Riding Downhill in Portugal

One year ago I got so fed up of the cold wet weather, and the muddy trails in the UK that I decided to book myself in for some winter sunshine and riding with RidePortugal. Myself, my boyfriend and a mate packed up our bikes and bags and flew from Prestwick to Faro. We flew with Ryanair, who were cheaper than EasyJet, although charged a lot more for taking the bikes. The flight was about 3hours long and due to the very low numbers of people traveling at this time of year the flight choice was limited, which meant we didn’t land until 9pm (there is no time difference in Potugal). We were picked up at the airport and driven for about an hour to Lagos where we were staying. A quick unload and build of the bike and in bed by 1am.

The set up at RidePortugal is different from places I have been to before. Typically if I have been on sporting holidays before I have rented a chalet with some friends, bought a lift pass and done our own thing. At RidePortugal there are a couple of houses on the edge of Lagos in Albardeira, each can accommodate around 8 people each. When we arrived there were 4 other riders staying there, and another couple arrived a few days after us. There is a communal kitchen and living area, pool in the garden, and bike workshop and games room in the basement. Each day the uplift van arrives, all bikes are loaded, and we all go and ride the trails as one big group. This means it’s a great way to meet and ride with new people, see the different skills and riding styles of different riders.

The first day of riding was a pretty cold start to the morning, about 9oc, but a much warmer improvement on the snow and hail left back in Scotland. A 40min drive from the coast into the back of beyond took us to the top of Mount Foia. The first trail we rode was called ‘Foia’. The first time on a new trail, in new terrain and I haven’t been on the downhill bike in almost 6 months so I was feeling very uneasy. The trail was dry and dusty with a great mixture of rock gardens, and smooth flows, After the 2nd and 3rd runs I was loving this trail and feeling comfortable. We moved on to the next trail, ‘running dog’, which we rode all the way down in to the local town of Monchique and grab some lunch from the supermarket. Back on to running dog after lunch, I found that running dog was a bit flatter and required a lot more effort to maintain the flow, and after not having ridden lengthy downhill trails in a while I was feeling the burn in my arms and hands. The great thing about these trails is that they pass through eucalyptus forests. Although not a native species, it does mean that the trails smell of fresh eucalyptus, which was appreciated over the smell of sweat in my helmet.

 

That night we got a lift 5 minuets down the road to the marina in Lagos for some dinner at The Lighthouse pub and restaurant, where they often seem to have good offers on the daily dishes and pies.

Our second day riding, and we did a mixture of the two trails we already knew, and a new one called ‘Hocus Pocus’. This was probably one of my favorite as it incorporated so many different features. The top section is fast and flowing with a couple of jumps, plenty of rock gardens, this got bigger the further down in to a big hip jump and drops down the terraced walls. The bottom sections of this trail became steep with lots of loose shale and rocks. It was reaching 16oc by mid day, and the trails are dry dusty which meant turning to avoid the big rocks was proving difficult. We finished the day with an Enduro ride called ‘Miradouro’, which although wasn’t very steep was a good laugh and a real challenge to keep speed through flat corners, and even more challenging as the sun was so low we were riding blind for most of the way. The trail finished at an orchard of oranges trees, I could get used to end or ride oranges straight of the tree to finish a day’s riding.

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The following day we warmed up on ‘Foia’, and then moved on to learning some new trails ‘Squirt Merchant’ and ‘Mach10’. ‘Squirt Merchant’ is a big trail with some epic jumps, step ups and downs, although not something I am very capable of it was good fun on the rest of it. ‘Mach 10’ was very different from the other trails, being extremely steep, straight down the side of the hill, and full of loose rocks and shale, where you could lock up your breaks and still accelerate. What few corners there were tended to be tight and steep, my year racing the Scottish Enduro Series definitely helped here, you just had to commit to it.

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We went back in to Lagos for dinner that night, with only a handful of restaurants open we found a place called Jota13, a place stuck in a time warp from 20 years ago, with one over worked waiter with a lot of patients, and ear for languages. As with much of Portugal a lot of the diet is based on whatever fish they have caught that day, and this place was no exception, with basic but tasty mixed fish grills.

