A Memorable Morning

Last week, the Beloved Spouse and I were in Portugal on a bike trip organized by a company called Backroads. We have done such trips before.

Backroads trips are a nice way to get enough exercise while vacationing to feel good about enjoying the local foods and wines, in my case all in close proximity to the Beloved. Rounding out the experience, there’s always an optional and mercifully light daily lecture on some aspect of local history, culture or agronomy, so we can learn a bit about the lands we ride through. 

The groups of paying participants in such trips tend to consist of seven or eight middle aged or older couples and maybe a couple of strays – all are outdoorsy, almost by definition, and we have found most to be genuinely interesting people. Each day, everybody bicycles through lovely countryside, usually from breakfast to a coffee stop, to lunch, to a snack stop and finally to a pleasant hotel, all the time shadowed by support vans whose drivers are happy to give rides to those who choose to opt out of this or that leg of the journey.

The cycling wasn’t competitive; each rider went at his or her chosen pace and we all re-gathered at the communal stops. The Beloved Spouse and I were older than most of the other participants; I have been an avid cyclist for nearly as long as about half of last week’s group has been alive – and I have the scars to prove it.

Even in the best of conditions, cycling is dangerous. Every rider I know who has been involved with the sport for any considerable period of time has broken bones in crashes: roads can and do jump up and bite at the most unexpected moments, and drunk or texting drivers lurk as potentially life-threatening menaces. In three and a half decades of getting on my bike about 250 times a year, I have been hit by an old drunk once and broken four bones in run-of-the-mill, my-wheels-slipped-out-from-under-me accidents.

Not a sport for the faint of heart.


Last Wednesday, in lieu of the customary first ride to a coffee stop, we were taken on a long bus trip from Portugal’s southeastern interior, called the Alentejo, where we had spent the previous days, to the day’s intended late-morning starting point. The route was to begin at the top of a small mountain on the northern edge of the Algarve – a stunningly beautiful coastal region facing the Atlantic to the south.

From a restaurant at the peak, we were to do a sharp, six kilometer descent to sea level, then a much longer, flattish ride to lunch in the town of Silves. The rest of the week was to be spent in spectacularly scenic rides along the coast.

Moments before the bus dropped us off where we could get onto our waiting bicycles, brought to the restaurant separately by the Backroads team, what had been an occasional light mist turned into a hard rain.

Talk immediately turned to whether or not we should do the descent. The temperature was reasonably warm – perhaps high fifties Fahrenheit – but visibility wouldn’t be great and the unfamiliar road would be steep and slippery, with switchbacks at irregular intervals.

I was pleased that the Beloved Spouse promptly opted out – she rides rarely and mostly out of affection for me, so the thought of her doing a dangerous descent frightened me. Consequently, her quick declaration that she wasn’t going to do it was a relief; it also made it easier for others to jump on the it-would-be-nuts-to-do-it train; a consensus in favor of being ferried to the bottom of the mountain by the Backroads vans quickly formed.

Even so, I always knew I was going to do it. I figured that’s what I was there for.

I jumped on my bike alone and pedaled up the dirt driveway from the restaurant to the road, turned leftward and downhill, and started to roll.

The rain had softened a little. Most of what I could see were browns and greens – there is little in the way of ground cover in those mountains, and the road was of a brownish-gray color rather like the roadside dirt, with nondescript trees a few feet off the shoulder – a high desert look.

I concentrated on modulating my speed relative to upcoming corners and dangerous – because astonishingly slippery; when you lose control, it goes in an instant – wet tarmac, sand and paint marks. After the first few corners, I gained confidence and allowed my speed to increase.  

I was alone on the road, the ferrying vans presumably far behind, no cars or trucks in sight. Knowledge of the risks I was running forced me to focus on the immediacy and tactile nature of my fast-changing surroundings. Would my wheels hold the corners? I thought yes. Was I cold as well as wet? Not relevant. I held my handlebars lightly, expectantly. The equation changed moment by moment.

After I reached the bottom, the rain stopped and I enjoyed a leisurely, warmish spin to lunch.

A little over a week later, all the other riding memories of our trip to Portugal have faded into a few snapshots in my mind; the wet, cold, frightening, exhilarating six kilometer descent to the coast is a movie. I’m pretty sure that I’ll remember it for years to come.   


Why do we sometimes court danger? Doubtless part of the answer is to learn our own limits. Another part is to have experiences that – like this descent – those who did it* will remember long after. And finally, in a reason that really encompasses both of the foregoing, because the levels of focus and concentration that such moments call forth make us feel more wholly alive than we do in the fog of comfortable experiences that will soon be lost to memory.

M.H. Johnston

*I don’t mean to give the impression that I was the only rider who did the descent in the rain; a while after I arrived at the lunch spot, several others arrived, talking happily of their descents. Those who had gotten into the vans came later.

3 comments to A Memorable Morning

  • Josh Lewis  says:

    Good thing your film crew was there https://youtu.be/9QNdx2hs0n4

  • KH  says:

    I tried Josh, but had to click away from that video after only a few curves. Good one. Welcome home Mark

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