A mountain biker’s dream?
Algarve Bike Holidays, run by Paul Beesley and Fred van der Meer, have been organising MTB holidays and tours in the Algarve since 2014. There aren’t many local routes they don’t know. But they are constantly on the lookout for those special tracks that will keep their clients coming back to this fabulous region.
Some years ago, they decided to look further afield with the aim of exciting and challenging the more competent of their mountain biker clients. And they hit on something quite spectacular, namely the Rota Vicentina Historical Trail, a well-known hiking route that hugs the Western Coast and descends from the Alentejo to the Algarve.
“Hikers and bikers actually have a lot in common,” explains Paul. “They both like to discover hidden places and to do this independently, wherever possible. So we decided to research some of the well-known hiking trails in the region, to see if they would work for mountain biking, too.”
There are hazards that people can overcome on foot that they can’t on a bike, no matter how skilled they are. What works for hikers doesn’t necessarily work for bikers.
“You have to consider lots of factors when designing trips like this,” warns Fred. “For example, as a hiking route, the Rota Vicentina encompasses daily distances of around 17km. But if you’re cycling, you naturally want to cover more ground. Plus you need food, water and lodgings along the way. So we had to map the route out carefully, allowing for refreshment stops and sensible overnight stays.”
“It can be complicated planning a cycling route,” adds Paul. “No matter how well you know your bike, you may encounter problems that can’t be solved by a roadside fix. And, unlike hiking, there is a far greater chance that something will go wrong with your bikes than with your legs! We always need a plan B. And as most groups are of mixed abilities, we need to make sure there are different options.”
Their research has clearly paid off as their now annual Rota Vicentina MTB Tour is increasingly popular and brings clients back year after year. Dipping in and out of the Rota Vicentina Natural Park is a great way to get to know this all-too-often overlooked southwestern corner of Portugal.
The fully guided tour leads across farms, through forests, over hills, across rivers, along clifftops and via sandy paths to perfect beaches. With challenging daily profiles and an overall distance of over 200km in just four days, it is a trip that certainly packs a punch.
“But we also know that some people would prefer to do this at a more leisurely pace,” acknowledges Paul, “so we have a self-guided option where you can cover the same ground over more days, with a rest day in between.”
Which is where I come in…
The self-guided week appealed to me because it encompassed remote areas of the Alentejo and the Algarve that I would never otherwise see.
And I liked the idea of dipping my toes just outside my comfort zone. Most of the route involved sand, rocks, gravel, overgrown ground cover, or a mixture of these; all of which meant I had to concentrate hard. But once I got into the flow of it, I relaxed into the ride and enjoyed the surroundings.
I never imagined we would encounter such a variety of landscapes in such a short distance each day. This was one of the main highlights for me. One minute we were negotiating our way through eucalyptus forests, then we were cycling across vast sun-scorched plains, followed by luscious, undulating pastures reminiscent of Tuscany!
The tranquillity was another huge plus. We saw all manner of wildlife – from wild boar and deer, to goats, cows, birds of prey, storks – but not one single person. It was an amazingly grounding experience.
Whilst this was a challenging trip, it was also one where we were made to feel very much at home. Friendly locals inhabited the villages and towns we passed through or stayed in. Many of these were off the tourist trail and didn’t compare with the busy towns we know in most of the Algarve. So it made for a refreshing change of scene and atmosphere. We soon relaxed into the rural pace of life, despite the physical demands on us from the cycling.
It was a fabulous experience, stretching us physically and mentally, but not so gruelling that it didn’t still feel like a holiday. And, unlike most holidays, we came back fitter than before we went!
Samantha Diamond arrived in the Algarve in 2006 and has made it her home. Her passions are travel, cycling, languages and dogs.