Many people ride bicycles in the Algarve. But there’s cycling and there’s cycling. João Jesus and Filipe Baião definitely fall in the more extreme category as they practise enduro and downhill biking. In other words: they jump over roads and cycle with up to 60km/h on trails so steep most normal people would need climbing equipment to get down without falling. João: “If you touch the brakes, you’re finished.”
Driving their car through São Brás de Alportel, João Jesus (53) and Filipe Baião (39), who run MTB Algarve, point out the ‘respect the cyclists’ signs along the road. These yellow diamond-shaped signs ask motorists to keep at least 1.5m distance when passing someone on a bicycle. “See, there’s another one! São Brás is one of the few towns in the Algarve that has them,” Filipe exclaims. He continues: “Road cycling has a lot of potential in the south of Portugal, especially once you get north of the A22. The first thing I tell clients is to forget about cycling along the N125; it’s way too scary!” João agrees: “I only started cycling on the roads here a few years ago. Before that, I was too afraid because of the traffic.”
Somehow, words like ‘scary’ and ‘afraid’ sound a bit strange when coming from men who ride their bikes down rocky mountain sides for fun, reaching speeds of up to 60km/h in the sometimes bone-breaking process. Mountain biking is divided in three categories; there’s cross country (which includes marathons and circuits, but is also used to describe the many non-technical rides in the Algarve countryside), enduro (where you ride down pretty extreme tracks and pedal from one track to another) and the most radical form, downhill (where you ride down even more extremely steep tracks and afterwards get transported back up together with your bike).
That downhill biking doesn’t include any uphill pedalling isn’t because the bikers are lazy, but because the ride down is that extreme. “You need a lot of strength, especially in your arms. It’s only short times, the tracks are just a few kilometres long, but you have to be 100% focussed every single second. After a minute or so you’ll start to feel your muscles,” explains Filipe while demonstrating a short piece of the trail. Despite the massive suspension on his bike, his arms indeed take an enormous pounding, as does the rest of his body. Apart from the suspension, which is a heavy-duty double crown fork on downhill bikes to absorb the shock of the jumps and a somewhat lighter version on enduro bikes, the biggest difference between the bikes lies in the geometry and the weight; enduro ones have to be lighter in order to also climb uphill.
Portuguese Enduro Cup Master’s winner and member of the X-Dream racing team João is more into enduro, “For me, it’s no pain, no gain. By climbing, you’ve earned the pleasure of going down,” whereas ex-BMX’er Filipe is happiest whenever he can jump. Both bikers are in their element when standing at the start of the Mitica trail in the countryside near Bispo, high up enough to view the Atlantic Ocean in the distance. Even for a non-biker it’s easy to see why the men prefer these green surroundings to those of the smelly N125. It’s like another world up here, a very peaceful one. The place one would visit to do yoga, stretching or breathing exercises. Or, to put on a helmet, gloves and full body protection, and hurl yourself on two wheels down a mountain path which has some similarities with the world’s most dangerous road in Bolivia…
Unlike the path we came up by car, the cycling trails are narrow; no leisurely cycling next to each other here. One single miss and you’d crash into a tree. João: “We always first do a walk through with our clients to see the best lines, where to turn and what obstacles to avoid. Only after a couple of times you get to know the track.” Filipe agrees: “Each time you cycle a track, it’s a new adventure.” The only people to whom this doesn’t apply are the real pros. Filipe: “Last winter we had a professional downhill racing team here who took their own bikes and even their own timing clocks. They just set up and went; there’s nothing that can surprise these guys.” Especially out of season, the Algarve is an excellent training ground, with trails that were used in the Portuguese Enduro Cup and Downhill Cup. João: “Where else can British and French teams train in winter time that’s only a short flight away? It’s the middle of winter now, and ideal cycling temperatures in Portugal!”
No matter the season, the two men permanently push themselves to their limits. João: “You always try to get faster and faster, it’s normal.” Filipe attempts a trick while jumping, breaks the chain of his bike and crashes, but isn’t too bothered about it. “It’s all part of the game, as are 10 or 11 flat tyres in a single morning. If you fall, you just get up and try again. I actually started biking because BMX wasn’t good for my knees anymore; I’ve had too many operations.” Continuing to pedal when your bike is already almost going vertical, like Filipe demonstrates, might seem like madness, but it’s the only proper way to ride a track. João explains: “Many parts are actually more difficult to do slowly. Speed is very important. You have to let it go: believe that the suspension will take the impact and the wheels will roll. If you touch the brakes, the wheels will start skidding and you’re finished.”
It isn’t all extreme action though. With offices in Faro and Albufeira, MTB Algarve also offers everything from scenic rides in the natural park to city tours on a bicycle. Their fleet includes normal road bikes, electric bikes and even fat bikes, which have wheels that are at least twice the normal size, ideal to cycle on sand. The clients, ranging from German to Dutch and from Belgian to Polish, and their cycling experience vary as well. Filipe: “The great thing about the Algarve is that there’s a huge variety of rides, for all levels of riders.” This is especially important if clients over- or underestimate their riding ability. João: “If people sign up for a gentle ride through the Ria Formosa Nature Park, but realise halfway through it’s too easy for them and they’d like a bit more action, we take them to the forest next to Faro airport, which has some more exciting tracks and little jumps.”
Some of the cross-country tracks they use are original trails, like the calçada romana in São Brás, which runs very scenically between almond trees. The downhill and enduro trails, which are hidden in the countryside well away from busy roads, are mostly built by the men themselves from scratch. João: “There’s one we called javali, as we saw that wild pigs lived in the area when preparing the track.” Many of the cycling trails end up at the Fonte Férrea, a well-known meeting place for cyclists anywhere in the Serra do Caldeirão. Having spent decades riding their bikes in the Algarve, João and Filipe also organise cycling tours along the Ecovia do Litoral (which stretches all the way from Vila Real de Santo António to the Cabo de São Vicente) and in the hilly Monchique region. Their favourite place though, stays the area around Alportel, which they know like the back of their hand. Over the last few years the men have turned parts of the mountain range into a gigantic playground.
The Arimbo area (see video in side note in the original article), for example, consists of a single downhill trail, about 3km long with 33 jumps of various difficulties and other obstacles like a ‘rock garden’ (read: lots of giant boulders that make an uneven path). At times it’s steeper than a black skiing slope, and sharp rocks lie next to loose gravel. When a race is held, bright coloured plastic is hung from the trees to show the direction, as the riders go so fast, they only have split-seconds to decide which way to go. The Botelho track, João’s favourite, has a so-called road gap (pictured above), meaning you jump over the road. An actual road, yes, one that’s wide enough for two lanes of traffic. To the non-biker this might sounds like a fool-proof way to end up in Faro hospital, but the guys claim it isn’t. Filipe: “You only need to go straight and pedal. Actually, better make sure to pedal quite hard as you need a lot of speed to cover the distance.”
For the two men, who can be found on their bikes almost every day, cycling is a hobby and passion as well as a business. After talking and showing their biker’s paradise with enthusiastic hand gestures they get restless and want to get on their bikes again. Kindly, they invite us along for the ride. Filipe: “To really understand it, to get that feeling in your stomach and see what mountain biking is all about, you have to try it.” Thinking of that mega monster jump on the downhill track we just passed, Enjoy the Algarve suggests going on a very simple cross-country track sometime in the future, and could we then all maybe go on the electric bikes? While Filipe laughs, thinking we made a joke, João’s face stays serious as he comments: “I never touch an electric bike; it’s against my religion.”