At 100 kph on a southbound commuter train, I was covering ground quickly through southern Portugal. After just a few days of sunshine and warmth in Sintra, I had all but forgotten about the dreary December my friends and family were probably facing back at home. I wasn’t thinking about snow tires or strata meetings. I didn’t care if my last TPS report had a cover sheet. And at no point did I ever wonder whether I’d turned the oven off. Instead I sat in the sun, watching the orange groves speed by and I thought about riding rad stuff on a bike. That’s all, that’s it, living in the moment. I let all other worries melt away like ice cream on a hot summer day because, really, what good is vacation if you’re only half there?
|Not a lot of arm-twisting was needed to get Mike and I to hike this section a few times for sunset shots|
Dreams became reality when I rolled into Lagos: the weather was absolutely perfect and I had another friendly mountain biker eager to show me the best trails in the Algarve. Jim Carroll runs The Mountain Bike Adventure and he’s the only game in town when it comes to real trailriding. Originally drawn to Lagos for the surfing, Jim’s spent the last 10 years bike-guiding and honing his knowledge of the area, so I was in good hands for the next few days. After some refreshments at one of the many beachfront cafes, and a few hours spent wandering the old town, I settled into my comfy abode, dreaming about the dusty cutties to come.
|3 riders, 4 bikes – one complete spare. It’s the little things like this that separate the wheat from the chaff in the guiding bizz|
Although it’s a bit dull and has little to do with bikes, it’s worth mentioning the economics of all of this because, quite simply, nothing in this world is free. If you want maximum ROI on your vacation, consider that prices in Portugal are some of the lowest in Europe, often running at half of what you’d pay elsewhere. This is especially true of the package deals that Jim offers – he finds the best villas, negotiates good rates, and passes on the deals to you. And even if you’re looking for more, something really upscale, a few minutes online can net you a luxury suite with a private beach for 100 euros per night. So go on, no matter which way you do it, treat yourself! The world is yours Tony!
|Lagos is a winter training hot spot for World Cup DH pros – you might even recognize a few sections from photos and edits|
Semi-early the next morning we motored northward from town, aiming for the green hills of Monchique and the network of DH trails nestled in amongst the groves. But as we neared the outskirts of town, there was high-pitched whine hanging in the air… Formula 1. In 2008, the Algarve International Circuit was completed in nearby Portimao and it hosted prominent races and test sessions for a few years until finances forced it into receivership. Although its future in F1 is uncertain, the track is still utilized for testing and on this particular day we were treated to a free show of the 2.4 litre V8’s screaming out of smoky corners at 18000 rpm. Not a bad way to start the day! And when the big boys aren’t utilizing the track, you can get out there in one of the racing club’s high end cars, including an F1 car. Is there anything in Lagos you can’t do??
|Completely analog, Jim’s Portuguese UMM is an unusual but highly reliable vehicle that is always right around the corner, literally, on shuttle days|
Jim’s Portuguese UMM 4by rumbled its way into the hills, around the tight bends and amongst the terraced fields until we were almost 1000m above sea level. Life in Monchique seems like it has changed little over the centuries – tanned farmers still work the land in traditional ways, employing livestock and irrigating fields from the ancient Roman aqueducts that twist through the hills. Still for old timers they are surprisingly accepting of this crazy new mountain bike fad and that’s due to one thing: diplomacy. Jim has put years into the trail system on Monchique, whether its working with the landowners, building the trails, or keeping them clear for everyone’s use. He’s earned the respect of the locals and it’s refreshing to see a tour business thrive from deep roots like this. Like I said, Jim’s the only guy you need to talk to when it comes to trails.
|Ever ran into traffic on A-line? This old goat herder was just happy to have someone keeping the trails clear.|
At the top of Monchique we hopped on bikes and careened our way down a high speed rock-strewn gully that had me wondering how good Portuguese medical care is (it’s good by the way, not that I needed it). We blasted through the low shrubs and over fun sections of slick rock, all the while trying not to be distracted by the spinning blades of the huge wind turbines directly above us, or by the distant views of the Portuguese coast. But before long we were enveloped by forests of cork and oak, snaking back and forth on sun-dappled singletrack that went on and on, section after section. With bermed switchbacks, fast buff trail, and technical sections of root and rock, the Monchique area offers a huge variety of terrain. Even the in-between spots of gravel road were entertaining with angry farm dogs nipping at your tires or a farmer having a soak in an old outdoor tub. Classic Portugal mixed with the delights of modern technology… and a 4by waiting at the bottom to take us right back up for another round.
|Foia and Picota are two main peaks in Monchique, each offering a different flavour of DH that can easily keep you busy for a couple of days|
|Portugal produces about 60 percent of the world’s cork. Cork is actually the bark of the tree and it’s harvested every 9 years, over and over for centuries|
When you’re completely shattered from a full day of guided shuttles with Jim, Lagos is a great spot to call home for the evenings. With a plethora of restaurants, pubs, and all the other standard amenities that come with a tourist destination, you’ll never be in want of good food or strong drink. But there’s more to Lagos than that and if you wander the docks when the fishing crews come back to port, or the numerous beach coves at sunset, or the narrow streets of the old town after dark, you’ll find that it’s a thriving little town with beauty and character. And when you factor in the warmth of the Portuguese people, and their emphatic support for the arts, it’s easy to see why Jim has chosen to call Lagos home. Of course I would be remiss in my journalism if I didn’t mention that Lagos also offers some of Europe’s best surf breaks – a great option for the rest days or for non-biking spouses. After just a couple days there, I even found myself perusing the listings in the real estate office window and wondering if Jim needed any more guides…
|Although Portugal seems to have more than its fair share of graffiti, there are some fantastic pieces hidden in the lane ways of Lagos|
If you only arrange shuttle runs with Jim, you’re only seeing half the picture. On day 2, Mike and I pedalled out of town and, after checking out the well-photographed seastacks around Ponte Da Piedade, we picked up a singletrack heading west from the tangle of urban footpaths. The Lagos coastline is blessed with a myriad of trails that can be linked together for an epic cross country ride that skirts right on the edge of cliffs, dashes between luxury estates of the rich and famous, and even weaves through the ruins of maritime forts that date back to an era when Portugal ruled the seas. And of course, when you’re feeling a little knackered, there is always a fantastic beachside village nearby for a shot of espresso or a snack. Mike and I rode for a few hours, cranking the flats and hound doggin’ the downhills and generally having a hoot until the sun neared the horizon. To cap the day, Jim met us 20km out of town with his drone-cam and buzzed around above us as we railed some particularly nice sections of cliffside singletrack. All in all, a completely different biking experience from the previous day of shuttles, which just makes me ask once again; is there anything you can’t do in Lagos?
|Mike is one of Jim’s guides and he does a bang up job of riding, guiding, and entertaining. I’m sure days like this make it all worthwhile|
On the train again, this time homeward bound, I reflected on my brief stay in Lagos with a sense of satisfaction. No matter how awesome a trip is, there are usually some ‘if only’s. If only the weather had been a bit better. If only it weren’t so expensive. If only we’d known where to ride. But as I rumbled north, I struggled to think of a single downside to visiting Lagos, or a single box that didn’t get ticked during my days with The Mountain Bike Adventure. Sun, trails, natural beauty, surf, culture, camaraderie – all ticked and the list goes on and on. In Lagos, everything seems to go your way, all day, every day. It’s a simple and unbeatable formula for an all-time vacation that just might put a permanent smile on your face. And so, although I’d soon be facing the realities of the daily grind once again, I sunk back into my seat, closed my eyes, and drifted off with a grin.
|All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine. – Jeff Spicoli|