When I started mountain biking about 12 years ago, it was the adventure that came with each ride that hooked me. Every time I'd pedal deep into the Sierra Nevada mountains, there was always something different waiting. Weather, terrain, wildlife, equipment - every ride comes with unexpected situations that must be dealt with on the fly. For 2016, my season ended with a race across Portugal that epitomized everything I love about mountain biking. What I thought would be a typical bike race, turned out to be one of the craziest adventures of my career.
The race is known as Transgharb, and it consists of 7 stages that span the southern part of Portugal known as the Algarve. The average stage length was around 100km, with about 6,000 ft of climbing each day. What made this race so unique as compared to any other I've ever done though, was the support - or lack thereof.
At Transgharb, there are no aid stations, no organized water stops, no place for mechanical support along the stage, there are not even course markings. At the start of each day, race organizers would load a route into a GPS mounted to the handlebars of our bikes. Racers would then have to use this to navigate trails, highways, tight city streets, paths, and everything else in order to find the finish line 100km away. Also in this file on the GPS unit would be coordinates for places to find food or water along the way. Things like natural springs, water fountains, cafe's, etc. would show up as tiny dots on our GPS screens. These would prove to be the most important resource of the entire race, as 100km in the blazing Portugal heat for 7 days required a lot of food and water, and my jersey pockets can only carry so many fig bars and extra water bottles.
The race kicked off in Faro, the capital of the Algarve. The first stage was supposed to be relatively easy compared to the rest of the race, but unfortunately there is a pretty unforgiving learning curve that comes with Transgharb.
About 50km in on day 1, I found myself with a substantial lead and a seemingly smooth week ahead. Just as I started to hunt down the first cafe of the stage to refill my empty water bottles, I lost the course. It was a slight miscalculation, but it turned my day sour pretty quickly. After just a few hours of wandering in the hills trying to find some sign of a bike race, heat stroke started to set in. As the day winded down, a race official driving the route to find any stragglers still out stumbled across me. He gave me some water and showed me the way and I eventually made it to the finish, several hours down on the leader.
My body had a tough time bouncing back from day 1, but my mind didn't. The race organizers, the incredible scenery, the excitement of the race; all helped me get right back into things after almost losing it on the first stage. I finished 3rd on Stage 2, then 2nd on Stages 3, 4, and 5. These next 4 stages took us over the highest peak in the Algarve, overlooking the entire country below. We raced north, then we raced south to the most southern point of Europe. Aside from a few flat tires and a close call with a herd of goats, it was pretty smooth sailing over these 4 days.
While I was still unfortunately quite a ways down from the lead, I had climbed back up to 2nd overall in the General Classification. With 2 stages left, my legs finally started to come around from my day 1 incident. I won the final 2 stages, closing the gap on the leader, but still finishing 2nd overall for my first Transgharb.
All in all, the race was one of the hardest and the most rewarding I've ever done. We raced through some of the most incredible parts of an amazing country.There is no better way to experience and to appreciate another landscape than to explore it by bike.
I look forward to sharing more adventures with you all in 2017. Happy New Year!