The island of Madeira might be a place where we see ourselves retiring in the future, but there are plenty of opportunities for fun in the sun right now. Warning: Contains sunny singletrack and warm weather mountain biking. This article was originally published in issue 98 of Singletrack Magazine.
An island for seniors? Five riders conquer the flower island of Madeira and discover first class trails.
Words by Karen Eller, pictures by Markus Greber.
‘How much volume actually fits in the white sick bag in front of my seat?’, I’m thinking while my stomach is looking for its best position in a similar way to the plane which is wandering around and looking for its position on the landing path. The Portuguese explorers who first came here would surely have suffered just as badly on their way to find America and finally discovering Madeira. The airport is an architectural masterpiece, with a runway that’s built on huge stilts into the sea. My flight neighbour, a local guy, told me during the landing approach that this is one of the most difficult European airports to land at – but with a thump we are finally on the ground.
Our international travel group – with Kathrin and Andi from Bavaria, Fien from Belgium, Lisa from Innsbruck in Austria, and me from Garmisch-Partenkirchen – thought a lot about where we should spend our free bike days. We mainly wanted to escape from the bad weather and crowded trails south of the spaghetti border between the south of Germany and the north of Italy – and of course, we all love flowers.
In our research we came up with the hiking and flower paradise of Madeira. What is called a hiker’s paradise is usually also a singletrack paradise, we thought… An average temperature of 19° in January also sounded very comfortable. However, when we researched the trails on the island, we realised pretty soon that there are hardly any useful maps and it’s even harder to find any description of trails or potential bike tours. Our pioneering spirit was awakened.
The planning started by packing our luggage. We had a 23kg luggage allowance – not so easy when the bike with accessories already weighs about 20kg. Our experienced globetrotter Lisa determined that we would share one tube of toothpaste, one bottle of shower gel and one of body lotion, a huge can of anti-wrinkle cream and one tube of mascara, leaving us each with 2kg of personal luggage space. We reached the weight limit exactly and were very proud to not be charged any excess baggage fees at the airport.
All good holidays start with a kebab.
Two crispy Portuguese bike guides, Sergio and Pedro, pick us up at the airport. Our faces look delighted. The Portuguese men know how to behave; the luggage is taken from us, loaded on the truck, and finally the journey begins. Both guys are working for one of the few local providers of mountain bike tours and shuttle services and seem to know the island and its trails very well. After we check in at the hotel in Canico, we check out a nice restaurant just around the corner of our hotel on the advice of Sergio. Metre-long skewers from the grill of shish kebab à la Madeira – delicious! The warm wind blows gently while we sit on the terrace enjoying our food, and we are excited about what awaits us tomorrow.
The next morning Sergio and Pedro pick us up precisely on time in front of the hotel and load our ready-to-ride bikes onto the truck. When unpacking our bikes, we found one or two extra garments had been packed, which was not in our agreement. One of us actually had a second pair of shoes – glitter shoes – in there. Just in case! But they would of course be shared between the five of us…
Gently, Sergio drives the shuttle up to a plateau called Paul da Serra, from which we have a gorgeous view of the island. On the way up I see huge eucalyptus trees; our local guide explains that they are a major plague on this island, but it is a big business. Suddenly, the eucalyptus becomes gorse, lit up in beautiful yellow. But this colourful monster, says Sergio with a bit of a grin, we will get to know more in detail.
A beautiful purple flower keeps reappearing, too: it’s called the Pride of Madeira. Madeira is considered the flower island of Europe, and rightly so, but for us it is now the mountain island. It has only been 20 years since the road and tunnel system here has developed, and it’s not possible to reach the highest mountain of the island, the Pico Ruivo, quickly and comfortably via shuttle. And so of course Madeira has become a popular freeride destination, too, with downhill pros and even world champions now using the island for their winter training.
We make a brief stop at a bar and buy espresso for 55 cents – unbelievably, since we are not in Italy. While enjoying our tasty Portuguese coffee, Pedro tells us that Madeira is also very famous among the world’s best surfers; the Billabong Surf Contest is held annually here and Fien gets a little sparkle in her eyes, because surfing also means that somewhere there here must be an armada of cool surf dudes. But first we want to find Madeira’s best singletrack…
After a few metres of climbing we turn right and go up a bright grass pasture, always with a view of the sea through the yellow gorse. Turning right into the trail, we find our endless singletrack – pure flow and joy, peppered with a small adrenaline rush. The landscape and foliage changes as we disappear one after another in the eucalyptus forest. Over countless metres of descent, there are occasional small crashes, but nothing bad, and the shuttle picks us up again at a crossroads, where we’re quick uploading the bikes and driving up again to the next trailhead.
