On the evening of 8th September James, Nick, Rob and Doug met at Gatwick Airport, bikes boxed up and heads spinning as to what exactly we were letting ourselves in for. The training had been done but the Portuguese Cycle was a complete unknown. Dreamt up by James and Nick, we planned to cycle the length of Portugal loaded up with tents, caffeine charged jelly beans and campsites circled on our Michelin map.
We arrived in Vigo, northern Spain at night, still wide-eyed and innocent as to what we were actually taking on. Despite the late hour Enrique the hostel owner, bike nut and former pro cyclist cooked us a pasta party to send us on our journey the following day. Unfortunately our journey lasted just three minutes before we hit problems! Therefore our first stop was not some idyllic lunch spot on the Portuguese coast but instead Vigo’s premier bike shop. Three hours of fretting and a few hundred euros on the “stash kitty” later we were up and running for real and heading for Portugal.
With our delayed kick-off we only just made it over the border for night 1 and the lovely coastal town of Viana do Castelo. Unfortunately our campsite was just on the outskirts and more closely resembled an overrun city farm than a well catered camping facility. However, a hot shower in the stables suitably refreshed us and we spirits picked up. That is until we unpacked out “2 man tents” - note to self: don’t expect to get much sleep sharing a 1.5 man tent with the 6 foot four inch Andy Carroll.
On day 2 we woke to gloom which over the course of breakfast turned to rain, heavy rain and then torrential rain – which was pretty much how it stayed. As we were still playing catch-up from the previous day’s excursion to the bike shop we had earned our morale-boosting long lunch in Porto where we descended upon a poor, unsuspecting restaurant and proceeded to use its toilets as our own personal bathroom, changing room and shower. This stop though became all the more important as what followed was a gruesome afternoon on the rolling hills of the Douro Valley. The only thing sustaining us being Rob “can I get it in carbon fibre?” Beacroft and his amazing turbo charged jelly beans.
Somehow, the deep all-over body burn seemed to ease with every passing day and the four man train tactic had us eating up the miles through the middle of the country. What’s more, we were somehow getting the hang of extremely cosy camping and our routine was getting slicker and slicker, despite the endless faff (“it’s all about the look”) of James “the freezemaster” Macfarlane. The middle days were flying by and the aches and pains were just beginning to subside with the strong coastal headwind being but a minor inconvenience when Bang! Nick’s bike had a major strop and we looked scuppered.
After much chin-scratching and head shaking it became abundantly clear that none of us knew anything about actually fixing bikes beyond a flat tyre. What started out as a temperamental chain finished with an almost complete loss of forward momentum and serious emergency contingencies being bandied about. Credit the man here, Nick “Chopper” Bruce battled away and pounded out some seriously hard miles until we arrived at third mechanic lucky. With a shiny new back wheel we were on the road again and the plan of backtracking to Lisbon for the spare parts was happily shelved.
The following day was our very own “little” mountain stage, but due to Nick’s wheel drama it had become a slightly bigger mountain stage. The deep-burn returned with a vengeance as the slow inclines and sudden sharp climbs of Portugal’s Monchique region began to take their toll. However, the feeling of hitting the top of the mountain and looking down on what we had dominated (or more appropriately had dominated us) made it very much worthwhile.
So as we looked out from the Monchique we had just our final day ahead of us and what was likely to be the hardest. Unfortunately the last stretch turned out to be even harder than we thought as due to some miscalculations it went from being a little over 100 miles to over 120. In the early afternoon we arrived at what the Portuguese call the “End of the World”, Cape Vincent feeling great and enjoyed a cold beer looking out at both the Atlantic and Mediterranean. However, it was the ride to our true end – the cold beers and bed, in Vale do Lobo that seemed to last forever. As talk of “only 20km more” was followed with the same refrain an hour later, spirits dipped as aches and pains rose. But when you needed to bash out miles there was only one man to lead us home, queue Doug “the hammer” Stanley. Doug had been suffering in (near) silence with his knees all trip, but whenever he got to the front he upped the pace and dragged us along. In the knowledge that he was suffering there was nothing for the other three to do but kick on and try to keep up. So despite the sore shoulders, knackered knees and aching arses we got to our final destination 12 hours after we had left the mountains.
We would all just like to say many thanks to all who sponsored us; with your help we have raised nearly £6,000 for the Trust.
We would love to hear from you if you know of any soldier (whether current or past), family member or any project that might benefit from our help.