If you’re looking for inspiration for your next cycling holiday, then look no further than Serra da Estrela in Portugal.
It’s not often you travel to a destination that blows you away with its awesome beauty, peacefulness, uniqueness and landscape that just begs you to go ride in it.
That’s what happened when I first arrived at Serra da Estrela in Portugal two years ago. The granite massif rises from the earth to it’s summit at 1,993 m (6,539 ft). It looms ominously over the surrounding landscape but at the same time, it beckons you to discover it’s inner beauty.
As I unpacked the bike just outside the busy open market at the foot of the mountains, a sense of intepidation overcame me – these mountains form the very backbone of Portuguese cycling culture and climbing them is like a ‘coming of age’ event.
On this first outing I am following a route that has witnessed legendary cyclists such as Joaquim Agostinho, fight for victory in one of the world’s oldest tours.
The climb to the summit starts with a bit of kick but after 3 kms the road settles into single digits. Although, I never thought I would consider 8% as an opportunity to spin the legs and recover!
At 10 kms the road flattens out onto a brief plateau. An opportunity to catch my breath, hydrate and ingest much needed energy. It’s the first opportunity I’ve really had to look up and breathe in my surroundings. The hustle and bustle of the town from whence I departed had been replaced with total tranquility. Other than the goats and wild birds, I had the entire mountain to myself. It was eerie, almost unsettling, not one car was on the road.
The respite was short and I was soon climbing at 12% again. In fact, this is a feature of Serra da Estrela – every plateau is followed by several kilometres of double figure gradients – the mountain tests you again and again.
At 1200 meters the sun is dazzling in it’s brightness. My legs are hurting, my breathing deep, my pedalling rythmic. I pass a shepherd leaning on his staff whilst tending to his mountain goats. We exchange salutations and he wishes me ‘good luck’. I push on and the sound of the goats bells melt away.
Silence descends. I round a bend carved from the cliff-face and the final climb comes into view. I understand now why the Tour of Portugal has been won and lost on this climb….. I’m back into double figure gradients!! The final stage of the climb winds its way up the mountain on a varying gradient through a series of switchbacks. I’m glad to take advantage of a quick photo stop to catch my breath and take in this amazing view.
The summit is elusive, the physical exertion relentless, the exhaustion is real. Every pedal stroke is strained as I gather every ounce of energy for the final push through what I hope is the last bend.
The road levels and the plateau at 1800 meters apears before me. The landscape is simply breathtaking. The views across Portugal and to the Spanish mountains of Extremadura are worthy of every pedal stroke. The unique beauty of this place is something better appreciated by bike than any other way.
The road rolls gently over the plateau for a futher 7 kms before the final rise to the summit at 1,993 meters. It’s an opportunity to savour the victory and bathe in the glory of success. It’s also an opportunity to compose yourself and not to look like an exhausted, dishevelled wreck on arrival at the ‘Tower’ !!
You can join me, the Team Volta support crew and Pro Cyclist James Lowsley-Williams in September and share five carefully planned stages in this amazing mountainous region of Portugal.