sure that this wasn’t some gag that they like to play on the unsuspecting traveler, and then laugh their heads off when he’s rushing around the room looking for the fire extinguisher with smoke coming out of his ears. They assured me that it was perfectly fine, so I had a taste on my rice and ribs, and it had a very distinct but enjoyable spicy aftertaste! I didn’t make it to bed until 1 a.m. again that night, although I was glad I had stayed the extra day in Lisbon. There is a lot of time to travel between now and the end of my trip, and the miles covered isn’t the most important thing on which to measure the success.

I’ve been in Lisbon, Portugal for a little over 30 hours now. It’s a little surreal for me to realize that I am actually on this trip of a lifetime. But I wanted to have a little flashback to realize how I got here. Before January of 2009, I was starting to think about and plan my last year of medical school. I knew I wanted to do a few rotations and things out of the ordinary with the expectation that my life would change drastically once I started residency. As a two-time Ironman triathlete, I’m no stranger to slightly crazy endurance physical undertakings, but I wanted to try something new and different. I love bicycling, and love to travel, and I had never been to Europe before, so somehow the idea to combine the two into a “last hurrah” before graduation was born.

The planning began last spring when I read lots of gear and bike reviews online and finally decided on a recumbent trike. I found a good deal on a used one from the east coast, and thought I was set. I even decided to use my week off between third and fourth year for a ride across Iowa, since I had never done a complete RAGBRAI in my 27 years in Iowa. I planned out a 310 mile route across the northern portion of the state. I hoped to do 100 miles per day and finish the tour in three days, although it quickly became clear that I was hugely overly optimistic with my daily mileage estimates. On the first day of my tour, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. (having gone to bed at about midnight the previous night as I struggled to finish packing everything that I thought I might need). My mom graciously offered to drive me and the trike to the Iowa-Nebraska border (a little over an hour from our house in Okoboji), and to pick me up on the other side of the state when I finished riding. We reached the river and took the requisite photos of me standing next to the trike and then I was off.

The Trike

The Trike

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Iowa is flat. It is most-assuredly not, and I was reminded of this again and again and again with each of the hills that I had to crank up in that northwest portion of the state. The going was slow- much slower than I had expected in my sleek and aerodynamic trike. There were a number of advantages over using a normal bicycle for touring. It had a low center of gravity and the three wheels made it stable, so you don’t feel any side-to-side lurch of the extra gear on the panniers with each pedal stroke. This also comes in handy when you want to stop somewhere, as you don’t have to worry about finding something to lean the bike against, and you even have a nice seat in which to rest, everywhere you go. Because of the laid-back body position on the trike, wind-resistance is reduced compared to someone on an upright bike, and in the flats or downhills, the theory is tht the reduced wind resistance cancels out the increased weight of a trike (around 35-40 pounds vs. about 20 for a naked bike). In theory, it all sounds great, but in practice, I was finding out that I was much slower, especially on the uphills than I had expected to be on the trike. My expectations had probably been influenced by the fast and light triathlon bike that I’ve been riding for so many years.

Storm a Brewing

Storm a' Brewing

After about 3-4 hours of riding through the Iowa countryside, I noticed that there were some dark and tumultuous clouds forming in the sky over the area that I had previously ridden, and then the wind changed directions to start coming from behind me. At first I thought this was great! All of a sudden, at the same level of effort, I went from biking about 12 miles per hour to clicking along at 25 mph! It became clear that there was a pretty bad storm brewing behind me and I decided to keep pushing ahead until it reached me, because now I was finally making great time!

Dont look back

Don't look back

As I was flying down the empty Iowa highway, all of a sudden, a boy came running down his farm driveway to intercept me at the road, yelling loudly to get my attention. “There’s a tornado watch and a bad storm coming! You can take shelter in our barn!” I had visions of scenes from the movie “Twister” flash through my head and I reluctantly pulled off the road and followed him to the clearing in front of the barn. His father was rushing around the farm making storm preparations, and his sister was taking photos of the ominous clouds swirling above on her cell phone camera. I quickly pulled out the rain covers for my bike panniers, and I put on my rain jacket and pants. I checked the weather radar with my phone and saw that there was a large system sweeping across this part of the state from South Dakota. After about 5 minutes of waiting, I decided that I wanted to get back on the road and take advantage of the tailwind to propel me the two miles down the road to the next town, and so I thanked the family for their kindness and took off flying down the road. The rain hit right as I reached the first corner in the town, and I pulled off under an overhang to wait out the storm. I called my Mom to let her know that I was ok (for now) and it was almost an hour before the worst of it had passed. I dozed a little in my comfy reclined trike seat, since I had gotten so little sleep the night before, but the frequent and very close flashes of lightning and thunder kept me on the edge.

