Adventure comes in many forms. Sometimes part of the fun is finding a new route, planning the details, and creating the challenge. Other times, it’s committing to doing something new and putting your trust in others to create an experience for you. Both have their merits, the latter being much easier…the only real lift is taking the time off work and entering your credit card numbers.
Long known for their guided (and hard) road bike rides throughout the world, Thomson Bike Tours’ new Gravel series combines their signature level of challenge with the added fun of dirt backroads, off-the-beaten-path routes, and the ability to explore a little more.
Make no mistake, the focus is on the quality of the ride over a pampered experience and gourmet dining. But it’s still a well-appointed tour. Nice lodging, good food, some wine, and plenty of snacks mean you won’t be hurting for anything except maybe good WiFi. Which should be considered a bonus.
We booked at trip on Thomson’s inaugural Portugal Gravel tour in fall 2021, where they led us through southern Portugal, from mountains to coast, across six days of riding. The guides wiggled us through small towns, forest roads, local paths, and more, with many days loosely following the historic Algarve trail.
If all that sounds interesting, here’s a quick day-by-day recap of our trip, followed by a few more thoughts on why we like Thomson’s approach to guided bike tours…
DAY ZERO – Don’t do what we did
Which is go out walking, eating and (mostly) drinking all day.
Nay… DO what we did. This is the way.
We’d say hit the ground running, but, mostly, it was walking. A lot of walking, with the idea of shaking off the jet lag, getting fresh air, finding a coffee, and maybe, perhaps, a drink or two to check out the local scene.
Instead, we embarked on an 8-hour hike up and down the very hilly streets of Lisbon, led/followed/joined a political protest march, and found plenty of fun refreshment stops.
Lisbon may be on the coast, but it’s packed with hills. And rooftop bars, which offer great views over the city. And if you pick the right ones, perhaps even a sunset view. We actually finished our last day of the trip at that castle there in the background, which is definitely worth a visit.
As dark settled in, we continued our cultural exploration, happily stumbling upon shoes and booze at The Lisbon Walker. A handmade shoe store with local wines and a full bar, whose unexpected owner will mix up a custom cocktail based on your personal likes was a treat.
Then we revisited Saccarabos Beer Co, which we’d stumbled upon earlier, and eventually we found a Mexican restaurant (naturally) where the chips took entirely too long to arrive but the margaritas were good plentiful. And where we also met a freshly married young lady woman who did not hesitate in trying to make out with us. In front of her new husband. It was weird, but these are the stories that only come from drinking your way around a new town without worrying about the next day.
Just a few more hills and we were back at the metro, then safely in our room for a few hours sleep to prepare for…
DAY ONE – The Warmup / Shakedown Ride
The six day tour starts with a 3 hour drive from Lisbon to Tavira, a small spot near the Spanish border. The entire trip runs east to west along the southern tip of Portugal. To say it’s an early start after a full day of “exploration” is an understatement. I slept the entire van ride.
First stop is lunch and a quick meeting to get bikes built, meet the team, and have lunch.
Bring your own bike, or you can rent a Felt Breed alloy gravel bike with 1x drivetrains. They’re a great bike with plenty of mounts to attach a top tube bag and extra bottle cage.
Following that is a shorter ride to get even better acquainted with the bikes and the staff and shake out the legs. The days are all different, and this one was an even mix of wiggling through a small town…
…pedaling along the coast to check out salt farms…
…and hit a little gravel. Then dinner, and then bed. The real riding starts on…
DAY TWO – Olives and Cobbles
Day two is ~85km with 1,160m of climbing, winding across aged cobble and dirt roads and through small farms and villages. Each day is a highlight of its own, and we had the luxury of being there to document it, which allowed for plenty of stops to actually enjoy the scenery.
I say that because some folks are there to ride (read: hammer), and others are there to pedal somewhere new. If you’re like us and enjoy frequent photo stops or picking fruit, it’s worth having that conversation with the group and the guides at the start. They’ll break into “A” and “B” groups anyway, so it’s best if expectations are known in advance.
Because there’s plenty to stop for most days. Like wild pomegranate trees and freshly fallen citrus samples that you can harvest.
And traditional tile makers, all of which are worth stopping to take in.
Olive fields are everywhere early in the trip, and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time…
…passing folks as they shake the fruit from the trees and gather it in baskets to be picked up later.
Lunch stops are fully catered with sandwich makings, fruit, drinks, and snacks. They provide plenty of on-bike snacks to grab and go, too.
Homes (or what’s left of them) for sale became a running joke amongst us as we became more and more enamored with the landscape and simple lifestyle throughout the area.
One of the remarkable aspects of this tour was the sheer volume of gravel and cobble roads Thomson Bike Tours combined to traverse Portugal. We were off the pavement and away from cars most of the time, and often away from people, too. The landscape was the entertainment, and we could soak it in without distraction.
It’s also impressive that they didn’t water down the experience. It’s hard.
Sergi, our trip leader, says many cycling tours are focused on things like the wine, or a particular destination. But Thomson focuses on the ride, because at the end of the day, that’s what you’re going to remember.
