Let me set something straight: Owning a travel company does not mean you get to spend your life on vacation. I know. I thought it did too. But in between running a growing business and spending the kind of quality time I want to with my wife and kids, I’m lucky if I find an hour to get out on my bike around the Bay Area, let alone jet off to Europe on a week-long bike trip.
Which sucks, because even if I do say so myself, we’re pretty good at what we do. And we’re getting better, so every year, it gets harder to choose. At the beginning, there was one location, and a handful of dates, and I just had to rock up and ride, whenever I could. Now, we’re in Italy, Portugal, France, and California. It’s a problem I’m sure a lot of you face – balancing business with the good life.
I’ve been doing this crazy inGamba thing for a while now, but I still really enjoy being on trips whenever I can and meeting new people. On a personal level, it’s always nice when a new client asks if I’ll be on the trip they are signing up for, and while I can’t be everywhere at once, I get excited at the beginning of the year when I’m planning which trips I can make it to.
When I’m making that choice, my reasoning changes with the seasons. There have been years where I’ve been in good shape … and others when the shape has been more round than good. Sometimes I look forward to the riding and other times the food and wine of a new region is what inspires me the most.
Like most people, I’m always trying to get faster. Last year, we started the #Fitbyspring campaign and it was great to see so many of you used that as a way to build some early-season form. I know it helped me get fitter, although I am not sure I actually ended up being “Fit,” in the proper sense.
This year, as I look at our calendar and all the great trips, I’m particularly excited about two this spring – for two very different reasons. I want to ride, but I also want to eat and drink. Those were the three main themes around which I started this business back in 2010, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re still the best reasons to travel.
First up, it’s our Portuguese Donkey Week starting April 9. Portugal has become one of the hottest tourism destinations in the world in recent years, but so much of it is still undiscovered. Alentejo is the nation’s agricultural heartland, and one of the best wine-producing regions in the world, and thanks to my Portuguese roots and the fact that a lot of our team hail from the country, I think inGamba does a better job than anyone else in introducing guests to what is Europe’s last hidden gem for cyclists and lovers of great food and wine. In a nutshell, Donkey Weeks are harder and longer. We don’t shy away from the food and wine, but each day averages around 150km. We announce some of the Donkey Week routes months in advance, but every year one of them is always a surprise.
I’ll give you a little hint on this one. Day 2 will start in Palmela and head down the Atlantic Coast of Portugal to Sagres, the southwestern most point in Europe, where Prince Henry the Navigator had his famous nautical school and is connected with Portugal’s Age of Discovery. The route is 205km in total, and most of the day we will be hugging the Atlantic Coast on the Rota Vicentina, an area that is almost entirely a protected national park. And in case there’s a head wind all the way, we’ll have my former teammate Ted King and 2009 Portuguese National Champion turned inGamba Guide Manuel Cardoso along to pace the front and make sure we make it in time for dinner.
Two things excite me about this trip. The first is that it’ll be a week for anyone who really loves to ride. The mileage will be high and the pace will likely get animated at times, which only means that having the same support as a pro tour team makes things that much easier. The second is that part of the trip we will be staying at a fantastic new property called São Lourenço do Barrocal, an estate that has been in my friend José Uva’s family for over 200 years. Although the estate has a rich history it has been contemporarily re-imagined with the keen eye of Pritzker-winning architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, who has carved out rooms, cottages and a spa for guests in the former stables and barns. To me, it offers the perfect balance of respecting history and tradition while adding just the right amount of modernism and comfort.
The second trip that I’m looking forward to takes place the week after, and while it’s in the Alentejo region too, it’s going to have a very different vibe. I’ve invited my friend Lorenza Sebasti, the owner of Italy’s famed Castello di Ama winery, to come and hang with us for a week and help me taste some great Portuguese reds. If Donkey Week emphasizes the riding, this week will emphasize the hotels, food and wine, while riding will take a back seat to less than 50 miles per day and plenty of cultural activities for those who may prefer to skip a day or riding.
Food and wine is a really important part of my life, and although I have been living in the United States for 30 years I still crave my country’s cooking and Alentejo is known to have some of Portugal’s best food and most robust wines.
For a trip like this, the hotels will also take center-stage and we are planning on just two changes during the trip so as to be able to enjoy some of the properties a little bit more. After Donkey Week, I’m going to be holed up for Easter Weekend at what is my favorite hotel in the world, Lisbon’s Palacio Belmonte which is more like living in a palace than staying in a hotel. The entire property has just 10 suites and over 4,000 square meters of space, so you feel like you have a palace all for yourself. Once we start from Lisbon and head south into the Alentejo, we have some special surprises along the way in terms of hotels and restaurants but will finish at São Lourenço do Barrocal once again, because you can never really have enough of a great thing.
This year’s shaping up to be the best we’ve had so far. And on a personal level, I’m riding more than I have done in a while and I can’t wait to get over to Europe to see how good my form really is. It’s been great to start the season here in California, but my heart is still in Portugal, where I grew up and where I first fell in love with cycling. It’s a country that has an incredible amount to offer, and not just in terms of terrain. The food is great, the wine is some of the most interesting being produced anywhere in the world, and most importantly, the people are special. It’s a place that leaves a mark on you, long after you’ve left. I’m excited to share that with you.