You have to admit there are not many places where you can be sitting in your local back-street café, enjoying a quiet drink in the sunshine when, out of nowhere, appears a motorcade, followed closely by 25 professional road cycling teams … together forming the 48th Volta ao Algarve!
Well, that is precisely what happened to me, recently. My husband and I were in the historical old town of Loulé, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, and whilst we knew the big race was on that weekend, we never dreamt they would pass by so closely, allowing us front-row seats. It was a privilege to see and it got me thinking about the Algarve and how under-estimated it is as a destination for road cycling.
Incidentally, for those of you who have never heard of it, the Volta ao Algarve is right up there when it comes to road cycling stage races, and it is recognised as a serious contender within the international Pro Series circuit. It attracts some of the world’s top teams, which means we get to see some of the best cycling in the world, up close.
And yet, it still eludes me as to why, with this high profile event in its 48th year, the Algarve is still overlooked by road cyclists when planning their holidays or training schedules. After all, hosting such an event is no mean feat and there are certain advantages to be gained by following in the footsteps of the professionals, least of all that the roads are well-maintained year on year. You can also be safe in the knowledge that the routes are designed to present sufficient challenges for those who want them.
Mallorca and the Tour de France may have the dramatic mountainscapes and the spine-tingling ascents and descents. But the former is largely overcrowded, whilst the latter can promise plenty of ‘character building’ weather, even in the height of summer.
It may surprise you to know that the Algarve, too, has its very own iconic climbs, including Fóia (the highest point in the Algarve reaching 900m) and Malhão (shorter and steeper, with the ascent maxing out at just under 20%). Both are incorporated into the Volta ao Algarve and both are considered the ultimate goal amongst locals.
In contrast with Mallorca, the roads in the Algarve, once you escape the main tourist hubs, are generally quiet and in many places virtually traffic-free.
Plus, as cycling is a national passion, you can be thankful for (mostly) considerate drivers.
And then there’s the climate. Even in February, we boast an average of six hours’ sunshine a day and, as we experienced this year, temperatures can easily reach those reminiscent of a British summer’s day.
But it is not just the athletes who can benefit from what the Algarve has to offer, us ‘mere mortals’ can enjoy some fantastic leisure cycling, too. I have been lucky enough to explore much of the region by road bike and the unspoilt, diverse landscape constantly surprises me as it provides a stunning backdrop to my rides.
In my opinion, it pretty much has it all. Take yourself off to north of the EN125 and you will encounter spectacular stretches of road that guide you through challenging hills, sweeping countryside, forests, aromatic orchards and picturesque little villages, where you can fuel up with a coffee and a homemade pastry for less than €2!
And if you really want to explore in a little more depth, Algarve Bike Holidays has a variety of established and bespoke trips that can suit all levels. Here are two of my personal favourites:
Trans Algarve Mini Break
From the north eastern border of the Algarve, right across to the most south western tip, this tour offers three days of contrasting scenery including rivers, valleys and mountains. Each day brings with it new challenges and each night you get to relax in charming places where you can sample life at an authentic, local Portuguese pace.
Coast & Hills
Staying each night on the coast and cycling each day up into the hills, this seven-night experience offers the best of both worlds. Heading away from the stunning beaches, you will soon find yourself in tranquil countryside, traversing rugged weather-beaten landscapes and passing through quaint village squares.
So, whether you wish to emulate the Pros or you simply want to improve your fitness and get to know parts of the Algarve you are not yet familiar with, it’s easy to see why the Algarve has it all.
But, shhhh … let’s keep it to ourselves!