It’s unusual to hear a grown man yell with delight. Particularly unusual on an island renowned for soothing the geriatric, blue-rinse brigade with a mild climate and a sleepy vibe. On an island that is typically thought to be a bit (dare I say it…) “boring”.
But – yelling Phil was. His bike had just exploded sideways round the most beautiful, loamy flat corner I’ve ever seen and he was fighting to opposite lock it back in the other direction for the next one. And the next. And the next. Somehow, he managed to slingshot the bike completely sideways in the other direction and let out another yell of utter delight, which I couldn’t help but echo as I followed his line and repeated my own “yeeeeoowwww!”. I grinned to myself as the yell was repeated down the line by the riders behind.
This seemed to happen a lot during our time mountain biking in Madeira!
Espresso and singletrack
A typical day on Madeira would start with an Espresso and a lift in the Freeride Madeira van to around 5,000ft. We’d shake off the hang-over (Madeira’s local favourite tipple is called Poncha – give it a shot!) with a blast down a sharp ridge line, guided by a thin ribbon of single track with just the sunshine and the ocean for a backdrop. The sort of ridge line you’d spend all day climbing in the UK to ride and go home raving. Except this one doesn’t end at the tree line. It just keeps going and transforms into beautiful, carving single track.
You might then have to spend a minute or two buzzing round a fire road to another hillside before dropping in to what feels like a different continent. One trail will be flat out, dusty and surrounded by Eucalyptus trees as if you’d been teleported to Australia. Another might be a very English affair with damp, rooty trails surrounded by pine trees. Another would be green, damp, brown, leafy with huge ferns overhead – as you’d somehow got lost and landed back in the Southern Hemisphere in the New Zealand native bush.
Five continents on one island.
During our time on Madeira I think we only rode one trail twice. That was because it was a beautifully steep, rooty, natural dream-track with easy shuttles and soft, deep soil full of rocks. Our constant “yeeeowws!” and shouts of “best trail ever!” seemed to please John, our guide.
By his own admission John hasn’t ridden too much outside of his home-island and seems to be slightly nervous we somehow won’t like what’s on offer. Just to be clear, you’d be a joyless misery-guts if you didn’t like what was on offer. John looks quietly chuffed when I tell him the trails are easily as good as anything I’ve experienced anywhere else.
I find myself telling him that a lot on Madeira. Every trail is a reminder that the island is something very special indeed!
Moonscapes and shark’s teeth
Day three of our trip treated us to something really, really special. 1500m of descending over 45km, with only one substantial climb. We started way up high on a rocky, moonscape and spent the morning hammering the Eucalyptus forests, then down through a rock garden that’s longer than most UK downhill tracks and still more … down to the beach for lunch.
We then hitched a lift back up to ride the most terrifying and unique trail I’ve ever slithered down. Steep, technical, loamy and then along a knife edge cliff line with trees to your right and the breaking waves of the Atlantic and sharks-teeth rocks hundreds of feet below to the left. It was a total one of a kind trail that you could really only find with a mountain bike and an expert guide.
We finished the day on a track that was created for a recent enduro race. It was fast, multi-lined, rough, steep and covered in rocks. It was a great contrast to our adventure of the morning. Oh and it finished with scabbard fish with banana and passion fruit on the beach with lots of Coral, the local lager. Unforgettable.
As we explored Madeira I found that our rides rarely ended up with the monotinous “back to the van for another run” as is often the case on a mountain bike trip. Our final ride of our final day ended with a huge descent of Funchal’s labyrinth of back alleys. We clattered down narrow stairs, weaved through a mysterious walled garden, dodged locals emerging from gates, dropped down into the city and finally onto the end of a pier with a sun-set view of the mountains we’d just descended way, way up above. We’d come from as high as we could go to as far as we could go without running out of dry-land. It was the perfect end note to the week.
None of this perfection was accidental I realised. Every detail of our rides was careful curated by John and accompanied by a little tour guide explanation “this is the third highest peak on Madeira, from here you can see Morrocco” which our photographer (and John’s good friend) Antonio loved to mimic to wind him up!
Sacrifice and steaks
I realised that John (and all of the guys at Freeride Madeira) went way beyond your usual bike guide and poured heart and soul into showing us how great Madeira is. John didn’t just show us the trails but showed us the whole island including the amazing food (“steak on the stone” blew my mind), punchy local booze, the sights, the sounds, the smells. It was all perfectly pieced together to give us the best possible experience of Madeira and it’s riding … but not just its riding.
It was John’s hard graft that made this trip so good. He was bike-guiding us all day, setting the pace, hitting every feature first with lazer accuracy and then tour-guiding us every night till the small hours.
A chat over a beer and a steak on one of our nights out I realised why. John was due to leave Madeira to head off to uni and set for a career in tourism. But, at the 11th hour he had a change of plan and joined forces with his fellow Freeride-Madiera founders. He invested the money he was going to spend on his education back into Madeira and into starting the company.
“For me to make money doing what I love, in mountain biking at home on Madeira is living the dream.
I asked him between mouthfuls of steak if this was an easy choice …
“A lot of people leave the island to find work in Portugal or the UK but for me it was an easy choice to stay and live the dream. But I do have to work hard.
The last two or three years has been very hard work and man, I’m tired! I guide every day and I work hard to make sure you guys get the best time on Madeira. It’s important to me to make sure you get the best trip that you can”.
John’s quiet, intense nature is a total contrast to our holiday, laugh-a-minute vibe and I can see that all day, every day he’s on point and working hard to make sure that we all have the absolute best time possible whilst we’re in his world. He does a great job and he works with a quiet intensity to make sure we spend the week yelling with delight.
The one thing that consistently seems to make him grin is watching our group descending his trails, smashing his turns and shouting “yeeeooowwww!”.