Mountain biking

The scenery is spectacular, but one wrong turn and you go off a 20m high cliff

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine January 2016

Apparently John F. Kennedy once said that ‘Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike’. This month, we’re upping both the fun and the fear factor by trying a mountain bike ride on the high cliffs of Lagos. The nature is stunning, but enjoying the views can best be done when standing still. Time to keep those pedals level, the head up and heels down.

Originally, I come from a country which has more bicycles than people, so yeah, I can ride a bike. Everyone in Holland can – how else would children get to school? Proper mountain biking, though, is an entirely different league as I soon found out. Unlike the Netherlands, the hilly Algarve isn’t flat and thus way more technical to ride. Actually, it already started when getting on the bike and wanting to adjust the height of the saddle. “It’s a mistake most people make,” says Jim Caroll (41), owner of The Mountain Bike Adventure. “They think they need to be able to touch the ground with their feet when sitting on the saddle. However, this doesn’t make for efficient pedalling.”

Jim knows what he’s talking about – he’s been riding since the age of two. He never used stabilisers either; his brothers used to tape him down to a red bike that was way too big for him (his dad had to put wooden blocks on the pedals as Jim’s feet didn’t quite reach). Fast forward a few years and he was competing in races back in his native UK. After swapping an office job for a more outdoor lifestyle and an own company in the Algarve, the MIAS mountain bike instructor still rides every single day. So how to get your ideal pedalling height? “Put your heel in the centre of the pedal, the pedal on the bottom of the stroke and make sure your leg is straight. Then, put the ball of your foot over the centre of the pedal and you should have a slight bend on your knee. This way you get more out of your strokes and it’s less tiring to ride.”


The suspension and comfy gel saddle make large stones feel like little pebbles

This efficiency is a good thing, especially as the first few hundred metres from the meeting point near Lagos’ old town is an uphill ride. Over before you know it and then you’re standing in one of the most gorgeous bits of the Algarve. Near the lighthouse of Lagos, high sandstone and limestone cliffs make up the famous Ponta da Piedade coastline; calling this a scenic ride would be an understatement! Apart from a gorgeous place, it’s also a giant bikers’ playground with loads of little paths. The tracks seem to be a natural part of the landscape, but are actually the result of thousands of hours of work – trimming back the undergrowth and bushes in order to keep them clear – by Jim and his team.

At first, I’m hesitant to drive over the rough terrain, but the full suspension of the bikes combined with the comfy gel saddle makes even the largest stones feel like little pebbles. It’s a pleasant surprise, like when you expect a crappy camping mattress with the springs coming out, but you end up in a waterbed. When driving over rocky patches, Jim advises to “Keep your pedals level and stand up a bit, so the suspension can do its job.” Seeing as the pedals are ridiculously grippy (they’ve got these little iron bumps), there’s no fear of sliding off.


That’s when I lose my balance, somehow manage to bump my knee into the handlebars and half-crash this €2.500 bike into a bush…

‘Pedals level, head up and heels down’ is the holy trinity of mountain biking, at least on my beginner level. At a particular technical piece Jim advises me to walk the first bit until after the sand, then continue by bike and make my way up the hill. From the top it doesn’t look that steep, so I start way before the sand, figuring I can do it – after all I’ve been cycling since I was 4. Not a good idea. Seeing as I’ve started too early, I gain too much speed for my liking and try to brake in the loose sand. That’s when I lose my balance, somehow manage to bump my knee into the handlebars and half-crash this €2.500 bike into a bush… Naturally, this not-so-controlled stop means I have to walk in order to make it up the hill. Lesson learned: listen to the pro next time.

Jim, who admits to being like a little kid when he’s on his bike, “Always playing around and pushing my boundaries,” is luckily not angry when I tell him, but amused instead. What’s even better, he immediately gives some good tips, such as not to brake when riding in loose sand. “If you brake, one of your wheels is going in a slightly different direction and you’ll lose your balance,” he explains. “Also, when possible, don’t try to steer too much in loose sand: you’re better of going in a straight line towards slightly the wrong place. Unless this place is a cliff edge of course, then you stop,” he adds with a grin.


