Bike tours take off after COVID, as a recent trip to Portugal proved in spades

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Giant vats of port wine. Terraced vineyards as far as the eye could see. Descending into one the deepest locks in Europe in a ship. Tolling bells in a medieval cathedral atop a 686-step hill — and seaside cafés among fishermen sewing the nets on the Atlantic coast.

Those were just a few of the highlights on a recent bike trip across Portugal.

Affordable, friendly, rich in history but still finding its footing in modern Europe, Portugal is the breakout destination for U.S. tourists, with travel up 41% over last year.

“Everybody’s been saying come to Portugal,” said Susan Sanderson of San Diego, who was traveling with her husband Duff. “It has exceeded our expectations.”

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The Sandersons are among a growing group of Americans touring Europe by bicycle. 

Popular routes include Provence, Tuscany, Croatia, Prague, the Alps and Mallorca, Spain. 

William LaJeunesse (left), in Portugal, took part in a bicycling tour this summer; he’s pictured with Lori Corbin. The group was “active, friendly and knew what they signed up for,” said one member of the tour group.
(William LaJeunesse)

The advent of the electric bike has vastly expanded the market of potential riders. Ages in this particular group of 25 people ranged from the 20s to the 70s.

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” said 73-year-old Don Jones of Pensacola. “I’ve heard of people complaining of age discrimination. Not here.”

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For the tourist, Portugal is basically broken into four regions.

There is the Algarve, a 100-mile stretch of warm, dry, Atlantic coast on the southern tip; Lisbon, the trendy, charming cobblestone capital; Portugal Camino, part of the popular Christian walking tour known as Camino de Santiago, a famous pilgrim journey that covers dozens of small towns in the central Portugal, Spain and France; and, finally, Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city built along the hillsides overlooking the Douro River emptying into the Atlantic.  

“We made a list 10 years ago of places we wanted to visit. Spain and Portugal were up there.”

This bike trip originated in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Salamanca, Spain. It’s an ornate, ancient university town city founded in the 1100s by the Romans before being overtaken by the Moors.

The trip ended about 200 miles later in another UNESCO site, Porto, after winding through the wine-covered hills of the Douro River Valley. 

A beautiful scene, as experienced by a bicycling tour group recently during a long-planned summer vacation in Spain and Portugal.

A beautiful scene, as experienced by a bicycling tour group recently during a long-planned summer vacation in Spain and Portugal.
(William LeJeunesse)

The nights were spent on a riverboat with about 100 passengers, about one-quarter belonging to our Backroads bike tour.

“We made a list 10 years ago of places we wanted to visit,” said Victoria Hanlon of Phoenix. “Spain and Portugal were up there. We were excited to find one that included both.”

The surge in electric bikes allows riders to climb easier, travel farther and require less support from the chase vans and guides who rode with us.

Each morning after breakfast, the group met for a “route wrap” for the guides to go over the day’s scenic towns, history and stops for coffee and wine. 

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Each biker sets their own GPS unit for that day’s route. (If you miss a turn, the GPS beeps until you reacquire the right street.)

The surge in electric bikes allows riders to climb easier, travel farther and require less support from the chase vans and guides who rode with us.

Electric bikes (or e-bikes) have helped spur an interest in biking tours in a post-COVID world. 

Electric bikes (or e-bikes) have helped spur an interest in biking tours in a post-COVID world. 
(iStock)

More than half the guests opted for the e-bike — and many had been on previous Backroads trips.

“I really enjoyed the small towns on this trip,” said Duff Sanderson.

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“I told our friends, who joined us for the first time, that we don’t have to travel as one group. Everybody rides at their own pace and stops where and when they want.”

A typical route stretched about 50 miles. 

Because the riverboat was close to sea level and the best biking was closer to 2,000 feet or more, some mornings we hopped on a bus for 10 or 20 minutes to meet up with the bike and begin the day.

“We don’t like being cooped in a hotel. We like the variety, the scenery, seeing things you wouldn’t from a car.”

“It’s far better than I expected,” said Victoria’s husband Bill. 

“We once took another group tour and it took longer for people to warm up. This group is active, they’re friendly and they knew what they signed up for,” he added.

‘Just the thing’ 

After the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined overseas recreational travel for almost two years, everyone here just seemed anxious to get out. 

Being outside each day for hours, mostly on empty roads through small villages, was just the thing that Don and his wife Linda Jones were looking for, they said.

