This blog post is about the unexpected discovery of a stunning bike ride that will live long in my memory.
When I planned my trip to Rio de Janeiro for the Velo-city 2018 cycling conference my expectations were based on tourist information and hopes for a really interesting conference in a new environment. I was also hoping to pick up a bit of Rio culture, perhaps the carnival feeling or beach life.
I had some trepidation about cycling in the the mega-city, potentially horrible traffic, dangerous driving and security, we were warned that we would have to be careful about our movements and not drift off the tourist areas.
What I never expected, at all, was to find a spectacular riding, on almost car free roads, tying together some of Rio’s most famous sites and some less well known. I have already written about my Saturday ride up to the Christ the Redeemer statue, but this catch up gallery of photos is all about the 2016 Olympic route which I rode the next day.
Even casual followers of the Olympic races in 2016 remember the crashes that made for spectacular and teeth clenching incident in the finale of both races. Others may remember races that had a dramatic climax as breakaway riders were captured just before the finish. But what I never really understood was the race route in its entirety. Where did the cobbles fit in, and how did the long stretches of beach-side racing fit in with the climbs?
However once I arrived in Rio and did a bit of proper research it all fell into place. The route is basically 115km of beach-side ride from right outside my hotel!
With the catch that at each end of the beach sections is a hilly circuit that had to be ridden several times by the elites, in the case of the pro men making it up to 290 kilometres. On the map and the elevation it looks like a barbell, which is probably the right analogy because the heavy bits were definitely at each end, especially the final circuit.
Once I knew the route was possible to ride the rest was easy. I had hired a bike off Cyclin Rio for two days, Mauricio gave me the GPX track for the route and on Sunday morning the weather was stunning. Even better I discovered the Sunday Cyclovia, the closure of half the beach highway for people – cycling, walking, roller blading or just “hanging about”.
The first hour or so was a blissful cruise, sweeping along the beaches which became gradually less developed as I moved away from the heart of Rio. Even popular Copacabana and Ipanema were quiet at that time of the morning and the closed roads made for a VIP feeling.
To get to San Conrado and then Barra da Tijuca meant circumnavigating large headlands where the busy roads cut through the rock. These were the only navigational tricky points and modest climbs on the route. Nothing major, but I was glad I had read my route notes beforehand. The Olympians were just whizzed through on closed roads but mere mortals have to deal with some breaks in the flow of the cycle route.
The link to San Conrado is potentially a spectacular cycle route strung out over the sea, but those with an eye for cycling stories may remember that chunks of it started falling into the sea, killing two people the winter before the Olympics, so now it is a bit of a sorry scandal and I was pushed onto the road. The transition from San Conrado to Barra de Tijuca was the first short climb of the day, having to cross inland and climb over the hill that separates the two suburbs.
Barra da Tijuca is technically a Rio suburb, but really a separate linear beach city that has been built up around a river, a lagoon and 20km stretch of beach that carried me through a transition.
It started as a developed resort, not on the scale of the beaches in the centre of Rio, but busy nevertheless.
It ends very much out of the city and into the countryside. The less developed section of the beaches at the end of the twenty kilometres took me clear of the mega city to a place for surfers who prefer a feeling of escapism, maybe a throwback to earlier times before mass development. Vultures sat on the streetlamps and chilled along with the general lazy vibe.
The end of this beach section also meant a complete riding transition, because now I was sent inland to try the first of the hilly circuits. Not only the elevation changed, the villas and apartment blocks became shacks and as I got further inland the roadside was just populated with occasional stalls and bars.
Brazilian hospitality was in evidence as a stall holder felt I was a deserving cause and gave me my two bananas free, probably because I didn’t want them juiced up with one of the many additives he had lined up in unlabelled bottles. (home brew?)
The first proper climb of the day then arrived to take me back over the hill to the sea. Not excessively long, but really steep.
However again the reward was spectacular because the top flattened out at a view-point above Grumari beach. Trapped between the headlands at either end this stunning view was like being let in on a private secret, a place to get away from the crowds.
The switchback descent was immaculately surfaced (an Olympic legacy) so I flew back down to sea level with a big smile on my face.
The smooth riding soon stopped because the retro feel of Grumari beach provided the cobbled section of the Olympic route, where unprepared riders saw their bottles leaping all over the place and the Belgians probably started plotting the eventual victory of Greg Van Avermaert.
Rough surface aside it was a stunningly beautiful spot. Rio is so blessed with beaches that each has seems to have its own character and there is less pressure on development right out in Grumari.
I started heading back to Rio and it could have been seaside all the way.
Mauricio told me later that this is what most of his group rides do, spin off down the coast, do the end circuit and return along the beaches. Why comment on that? Because local knowledge tells them to miss the sting in the tail which caused havoc at the Olympics.
I only really have this one blurry photo of the climb from San Conrado, because it is an absolute brute, and I was standing up on the pedals, sweating, heaving and gasping for far too long. It wasn’t just the gradient which was unrelenting, the road surface was awful. The Olympic planners had resurfaced the descents – but not the ups. My second day of climbing after over 2500 metres the previous day put me on my limit, so I was very happy when I rolled over the top and drifted back to the Chinese View for my final look over the city before conference week was due to start.
When I descended and rolled back to Copacabana beach the promenade was full of people enjoying an unexpectedly warm winter’s day and the car free Cyclovia. It was a complete contrast to the stillness of the morning and the quiet beaches in the middle of my ride, but I enjoyed it for the fact that thousands of people were outdoors in their city, using the public space for movement and play.
I ended my first weekend in Rio having discovered so much more about the setting of the city and completely dumping my prior trepidation. I loved the fact that even in one of the world’s mega cities it is entirely possible to enjoy quiet roads and forest parks on a bike, and the fact citizens and public authorities have given those roads and the beach promenades back to the people, at least for some days of the week. This Olympic route or the beaches’ ride without the hills just needs the links between all the sections made obvious in order to make it one of the great permanent cycle routes of the world.
When I describe my weekend of riding to friends I do keep coming back to three comments.
“Beaches” – a veritable string of pearls
“Spectacular” – the endlessly changing vistas around every corner on the beach roads and the stunning views from the mountains above the city.
“Car-free” – making good rides great
Yes Rio, a worthy place on the cycling bucket list!