Now, where were we? Ah, yes. Madeira – sitting in the Atlantic ocean, a van full of Kona gravel bikes and a day of riding still to go (check out Day 1 here). While there was plenty of room for further exploration on Madeira itself, we’d heard rumours of miles of gravel tracks and epic coastal roads on the neighbouring island of Porto Santo – a two hour ferry journey north east.
The Atlantic isn’t all smooth sailing
It was still dark as we rolled down to the ferry port in Funchal, blinky lights flashing. Our train of riders passed through old buildings, as the rest of the city began waking up and making their way to work. The ferry to Porto Santo was large, and we packed on, ready for the two and half hour crossing, huddling into the bar for rounds of espressos, before heading out on deck. I’ll be honest and admit I’m not the best when it comes to motion sickness. Apparently the sea was relatively smooth, but with no landmass to shelter behind, the open water of the Atlantic had a fair bit of chop. I disembarked with wobbly legs and stomach, happy to hit dry land, but excited to start turning pedals.
Where are all the trees?
Given its proximity to Madeira, it would be natural to assume that Porto Santo would have a similar feel to it’s larger neighbour. The contrast was stark. Compared to the luscious Madeira, we could barely see a tree, and the island is predominately dry and dusty. What flora there is, sits low and seems to cling to existence rather than thriving.
Apparently Porto Santo was once also covered in foliage, but when it was settled in the 1400s, rabbits were released and quickly decimated the native species, leaving the ground susceptible to erosion and invasive weeds. What’s left is an almost desert-like landscape, no less beautiful, but also depressing to see how much impact humans can have on our surroundings.
The gradients of Porto Santo are much friendlier for riding in general, but when starting at sea level, there was only one direction of travel to begin. We began climbing to start an anti-clockwise lap of the island, using a circular coastal road to tick off the kilometres, but taking gravel tracks and paths to hug the coastline a little more closely where possible.
After a brief detour inland, we reached the north coast of the island, pausing part way up one of the finest road climbs I’ve enjoyed for quite a while. Catching our breath, we stared out at the endless blue sea, watching the colour transition from turquoise to the deepest of inky indigo.
Pressing on, keen to explore the gravel tracks we could see to the west, it wasn’t long before we were on white sandy tracks, reflecting the midday sun back into our faces, frazzled bodies picking our way across the harsh land.
All this would make for a brutal day out, were it not for Porto Santo’s diminutive size. The island is only 15km long and 5km wide… Even with multiple photo stops and plenty of time to admire the view (and it really was worth admiring), we rolled into a late lunch, having completed a 3/4 circuit a few hours after setting off.
It had felt like a longer day out, though. Maybe down to the early start and associated grumbling tummies now lunch was due, but more likely thanks to that feeling of not knowing what was around the next corner, or over the next hill – the sense of joy when discovering a ribbon of gravel singletrack, and of awe as we stood high above the sea.
Much higher up
I’m struggling to think of a better way to enjoy a well earned lunch than eating seafood and drinking a cold beer by the sea. Perhaps it would have been more enjoyable without the nagging worry that the contents of my stomach would be sloshing around on the return ferry ride not much later. I didn’t have worried. A small plane runs between the islands and we were taking it over for the homeward leg. Yes, I will have that second beer, thank you.
We still had a gentle cruise along the sea front to tick off, with the kind of headwind that only saves itself for the end of the ride. It was worth it to weave through the back streets of Vila Baleira, pausing briefly at Christopher Columbus’s house. It’s a wonder he ever left for the Americas when home was so stunning.
A cheeky cobbled climb looked too good not to follow, promising one last view over the island, but time caught up with us part way up and we had to leave it for another day, dropping down to the tiny airport in time to hop on our tinier plane and call a close on an epic couple of days riding.
The Libre DL
My bike for day 2 was the new-to-the-range Kona Libre DL. We covered the Libre launch a couple of months ago, but in summary, there are two models – a 650b wheeled, double chainset version (the Libre – £2899) and my 700c, 1x set up (the Libre DL). The same frameset is shared between both bikes, with a choice of eye popping purple/green/blue metallic paint or military green. Both options looked pretty classy, as did all of the bikes to be fair.
The Libre has slightly different geometry to the Rove. While it shares the long-ish top tube, short stem approach, the front end is a little lower. It feels a closer to being a gravel “racer”, but to describe it as such would be pigeon-hole it massively.
On my DL, there was plenty of clearance around the specified 700c x 45c WTB Riddler tyres. Having ridden 29er mountain bikes for nearly a decade, I’m definitely sold on the larger circumference wheel, particularly when paired with an “in between” tyre width like a 45c. For me it hits the sweet spot of enough volume for comfort (and the ability to cope well with rockier trails) and keeping the zip of a gravel bike verses feeling like a mountain bike tyre.
The lower front end seemed to liven up the handling of the Libre DL versus the Rove. I felt like I was able to weight the front end better, so despite the geometry theoretically being less suited to rough and technical riding, I felt happier pushing my limits on the bike. There’s also no denying that the light, stiff carbon frame felt livelier than its steel stable mate. No surprises there, but I’m also happy to report that there was little in the way of noticeable loss of ride comfort either.
Other than some pimpy Easton EA70AX wheels, most of the finishing kit is shared between the Rove LTD and DL – again, the bars weren’t to my personal preferences, but everything else was functional, clean looking and cracked on with doing its job.
One side note – the Libre DL uses a press fit bottom bracket, whereas the Rove uses a threaded option. I’m relieved to say that during our very short ride there were no BB issues, and press fit does seem to have overcome many of the creaking issues we were seeing a few years ago, but it’s still a pain to home service compared to a good old external cup.
Finally, the Libre DL comes with more than a sprinkling of bosses for load-lugging. Our short rides needed nothing more than a bottle, but if you are planning on going long and far, the Libre opens up some real possibilities. Of the two bikes we tested, it’s probably the one that I am most interested in spending more time on, and we’ll be calling one in to test shortly. It’s not the cheapest bike (although compares favourably to similar spec’d bikes from other manufacturers), so we’ll have high expectations that our early impressions are confirmed after a few months use.
I recorded my route on Komoot if you’d like to check out exactly where we rode – spot where I forgot to switch my GPS on for the afternoon… sure you can work things out for yourself if you’d like to finish the loop.