Every overachieving roadie in your local peloton thinks they’re semi-pro. I jumped at the chance to ride in Portugal and find out what it really feels like to train as if this is your life.
Riding from town to town on a bicycle across the northern Portugese landscape is like something out of a Hemmingway novel. You feel as if you are having an out-of-body experience, as though you’re watching yourself in the Tour de France on an old black-and-white television in a dusty European cafe. Sweat pours off your forehead and soaks your cap. It runs down your back as you try to keep the wheel of the jerseyed teammate ahead of you, hammering up and down cobblestoned roads. You pause momentarily for a drink out of a red water bottle before shifting gears and settling into the dropbars for one of the most dramatic descents of your life through alien rock formations spotted with rural homes.
Really now, when was the last time you woke up, stretched into a fresh Giordana kit, enjoyed a sprawling European breakfast, and hopped on your $13,000 Pinarello for a spin around a landscape dotted with stone castles, medieval villages, sweetwater springs, and vineyards—with full rider support? Add in a group of cyclists with the same fitness and goals—and repeat, for eight days on end.
This is the InGamba experience. I have spent almost 20 years of training and riding with all the “semi-pros” in my home of Boulder, Colorado, and around the country as a journalist. But when I learned of a special cycling opportunity that replicated the Pro Tour experience, my heart leapt at the chance to get closer to this dream. When I got to Portugal, I felt like a kid walking out onto the field before the Super Bowl.
InGamba is completely unique among bike tour operators. It offers roadies the pro experience that every competitive amateur cyclist glimpses of but can never attain. You ride on the same bikes, kit, and gear as the pros and spin down the same fabled routes of the European Grand Tours, with full support and guides, many of whom are famous cyclists themselves. You get personalized luggage tags and laundry bags (your team kit is washed every night), bike handlers, actual pro-tour mechanics, and soigneurs (yup, massages every night).
When given the opportunity to cycle almost anywhere in the world among InGamba’s luxe offerings, Portugal was my first choice. I initially became obsessed about visiting Portugal a few years ago when I watched the documentary “Where to Invade Next” by Michael Moore, and learning more about Portugal’s social and national priorities. Despite the country’s increasing trendiness (some dub Lisbon the next Paris), it hasn’t come close to blowing up like an Iceland for example, that doesn’t even want any more tourism at this point. No, most of Portugal is still relatively undiscovered by the masses, despite the fact that we stayed in some of the coolest and most unique boutique hotels I’ve ever experienced around the remote northern region of the country.
The laid-back Portugese way of life feels especially civilized compared to what we are accustomed to in the U.S. And the country has a deeply rooted bike-racing culture that suits the rolling landscape.
Each night, our mechanics meticulously wash and detail our bicycles. They did this because it’s their job, whether the boss is there or not, with an unassuming national pride. It seemed that everyone I met cared about the details, the little things that make all the difference, in life, in cooking, in hospitality, and also in this sport of nuances. Our bikes were perfectly staged with pedals attentively aligned at 90 degrees when we stumbled across cobblestones each morning in our cleats to begin the day’s ride. And our water bottles were filled—the white cap with water, red cap with hydration mix—setting the stage for the day’s kilometers.
It Is About the Bike
It may sound cliché, but InGamba started as an idea scribbled on a paper placemat in a cafe, and a single Tweet, and it has since become an outlet of continuous flow state for global cycling enthusiasts, those who can afford it anyway. In the words of former InGamba employee Jim Merithew, “it’s for people who know the brand of their bike.”
In fact, InGamba is more of a family than a company, more of a brand than a tour operator. It’s a publishing company disguised as a bike company, says Merithew, bringing a focus beyond the product to the substance of what cycling actually is. “It’s having the pedals turned the right way every morning, the right stickers, right socks, a clean bike…” he says. When they say the devil is in the details, InGamba nails it, connecting to the customer in every way, down to the personalized custom leather luggage tags each rider receives. They are crafted by Jaoa’s favorite shoe maker in Lecchi, Tuscany, where the company was first founded, where Jaoa lived and trained in Italy with the Cervelo team. At first all of this might feel a little over-the-top, but you quickly realize you’re not getting any special treatment—because the real experience begins when you get on the bike.
