Great Rides: Sun, sea and singletrack in Madeira

A mountain biker riding through bracken on a dusty dirt trail
July trails
The Portuguese island of Madeira makes a great destination for enduro-style mountain biking. Ralph Jessop returned for his third visit

Madeira rises like a mountain range from the Atlantic. As your plane swoops around the island, you get a good view of its peaks and gradients. There’s so little flat land that the airport runway stretches out into the sea on concrete pillars, and the hotel transfer involves one of the twistiest, most elevated journeys you’ll ever make by coach. So you can image what the biking trails are like.

Next day I was ready to reacquaint myself with them. I was sitting on a cling-film-covered seat in VW minibus owned by Freeride Madeira, with whom I’d booked a couple of days' riding. Having been here before, I was enjoying the expressions of companions who hadn’t as they began to realise that the previous day’s coach trip was nothing compared to the bike shuttle that was taking us to the top of the island. The roads are so narrow, so steep, and so twisty. Our driver, Andre, revved the van into first gear as he took a hard right up a road like a ramp. Imagine Hardknott Pass, double everything about it, then add some exposure…

Trails that take the cake

We bundled out of the van and took in the view. It was like being on top of the world. Mountain scenery lay below us, surrounded by sea. I could tell what the other riders were thinking: if that was the drive up, what about the trails down?

The top section was a dusty flow-trail through scrub. After rain the surface is affectionately named ‘Madeiran ice’ but even dry it was challenging. A few corners in, after some berms and small drops, I realised that this much dust demanded new techniques. It needed to be treated more like a wet trail in the Highlands. And it was best to keep some distance from rider in front. Too close and it was like being on a plane descending into cloud: you couldn’t see a thing.

Some lovely, technical boulder sections, rollable step-downs, and more steep berms delivered us onto a mountain road. Andre was waiting with the van and showed us how to load the bikes onto the trailer. Six dust-covered riders climbed into the van for a short shuttle back up, laughing and talking up the descent.

Disembarking, we tweaked the setup of our hire bikes and dropped into a forest. It was like being back in the UK on a perfect summer’s day: Dunkeld but with 27-degree heat. On this more familiar terrain of rooty singletrack, everything started to come together and I felt like I could ride full tilt.

The first time I rode in Madeira was on the trails used for the Enduro World Series. I’d never ridden anything so steep. Trail development in the UK has caught up in recent years, and this time I felt more at home. I tried to lay off the brakes, stay smooth, and keep up with the younger riders in front. Technical singletrack led us through different habitats – pine woods, breezy meadows, Australian-style gum tree forests – beneath crystal blue skies. I was already plotting how I could return next year.

Descending a short, steep road section, Rui the guide popped onto his rear wheel and manualled to the veranda of our lunch-stop restaurant. Fresh fish, local lamb hotpot and cool drinks awaited us.

A mountain biker cycles uphill along a dusty trail in amongst woodland

Dropping in

The afternoon brought another shuttle ride and more new trails. Rui told us about well-known riders who had filmed videos here. We paused, pumped forearms easing, as he then talked us through the trail ahead. There were drops coming up. We could go left and avoid them or right and over them. I went right: a five-foot step-down led to another with a technical run-out. I cleaned it and felt happy.

Shortly afterwards I was humbled. Rui wasn’t kidding when he was talking about top riders making videos here. We arrived at a huge, smooth jump line nestled into the forest. I decided to pass on this, instead sitting back and watching Rui send it – followed by one of our group’s younger riders, whom I’d been chasing that morning.

Still deep in the forest, the next trail was less high stakes but no less fun. Narrow, twisty singletrack took us – elbows out, front wheels loaded – at pace through warm, richly scented woodland. We emerged to an epic view, looking out above the old city and port of Funchal, Madeira’s capital. The van and a friendly face were again waiting for us.

Another great trail delivered us onto a track along a levada, an irrigation channel. It was surfaced with waves of cobbles. Rui laughed and said that riding on it was a “Madeira massage”. As we rolled into town, it steepened to about 30% and brakes began cooking as we skipped down over the ripples.

That was day one done. We loaded the bikes back onto the trailer and returned to base. Then it was time for a three-scoop ice cream, a swim in the sea, and a cold beer in the historic old town we been overlooking earlier.

A mountain biker cycles along a dirt track through bracken. In the background a coastline is visible, crowded by red-roofed buildings

An island fling

On this visit I did two day trips, fitting them around my other activities and Freeride’s tour schedule. If you were travelling as a group, you could easily plan your own itinerary with the guides.

After chatting with them, the Trans Madeira is next on my to-do list. It’s a seven-day challenge across the island, with a rest day in the middle. It involves climbing on some historic hiking routes and descending on enduro-style trails.

I visited Madeira in July this time. That’s a quiet time for the island’s trails; it’s busier off-season when the mountain bike trails in the Alps are closed due to snow. While the weather in Madeira is good year round, it is of course hot in the summer: average temperatures are over 20º from June all the way through to October. Even on cooler days, the UV levels are high.

The island caters well to tourists, with plenty of accommodation and places to eat. Just be careful with Madeira’s traditional citrus drink, poncha. Like punch, it’s stronger than it seems…

Getting there

The Madeira archipelago sits a long way off the coast of Portugal – it’s nearer Africa. I flew direct from Edinburgh with Jet2, which took about four hours. There are flights from most major airports in the UK. The ferry service between Portimão (mainland Portugal) and Funchal (Madeira) stopped running a while ago. If you want an off-season mountain biking getaway without flying, southern Spain, the Balearic Islands, and (for the really dedicated, well-heeled traveller) the Canaries are accessible by train and ferry. Details on how to get there are on

Fact file: Madeiran mountain biking

Distance: On guided rides the distance and terrain is tailored to the group. We did over 1,000m of descending before lunch.

Route: We were taken to the top and guided down various sections, descending on technical singletrack through Madeira’s diverse landscapes.

Conditions: Hot year round but not stifling thanks to a sea breeze. Can be mountain weather on the tops. Madeira is much lusher than the barren Canary Islands further south.

Bike used: I hired a full-suspension Scott 29er with 160mm travel and CushCore tyre inserts. If you take your own, I’d suggest a slackangled enduro bike with tough tyres.

Maps/guides: Finding good mountain biking trails abroad is much, much easier with a guide. Freeride Madeira were great.

I’m glad I had…Spray-on dry suncream, pads, goggles.

Next time I would…Try the Trans Madeira and more of the historic mountain trails.

Further info: Visit Madeira for general info, Free ride Madeira for guided riding & bike hire, Trans-Madeira (enduro event), Jet 2 for flights.