I was able to follow behind the storm through the Iowa countryside for the rest of the afternoon. It gave me a beautiful panorama view of the green fields under a deep blue stormy sky, with golden orange backlighting as the sun broke through the clouds and sank lower in the sky behind me. By the time I reached Milford, I had ridden my trike 75 miles in about 8.5 hours (only 7 hours of actual pedaling though), and I was exhausted. My average speed was only about 12 mph, far below the 19-21 mph I can average on my triathlon bike for that distance. I decided to be flexible with my trip and add an extra day so that I could pedal about 75 miles per day for four days instead of 100 per day for three.

The next morning, I woke up at 6 a.m. to get an early start since the temperatures were supposed to reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit again and I would need to do as much cycling during the cooler morning and late afternoon as possible. Unfortunately, I woke up to another large thunderstorm which continued most of the morning and the weather didn’t clear up until 2 p.m., which was too late in the afternoon to be starting another 8 hour, 75 mile day. Sadly, I had to scrap the rest of the trip, as I didn’t have another day extra in my week before having to go back to school, and of course, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world to be stranded in the paradise that is Okoboji. I had everything I could need, including food, the lake, cable TV and internet!

Even though my trans-Iowa trike journey was unsuccessful, I learned a lot about how important flexibility in long-distance bike touring is, and found out that I could “weather” the weather. I wasn’t entirely sure about my choice of the trike for touring in Europe though.

The rest of my fourth year of medical school was focused on a few things. The most important was finishing my requirements and securing a good residency position (I did, and will be spending the next three years working hard in Ventura, California!). But I also wanted to have a lot of fun and learn things about medicine that you can’t learn in a classroom at a big academic institution. In the fall I spent a month in South Carolina on a “Wilderness Medicine” elective rotation, and not only did I learn some very valuable things for my future practice, I’d be lying through my teeth if I didn’t acknowledge that I was also taking the class to serve my own purposes and hopefully prepare me for my bike trip in Europe. In February, I spent four weeks in Guatemala learning Spanish (which you already knew if you’ve been reading my blogs) and I figured Spanish abilities would not only serve me well in my career in medicine, but also help me while biking through Spain!

(6 miles, 1 hour 48 minutes moving time)

I don’t remember much of the flight, because I dozed for most of it.  I alternated between sleeping and reading the Lonely Planet Mediterranean guide-book chapter on Portugal.  We sat on the runway for almost an hour and a half in Chicago, and this pretty much guaranteed that my hour and a half layover in Madrid wouldn’t give me enough time to catch my 2nd flight to Lisbon the next morning.  Sure enough, we landed about 10 minutes before my next flight was supposed to leave, and I had to get myself to a different terminal, and pass through a customs check-point.  I wasn’t even close. I had to wait in line at a customer service desk for thirty minutes before an agent quickly booked me on the next flight to Lisbon, in 3 hours.  This gave me plenty of time to explore the terminal, and I grabbed a large Diet Coke, and used the ATM to take out money in Euros.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my travels lately, it’s to NEVER use a currency exchange counter.  The rates are terrible, and they always require you to present forms of identification and jump through other hoops.  It’s so much easier to just use the ATM and get a fair exchange rate.  I’m lucky though, because my bank doesn’t even charge a currency conversion fee on top of what an ATM might charge!

I browsed a bookstore in the airport, hoping to find a good map of Portugal and Spain, since I hadn’t been able to buy one before leaving (stupid, right? But I did have GPS maps…) but I didn’t find what I wanted. The rest of the layover was uneventful, although the people-watching was fun.  I could definitely tell we were no longer in the United States, as the people had a very “European” look about them. I had my ears peeled for other Americans, but I didn’t really hear much English being spoken, and so I just waited and waited for my flight.  It was delayed another half hour as well, and by the time I finally landed in Lisbon, it was nearing 2 p.m. in the afternoon.

My original plan had been to arrive in Lisbon by 9 a.m. and get my bike assembled and myself situated and then get out of the city into one of the smaller surrounding towns for the first night, but these delays made me think twice about my plans.  I waited nervously for the luggage to come off the plane and spin around on the conveyer belt.  Of course, my big nylon bag with the bike panniers was one of the last to make an appearance, and my bike box was nowhere to be seen when the last stragglers of luggage began their circuitous journey. Thoughts of bike parts strewn across the tarmac flashed through my head, and my heart sank at the thought of preparing and coming all this way only to be foiled at the start by equipment failure and loss.  I chastised myself for not securing all of the loose small parts securely to the frame or side of the box, as if the box had broken open, some of them surely would have been lost.