The drop-in here does not look very nice to us. The footprints in the meadow below the trails are close to the signs of countless crashes but Andi, our youngest team member, wants to try it. She does, but slips on the dusty ground, doesn’t make the curve and leaves another impression on the ground beside the trail. Unfortunately, not only is she scratched all over and her face, clothes and hair powdered with white dust, her front brake lever is also broken. We don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Andi pushes her bike back up to the trailhead and spends the rest of the day with Sergio in the shuttle. We, however, become sheer madness on the trail and before I can react, my bike also drops me over the front wheel, headfirst in the dust. The others laugh like crazy. I do not – gorse thorns in the legs are not funny. I remember the words of Sergio, but the thorns are so long and thick that they can be pulled out carefully, one by one, and the ride can go on.
After a day on the bike like this, we are hungry. Really hungry! But Pedro and Sergio have other ideas, stopping at a bar. The doors and walls are painted Algarve blue. A few locals are sitting on stools in front of the door, peeling peanuts and throwing the shells on the floor. The sound of the Portuguese is welcoming us; we do not hesitate a second and follow Sergio in the bar. Inside the floor is littered with peanut shells.
The barkeeper has an inviting smile on his face and starts to mix, excited about what he flips into his blender. A mysterious-looking bottle, something similar to rum, some freshly squeezed lemon and orange juice, and last a lot of honey. Fien, our Belgian beauty, finally has to take a wooden rod and rub it with both hands against each other – caralhinho is its name, which translates as ‘little cock’. Of course we find this deeply amusing. Even more delicious is the drink, which the barman is serving in small glasses on the rocks. The poncha – for that is what it is – tastes so good that we try to take another glass, but Kathrin and I are so hungry that we make it unequivocally clear to the boys that we now need to have some carbohydrates.
We throw ourselves on the bikes and, with a lot of giggling, we roll down the road towards the sea. At the first tavern in Jardim do Mar, Pedro stops and speaks with the waiter in Portuguese while leaning his bike against the door of a kind, welcoming restaurant. Pedro gives us a sign and we do the same. The nice waiter leads us to a great table overlooking the sea, and food is instantly is served. Snails! Tiny snails, such as those found in our garden – caramujos is their name. Sergio shows us how to elegantly pick them with toothpicks and get their small delicate meat elegantly onto the tongue. Andi has a disgusted grimace on her face, but she is finally brave, and discovers that the caramujos taste absolutely terrific. In addition there is more poncha! Eventually we fall into bed.
Quiet up front.
The next morning it is John’s turn to drive. Of course it is not easy for him – none of us feel fresh after our late night and we are not chatty. But the further he drives up the road, the more our mood improves. We arrive in thick fog at the top of Ruivo de Santana, and the bikes are unloaded. John is from another local shuttle provider that has also completely dedicated itself to freeriding. He is working hard to get five girls into a good mood on this foggy morning, and so, without wasting a lot of words, he just disappears in the mist. We must follow him quickly, otherwise we will be completely lost and end up riding around all day on our own.
With little downward view, and no clue what is around the corner, we follow a mystical adventure trail through lush green meadows, eucalyptus and mimosa forests. It rapidly lightens our mood. At the lowest level the fog starts to clear and we get into a laurel forest, which turns out to be a damp rainforest. The Madeiran trails are challenging anyway, but the wet slippery surface on the stones makes it a real adventure. Madeira is definitely not for the squeamish. Freeriding is the bike sport here. Knee protectors are mandatory and lots of travel on the fork as well. It’s also good to have substantial tyres and at least two to three tubes in your backpack – gorse thorns love not only bare calves but also tyres.
With the last bit of trail behind us, we land beside the sea in Porto da Cruz. Fien is the first to lean her bike against the wall at the cool surfer bar. She takes off her shoes and dances with her red-painted toenails towards the water, where she has spotted surfboards. The water is not cold, just refreshing, and we follow Fien in. The waiter of the bar introduces us immediately to his son, who is a surf teacher here on the island, and also a cook in his bar, which is of course the best restaurant on the island. There are black espardus [fish], caramujos, swordfish with banana and passion fruit, and sparda, the meat skewers. Again we have poncha and plenty of wine. Late that night, we take the shuttle back to our hotel. Unfortunately, we have to go home the following morning. With a lot of scrapes and bruises on our legs, but a magnificent biking experience behind us, we leave this trail and flower paradise and promise to come again soon.
Poncha, Madeira’s national drink.
Mix a quarter litre of sugar cane rum, 3–5 spoons honey and the juice of two lemons. To make it a little sweeter add one orange. Then stir together, preferably with your caralhinho. Serve over ice.