Mountainbiking along Portugals coast

Travel fever

One of my most annoying weaknesses is uncontrollable excitement before a new adventure, meaning that the night before it all kicks off, I’m hardly able to shut my eyes, let alone sleep. And when the taxi is outside the door at 4am, and then a few minutes later I’m jammed between bikes and bags en route to the airport, my body’s own internal drugs push me harder than three double espressos. Holger and Rene, on the other hand, are asleep with their eyes open.

One month earlier it had been my ski bag that I’d been heaving over to the bulky baggage desk, now I’m casually rolling my bike bag behind me: we’re going south! “Land of Pastel de nata and port wine, for the coming week you’re all mine!”

Shorts and Tshirts

The sun greets us in Lisbon, holding us in its warm embrace. It heralds for us the beginning of the shorts-and-Tshirts season. Once we’ve finally reached Martin Roll’s Portugal Surfcamp, the first thing I do is rummage around in my bag for my flip-flops. But before we have a chance to assemble our bikes, Holger has got us in thick neoprene and stuck a surfboard under our arms. Apparently the swell, the tide and a couple more specialist terms I don’t understand are so good right now that we absolutely totally must get right out there and surf. A true Kilgore moment.

Surfboard != airbed

For anyone who might be wanting to do some chilling, a wetsuit functions very poorly as a pair of pyjamas, and a surfboard is a very severe airbed. And even though the sunshine makes it feel like early summer, the Atlantic in April is still mighty cold. A mountain lake might be chilly, but it’s like a hot bath compared to this. I really do try with the surfing. But after what feels like the hundredth nasal and ear canal rinse, I decide that it’s perfectly reasonable for me, as a woman of a landlocked country, to prefer immersing myself in water when it’s in its solid state: skiing. Also, baggy MTB clothing covers one’s “problem areas” markedly better than one of these wholebody straitjackets ever will. So, enough sea for now. 

Back in the saddle

I decide that I’d prefer to stay on dry land and get my bike doing what it was made for. We haven’t travelled to Portugal just to potter about, we’ve come here to scout out new routes. We’ve arranged to go riding with some locals, folk who go by the name of WEride. They’re a cheery bunch of parttime guides with heaps of enthusiasm in what they do – totally on our wavelength. The trio of blue WEride jerseys contain a history/English teacher, an architect and an opera singer. Interesting people, with plenty of interesting things to talk about. Ripping through the obscurest alleyways with a local architect: far better than anything Lonely Planet or Baedeker can give.


Our first ride is in Sintra and it gives us a chance to get to know each other. The SintraCascais national park lies to the west of Lisbon, and constitutes the westernmost point of the European continent. The area’s cultural landscape has since 1995 held UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

We’re told that the group’s preference is to “take things fairly easy on the way up, and then totally let rip on the way back down”. My incredulous stare alternates between Hugo’s laughing eyes and his 34tooth chainring (= fast!). His brand new carbon enduro bike glints in the sun and I paste another layer of sun creme onto my legs in the hope that it will have some magical powerboost effect. At least it makes me smell nice.

A short time later, we find ourselves in dense, humid woodland, the trails fast and also steep, in places featuring constructed jumps and banked turns, with frequent mossy stones and wet tree roots almost everywhere else. Technical puzzles, tree slaloms, small wooden bridges, fords… Strangely, it’s foggy in places – despite the fact that it’s a splendidly sunny day. My sunglasses are often too dark.

Braking last makes you fast

The guys head off at speed. Holger and Rene attach themselves to Hugo’s and Miguel’s rear wheels. I don’t have this level of primal trust and choose my own line. But whenever I fall too far behind, I’ve really got my work cut out to stay with them. This is when those 34 teeth show themselves: as soon as it gets a little flatter there’s no easing off and enjoying the view – it means standing up on the pedals until my thighs start to burn. Oh well, time to switch into training mode. With my 30tooth ring and the resulting lack of resistance in top gear I look like an electric food mixer whipping up some meringue.

The time flies just as quickly and after seven hours and several descents we feel the price of a lot of altitude in our legs. But the best comes at the end, and is called “the donkey trail”: a seemingly endless path near the coast, leading west that spits us out onto a deserted beach just in time for the sunset. We’re blown away. And we’re also absolutely ravenous. Fortunately, Hugo knows his way around the area and soon I’m tasting my first Bacalhau – the local dried and salted cod. It’s great.

Lisbon and Monsanto

In Lisbon Joaõ takes over. Or more precisely, in Parque Florestal de Monsanto. No, it’s got nothing to do with pesticide and GM crops. It’s the 900 hectare city park within the city, carefully laid out in 1930 and thickly planted with trees. It’s so hilly it hardly feels like a park, and there are horseriding routes, rockclimbing areas, sports grounds … and masses of singletracks for us MTB riders! The enormous number of varied routes means that one needs to be careful not to get lost. And if one does, there are going to be serious roaming charges to pay [back then]: “Left at the beehive?” – “No way was that a junction, and anyway: which beehive?” You can’t rely on tyre tracks here – this is the Lisbon MTB scene’s backyard and there’s evidence of cycling leading in all directions. The trails are carefully looked after but also heavily used.

We spend the whole day enjoying this giant playground. In the late afternoon Joaõ takes us on a guided tour of the city centre. A city tour on MTBs… Lisbon has a network of historical trams that are fine simply to behold. But keeping pace behind them is something else again. Memories of previous visits are awakened, but previously it was always slow and tiring, traipsing around on foot; this time we’re cruising through the Fuzo Easy Riderstyle, the wind in our hair and without one of those cheap city plans sticking to our sweaty fingers.