I started to head back into the bowels of the airport to look for the lost-luggage counter when I came to a baggage carousel marked “Over-sized luggage”. And there, sitting on the conveyer was my bike box!  And it was intact!! Words can’t describe the joy I felt at that moment, although I was still hesitant with the thought that something inside still might be bent or broken from the trip.  As I passed through customs again, the guard wanted to know what was in the box and when I told him it was a bicicleta, he looked me over and asked “Professional?” to which I replied, “No, touring.”  He waved me on, and I headed out into the airport.  I asked at the “Ask Me Lisboa” tourism desk for directions on a map of Lisbon to the hostel I read about in Lonely Planet, and they showed me that it was a relatively straight shoot from the airport into the “centro” of town.

Then I found a low-traffic corner behind the tourism desk and began the process of reassembling the bicycle that I had disassembled 24 hours earlier.  The process wasn’t difficult, but it did take time to reattach the front and rear pannier racks, the fenders, the wheels, etc.  I had a slight scare when I put the front wheel on and it wouldn’t spin at all.  In that split second, I thought that the front fork had become bent in transit and there was no way I’d be able to even ride the bike from the airport, but then I realized that it was just the front brakes, which had become mis-aligned, and after I fixed that, it spun freely! Finally the bike was assembled and I started to attach the bags of my possessions, along with my spare tire, my tarp, and tennis shoes for off-the-bike.  I tried to strap my large messenger bag, which holds all of my camera gear and laptop and other valuables, to the top of the rear rack, but it made the whole pile seem top-heavy and I was worried about the rack’s ability to carry the weight, so I would have to wear it on my back for the time being.  You don’t want to long-distance bicycle tour with a heavy back on your back though, and this was already a problem in my mind.  I feared and knew that I had probably brought too much, but when you are leaving on a long journey in a faraway land without anyone else to help and support you, you err on the side of trying to be too prepared and too equipped.

As I picked up the bike to roll it out of the airport, it felt heavy and unwieldy under my arms, and it was difficult to even roll. Some quick math in my head reminded me that my four panniers had weighed 50 pounds, and the bike box another 40 pounds, and my shoulder bag probably another 20 at least.  I was going to be biking with a lot of extra weight.  The well-prepared cycle tourer will do a couple of test-rides at home with a fully-loaded bike so they know how it handles and can get the kinks worked out and leave some gear home if needed. I was not a well-prepared cycle-tourer, and this ride from the airport into Lisbon was going to be the FIRST time I had cycled with the bike fully-loaded, and only the SECOND time I had ridden the bicycle overall.

I rolled my bicycle outside and then decided to get out my GPS and punch in the hostel’s address so that I would have a better idea where to go.  I realized that I could put a headphone in my right ear and hear the GPS commands, leaving my left ear open for traffic sounds, and then I saw a police-officer on a motorcycle.  His English was very good and he was super-friendly. I asked to make sure that it was legal for me to bicycle on the road into Lisbon, and he told me that it was.  I should have asked him which roads it would be illegal for me to bicycle on, but I didn’t think.  He wished me luck and I was off. I had to navigate through a few roundabouts and they were a little tricky but I soon got the hang of it.  At one point, I missed a turn and the GPS recalculations took me on a very odd route to get back on path.  I found myself climbing some super-steep hills, cranking away in the lowest gear possible, until suddenly I was looking down on the city with a neat castle off to the side.  What a lucky mistake!  Unfortunately, I then had to navigate back down the cobble-stoned hills to the main road, and this was scary on such a heavy bicycle.  I pulsed the brakes and started to wonder if I should have brought at least one spare set of break-pads for this trip.

Lucky Mistake

Lucky Mistake

When I finally reached the hostel, it was remarkably easy to check in and get a room.  I opted for a 4-bed dorm and began the long process of unpacking and carrying my bags and bike up the flight of stairs and storing my possessions in the locker underneath the bunk beds.  I was given the choice of a top bunk or a bottom bunk, and I went with the top for a number of reasons (I believe Bill Bryson has written on the topic).  Firstly, when you have a bottom bunk, people in the bunk or bunks above you always end up using your bunk, either to step on when they climb into theirs, or even to casually lounge around or place items that they don’t want on the floor as they are arranging their things.  And then of course, there is my experience from college, when I lived in a fraternity that had cold-air dorms with bunk-beds for sleeping.  On more than one occasion, one of the brothers would be inebriated past the point of being able to successfully wake up and use the restroom, and the bottom bunk inhabitant would wake up in the morning with the consequences of said missed restroom opportunity.  You never know what your bunk-mate is going to be like, and in a hostel, I think it’s pretty likely you may have a party-animal come home late from the bars, and now that I think of it, sometimes I expect they might not even be able to successfully climb into a second bunk, causing them to try and cuddle in with whomever is on the first. Better to have them sleeping below you and take the top bunk, I think!

My two roommates were really nice when I met them.  They were Americans, but have been living in Germany working as English-language teaching assistants since they graduated college one to two years ago.  I didn’t end up eating the 8 euro dinner that night at the hostel because I had so much route-planning to do on their free wi-fi.