Who doesn’t want to step onto a plane and fly straight to a warm island for some awesome bike riding and just good times, leaving the cold and grey winter at home. We didn’t only think about this, we jumped on a plane and flew straight to the beautiful Island of Madeira for nothing but good times! Join us and enjoy some winter sun and shredding too!
Crammed into the narrow row of seats in economy class, there’s nothing I want to do more than unbuckle the belt and run off the plane. But it’s too late – we’re ready for takeoff, and the pilot will soon be accelerating down the runway towards the sea. Madeira will soon be a distant memory as the plane returns us to our daily lives in Germany, where winter is already in full swing. I could quite happily see myself staying here, but I’m a coward. Too cowardly to take on a new adventure and give up the lifestyle securities that Ive become used to. I just don’t have the courage to take the plunge. Our host and guide for the past six days beat me, beat me with his feat of bravery when he threw in the towel and turned his back on the freezing cold city of Hamburg after six years of living there. A French expat fluent in German and English, Jérémy left his stable job as a software developer to seek his fortune on this small island in the Atlantic Ocean.
Of course, he didn’t miraculously find himself in the midst of this adventure, and he definitely didn’t just hang around the island after a riding holiday – although this is the scenario running through my head right now. Right from the outset, he knew he needed a plan with an objective: no more cold winters in Germany, and the best way to create a career out of a hobby. Suitable riding destinations for such endeavors are plentiful – with La Palma being the most obvious choice, at least for Germans. So why Madeira? Perhaps he, like me, was hooked by the same inexorable pull to move here, which coincided handily with his entrepreneurial vision and ability to spot the small island’s potential.
Spread over just 740 km², Madeira is exactly the same size as Jérémy’s former town of Hamburg, which incidentally happens to have ten times the population. The island is about 57 km long and 22 km wide, so you can circle the whole thing in around two hours by car. The coastal road is lined by steep rock faces, which you’ll come to learn are synonymous with the island – just like the plethora of brightly coloured vegetation and the huge selection of tropical fruits including mangos, passion fruit, bananas – all grown here and sold directly at the expansive market in the capital of Funchal. More than worthy of a visit, this market will open up a whole new universe of smells and tastes, with wares lovingly produced and sold by the welcoming and chilled-out locals.
In fact, they were more welcoming than we’d even anticipated – after an unfortunate crash and the subsequent alteration to our agenda, their willingness to help couldn’t have come at a better time. We had found ourselves in Prazeres, an area that marks the end of some of Madeira’s coolest trails. The crash put an end to our riding though, and we went straight to the Casa do Grelhados restaurant to seek help. The owner’s son didn’t hesitate before lending us his somewhat battered but still roadworthy Peugeot 106, thus saving the day without a hint of bureaucracy or discussion. Someone’s in need = help is given.
This was the day that we’d just returned from an insanely good downhill for which we’d dragged ourselves unceremoniously out of bed. It was still dark as we headed for the start of the trail just in time for the sun to rise, enjoying the first few satisfying rays of warmth. The past four days had been mental, packed with so much riding that included the Sandokan Enduro race, where we’d pushed on through seven incredible stages. On this day, the penultimate one of our trip, we planned on just riding the best trails in our own time. The red and black lines had caught our attention. Built by local riders, these two trails just have so much diversity and constantly keep you on your toes. They weave through wild, fragrant eucalyptus forests with man-made berms, natural trail features, and bone-dry ground – one factor that massively appeals to any rider who has had enough of Europe’s rainy season.
But, as I was finding out, there’s so much more to Madeira. In the damp north part of the island, you’ll find rollercoaster trails that wind their way through an almost jungle-esque forest, tearing up the dense undergrowth over rocks, roots, loose ground, and even terrifyingly slippery ‘black ice’ on occasion, which yanks your tyres out from under you if you make even the most minor movement of your bars. Just keep calm and off the brakes, and then you should come out unscathed.
But it wasn’t the black ice that was the catalyst for my crash – it was more my own ego and über ambition in trying to take a line that I had missed in the race but still wanted to ride. My attempt left me with a hugely swollen thumb that stopped me from being able to even hold the bars. Still on the trail, we decided that our riding plans were now toast and we’d be wiser to head towards Funchal, the capital of Madeira. This was where the beaten-up Peugeot entered the scene; without the old banger we’d never have made it back to our apartment in the sleepy but picturesque district of Jardim do Mar (tip: it’s a real hidden gem for surfing) – and we’d have been even less likely to make it to the lively capital.
As always, the centre of Funchal was heaving with middle-aged married couples armed with the trademark neon “tourist lights” of digital camera and the good old socks and sandals combo. Traipsing on and off cruise ships, the tourists tend to only stay for a matter of hours, following a well-trodden route through the capital. We preferred to keep to the narrower side streets, eschewing the multilingual tourist menus at the packed restaurants for the quieter cobbled lanes. The best places are very rarely the ones listed in a guidebook – or at least, not once the book has been printed.
Relying on tips from a young couple that we’d met, we soon realized we’d hit the bullseye as we tucked into the typical Madeira dish of espada filet with a few glasses of Poncha, a schnapps made with sugar cane, lemon, and honey. Listening to the waves break over the fortified rocky shore with the sea breeze blowing around me, I couldn’t help but ask: why don’t I just stay here? All I needed, I reasoned, was some of that same courage that Jérémy had already shown.
Madeira Travel Advices
Best time to travel
Madeira boasts pretty constant temperatures for riding, hovering around 20–25°C. From October to March count on around six to eight days of rain per month, which is still a damn sight better than the chill that sets in around Central Europe. If you’re into celebrating a more exotic NYE then give Madeira a last-minute look – Funchal is known for hosting one of Europe’s biggest firework displays!
Various German and UK airports offer multiple flights each week to Madeira. If you can’t find a direct flight, then plan a stopover in Lisbon, a city that is more than worthy of its own visit.
Jérémy and Jo from Bikulture Madeira know the island like the back of their hands. They’ll take you to the best trails and can provide any necessary spares from their own small bike shop.
Jérémy from Bikulture Madeira can advise on where to stay. In Jardim do Mar there’s everything from 3-star hotels to spacious, modern apartments to rent.[/emaillocker]
Words & Photos: Christoph Bayer
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