Writer and photographer Heidi Swift recently hosted the inGamba Tours Women's Week. What did she think of 8 days in Northern Portugal, with 5 rad women, 350-ish miles, and 30k vert? She can't stop grinning and proclaimed it the #bestweekever.
Trish saw them first. We were ascending a gradual climb on a ridge that overlooked a sweeping valley below. Far in the distance, the Douro River carved a sinewy arc of blue into the landscape. The hillside to our right cascaded ever downward, etched with the parallel brown and green lines of the region’s famous terraced vineyards. There were farmers off in the distance somewhere between where the vineyards ended and where the Douro rolled through.
They’d stopped what they were doing and they were waving. Big, two-armed waves - like survivors on an island who’d just spotted an airplane in the sky. From where we were they were no bigger than tiny dots with flailing arms. It was impossible to even tell if they were men or women, adults or children.
We stopped our chatter and listened and through the warm air of Portugal’s spring we could hear them calling out. I sat up and raised my hands over my head, returning the greeting.
“What are they saying?” I asked Manuel.
“They are cheering us on.”
He smiled and then we all smiled. We called back the only Portuguese words we’d picked up, “Olá! Bom dia!” We always said Bom Dia even when we should have said Boa tarde. It didn’t matter. Even if they could tell what we were saying, they wouldn’t have cared. We were all out in the middle of nowhere in the Portuguese countryside, enjoying the kind of spontaneous human connection that makes you believe the world is fundamentally good.
On a steep climb just after coffee in João Da Pesqueira we’d had a heckler who called out to me in reference to the large gap that had opened in front of me, “C’mon! Get going! What are you doing? Sleeping?” and after Manuel translated, I’d guffawed despite my gasping effort. On another day as we rolled through Samodáes we passed by a mob of 50 schoolchildren who erupted, fists in the air, screaming like it was the Tour de France.
To the untrained eye, I suppose we might have looked like a pro team; matching kits, matching Pinarello F10’s, follow car, soigneur re-stocking our bottle cages with fresh bidons at every coffee stop. And it didn’t hurt to have two-time Portuguese National Champion Manuel Cardoso at the front of the paceline.
But we were just a group of women on a great adventure with InGamba Tours. Discovering parts of Portugal rarely experienced by tourists, eating all the pastries, drinking all of the wine and generally having the #bestweekever together.
We’d come together for InGamba’s annual Women’s Week from all parts of the United States; Virginia, North Carolina, Arizona, Oregon and New York. Some of us had ridden together before, some of us hadn’t. We were united by simple goals - to ride hard and laugh harder; to leave fitter than we’d arrived; to experience the wonder of what is possibly the most underrated cycling paradise in the world.
Along the way, we discovered something else - the magic of camaraderie and the mysterious alchemy that transforms happiness into watts.
Leading up to the trip, a few of us had connected on social media. Uncertain about the sufficiency of our preparatory training, we’d rallied around the hashtag, #wegotthis. And as we pedaled along together over our eight days in Portugal, we made good on the promise. As the mountain tilted upward underneath our wheels, Trish turned to me and said, “You got this.” I turned to Kara and repeated the affirmation. Kara turned to Kerri. And Andrea? Well, Andrea was well up the road smashing QOMs, but her wings gave us wings just the same and at the top we’d find her waiting with a smile and a high five.
To pass through a place on a bicycle is a sacred thing. The aromas from the bakeries wafting in the breeze, a shepherd in the Serra da Estrella tipping his hat, a stop for a traffic jam of sheep, an old woman sitting under an umbrella urging you to buy the fresh cherries she is selling (yes, of course our mechanic in the follow car brought back a flat back for us to enjoy at the end of the ride).
We ventured out into remote Northeast Portugal and tucked into a breathtaking resort built inside the walls of the ancient village of Marialva for a few nights, enjoying daily routes on the virtually car-free surrounding roads. Roads so smooth and small you’d swear you were on a bike path. Roads so steep you’d curse the route designer under your breath or - for greater satisfaction - out loud into the eucalyptus breeze. Countryside so quiet and lightly populated that coffee shops were hard to come by and, when we found one, the staff was so surprised to see us that they requested we huddle around them for group selfies.
We dined in a tiny restaurant just a block away from the home that João Correia’s [InGamba’s founder] father was born in and after we’d filled ourselves with the best grilled octopus we’d ever tasted, we walked with him to see it and listened to his stories about getting into trouble in the tiny cobbled streets.
Every night we gathered around a table for some new culinary masterpiece. We toasted early and often, raising a glass in unison to celebrate the smallest joys - the sun, the climb, the descent, the daily massage, the best-told joke, the most beautiful calves, the wine itself. During the day we evolved and changed.
With careful tutoring from Manuel, Andrea learned to descend (how often do you get descending lessons from a former Olympian?).
Kara began to embrace the bigger gears and started to accelerate away from us when the road went up. The nerve pain that had plagued me for more than 18 months suddenly disappeared.
But most of all we grew together. We became a crew. A makeshift family united by our love of the bike, but sustained by all the things that lash us together as imperfect humans making our way through an imperfect world; conversation, compassion, laughter, listening and gratitude. World-class riding, food and drink go a long way, but it’s always the women who make this week the #bestweekever.
Don't miss your chance to experience the trip of a lifetime with inGamba. They offer fully supported tours in Portugal, Italy, Spain, France, and California. Find your own #bestweekever - ingamba.pro
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