RIDING ACROSS PORTUGAL - END-TO-END

Mik Stansfield decided to turn a long held dream into reality by riding the entire length of Portugal. Here is the story...

It all started with one of those ‘riding a long way'  dreams I’m sure we all have from time to time. In this case it was whilst driving up to the Santander ferry from my home in the Algarve - gazing out of the window at the scenery I couldn’t help but think how cool it would be to ride up that, or through there, or along the other. I can’t help myself. I feel the same way about golf courses, and beaches, anytime my mind starts to wander.

Anyways, after many 'wouldn’t it be great to'  conversations with like-minded friends I came across the annual Trans-Portugal Mountain Bike race. Sponsored by Garmin, the race divides the length of Portugal into ten sections and at the beginning of each day the route is downloaded onto the competitors’ GPS. No arrows, marshals, or marker tape - the only thing to follow is the GPS. It seemed that this would make a great basis for a trail ride, after all Portugal has a very ‘open’  attitude to trail riding, and as we should easily double the pace of the MTBers we’d be able to arrive at every other one of their hotels and therefore it’d save finding accommodation. Simple. If only…

The Logistics

Thanks to the wonders of the internerd and the generous members of the Wikiloc online route sharing community I found a complete route apparently from the Garmin event back in 2006. I checked it on Google Earth and couldn’t find fault so set about thinning it down and splitting it up into chunks that would fit into the appallingly small memory available on my Garmin 60Csx.

I’d already convinced my two closest riding pals that it was a great idea and after some messing about trying to transport their bikes from England we decided it’d be best to do it on my machines - an ‘06 RFS 400EXC, a 2011 400EXC and an ‘09 690 Enduro R - as the three bikes were already in Portugal.

As we planned to ride the route from north to south, and the bikes were located in the south, transport to the start line was the next issue. But with a little favour swapping, Dougal from Enduro Portugal and his trusty Landcruiser were enlisted to complete the 840 mile round trip. Sorted.

Mid-May was chosen as the best time weather-wise and that was the planning done. Sadly, not quite…

Last minute 'life gets in the way of living'  issues meant that one of my friends had to cry off, and as no-one could fill the space at such short notice three became two.

The Preparation

The Saturday before ‘the off’  we loaded the bikes, and ourselves, with all the gear we intended to take and set off into the hills for a shakedown test. 32-degrees heat didn’t help but all went well.

The 2011 400EXC had been fitted with a 13L tank, an ally sumpguard, KTM handguards, and bar risers. Conti super heady duty tubes would hopefully ward off punctures and a Scottoiler would prevent the need to constantly lube the chain.

The 690 ran a GIT sumpguard, additional fuel tanks from Edmondson Racing, a Scottoiler and a Touratech rear rack to provide somewhere for my 20L Kriega tailpack to sit.

A hearty meal was planned at my local café/restaurant (owned by Jose, a 1975 Roof of Africa finisher and former team-mate to Steve McQueen and Malcolm Smith)  followed by an early night. As a sign of things to come the evening instead descended into drunken chaos, which included an ex-Aswad member serenading us with reggae rap and three Portuguese youths rolling their car within 200 yards of leaving!

 With a 5am start in order to get up to the north it was my intention to arrive around lunchtime and get half a day’s riding in. Having dismantled and re-wired the back-end of the Land Cruiser in order to get the trailer lights to work we decided that 08:30 would have to do and off we went. Empty roads and pleasant scenery lulled us into believing that we didn’t need to study the map and so arriving at our start point at 17:30 couldn’t have been much further from the plan. It then occurred to me that by not having a plan nothing could actually go wrong (though this sounded like somebody else’s idea as it’s a bit too brilliant for me).

We enjoyed a cracking evening meal at a ‘too posh for bikers’  hotel, even if a coachload of octogenarians were clogging up the bar and shouting at the football on TV, and we woke to glorious sunshine and a breakfast which was plentiful enough to provide lunch as well.

As we left Braganca the uncertainty and anxiety about the whole trip melted away as we passed through the small village of Gimonde - typically lost-in-time with granite cobbled streets too narrow for modern cars, and houses seemingly made from well-arranged rubble complete with oak doors sporting cracks negating any need for a cat flap. An ancient bridge, just wide enough for a donkey-drawn cart, led us across an idle river and up onto the first trail of the week.

Heading even further north and rising up into the heart of the Montezinho Natural Park, the terrain and geology were not dissimilar to the Algarve. It was a little less hilly perhaps, but featured the same loose gravel tracks surrounded by ‘cistas’ (a woody sticky-leaved weed)  which gave way to occasional eucalyptus forest.

