Cycling In Portugal: Tomar to Vendas Novas

One of the many cycling statues in the town of
 Alpiarca, on the N118 towards Vendas Novas.

Like back home in Australia, Sunday mornings in Tomar are a Mecca for cyclists. One of the many I encountered on the road south towards Golegã was a 56-year-old guy named Joseph. Evidently noticing me poring over my map by the side of the road, he stopped to see if I needed any help. A proficient speaker of English, he invited me to tack onto his group, which was, rather conveniently, heading in the same direction as me for the next 15-or-so kilometres.

Time travelled quickly, as it often does when you’re accompanied by other cyclists. Having my thoughts to myself, I enjoy riding alone, but the exchange of experiences can be a great teacher. While the rest of the peloton eventually turned onto another road leading back to Tomar, Joseph kindly accompanied me to the outskirts of Golegã to ensure that I took the right route out of town. Before parting, we finished what was an absorbing conversation about cycling on the Iberian Peninsula, particularly mountains. I, of course, talked incessantly about our experiences in the Pyrenees and the Spanish Asturias, while he seemed just as addicted to climbing Portugal’s Serra da Estrela as I’ve been about Alto de l’ Angliru.

The rational part of my mind often reminds me that there’s likely to be something very peculiar about habitually riding up mountains, especially Hors Category ones or ones with anything more than a five-percent average gradient. At its best, its dogged exercise with magnificent views as its prize, at its worst, sheer masochism. While at least far healthier than either alcohol or drug addiction, I’ve heard it compared to the flagellants of the middle ages, who sought atonement for their sins by whipping themselves in public. Though nowhere as popular or widespread as cycling today, the movement gained a great deal of momentum when Europe became ravaged by the Black Death during the 14th century. Sporting white robes and lugging crosses with them as they travelled throughout the countryside, the frenzied self-mutilation of men and women alike, became an all too familiar sight until the plague ran its course.

The end of the road, Mount Baw Baw.

I likened Joseph’s addiction to climbing the Serra da Estrela with my own fascination with Mount Baw Baw, ranked by many as the most unrelenting climb in Australia. Similar to the distance he travelled between his home town Tomar, and Covilha which lies at the base of the Portuguese mountain, Baw Baw is not much less than a three-hour drive from Melbourne. Half the distance of the Alto de l’ Angliru but just as steep, it’s almost switchback-free road offers absolutely no respite for its entire six-kilometre length. While the distance mightn’t sound like much, try cycling six thousand metres up a 13% average gradient without a breather. As some might say, ‘If bicycles were around in the 14th century, it may have been the business of whip-wielding zealots’.

Roz enjoying a beer after walking up Baw Baw
Tourist Road herself.

If there’s an easier way of climbing up the Tourist Road to the summit of Mount Baw Baw, it’s leaving from the sleepy hollow of Tanjil Bren. An old gold prospector’s and logging village, it today, contains little more than a smattering of residents and a small store, open to the public during ski season. From here, it’s just a pleasant 10-kilometre warm-up surrounded by marvellous mountain forest. At worst, an undulating road, it soon delivers the unsuspecting rider to the bottom of the climb, known as ‘The Gantry’. For the remainder of the journey, you might as well be labouring up the narrow Asturian ‘goat-track’ in Spain. The only difference is, you won't have to pay the airfare.


1 comment:

  1. Aaaahh yes, Baw Baw, the relentless beast of a climb that even cars struggle to travel. The first beer at the top is always the winner, but the real reward is the descent. There is no sane reason to climb this on a bike, but it is a magnet that keeps on drawing you back. I love & hate this climb!!
    I'm off now to whip myself in public, my other obsession in life.