Notes that afternoon: Just a flat out fun day in the saddle. Pushing hard. Excellent power, everything fell into place. Very happy with results. Short and sweet?

First though, flashback to yesterday. We’ve arrived only mid-afternoon from Lisbon, after a 4 hour bus ride. Comfortable enough, but long to be in one small space, and not conducive to relaxing legs or minds, knowing how much preparation work lies ahead. It’s a recurring theme of this adventure, having to keep on top of your organizational game, and it starts running the moment we arrive at the Casino hotel.

Which is, incidentally, very beautiful in a somber Las Vegas couch potato way, with dark grays and metallic motifs everywhere. Not sure it’s the place I want to spend the first night with new my biking roomie. I think about expensive Russian hookers instead. More fitting for sure. Maybe next time.

Anyway, the reality we face is not a glamourous one. It’s time to check in, eat lunch, assemble bike, transfer luggage to the official race bag and then prepare to start the following morning. We then have to prepare GPS units, test them, test them with bike and then meet for supper. Following which is the race orientation, the GPS orientation and by then it’s 10:30pm and it’s time for bed. Or one last beer depending on your race philosophy.

The room is super comfortable and my roomie told the truth – he doesn’t snore – hooray! The race starts pretty early in the morning, but not crazy early as is the case with some, like La Ruta for example. The food is outstanding – 5 start buffets to rival the best I’ve enjoyed anywhere else (well, except that one hotel in Heraklion).

It’s not a bunch start, which is kind of a let-down. I like the jittery start line and the chance to slam it between the pros and the hos. We leave this start in waves starting at exactly 8:36am on the nail with the only woman rider over 50. You go girl. Inspiring stuff. A small group turns out to see her off and cheer.

Over the next hour and a half or so the riders leave in seeded order according to gender/age classifications. It means that the expected slowest riders usually go first, but this isn’t always the case. There’s plenty of surprises along the way, and sometimes the expected riders don’t finish first.

My goal is to start slow today, I feel a bit like a pack mule with a full day’s compliment of bars, gels, powder and a pack full of repair options. It’s hard to let anything go, and I know that even though chances are slim of breaking something still can’t quite get myself to lose the hydro pack which carries all the portable repair items I think I’ll need. For what it’s worth I’d say about half the field is splitting between pack and no pack. My goal for the next race is to have no pack. More on how to beat the backpack burden soon I hope.

I take a moment to acknowledge that it’s the last moment for many days that our legs won’t be sore, that we won’t be in recovery of some sorts from the day before, and the last day of feeling overfed. I’m waiting for my start time in a pretty big group of 22 riders. No mercy group though, there are some tough competitors in this field.

I try to contain myself when we start, but find myself near the front of the group through the 10km of mostly road start. I’m wary of taking the lead in order to avoid wrong turn pullbacks but end up doing just that soon enough and the lead group is away. It’s also the last time I leave with the front group and I remind myself to enjoy it while it lasts.

Attrition is swift, before long the climbing starts and it’s time to put the new granny gears to good use, which come through the test beautifully. There’s nothing that I can’t climb on this bike, and I’m toasting my mechanics already on day one. The first checkpoint comes quickly, and the pros still haven’t caught me, and I’m feeling like a thunder thithered titan. I’m off the back predictably enough, although I cry party foul, since I followed a guy riding the wrong turn and had to circle back for the climb. Or it could be the 15kg extra I’m carrying compared to other riders in my, ehem, body. Damn bread. Curse Montreal for being such a tasty pastry city.

The hills continue to get more aggressive through the middle portion of the stage, but the weather is benign and the breeze is as welcome as it ever can be. It’s not enough to bog down. I ride alone, then pick up another rider, then keep going. My other goal today was simple: don’t stop. Not even once. Ok, well I have to stop to refill water once, but really that’s it. No cracking and raiding café’s for cokes. It was a shock last time to realize how much time leeched out of my legs with a stop here and a stop there. In the first stage alone last time I spend almost a full hour going nowhere.

Scenery is beautiful. Everything looks fresh and the spring flowers are in full bloom. There is a sense of nature being nudged ever so slightly in the right direction by unseen hands. It’s really something. Between the views and the cobblestone sections and the abandoned towns my mind wanders and leaves my legs to the business of power. The end of the course is a good stretch of Ecovia – the Portuguese version of an abandoned rail line which have been converted into a multi-use trail. They are used primarily by bikes. In the north there isn’t much tourism still and we have the path almost completely to ourselves.

If I have the time someday I’ll return to enjoy other Ecovias. There are many of these routes that crisscross the country. Most notable for me is a cross-country route along the Southern coast from Sagres to the Spanish border.

The Ecovia we’re on has a slight (very slight) overall downhill, with the usual flats and false flats thrown in. The surface is not smooth really and there’s a couple of sketchy gravel slides. Still, it’s a straight shot to the end, pushing 30 km/hr. on my own, which to be honest is probably best since a pack at pace on this surface is bound to be asking for trouble.

The stage finishes just outside of Peso da Régua town, and getting to the hotel at the end requires a short scramble into a vineyard, and then an easy road stretch in. When a group of us arrive the party is in full swing. The salty snacks and beer flavored beer recovery fluids flow. It’s a relatively short day so there’s still some gas in the tank. No haggard faces yet. In fact, plenty of happy ones 🙂

We have to schlep over the river, which causes some impromptu Uber discussions and negotiations with shuttle buses and so on. It’s only 1,500 meters to go. But hey those calories are needed.

Hotel is good again, smaller room, but better view for sure over the river. Dinner is excellent and welcome after a short period of starvation lasting almost two hours.

Tomorrow the hills start in earnest with a 15km, 1000m climb. It’s easy to avoid worrying about it for now. With the river in between the two race hotels, and the iconic Sandman Port statue looming large above it, life is good, relaxed even.

The great thing about the day is that every rider who started the stage has finished. It’s pretty unheard of for a stage race, and a nice way to bond at the beginning of the week. Most of all, riders seem happy with the day’s route and the effort. It really was fun.

I don’t lose sight of the fact that in many ways this day feels like a prelude for what’s to come.

The real work starts tomorrow.