A gorgeous scene from a bike trip in parts of Europe this summer. 

A gorgeous scene from a bike trip in parts of Europe this summer. 
(William LeJeunesse)

“This is our fourth biking-river cruise,” said Don. “We don’t like being cooped in a hotel. We like the variety, the scenery, seeing things you wouldn’t from a car.”

Fit and athletic, Linda says the pair were not intimidated by the age difference among various members of the group.

“Maybe we are more outgoing,” said Linda. “I can chat it up with anyone. None of the days so far have been exceptionally hard.”

“Our country has always been known to the European market, but most growth comes from the American and Asian market.”

Early in the trip, we cruised through pastures of bulls and olive orchards. Spain produces 45% of the world’s olive oil. Portugal produces just 2% but stresses quality, with an appellation system that regulates production. 

Unlike wine, however, olive oil doesn’t improve with age and is best used within a year of being bottled. By day three, the topography got steeper. Olive trees were replaced by rolling vineyards. 

Portugal wasn’t known for wine until the French cut off exports and the Brits blockaded French ports in the 1670s. 

A group of Backroads bikers during a recent summer trip across parts of Spain and Portugal. 

A group of Backroads bikers during a recent summer trip across parts of Spain and Portugal. 
(William LeJeunesse)

The Brits turned to Portugal, which had developed a fortified wine grown only along the Douro’s steep hillsides. 

By the 1900s, Portugal shipped 3 million gallons of port to Britain each year. 

Known today as Port wine, it is sweet and sometimes dry, coming in Ruby, Tawny — and more recently White port. 

More than 90% of port wine comes from Portugal.

“Our country has always been known to the European market, but most growth comes from the American and Asian market.”

Grown on estates known as quantas that cling to the steep hillsides along the river, port is typically processed in farmhouses and wineries on site before transport down river to Porto. 

In the past it traveled by boat, but now shipments go by truck.

The Salamanca to Porto trip was the first Backroads program introduced in Portugal; but according to guide Eduardo Costa, the country is “exploding. Each year we are adding a new itinerary here.”

He added, “There is just so much momentum. More people bring more articles, more social media about Portugal. That keeps the ball rolling. Our country has always been known to the European market, but most growth comes from the American and Asian market.”

A group on vacation in Portugal this summer. "Backroads is one of several bicycle outfitters with extensive itineraries in Europe and in some cases, worldwide." 

A group on vacation in Portugal this summer. “Backroads is one of several bicycle outfitters with extensive itineraries in Europe and in some cases, worldwide.” 
(William LeJeunesse)

Portugal also benefited to from instability in North Africa and steep prices elsewhere. By comparison, Portugal is cheap and ranks in the lower third of EU countries by income. 

Bikers who may have gone to Morocco or expensive European cities have come here instead. A nice seafood dinner can cost under $50.

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Costa, who joined the company 7 years ago, says guests chose Backroads because “they are looking for an experience they could not get by themselves. On day five, a third generation winemaker showed us where he stomps grapes. We try to find real people who will tell you the story of their country.”

Cycling with electric bikes has replaced hiking and walking as the top trending activity for outfitters, says the Adventure Travel Trade Association.

Backroads is one of several bicycle outfitters with extensive itineraries in Europe and in some cases, worldwide. 

Prices generally range from about $2,000 for self-guided tours to $6,000 for trips that include hotels, meals, guides and bikes. Several are multi-sport trips that combine biking with hiking or kayaking.

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The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) says that cycling with electric bikes has replaced hiking and walking as the top trending activity for outfitters. 

“People just want to get out — and they don’t just want to sit around at a pool.”

Forward bookings for 2022 are higher than the last three years, with the Mediterranean, Western Europe, Scandinavia and the Caribbean the hottest trending destinations outside the U.S.

“People just want to get out — and they don’t just want to sit around at a pool,” says Heather Kelly, director of research at ATTA. 

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“We thought this was going to be a reset year for the industry after COVID. Instead, the pace of new bookings has just taken off. People want to get off the beaten path, try new places where they can interact with locals.”

Adventure travel is a $683 billion-a-year industry and accounts for about 30% of the global tourism dollars spent. 

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For U.S. travelers looking for a mix of nature, culture and physical activity, the U.S., Italy and Tanzania are the top destinations for tour operators.

The median price of a trip is almost $3,000. 

People are most likely to choose a trip based on word of mouth.

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