By Ambassador Kathryn Dove
Winter in the PNW can start to get rough with the short days, dark skies, and rainy weather. A late February tropical bike trip can be just the thing to help get us through until the longer days of spring return. This year, with a group of 6 others from Washington, we decided to fly across the world in search of some vitamin D, tropical weather, and epic singletrack.
We planned an 11 day trip to Madeira, Portugal, an island off the west coast of Europe, flying from Seattle, Washington to Funchal, the biggest city on Madeira, via Frankfurt, Germany with 1-2 days of travel on each end. With our expert planning, we would have 7-8 days total in Madeira with 5 days of shuttle-assisted riding and guiding with Freeride Madeira, a highly recommended bike guiding company in Funchal that also builds and maintains the local trails.
The trip started out well enough with everyone making it on our flight to Frankfurt and an uneventful transfer to our flight from Frankfurt to Funchal. However, mother nature had a different plan and it ended up being too windy to land in Funchal. Our plane made it all the way to Madeira and was starting its decent where we could see the beaches and mountains to get us extra stoked about riding our bikes there. We started to realize something was wrong after 2-3 circles over the island waiting to land. On one attempt our plane was headed straight to the narrow landing strip nestled next to big, jagged peaks only to pull straight up at the last minute after being told that the winds were too strong. With that it made a u-turn back to the mainland of Portugal to land in Lisbon to refuel.
We were offered the option of getting off in Portugal without any help from the airline to rebook flights, so we opted to stay on the plane which was headed back to Frankfurt. After a long day of flying, we stayed the night in Frankfurt before flying to Porto, Portugal the following day with plans to board an evening flight to Funchal. The storm was still raging so this flight also ended up being cancelled and we spent the next two nights in Porto before finally making it to Funchal nearly four days later than originally planned. The upside of this detour is that we got a chance to explore Porto which is a beautiful city north of Lisbon. We even had some time to hang out on the beach before finally boarding an evening flight to Funchal that arrived early the next morning.
I’ve never been so nervous that a plane would turn around as I was on that second flight to Funchal. Even with good enough weather for the plane to land it was quite a bumpy ride into the airport and everyone on board broke out in applause when we landed. We breathed one more sigh of relief when we found that all 7 bike bags had made it to Funchal with us! Freeride Madeira had a van to pick us up and bring us to the house in town where we would be staying. Without quite enough space in the garage of the house for 7 people to build bikes I opted to get a few hours of sleep and got up early the next morning to get my Process 153 ready to ride.
Our revised plan consisted of four days straight of riding and we made the most of it given that our guide Rui gave our trip the award for most terrible weather to have ever guided in. It seems that the storm that prevented us from landing four days prior had let up just enough for a few days of good weather but then was going to be back on for another few days. Apparently, this is not typical for Madeira even in the winter but unlucky was starting to become the theme of our trip. Day one ended up being the best weather day and we started out by driving up high on the island followed by a short pedal to an alpine trail with beautiful views of the rugged terrain on the island. This trail moves from alpine to eucalyptus forest as it descends and turns into a flowy bermy trail with jumps over water culverts.
We rode another flowy blue trail followed by a techy trail in the forest before stopping for lunch at a restaurant called Poiso where we had the biggest steak sandwiches I have ever seen. We rode a few more trails after lunch ending close to 6 pm giving us a full day despite starting at 12 pm due to our late arrival early that morning. Despite the nice weather on this first day, we still got a quick introduction to Madeira ice which are slick shiny sections of clay that offer about the same amount of traction as a patch of ice. According to Rui the Madeira ice is the worst right after the rain so I imagine riding most of the trails after a week or so of dry weather but before they get too dusty are probably when they are at their best. After cleaning our bikes from the day of mud we enjoyed a giant family style seafood dinner at a local restaurant in Funchal where we were all introduced to limpets, a sort of giant barnacle that gets cooked in a tasty blend of butter and garlic. We all were in agreement by the end of the trip that even if we didn’t hit the trails in the perfect conditions the food on the trip alone was probably worth the flight across the world.
The following day presented us with slightly worse weather including strong winds and light rain, although if we had known what was in store for us the following two days we would have been jumping for joy at the balmy weather in comparison. On this day we explored trails on the west side of the island including Red Line, Black Line, and Avalanche. The wind and wet conditions made it difficult to explore all the features on the trails but a few in our group still managed to find some airtime on the jumps when the wind died down enough for them to safely try without being blown sideways in the air. Rui recommended a few restaurants within walking distance from our house and on this night we feasted on a meat extravaganza at a Brazilian style restaurant called the Central Grill. I highly recommend this one unless of course you are a vegetarian then you may want to skip it.