Rapunzel listens to Fado

We’ve reserved a table in a small familyrun restaurant for eight o’clock. Bikes are stashed in front of the entrance, almost blocking the whole alleyway. Joaõ knows the owners, who as well as offering exceptional local food also provide very fine Fado.
We quickly learn that as soon as the music starts, it’s time to stop chatting and chew quietly. Unfortunately I don’t understand a single word, but it’s certainly veeerrry dramatic. It seems that someone knows someone who knows someone, who once won the lottery but their ticket was destroyed when their house burnt down? Or the goodlooking young man must leave his homeland to flee political oppression, his fiancée promises to wait until she is 80 years old and her advancing dementia finally allows her to forget him – her grey hair lit up by the last rays of the setting sun, fade lighting, curtain down, change scenery, ready for Act Two. My imagination is in overdrive, and I am thoroughly entertained.

In every pause in the music, the proprietress comes to each of the five tables and ensures that noone has an empty glass. Perhaps it’s my imagination again, but she seems to be visiting our table particularly often. And each time she comes a little closer to me, strokes my cheek, strokes my hair. Keeping my glass half full doesn’t make any difference. My oh my, what’s this all about?

I should have guessed: it’s because of my mane of red hair. Soon I’m officially renamed Rapunzel, and a thick guestbook is presented for us to sign. What could be more fitting than to “let down my hair”? My Leatherman isn’t just good for trimming cable ties, it’s also perfectly adequate for cutting hair. So now there’s a tress of red hair stuck next to our names, and all that stroking is complemented by a big kiss.

Metropolitan MTB

Joaõ had warned us not to eat too much, but of course that came to nothing. The climb up to São Jorge Castle comes as a harsh surprise to my full stomach, and my legs complain heartily about the unfair distribution of blood in my body. For anyone who doesn’t know the city’s historical centre: the streets can have ferocious gradients and the side alleys are often almost as steep as a flight of stairs.

Unfortunately, the castle closes just as we arrive, so we pedal on to the Mirador, a famous viewpoint in Lisbon, where we enjoy a stunning view over the Bairro Alto and the city lights. And then the final descent of the day begins: down numerous steps and along narrow lanes, past meandering tourists holding their phones in front of their eyes, until we’re directly at the Tejo riverbank by the Rua Augusta Arch. We also ride parts of the City Downhill race route. Sometimes I ride my luck, as I seek to keep my new, wider handlebars from catching on the handrails that frequently appear as part of steps at the side of the road. Arriving at the bottom, we’re pumped up on endorphins and all postdinner sleepiness is gone.

But what to do with the rest of the evening? Correct: ride our bikes. From the Baixa Pombalina we head into the Bairro Alto. This is the bohemian part of town, packed with clubs and bars, and Joaõ knows where to find the best ice cream parlour Lisbon has to offer. Ice cream combined with profound discussions about all things cycling: that’s always going to work well! Afterwards we pedal around slowly, observing the nighttime economy in all its glory. Eventually we arrive at the underground station; we need to catch the last train back to Monsanto, where Martin’s van is parked. We ride down the escalator to the ticket counter, but unfortunately from the ticket barrier we have to push our bikes. Behind us lie 12 hours of intensive living.

Flowers by the sea

We spend the rest of our time exploring the area around Martin’s Surfcamp in Ericeira on our own. We also take a look at the coastal hiking/cycling route, as part of our research. At this time of year, the normally spartan vegetation is brightly bedecked with flowers. Steep paths quickly turn out to be routes where we have to shoulder our bikes, but the view out over the sea is fine recompense. Although Holger does tend to get a bit twitchy when he sees particularly attractive waves… I think that at these moments the heart of a surfer battles with the heart of an MTB rider. Landlubbers like me are lucky in that we don’t have such problems. As previously discussed!

During one of our lunch stops, Rene found out the hard way that it’s not really very clever to send me to a pastelaria (pastry caféshop) hungry and with his wallet but without precise instructions. Maybe it was a bit excessive, coming back with two heavilyladen trays, but when one encounters Pastel de nata (those classic sweet Portuguese pastries) in so very many different variations, each and every one really needs to be tasted. And from my point of view it was definitely worth the investment!

We enjoy the time and collect lasting impressions, happy moments, and sunshine. It’s a great atmosphere at Portugal Surfcamp. There’s an area for rinsing saltwater off the surf boards which we use for washing the dust off our bikes. At least in terms of colour, they totally blend in with the bright surf gear in the garage.

Surf’s up, Volume II

Towards the end of the week, Martin insists that we have another go at surfing and peremptorily puts us in Flavio’s beginners course. Warming up means jogging up and down the beach (already in those wholebody straitjackets), paddling air with our boards on the sand, and then – on command – jumping onto our boards from a pressup position. Did I mention that neoprene isn’t particularly breathable? I’m soon so hot that I’m longing to get back into the icy Atlantic.

The current is much stronger than at the beginning of the week, which means that I really have to struggle through the foam to reach Flavio. When I reach him I would have been glad of a chance to catch my breath for a moment, but it’s not to be: here the waves dictate the timing and they aren’t waiting for anybody. I can’t just wait until the moment comes when it feels right for me, I have to completely fit in and be ready when the moment is ready. That’s new to me and probably my biggest challenge.

And at some point, after falling in for the umpteenth time, I manage to not be flung off the front of the board, or tipped off the side, but simply get up and remain standing. And for a very brief moment I have a faint awareness of what surfing perhaps feels like. And then suddenly the water is ankledeep again and the fun is over.

Who knows, maybe I’m not such a landlubber after all? Perhaps I could change? But that can wait. For now, my bike is my best friend. And Pastel de nata. And port wine. Portugal!

Text: Maria Sendlhofer-Schag