Throughout Europe, most good hotels (and they do stay at good, if not great, hotels) will have good meals. And good wine. And, honestly, beer in Europe is hit or miss anyway, with only one or two options available at any given hotel bar. So, if you have a great place to stay and decent food and drink, then the real thing to look for is the quality of the ride, and having great guides.
On our tour, the guides had been with Thomson for 3 to 10 years. Sergi says the average is 4-5 years for their current guides across all of their rides. And they do a LOT of rides, about 70 planned for 2022 across road and, now, gravel.
DAY THREE – Via Algarviana
Much of our route follows or criss crosses the Via Algarviana, a ~300km hiking trail that goes from the Spanish border to Cap São Vicente on the southwestern tip of Portugal, crossing through the central Algarve region.
After wiggling out of town, and past numerous small citrus patches, Day Three gets a lot more remote.
So, grab an orange (or two)…there’s often perfectly good ones just fallen if you’re not one to grab straight from another’s tree. I’ve found it’s a good idea to have spare room in a jersey pocket or frame bag for just such things.
Rolling out of town, we passed Eucalyptus trees. Forests, even. Which were planted here en masse in the 18th century as a reforestation effort and to prevent erosion.
The non-native tree, however, burns easily and is blamed for the massive wildfires in 2017 that burned much of the countryside here. The charred proof remains today, even as the trees make a come back. For better or worse, they’re coveted by the paper and pulp industries, so they keep them.
While Day Three may not look like much on the elevation profile, the ~1400m of climbing over ~65km of riding makes itself known.
Long, gradual climbs provide expansive views of the recuperating tree farms.
The long climbs provide long descents, too, where the old adage “go slow to go fast” is wisely adhered to.
Today ends at a spa hotel, so be sure to book your massage immediately upon arrival and then remember that a spa’s idea of a “sports massage” might be a bit more low key than what you’re used to, but still quite nice.
DAY FOUR – Screaming down the Monchique Mountains
Day Four was about half pavement, half gravel, but oh what glorious pavement it was. With about 1250m of climbing split almost evenly between first and second halves of the ride, today’s a speedy start (bring a windbreaker) followed by a long gravel road overlooking the valley.
Unfortunately, I didn’t stop to take pics on the road side of the ride. But imagine the most glorious ribbon of smooth asphalt you’ve seen, hugging the side of the valley, and descending for mile after mile after mile with barely any traffic at all, and you’ll understand why I didn’t stop. Photos wouldn’t do it justice.
The turnaround point put us onto gravel, with a snack stop about halfway..and, thankfully, near the top of the climb back out of the valley. Local sweets and cakes got our sugar back up for the rollercoaster ride back into town.
The gravel side is in the sun, providing a warmer finish to the day…
…with a lovely lunch at Velochique cafe and bike shop. Great coffee and excellent food (the burgers looked amazing, but my chicken avocado panini didn’t disappoint) make this a perfect post ride stop before a short pedal back to the hotel. We stayed at the same spot, so if you missed your massage opportunity the first day, book it for the second day before dinner.
One caveat…the pools at all of the hotels were freezing cold on our November trip. Thomson offers an April trip to Portugal as well, which may be slightly warmer, but we wouldn’t count on taking a dip to relax post ride at any of the stops. Hot showers worked out better.
DAY FIVE – A big ride to the beach
Day Five starts the same way Day Four did, up an 18º cobble road climb just a few meters from the hotel. It’s rough, and the climbing doesn’t stop for quite some time on this day…but it’s worth it.
Just don’t forget to turn around and enjoy the view while chugging up the climbs.
Today’s elevation map is straight up from the start and looks the biggest (though another day just beats it in total gains). But once at the top, the view to the coast proves that it’s mostly all downhill from here.
Riding past and directly next to windmills is a true highlight, and there’s a long stretch of them to enjoy. The whooshing sound the blades make as they spin past drives home just how big they are.
Portugal reportedly makes over 400 million cork wine stoppers per day, and it all comes from Cork Oaks and a delicate stripping process followed by a not-so-delicate heaving-of-the-bark-onto-a-giant-pile process. Imagine driving that truck trailer.
The descent to the coast is steep at times, subtle at others, and runs through a wide variety of landscapes. We even found a little singletrack that was worthy of a trail bike…and super fun on the Felt gravel bikes.
As we neared the coast, the flora and fauna changed to more tropical types. The brush became more dense. And the scenery more interesting.
Small villages dotted the landscape, and several new apartment buildings were under construction. For a coastal town with amazing beaches and monstrous waves, southern Portugal seems both quaint and isolated.
As much as I’d love it to stay that way, it’s only a matter of time before it’s developed…to a point. The coastal areas where the best beaches are are protected, so you’ll have a short (couple of minutes) transit to get to the water. Regardless, it’s an incredibly chill vibe that’s getting harder to find. Go now. Or just stay an extra week after your Thomson gravel tour.
Day Five dips directly onto the beach, with an amazing seafood lunch at an oceanside shack. Soak it in. Don’t rush it. Grab a coffee.