The next day was the first of two days of heavy rain although in my opinion this was the worst of the two days given that I couldn’t feel my feet on my pedals for the majority of the day. We rode trails in the Funchal region but ended up starting our day at the same restaurant where we ate lunch on the first day in order to skip lunch later and continue riding once we started. I can honestly say that I have never ridden down trails with so much water on them as I did that day. It was like riding down a fully flowing creek bed. I can only imagine what these trails would be like in better conditions.
We ended the day with an alpine to forest trail called Sao Roque which was a favorite of everyone in the group despite there being some trees down at the bottom due to the recent storms. This was the only trail that we repeated on the trip although on the subsequent ride we opted for the “Madeira Massage” line rather than riding the new section with the downed trees which meant that we rode down many small old stone steps that ended up vibrating every part of your body and did surprisingly feel like a sort of massage maybe best compared to those vibrating foot massage machines that you find at fairgrounds where you rest your feet on a metal plate that moves back and forth at an unreasonably high frequency.
Once we hosed everything and everyone down we set out on our sushi poncha pizza night that ended far too late and left us moving a little slow for our last riding day in Madeira. Poncha is a sweet fruity rum drink that can be made with orange or lemon and is best enjoyed with friends and a handful of peanuts. The fruit flavor overpowers the rum and at 2 euros per glass it’s hard not to have too many of these. We had started the night at a sushi restaurant near our house and then followed up the multiple rounds of poncha with a few pizzas for the group so by the end of the night we were chanting “sushi poncha pizza” a little too loudly for our own good. We did manage to get enough sleep for one more day of riding and everyone still made it out despite the bleak forecast that it would be as wet as the previous day.
With the forecast that we had for our last day of riding Rui was reluctant to check out the north side of the island fearing that it would be too miserable. We convinced him that we were tough enough to handle the rain, being from the PNW, because we wanted to continue riding new trails. Luckily, we talked him into taking us on Boca do Risco because I would describe this trail as the closest thing to riding bikes in Jurassic Park, and was most definitely the highlight trail of the trip for me. This trail was featured in the EWS in 2019 and was voted the best trail of the entire series and after riding it I can understand why, even in the slick conditions that we had.
It starts with a moderately long but easy pedal to a short downhill in the forest before climbing again to the start. It immediately gets right into tight switchbacks with techy root and rock sections before popping you out on the edge of a massive cliff with mind-blowing views on the island edge. The southerly wind coming head-on to this part of the island, at least at the time we were there, drives straight up the mountains and produces an amazing effect on the clouds around the island. It looks as though the clouds are riding a perpetual escalator towards the mountain tops that appears to continue repeating infinitely. It also kept us unexpectedly dry during this ride which added a nice bonus to a day that was expected to be as wet as the previous one.
The entire trail is pretty techy the whole way down and ends in a village on the north side of the island where the van was waiting to pick us up. Still mostly dry and feeling very stoked from riding the last trail we headed to Hole in One, named for its proximity to a golf course, which begins with a flowy bermy section of trail then turns into a rocky techy line at the bottom with gorgeous views of the ocean. The one trail on the north that we weren’t able to ride because of the conditions is called Porto da Cruz and if it’s anything like the others that we rode on the north side it’s leaving me wanting to come back in better conditions. The rest of our day left us soaked like the previous day but still being able to feel my hands and feet kept me smiling for the rest of the day. We ended with our one repeat trail of the trip, Sao Roque, then headed back to town before hosing everything and everyone down for the last time. We had one more amazing dinner in Funchal this time at an Argentinian steakhouse then had a few drinks before going to bed.
The weather gods must have been laughing at us on this trip because we woke up to gorgeous weather on our last day in Funchal. We had a few hours to dismantle and pack bikes before getting breakfast and heading to the airport. On our way we were able to finally see the mountain tops from town and the weather that day left me with an even greater desire to come back again someday to ride the trails in good conditions. Earlier in the trip we had found out from Rui that the best chances for good weather are in September so I’ll be keeping this in mind if I ever get the chance to return. Despite all of the challenges of this trip I can honestly say that this was an amazing adventure with a great group of friends and one that I will remember forever.