The scenery is spectacular, but one wrong turn and you go off a 20m high cliff

I’m not entirely sure if he’s joking, seeing as the clifftop ride is (logically) full with cliff edges. The scenery is spectacular, but nothing is fenced off, so one wrong turn and you could drive off a 20m high cliff. Apart from a gorgeous ride, it’s also a potentially dangerous one and I wonder if he takes everyone here. “No,” is the immediate answer. “You’ve got a good sense of balance and are stable on the bike. Some people are shaking when merely driving on the road. Those I take on a flat and wide cycle path along the beach.”

Mountain biking isn’t without risk; in his career Jim has broken both his shoulders, his neck, his back, his leg and most of his ribs, all when doing jumps. He always wearing a helmet though, which is probably the reason he’s still around. No jumping for me today, but instead we do bit of skills training, where Jim teaches me how to use my brakes properly. He plans out a single corner, drawing lines in the sand, indicating where to pedal, where to brake, where not to brake anymore and which track to follow. My initial thought was that one should just brake when going too fast, but it turns out that doing it this way makes for a more controlled ride. “Most people don’t brake properly, even the best riders,” Jim explains. “They usually brake too late and don’t anticipate enough.”


On top, being out of breath is a good excuse to take in the views

At the next slope, it’s time to learn the attack position. Seeing as you always want to keep the same amount of weight at both wheels, the steeper the slope is, the more you need to transfer your body weight. Keep it neutral on the flat bits, ride in defence position (weight backwards) when you’re going down, and in attack position (sitting on the nose of the saddle, transferring your weight to the front and just guiding the handlebars with your hands) when going uphill. Basically: pulling on the handlebars like an idiot (what I was doing before) isn’t a good idea. Instead of stamping and rotating, I have to aim for smoother pedal strokes, putting even traction on the wheels. My thighs and legs are protesting to this new way of cycling, but I do make it up a steep hill without the need to step off. On top, being out of breath is a good excuse to take in the views.

On the way back to Lagos town centre, which Jim drives almost entirely on his back wheel, I bother him for even more tips and tricks and find myself aiming to bunny-hop the bike (lifting the front wheel and straight afterwards the back, like doing an ollie on a snowboard). After 17 failed attempts I start to get a bit frustrated, but then Jim tells me to chill out and relax. “This move takes a lot of practice. If you’d ride every day you’ll get it in no time at all.” Again, he’s completely right and instead of stressing I decide to focus on the fact that it’s great weather and I’m in the Algarve, riding a bike outside in the sunshine. Simple pleasures are very enjoyable indeed!


When to go?

Whenever you want. There are no fixed days or times, mountain biking is possible all year round, so just let Jim know when you want to go. Flexible hey? Summer is, obviously, busiest. Spring is popular too because of the nice weather and wild flowers.

The central meeting point is in Lagos, but The Mountain Bike Adventure has also built tracks in other areas, ranging from Portimão to Sagres on the coast and all the way up to the mountains of Monchique inland where they also offer a shuttle service (they take you up the mountain, you bike down).

Want to go? Make sure to reserve beforehand by contacting Jim. All contact details can be found on the website


For whom?

Active people who like spending time outdoors. Jim has taught anyone, from people who’ve never sat on a bicycle before to mountain biking world champion Josh Bryceland. In other words: previous cycling experience isn’t necessary, but also experienced riders will benefit from the ride.

There’s no minimum or maximum age limit. However, the smallest bike has 24inch wheels, meaning that because of their height, small children won’t be able to ride. There are lots of rides that are suitable for families with kids and youngsters.

The tracks vary from scenic easy rides to hard core downhill biking and from a few tips on how to cycle more efficient to proper mountain biking tuition, depending on your level and needs. Skills training is done with a maximum of two people per instructor, whereas the maximum group size in cross country rides is 8 (6 on really technical mountain routes).



See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine January 2016

Posted in This month we try.

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