Fortunately for my group, InGamba founder João Correia is along for the ride, himself a Portugese native and a former Junior National Champion in his home country, although his parents immigrated to New York City when he was a teen. Meeting him for the first time, the mix of New York and European personalities is immediately obvious. He’s warm in spirit yet firm and hardened from years spent not only as an immigrant kid and competitive athlete, but also as a businessman. And while he endears himself to many, let’s just say you don’t get to the top by being a pushover.
Around 2006, Correia was dissatisfied with corporate life—and his corporate waistline—and he clawed his way back into professional cycling as a rider for the Cervelo Test Team. He later transitioned into a rider agent. These pieces of the puzzle are important as you peel back the layers of InGamba, where each session is imbued with not only a Pro Tour experience, but includes a smattering of pro riders (and pro mechanics and soigneurs) who will join you along the way. The tour leaders — in my case was Andre Cardoso, a Portugese pro rider, and Raul Mattis, former Portuguese national champion — are simply amazing, adept at communication, route finding, language, and group riding protocols in each region. In Italy, you might be led by Eros Poli, famously known in the cycling world as “Monsieur Ventoux.”
By far the coolest thing for any roadie is the way these guides can simultaneously push you and hold your hand, depending on what you need on that day’s section. They quickly, expertly, and subtly gauge your fitness and make you feel like a hero, lending a wheel, a gel, and an encouraging word…or a side eye that says, work a little harder, gringo, which tends to motivate me.
In the Know
InGamba is Italian slang for “in the know,” and that is about as accurate a description of this style of cycle touring as anyone could conceive. Traveling with João Correia through Portugal for 10 days is like riding your bike 90 miles each day to a massive family dinner each night, drinking wine (as much as works for you) around a sprawling, ancient table, and recanting the day’s scenery and antics over grilled meats (the best octopus I’ve ever had), stews, fishes, and produce, accompanied by the local’s local. His father even showed up and rode most days on our trip, which for me was a special part of this experience. With them, we had no language barriers, just welcoming tables at cafes and beds in some of the most interesting and modern boutique hotels, both remodeled- historic and new, in Southern Europe. There’s a reason InGamba has a 60 percent-plus return rate, and only two of us out of 10 were first timers on my trip.
“It’s more a matter of will I do two trips next year—not if I’ll come back,” says Chase Kohn, a friendly Ohioan who was in our group. “It’s a professional training camp for amateurs.”
“This is my religion,” says Chase’s buddy Dave. And it wasn’t the first time I had heard that on this trip. I was starkly reminded of what matters most in life. No matter your religion, the bike unites us. The open road, fresh air, the feeling of freedom, a challenge, and exhilaration and appreciation culminating into an indescribable feeling of being closer to God — whatever that means for you.
An InGamba tour is uncommon, something you cannot replicate through a Lonely Planet guidebook or Internet research–yet universal for cyclists in many ways. No matter your religion or from where you hail, you meld with the culture like the rubber of your tires in sweltering grooves of the cobblestones beneath you, leaving a trail of your own sweat, blood, and tears behind on the roads, and dreaming of coming back just as soon as you get home.
Giving Back through World Bicycle Relief
InGamba is the largest donor to the World Bicycle Relief Fund, and has given more than a million dollars to the group over the last decade. They started out with a One Guest:One Bike program that has evolved into a percentage of sales, and they also host a trip for World Bicycle Relief each year. Let’s face it: We can make a massive difference with just the amount of money we spend on Skratch Labs each month, so why not give the gift of two wheels that can literally change someone’s life? worldbicyclerelief.org
–Follow Elevation Outdoors contributing editor Aaron Bible’s adventures at @ahbmedia.