Because after the break, we turned inland again for a bit.
The dirt roads leading away from the beach were pockmarked with small, secluded fields full of surf bums and hippies, many parked in vans of various quality, an old bus, or even a barely-converted UPS delivery truck. A few mobile homes here and there, or quaint houses, were spread along the road, too.
It’s a chill vibe that I want to return to and spend more time soaking in. That there’s endless gravel riding around, too, is a bonus.
Just had to throw this in because the overland rig was impressive. But also one of very, very few cars that came by us on the entire trip’s worth of gravel and dirt road riding.
DAY SIX – Coastal cycling and an evening out
The final day of riding starts off with a loop through an eco-preserve park at Carrapateira.
This is the spot I’d come back to. Our hotel the night before was quaint (even if the WiFi was terrible, which is totally normal for remote parts of Europe, and especially when you have 20 people trying to use it), and it was just a five minute ride to views like this. Surf camps and eco-farm hotels dot the area, providing plenty of places to relax and try a new sport.
Hiking trails weave through this park, too, and beaches book end it with spots to surf or just relax.
Pop off the semi-paved loop to get a closer look at the jagged coastline.
The view of Praia do Amado beach on the way out of the park sealed the deal for me, I’m going back. Amado is known as the most consistent year-round break in Portugal, with both left- and right-hand breaks. When we rode by in November, they were perfect 10-13 foot waves, though they do get smaller in the summer.
A bit more wiggling through the interior brought us into a nearly Seussical forest with more windmills provided shelter from the coastal winds and yet another landscape to explore.
For the entire trip, sag vehicles followed, sometimes bouncing between A and B groups, and always eager to grab or provide an extra layer, snacks, bottle refills, or fix a mechanical. After each day’s ride, drop your bike with their mechanics as soon as you get to the hotel and they’ll make any repairs necessary, then store them securely and have them ready for you in the morning. They even wash them down at the end of the trip, so they’re clean and ready to be packed for your travel home!
The final day winds on and off the coast, and the views never disappoint.
While the last day has just ~900m of climbing, it’s one of the longest and windiest, and the cumulative fatigue starts to set in. Fortunately, a lunch step near the hotel let us regroup, with their team pulling the paceline home for the final stretch.
A quick stop to check out a castle in our destination port of Sagres…
…ended up providing some of the most dramatic ocean conditions and shoreline of the trip.
After getting cleaned up, we strolled through town to find a snack and a pint of Portugal’s ubiquitous Super Bock. Some of Thomson’s crew and a few clients joined us, too, sharing stories from past trips and answering questions and giving feedback about this one.
The next morning was an early shuttle back to Lisbon, but Watts and I stayed on another night, strolled through town once again, and found some new platces to eat and drink, as well as revisiting some favorites.
Are Thomson Gravel Bike Tours worth it?
If you’re looking for an escape into another country, and want to see the villages and scenery off the main roads while getting in a solid ride each day, Thomson Gravel Tours are worth a look.
They take rider care and health seriously, with guidelines for handling bottles and snacks to keep everyone healthy and riding. And it’s not just because of COVID, they’ve been doing that since 2014 since they’re often riding through rural areas and want to keep anyone from getting a stomach bug (or worse, spreading something to the rest of the group).
Depending on the trip, some meals are up to you, like if they’re bringing everyone out on the town, but mostly Thomson has you covered. For this trip, every meal was provided, with picnic lunches mid ride.
For me, I would do it again in a heartbeat, albeit in a different location on different roads. And I’d take Watts again…it’s fun meeting new people, but also fun sharing an experience with a good friend. And there are only so many people I can stand being around for 8 days at a time. Fortunately (oddly?), Watts is one of them. I’m sure you all have a couple of friends like that, too. Choose wisely.
As for Watts, here’s his take:
“While there’s that part of me that balks at paying anyone for a guided cycling tour of anything, I’ll admit, I was intrigued. I kept thinking about the possibility of doing a trip like this with my son. Whether soon, or in the near distant future. A trip where the time we spend together could be less about me dragging him through the kind of duration and austerity that I’ll happily tolerate to be in a place I’ve never been, and more about introducing him to and sharing with him an experience that would hopefully plant the seed for his own exploration on the bike . And to get to spend that kind of time with him as he finds his own way… what is that worth? And what does it cost? I definitely started crunching some mental numbers.”
And oh, um, yeah, I’d totally take my family, too…if they were ready. Thomson’s bike tours are mostly about the riding, and this one was just the right amount of hard. So, choose a partner that’s up for that, physically and spiritually. A weeklong bike tour is not something you just throw someone into. But doing something that’s pushes a just bit past one’s comfort zone is a great way to expand your own and your partner’s/friend’s notions of what’s possible and strengthen a relationship, especially when all of the little logistical details are already attended to.
Thomson offers 14 gravel trips per year in Morocco, Girona, Tuscany, Provence, La Rioja, Iceland, Vermont, Pyrenees, Scotland, and Portugal, some offered multiple times per year. Prices range from $3,495 to $5,895 depending on location and duration, excluding travel to and from their starting points.