Becs and I don’t do “winter sun” or package holidays, so why we booked this one I’m not quite sure. However, it seems Madeira is a trail running and MTB paradise, so everything worked out OK in the end!
As soon as you leave the airport you get the sense that there isn’t a single level piece of ground on the entire island. Whilst that’s not entirely true, they’re few and far between. The airport runway is built on stilts, while the football stadium is perched halfway up a mountain, high above the capital city, Funchal, where we stayed.
Task one was a mountain run, so we picked up the hire car, had a minor moment with a hill start in an unfamiliar car on what was categorically the steepest road I’ve ever driven on anywhere in the world, and headed up to Pica de Arieiro. At 1818m high it’s the third-highest peak on the island, and has a road right to the top. It also looks a lot like Snowdonia when the cloud/rain is being blown against the windscreen at 30mph.
Remembering that this was supposed to be a holiday, we drove down to Portela, where the cloud base was at 650m. We then set off uphill into the cloud, and spent the rest of the day getting alternately rained on, or dripped on by overhanging rock.
Our planned running route was along one of the many levadas – lengthy channels designed to move water from wet bits of the island to dry, for irrigation, hydroelectric power and historically for cleaning clothes etc. too. There are over 2150km of them in total, but we tackled an 11km section of the Levada do Furado (albeit out-and-back for a healthy 22km overall).
They’re frequently cut directly into hillsides and cliffs, giving vertiginous drops which – on our cloudy day out – looked pretty much bottomless. There are occasional tunnels, and as we progressed we entered the native Laurisilva forest. This made me particularly happy because it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
Next on the agenda was some mountain biking, courtesy of Freeride Madeira. I was overjoyed when we piled out of the uplift minibus to be told that the first run of the day would be down a stage of the professional Enduro Word Series.
It had been raining all night before and all day, so the subsequent loose, rooty mud was carnage. Fortunately everyone else was sliding around too, and after a bit of calibration I got into the swing of things.
There was a lot of sloshing around in the mud, and I was far too busy trying to stay on my bike to stop and take photos. But the video below shows one of the trails we rode, and one I enjoyed most because the technical bottom section was tricky but rideable, with decent speed too. The video is set to start at the most interesting bit.
The rider above says at the beginning of the video that he expects front wheel washouts, which is exactly what happened to me about halfway down, and I took an over-the-bars later in the day too. But overall I would say it’s definitely the most technical riding I’ve ever done, and I was really pleased that I had the confidence and skills to get through some really gnarly bits. The concentration was draining, but a great day.
Next on the activity list was some more running, this time down near sea level on the Ponta de São Lourenço peninsula.
It was pleasingly rough-and-ready, and I’m a big fan of the un-British habit of permitting big drops and serious consequences without fencing off everything in sight. I think the image of Becs below is my favourite of the holiday – click the preview to do it justice by viewing full-size.
We had a ‘quiet’ day after that, driving around the west and north of the island, with various stops to be blown around on clifftops and at sea-level. We also had a look at the Cabo Girão viewpoint, which is the second-highest transparent viewing platform in the world after the Grand Canyon, apparently.
To round off the holiday we returned to the top of Pico de Arieiro and headed in the opposite direction for a walk over Pico de Cedro. A change in weather meant we actually got to see the mountains this time, and they looked pretty spectacular.
There is a Skyrace on the island (55km / 4000m), and it looks brilliant, but in the meantime we just had to make do with a massive set of steps to finish our excursion…
While the weather definitely threw a bit of a curveball to begin with, it was great to get a taste of the island. I think there’s definitely scope to plan a stunning week of riding and running a little earlier in the year, though, so fingers crossed for a return visit at some point in the future.