Three Gears And The Truth
It’ll be alright. It’s not far. It’s not even that high. I’ve done bigger and longer!
The bravado of a bike rider looking up at an unfamiliar mountain in a foreign land basing his judgments on, well, absolutely nothing really. And on any normal day with a ‘normal’ bike this would probably all be true, but on my wife’s three geared Brompton and a late ‘recommendation’ on a short cut …. well, let’s just say I probably underestimated it a tad and someone might have been pulling my leg!
When on holiday I either hire a bike or take my own to crunch a few local miles, climb anything which stands out and explore a bit. On this occasion I was touring Portugal in a campervan and having completed a good chunk of the coast road we had turned in land and started the return journey to Santander ensuring to take in Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain range in Portugal and where I planned to nip off for a bike ride.
At this point I will do my bit for Portuguese tourism. If you have not explored Portugal – and I don’t just mean holidays in the Algarve – then you should. It is beautiful, diverse, historic, friendly, and much the same can be said of the food and wine. Porto must go down as one of my favourite cities now and if medieval is your thing, you’ll be just fine.
As I say, usually I would hire a bike with more traditional geometry or, better still, take my own but space in the camper was at a premium so adjustments had to be made. The plan had been to take my own van but that was kiboshed when someone crashed into the back only three weeks before our departure date. With no hope of getting it road worthy and after some challenging conversations with insurers, we managed to hire a VW camper two days before our scheduled sailing from Plymouth (UK) to Santander (Spain). For my wife this turned out to be excellent news given the hired gun, aka Vincent, was a proper camper van rather than my botched together, windowless conversion of a commercial vehicle and, if truth be told, she had a point apart from the small issue of space which saw my bike dropped from the team for this trip.
All was not lost, however. Inspired by articles reporting the adventures of hardy folk on Brompton’s cycling to, for instance, the Scottish Islands I had an alternative plan.
Take the wife’s powder blue (with a love heart decal) three geared fold up Brompton, I thought. Swap her peddles out for my clipless SPD’s; attach my go to ‘be seen’ Knog Blinder lights and rig it with some bottle cages and, boom, ready to go. Those familiar with Brompton’s will know that locating bottles means we have to go all triathlete with saddle hung cages and with that, I bring you the Brompton Sport. It may be powder blue with a love heart decal and have only 3 gears but lycra’d up and clipped in I was surely going to blend in with the other roadies. Not, as it turned out, that I saw any that day and certainly not on the short cut I took but there was a good reason for that.
Standing at 1420m, Penhas Douradas it is not the highest climb in the Serra da Estrela but it’s up there I think and, anyhow, it was on our route north and big enough for my first time on a Brompton.
With one last check of the route and a quick chat with a local to confirm my start point I would be ready to go. It was, however, at this point that my climb, which should average 5%, took a turn for the worse. Local advice was to go the ‘Foresters’ route. I guess I should have known the Foresters didn’t ride bikes, but I was lured by the reduced miles just getting to the start of the normal route and time was a factor, so why not.
“It starts just there” I confirmed pointing, “and I just follow the road which then joins the normal route”.
One last tightening of the clamps that keep the bike unfolded and off we went. Just a Brompton and some bravado.
I won’t lie, people looked bemused as I rode out of town and whilst it only has a few gears, there is a technique to operating them and small wheels do bring their own challenges on cobbled roads. However, once I was out of town and on the road upwards, I could settle down, get comfortable, find a rhythm, and tap this bad boy out all the way to the top. Or so I thought.
Whilst undoubtedly the ‘Foresters’ route is shorter, very scenic and, indeed, quieter, it is also way more direct which can only mean steep. In fact, bloody steep in places. Strava recorded sections of up to 28% but a good deal of double digit everywhere else until I finally joined the ‘normal’ route which turned out to be roughly two thirds of the way up the climb.
Small wheels can be sketchy at times, not ideal on cobbles as I have said, but also not great for out-of-the-saddle efforts which at times was my only way of turning the wheels and it most definitely did not have low enough gears. As I ground it out at walking pace or below, it felt as if my thighs were going to explode and that’s when the dark thoughts came a-knocking. Never have I considered turning back on a ride but on this day, it crossed my mind on more than one occasion. But you know how it goes, I’ll just keep going to the next corner, and the next and so on.
I may have been the only cyclist that I saw that day, but I was not the only person on a bike and I was to be passed several times by small groups of motor bikers who, to their credit, were shouting cheers of support as they passed me. Well, I like to think it was encouragement, but it could so easily have been derision.
I caught up with one of the groups at a viewpoint which overlooked Manteigas near, but not quite at the top of the climb. Stopping for a photo opportunity I found myself getting slaps on the back and handshakes whilst people pointed and laughed at my bike.
I got to the top eventually, which turned out to be nothing more than a marker post, took the obligatory selfie and enjoyed a surprisingly fun descent. I mean, who knew you could get 35mph out of a Brompton.
So, the truth? Well three gears weren’t really enough, and my route choice was unwise, but I still bloody managed it and let’s face it, it wasn’t that far or high.