The following day was Christmas Day so the uplift wasn’t running, so I took this day for some well needed rest. I had forgotten how much toll and damage pure downhill riding all day every day can do to your body. It was probably the hottest day of the trip reaching over 20oc, so we took a walk down to the beach and back through the old town to explore the architecture, graffiti and the fort. There were a few people out enjoying the sun, but mostly holidaying and retired Brits. We spent the rest of the day chilling by the pool and eating the traditional Christmas meal of tomato pasta, before having a few games of pool and fixing up the bikes ready for the rest of the week.

On a side note these trails eat up bike parts. The rocky trails shake everything lose, so if you are planning on a weeks downhill riding make sure you check your bike over every night. There is an excellent bike shop (G-Ride) in Lagos, but with no guarantee of it being open at this time of year or stocking what you need, bike parts can be few and far between so make sure you bring spares and know how to fit them.

A couple of new people joined us today, so we went over to explore the trails near Faro, and give them a chance to warm up on the bikes. The first one was the ‘Faro nationals’ trail which was fast and flowy with lots of small and medium sized drops and jumps, and felt much more like the trails at home (only drier). After lunch we moved on to the ‘San Miguel’ bike park trail which had recently had a lot of work done to build up the berms, it wasn’t very steep but had lots of tight turns and fun sized drops and jumps which we spent a lot of time jumping and sessioning different sections. Unlike the other trails which were predominantly open of in eucalyptus forest, the trails at Faro were covered in herbs of thyme, sage, rosemary and lavender which gives the air a sweet smell. By this point in the week my back tire was starting to wear down, resulting in little to no grip and lots of skids around berms. These trails were further away from the house than the previous days and it took us an hour to drive back, and was the only time we got back after dark.

 

Now we had seen all the trails open at the moment we used the last day to go and revisit some of my favourite trails and work on a few bits I had spotted earlier in the week that I wanted to nail. We Started on ‘Hocus pocus’ where I got comfortable over a rock jump, kicker and hip jump which I hadn’t done previously and took the opportunity to do a bit of filming from a well placed tree. We moved on to ‘squirt merchant’ after lunch where although I didn’t manage the drop I had been eyeing up I did manage some air time on one of the huge jumps. Just getting a feeling of the speed needed to approach something this big when you can’t see the landing was something very new to me.

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All the trails here are exceptionally well built, and completely packed with features. This unfortunately meant that 5 days was not enough to fully learn all the trails and I frequently spent time trying to remember what was coming up next. These are world class trails and not for the faint hearted. I could spend 3 weeks here and still find things to challenge me.

To finish the holiday we spent a couple of days in Faro relaxing and enjoying the warm weather before heading back to Scotland. We stayed at Hotel Eva which was next to the Marina in the center of the city. If you arrive there early and I can really recommend a small café outside Residencial Avenida for a tasty breakfast and great service. We explored the old part of the city, which has some beautiful buildings and impressive Cathedral to visit. If you are looking for somewhere for a good dinner then we found Faaron Steakhouse, pretty good steak and an even better veggie curry. We also took the opportunity to get a boat trip out through the mud flats of the national park, and to a couple of islands at the far edge of the park. I still maintain that the best way to understand a country is to see it from a bike and a boat. You get to see a side to it that you wouldn’t from just being on foot in the traditionally touristy areas.

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The trails in Lagos and Faro are full on downhill fun, not for the cautious or in experienced. It definitely highlighted how my skills have developed over the last year of racing in Scotland. Steep and lose hold no fear anymore, but a year working on my enduro and trail skills means I have completely neglected my jumping and drop techniques which really showed this week. It is very different pace of holiday from ones I have taken where there have been chair lift, but I never felt rushed, and keeping pace with other riders helped push myself. It is a great place to escape the weather, get some winter training done, and meet lots of new riding mates.

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