Within an hour the trail arrived at a perfectly preserved and bus shelter-sized chapel surrounded by the derelict remnants of a small community. Unfortunately the track out of the village was as long-gone as the inhabitants. After much head-scratching and GPS double-checking we concluded that the trail headed off down the hillside, even though there was no sign of a track at all. The long grass and tough shrubs provided cover for the loose rock and shale under-wheel. Paddling halfway down we stopped and laid the bikes on their sides before continuing on foot to confirm there was a way through. Thankfully it turned out to be the right way, and a couple of miles riding alongside a small river took us to a crossing point and back to a more recognisable trail.

Every ten minutes we were riding through different terrain: scrub, oak forest, meadow grass, eucalyptus forest, fast open trails, tight technical singletrack, it just went on and on, all the time in glorious sunshine and with not a person to be seen anywhere, even in the many little villages we passed through.

Later in the day, just as we thought it couldn’t get any more interesting, we descended a loose challenging track to an old granite bridge. The track up the other side bore a vague resemblance to the pack horse roads in the Pennines except that this was much more technical, with huge boulders forming steps and edges reminiscent of a trials section. Excellent…

Apart from my supposition that we should double the daily mileage of the mountain bikers and therefore be sure of finding a hotel, we’d made no accommodation arrangements whatsoever. It became obvious that this wasn’t going to happen and despite it being daylight until around 20:30 if we didn’t find somewhere to stay around 6-ish then we may not find anywhere at all.

We rumbled into Freixo de Espada a Cinta via the cobbled narrow streets of the old town, across the open square in front of the church and straight up to the police station where two of Portugal’s’ finest were enjoying a cigarette. I thought it best to speak to them before they spoke to us and they directed us through town to the petrol station, where I was able to re-seat the bead of my front tyre which had caused me some concern earlier in the day. The search for some accommodation rewarded us with a delightful self-catering apartment built into the hillside, within a stone’s throw of the Douro River and looking out over Spain on the opposite bank.

We adjusted the chains and topped up the Scottoilers in the just right temperature of the morning sunshine. Our trail could be seen following the river to the south and with nowhere to buy breakfast we got an early start.

The trail continued away from the river until we reached a newly graded track on top of a ridge. A return to tarmac followed though this was compensated by stunning views. A cleft in an opposing ridge, through which the Douro wound into the distance, had us stop to take it in. It was truly magical. Only as we set off again did the GPS reveal that we were to ride through this stunning slice in the scenery. And so began the best hour’s riding of the whole week…

We descended a vague grassy track, past a couple of dilapidated buildings and down into the valley. As we rounded a rocky outcrop the grassy track turned to stone. Huge slabs formed steps, which wound downwards via steep and tight switchbacks. The sense of achievement for riding it all feet-up would have been great but to get it wrong would have meant a trip to the bottom of what was now a huge crevasse. Self-preservation had me walk the 400EXC around the switchbacks and ride the straight sections between. The limited steering lock on the 690 meant Ian didn’t really have a choice, he had to walk it round. We stopped many times on this descent, not quite believing what we were riding through.

Twenty minutes later we arrived at a bridge where the track continued in the same vein up the opposite side. There was no alternative here, it had to be ridden and we had to get to the top. The chasm beckoned as the track got progressively steeper and more difficult. We exited onto a small road and stopped to review what we had just done. As far as I was concerned the trip could have finished right then. It was that good! Then the first few raindrops of the day started to fall and we were relieved that it had waited until we’d got through that particular section.

The Ecomarche at Figuera de Castelo Rodrigo provided breakfast, packed lunch, coffee, water, a toothbrush and much-welcomed shelter from the now persistent rain. Despite having sourced a lightweight waterproof prior to the trip I’d somehow managed not to pack it and was now starting to regret leaving it behind. Still, it was warm rain and as we moved on through some very English-like overgrown singletrack trails we became accustomed to the deluge.

Arriving at the massive star-shaped fortifications at Almeida we were faced with a rare ‘no vehicular access’  sign. A track in the grass allowed us to tour the outside unrestricted and some flat out trails between the grain fields led us to our next tour of a fortified village, Alfaites.

At this point Ian chose to abandon all empathy by revealing the Gore-Tex jacket he had secreted in his rucksack and on we went with significantly contrasting comfort levels!

A fantastic section through the ‘Serra de Malcata’  should have seen us at a hotel in the spa town of Monfortinho alongside the stunning River Erges. Unfortunately the section of forest we should have been riding through had been fenced and gated as a nature reserve. Riding around wasn’t going to be simple with a cliff-faced ridge to the west and the river border with Spain to the east. I didn’t believe that the whole hillside could be blocked and remained confident of finding a detour around.

