A so-early-there’s-no-point-in-going-to-bed flight dumps me at Faro for a quick weekend away to do a brief recce of a cycling tour that AlgarveVélo have on offer. It’s a week long trip with 5 days of cycling on the same roads that the Pros ride during the Volta ao Algarve, or the Tour of Algarve to you and me. This early season Tour may have passed you by, despite Geraint Thomas winning it this year, and cycling in the Algarve may have passed you by for that matter, it’s not just golf courses down there, slip away from the greens and there’s great cycling to be had in the hills, and because no one knows it’s there you’ll pretty much have it all to yourself.
If cycling is the new golf, as the endlessly and tediously trotted out phrase goes, then logic dictates that you should go cycling where golf is king. Which to those that know such things would be the Algarve. And actually, arduous aphorism aside, you really should. The cycling in the southernmost part of Portugal is a real hidden gem, and what the region can offer to golfers is bettered by that which it can offer to the peloton of new golfers.
After a quick bike unpack and brunch of baby squid and chips an afternoon ride out of Lagos along to Sagres and back is on the cards, despite frequent weather clattering in from the west. It takes no time at all to climb out of town and onto deserted country roads, away from the tourist trap shoreline the place is empty. Empty. The lack of population and scarcity of traffic in these hills is a noticeable pleasure, it makes for incredibly easy cycling, gradients aside, and the cars that do infrequently appear are courteous.
Within ten minutes of starting the ride to Sagres we’re hit by one of the banks of weather breezing in, it’s a passionate rain in that continental fashion, which might just have turned to sideways hail for a bit, and wind, lots of wind. But as soon as it begins it’s over and roads that are briefly rivers dry off in no time because despite it being early in the year it’s still warm enough to be wearing ¾’s, for boreal English bones at least.
We pedal along deserted and pleasingly undulating country roads through rust and green before hitting the also incredibly quiet main road to Sagres for a bit of cheeky car drafting, the benefit of having an AlgarveVélo support car to hand. Our heading is a general south-westerly until we can go no further because we have simply run out of land.
Sagres sits on a knub jutting out into the Atlantic to form the very bottom left corner of mainland Europe, it’s understandably popular with the surfing crowd as it’s where an ocean meets its first land for some time and smashes into the Iberian Peninsula. We don’t hang around as we’re in the perfect position to see the sun nudging the western horizon but I’d happily return here, the place has a definite end-of-world feel that can only come from being sandwiched between so much sky, sea and wind. The urge to strike out towards the horizon and into forever is strong, no wonder the Portuguese used to do it a lot.
Running out of Golden Hour twilight we have to take the quick way back along the main road, and as darkness chases our lightless bikes home I’m cheerfully informed that this used to be one of the most dangerous roads in Europe before they built the motorway, and just over the ridge to our right is Luz, where Madeline McCann went missing. It’s always nice to know a road's history, even if it isn’t an evocative palmares of epic cycling anecdotes. Maybe.
We end up doing the last few kilometres in the dark, back through the busy town, with no lights, on wet roads and with a multitude of intersections, frenzied roundabouts and unfamiliar junctions. No one blares their horn at us, we’re given ample room and no one tries to bounce us off the road, which makes for a nice change.
While the AlgarveVélo Tour of the Algarve uses the pro race as a template the days on the bike are thankfully a little less strenuous, and while the race takes place in February you can choose when your own Tour of Algarve happens. Those poor pros have to pedal nearly 800kms over the race’s five days but the AlgarveVélo week tones that down to under 600kms, and even better there’s no time-trial in the middle, just a short transfer stage from Lagos to Vilamoura. Rather than ride point to point, with all the annoying faffy kit packing and unpacking that entails the week is based out of two swanky Vila Gale hotels in Lagos and Vilamoura with only one day of moving between them.
For this brief stay I’m at the Vila Gale in Lagos, and it’s a very welcoming and comfortable place to come back to for a weary cyclist, probably too good for the likes of me, but there’s no need to rough it in a hostel or ropey B&B any more is there? For starters they let us take our bikes up into the rooms, and on top of that there are two restaurants and two bars, but if you want some pampering and a different kind of liquid muscle relaxant there’s a spa with indoor pool, sauna, Turkish bath and massage rooms, which is doubtless where one of the AlgarveVélo team will give you a rub down during the week. You could bring your better half here and they’d be spoilt.
The next morning starts with the cyclist’s heaven of a hotel buffet breakfast, perfect fuelling for a preview ride of what will be Stage 2 of your week in the Algarve; 135 km from Lagos to the summit of Foia, the highest point in the Algarve, and back again.
We stretch our legs along the main road east for a few kilometres before turning left to head north and inland and into the hills. The majority of Portugal’s population is stuck like a limpet to the coast so as soon as we venture into the interior it goes quiet once again. We duck under the A22 coastal artery and take the third exit left towards the Portimao Circuit along a three-lane highway that’s completely deserted, a wide expanse of unused tarmac. Has the zombie apocalypse happened and no one has told us? Eerie. The road bends and curls and rises and drops in broad strokes through the countryside and we count the number of cars that pass on our right hands. It’s glorious. When was the last time you rode four abreast and happily chatted without fear of imminent death?
