A Chat with the Man Behind the Ultimate Cycling Guide to Portugal

Portugal’s relatively flat terrain makes it ideal for long-range bicycle touring, and Paulo Guerra dos Santos made an interactive cycling guide to the whole country. All by himself.

Portugal’s relatively flat terrain makes it ideal for long-range bicycle touring, as anyone who’s seen the glorious bike lanes along the sea can attest. Getting there from the capital is another matter, however, as Atlas discovered trying to figure out a way to transport our bicycles to Santa Cruz. Which is how we found Paulo Guerra dos Santos.

Paulo is not some ultra-long-distance cycling fanatic. He’s even a little fat, he admits without any shame when Atlas meets him at Café O Brasão in Santos (he’s not really fat, even for a cyclist, but neither does he have those Incredible Hulk thighs typical of serious racers). And yet Paulo is probably one of very few people who have cycled the entire Atlantic coast of Portugal, as well as up and down most of its four main interior arteries and left to right and back again on several trips to the Spanish border.

When you travel by car from point A to point B, you only see A and B. Travelling by bicycle allows you to see the entire alphabet, with which you can write an amazing story.

But being a road engineer by training, Paulo did a tad more than that. Using the massive amounts of information he gathered on his cycling journeys through the country, Paulo has created the Rede Nacional de Cicloturismo, renamed EcoVias de Portugal more recently. This PDF interactive book is the definitive guide to long-distance cycling in Portugal, with high-definition maps, open-source GPX and KML tracks for live GPS directions, descriptions of road and traffic conditions, elevation changes, high-res photos, occasional recommendations for places to eat and sleep, and a clear and complete map of all the Portuguese train lines, including information on whether they accept bikes and in what form.

And Paulo did it all by himself.

The project grew out of Paulo’s master thesis on cycling lanes in Lisbon he did in 2008. Like many urban dwellers who get back on a bike as adults, Atlas included, Paulo learned that the city is a completely new environment when you move through it on two wheels.

Mapping Portugal for cycling. Image courtesy of Paulo Guerra dos Santos

“I discovered a totally different way of traveling,” he says. “When you travel by car from point A to point B, you only see A and B. Traveling by bicycle allows you to see the entire alphabet, with which you can write an amazing story.”

Eventually, Paulo took that passion outside of Lisbon, in what would become a four-month bike journey all over Portugal, documented on the blog 100diasdebicicletaemportugal.blogspot.pt (100 days of bicycling in Portugal).

Having an engineering and city-planning bend, Paulo didn’t just cycle through Portugal for 100 days. He called ahead to municipalities he was planning to ride through, to set up meetings about mobility issues facing their residents, including for walking, driving, and, of course, cycling. And he gathered data, as engineers tend to do. Lots and lots and lots of data.

Paulo became somewhat famous by virtue of doing something so unique in a country where cycling is still very much in its infancy. His blog detailed his route for a day or two ahead, so people knew when to expect him. Paulo would arrive and, in most towns, quickly get an invitation to stay over at someone’s house, or a fire department, or a local biking club. During his entire four-month trip, he paid for a hotel room just twice. People were curious.

Then, two things happened. Portugal in 2011 was in the grips of an economic recession and Paulo found his skills less in demand in his home country, although engineering jobs still came up abroad, including in Brazil and Angola.

On the other hand, people were now talking about biking around Portugal. And Paulo by then knew that bike travel in the country definitely had potential: bike-forward countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Spain, and the U.S. had set up entire bike networks using secondary roads, abandoned train tracks, and packed-soil tracks known as macadam. Portugal had plenty of all three. Paulo decided to take it one step further and develop that potential.

Like many a self-starter in Portugal, however, Paulo learned the hard truth: while the tourism board, the bike federations, and all the municipalities he’d talked to were all interested in developing cycling in Portugal, they all, one by one, over the course of two years, told them they had no resources to fund it.

“Politics needs money, I learned,” Paulo says.

So he went a different route, joining startup competitions, learning about financing and running a business, talking to other entrepreneurs, learning to be self-sufficient, and in the process becoming an integral part of the biking community in Lisbon and the country overall.

Eventually, an idea took hold: Paulo would craft a guide, in an entirely digital format to eliminate printing and distribution costs, with linked GPX tracks so it could be used in real time, using open-source maps so there are no issues with licenses to Google and the like, illustrating the thing using photos he already took while on his trips, written in English so it’s of interest to the entire cycling world and not just the Portuguese aficionados, and then sell the guide completely online.

Paulo holding printouts of his digital guide, used for demonstration purposes only: you don’t need to print the PDF to get full use out of the maps.

The first guide, released in 2015, contained information, track data, and descriptions on 800 km of Portuguese roads. Paulo, meanwhile, continued cycling, regularly taking half-day trips and carving out a few days here and there for longer excursions, and collecting data. Last year, the guide was expanded to cover 1600 km. Now in its third edition, the guide contains 2700 km worth of road routes all over the country.

The guide is meant for the common citizen, Paulo tells Atlas. He himself rarely does more than a half-day of cycling, and the average section in the guide is 30 to 50km long — easily doable in a half day, for people who like to save the second half for exploring the sights and tasting the food and wine, which is exactly how one should travel through Portugal in general.

A sample section, meant to be done in a day, or, rather, a half-day. Image courtesy Paulo Guerra dos Santos

But you could string these sections into days and weeks of leg-powered travel. It’ll take 26 days of cycling, for example, to comfortably ride all of Portugal’s western coast, from north to south. Or you could spend a week riding from Lisbon to Évora, or from Póvoa to Nazaré. Or do an overnight trip from Viseu south to the birthplace of Salazar and back, along a revamped railroad track. The possibilities are many — and growing in each edition.

Atlas readers get a 10% discount on the PDF guide by clicking here.

NOTE: We receive a small commission from all sales made through our website, thanks to Paulo’s generosity.

See you on the road!

P.S. For logistics on riding in Lisbon, read our guide here.

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