Despite a couple of hours trying, and even managing to enter the reserve at one point, we failed to find a way through. This was our first major setback when trying to stick to our intended route and we didn’t give up without a fight.

Plotting a course to the west, we found a route around the cliffs where we were rewarded by the spectacle of some deer and narrowly avoided running over a tortoise, which looked most unusual by not having a house number painted in white gloss on its back [that’s a blast from the past – the ed].

A restored cottage in the centre of Penha Garcia provided the night’s accommodation and a fine wild boar stew provided sustenance.

After being served a king’s breakfast at our cottage, a five-mile trip to the east had us back on the trail and heading towards our next cultural town- in-a-castle-on-a-hill of Monsanto. A very steep ancient cobbled road wound up the hillside via many switchbacks to appear in yet another deserted village straight from the Lilliput Lane medieval collection. The relative lack of detail on the GPS ensured we saw much more of this surreal place than the mountain bikers before us.

When we’d finished fannying around, the road out of the town soon turned to cobbled path and then to a single track which had the handlebars scraping along walls on both sides, and in places both pegs folded up too!

Rain was a big feature of the rest of the day. Despite it not being particularly cold the windchill was actually making my teeth chatter. I gave in early in the afternoon and opted to wear the bin bag I’d been offered the day before over the last remaining dry shirt I had.

A lack of sunlight added to the challenge as my only goggles had tinted lenses for the anticipated bright sunlight. So I had some difficulty negotiating the trails with any sort of reasonable pace as I simply couldn’t see!

By now, the 400 had clocked up another 15 hours since an oil and filter service, which was causing me some concern as we still had over 350 miles to do before the finish. The 690 on the other hand, with road bike service intervals, still had a couple of thousand miles to go before it required any attention.

The city of Castelo Branco provided a solution. Riding much deeper into the city than I had hoped, we came across a fuel station with a full selection of oils and a disused tyre bay which served as sanctuary from the weather, a drying room, a coffee stop and a service bay.

I bought a litre of fully synthetic at the ‘bargain’  price of €22 and, having never changed the oil myself, assumed that the drain port below the gear lever was for engine oil and proceeded to dump all of my perfectly good gearbox oil! Another €22 and a crawl around to remove the bashplate left me faced with two further drain plugs. Taking a guess as to which to use would’ve undoubtedly resulted in me dumping the gear oil for a second time so a series of calls to England resulted in the fine fellows at Craigs Motorcycles dictating the service manual over the phone. Service complete and clothes less wet, I was a happy bunny as we headed back into the wilds.

The Adventure Centre at the rather smelly industrial town of Vila Velha Rodao, overlooking the Tejo river, provided bed, fodder and sufficient evening sunshine to completely dry our entire wardrobe. The fence around their tennis court also provided a piece of wire to replace the lost screw from the Akrapovic exhaust guard.

By the back-end of the morning we arrived in Castelo De Vide. Once again, following the GPS route gave us a very scenic tour of the historic streets/footpaths/small gaps between houses that belied normal classification, and we rode into the town centre past the first road sign we’d seen which indicated no vehicular access to the places we’d just been. We couldn’t find anyone who cared so I declared it time for a brew and the cheery lady in the coffee shop was cosmopolitan enough to serve coffee with milk. We then entered into a lighthearted disagreement with a bemused old fella outside as, having determined that he’d learned to speak English in America, I insisted that what the Americans spoke wasn’t English! When we’d finished agreeing to disagree he took revenge by taking a cracking photo of the ground just in front of us!

We completed a lap of the town centre one-way system and headed off on our route. Unfortunately, following the GPS meant that we toured the town’s ramparts parallel to, but 80 feet above, the road we should have been on! Having entertained the locals like a visiting circus act on our first lap, I tried really hard to look like we were having a look around town as we passed them all again on our second circuit.

After a few of miles too many on the road we returned to the trail and onto a section which, in parts, appeared to have been repaired with football-sized rocks. The original track was largely solid granite interspersed with mud. I momentarily glanced down at the GPS and as I looked up realised that my field of vision had become the three feet in front of the bike to where Ian was waving frantically. In response I braked hard and ended up hitting the slippery granite slab knee-first. When he could get a word in, Ian explained that he’d like to take a photo. With tears in my eyes I thanked him for his forward thinking..!

Back on the road for a spell we climbed toward Marvao. Again the GPS directed us up a ‘no access’  path into the old town. We passed on the ‘town tour’  this time and almost simultaneously picked-up then lost the trail in a police station carpark. When we found the correct way out it was marked with a ‘residents only’  sign, so we decided to claim residency and sped off down it before the doughnut break ended. What followed was a breathtaking two miles through a centuries old cork forest on a beautifully fashioned stone road.