At the deserted roundabout by the motor racing circuit we turn back onto smaller country roads, through fields of oranges and lemons, or more accurately clementines and lemons. Bright colours dotted in the green landscape that are a tonic to British winter eyes more used to an omnipresent brown and grey palette.
The route continues to be undulating, there doesn’t seem much in the way of flat around here, it’s all up or down, but not in a particularly remarkable way, territory for the rouleur. It is however like your legs being continually punched. Punch, punch, punch, punch, so the muscles inevitably start to reel as a result of the continual onslaught. There’s little chance to get into any rhythm, each ascent is different, up, down, up, up, down, up, and if done at a pace will jelly you pretty quickly. It would make a great training ground, if that’s your sort of thing.
And that’s even before the proper climbing begins. There are no long and arduous hills here with the size, presence, fame or history of cols like the Tourmalet or Alpe d’Huez, but the bigger climbs do have a long and draggy character to them that’s testing enough. After a little lump of a hill we turn left and begin the ascent proper to Monchique via Alferce. Time to find the happy climbing tempo and settle into it for more than a few kilometres. The road winds up between what look suspiciously like eucalyptus trees, and a query reveals that they are. Well I never. This introduced immigrant is now the most abundant tree in Portugal, crowding out the native cork tree, and it has become an unwelcome visitor.
By the time we get to Monchique we’ve done enough climbing to feel the need for a snack stop to replenish depleted stores, despite Antonio throwing bananas and cakes at us from the AlgarveVélo support car at frequent intervals. To finish the job and complete the climb to Foia there’s another 8km to go and the steep ramp out of town aside it’s another steady gradient with nothing much to trouble the legs, if you don’t count the cumulative effect of the previous climby effort. At just under 900m high Foia isn’t going to make any Top 10 climb lists, and nor is the summit of a stone in the middle of a mini-roundabout going to feature heavily on instagram, but the view over the coast makes up for those failings, even if the day is a little hazy.
On the actual Stage 2 of the AlgarveVélo week you’d continue onwards and drop down over the other side of the hill, but today we retrace our steps back down to Monchique. It’s a fun swoopy descent, easy to top out at a fly-eating 65 kph, with good tarmac and still nothing much in the way of traffic to get nervous about, the biggest problem are the eucalyptus brashings in the road threatening to skid you off. Back in town we have to high-tail it home so clatter down the main route south before tumbling west and back home via those empty country roads again. The last few kilometres roll through deserted valleys and quiet hamlets into a beautifully setting sun, the legs know that they’ve done a fair bit of climbing over the day but are happy enough to push on through just one more rise. Not a bad place to ride a bike, at all.
Next morning we head into the hills again to look at Alto do Malhão, the climb that’s the highlight of both the AlgarveVélo week and the Tour of the Algarve, but in cars unfortunately as time is short, as are the gaps in the showers. The road to the foot of the Alto do Malhão is of the kind that has you asking “Is this the climb?” several times, but those questions seem suddenly stupid once you get to the bottom of the hill, because you’ll know. Oh, you’ll know.
The road corkscrews sharply to the right and rears up to smack you with a tarmac fist, it’s good job all those false starts to the climb will have warmed your legs up, if I’m looking for positives. There will definitely be a frantic scrabble for gears, that easiest gear in particular, because as starts to climbs go it’s unfairly callous. After the initial right hand kick it swings to the left, then slowly round to the right and only then does it level off enough for you to persuade your lungs back down your throat a little bit.
The Malhão climb certainly isn’t a long one at a paltry 2.5km but what it lacks in length it makes up for in brutality, tightening the screws up to 18% at times. The pro race went up this twice on the day, be glad you’re not a pro, although as it comes at the end of the final and 140 km day on the AlgarveVélo tour it’s likely not to be a jolly romp on a set of 5 day old legs.
There’s nowhere to hide on the Malhão, it’s open and exposed as it bends around the hill, and the straight section about halfway that follows the ridgeline looks particularly unsympathetic to a tired and suffering soul. Pass the lay-by on the left and you’ve broken the back of the climb, stop here if you want a nice view, or just stop, and from there the road hairpins dramatically round to the right before the final section to the summit. On race day the road is crowded with fans, chances are you’ll be doing this on your very own, with little roadside encouragement.
If ever there’s a way to get a cyclist itching to come back and pitch his wits against a climb then it’s to go up it in a car and stop off at various points to kick at the tarmac and discuss the curve of the bends. Quiet torture. I’ll be back for another round.
AlgarveVélo are offering a five per cent discount if you book using the code roadcc - visit their website www.algarvevelo.com to find out more
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.