A long straight section of tarmac led us past a ‘dead end’  sign which ordinarily wouldn’t have applied to us, but at the end our trail lead straight into the reservoir at the Abrilongo Dam. A fenced field scuppered our plans to skirt around the waters and a grumpy farmer put the kybosh on our first detour attempt. The next farmer along happily directed us across his expansive olive plantation…

A fast-flowing river crossing gave Ian the opportunity to demonstrate his selfless ‘Bear Grylls’  attitude to water by wading across to check its depth, doubtlessly encouraged by the return of blazing sunshine. Following him down to the river I briefly saw my first adult wild boar, which had returned to the track after Ian had passed and vanished again as soon as it spotted me.

Just south of the town of Elvas we were again frustrated in our quest to stick to the route by another newly fenced-off field. Just beforehand, Ian, in his attempt to clear a boggy section of track, had spectacularly launched the 690 into the air only to land cross-rutted in the gloop and a couple of hours’ worth of effort were compacted into ten minutes trying to extract him!

Two laps of a field of four-foot thistles had us off for another detour. An abandoned smallholding turned out to be not quite as abandoned as it looked, and a bewildered old fellow came out to find us scattering his chickens. He was unexpectedly cheery as he explained there was no way through the evil-looking field of spikes.

A brief trip around Monsaraz and a mile-long bridge over the Guadiana river led us to a hotel in the fortified town of Mourao. Dinner of ‘various meat with chickpeas’  in an antique winery was definitely the most bizarre dining experience I’ve ever had.

A couple of miles of tarmac gave way to a gravelly descent down to a river crossing at Santo Amador. Ways in and out of the water were clear to see but in between was 30 yards of fast-flowing water - we weren’t crossing there. Ian, having stripped down to his ‘budgie smugglers’,  went straight in to confirm that it wasn’t going to happen. He walked up the riverbank 50 yards and floated back down the river in order to have his little swim without fear of being washed out into the Atlantic.

Backing out the scale on the GPS revealed a detour of ten miles to the east and we conceded to tarmac for the next 45 minutes. A coffee and fuel-up in Moura had us reflect upon a frustrating couple of hours but the next section would compensate many fold.

Miles of fast country lane led us to the Guadiana river again. An elegant new bridge took us across whilst looking down on its decrepit predecessor. On the opposite bank the trail turned back under the bridge and down to a disused railway station. The obligatory graffiti cock-n-balls pointed the way, which was along the railway track itself. I set off down the overgrown track, bouncing over the sleepers, and within a couple of minutes I had lost all feeling in my arms. A narrow path to the side of the rails provided some relief until the shrubbery and sheer-sided banking forced me back between the rails. I tried to find a pace where the ride smoothed out but there simply wasn’t one. The physical abuse went on for another half-a-mile before a crossing point led us off onto a more relaxing track. Phew. It might not be quite as rewarding as blatting around a gold course but I’d always wanted to ride along a railway line. Awesome! But never again…

The afternoon consisted mostly of top gear gravel roads between the grape vines and grain fields of the Alentejo. No diversions from the route made a pleasant change, with the exception of a dual carriageway which had swallowed up the trail for a couple of miles near Ourique. The route turned north here before heading west then south through the most fantastic eucalyptus forest. Rollercoaster trails meant the grin inside my helmet was making my cheeks hurt!

Rolling into Santa Clara indicated the last couple of miles of the trip. The final 500 yards of the GPS’ route led us to a railway, though as the line had been upgraded there was no longer a level crossing on what was now a fast sweeping bend in the tracks. There wasn’t an obvious crossing point within sight, so eschewing the old Red Indian ‘ear to the rail’ trick we simply listened for a train and then dashed across.

Five minutes later we were enjoying celebratory beers, and a further 45 minutes on I crawled into a familiar bed…

Living the Dream

What a fantastic trip, the memories of which will stay with me for many years. The detours, although a pain at the time, simply became part of the adventure and the trails, scenery, and unending history and culture were truly outstanding. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, without which plotting the route in the first place would’ve been extremely difficult, I can now modify the route using Google Earth and any future trips can use this updated route with fewer detours. In fact Dougal of Enduro Portugal intends to run it as a tour in 2012.

Apart from three bent levers and a missing screw on the 690 both bikes performed faultlessly. My decision to stick with the 400 and let Ian, the far better rider, ride the 690 worked very well as it meant that it didn’t tire me out trying to manhandle the big-bore bike over the technical terrain. All-in-all I guess you could say that the ride had gone like a dream…

Many thanks to Dougal for logistics far beyond the call of duty. And to Ian, my companion and serial snorer, without whom I could not have done the trip but would have enjoyed much more sleep!

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