It was one of those decisions that in hindsight you start to question, but in late 2018 I had signed up for three Bikingman Events in 2019 and Portugal was the last of the three. It might have been a step too far after a busy year on the bike but it turned out to be an excellent decision and great fun meeting up with old friends and meeting the diversity of riders that make up a Bikingman Race. And not forgetting the opportunity to ride a tough but beautiful 950km parcours in southern Portugal in balmy warm daytime conditions.
After riding in Portugal I was planning to ride an off-road event in Morocco and needed two bikes. Portugal was all paved road except for a short gravel section near Cape St Vincent and I rode the Mason Bokeh while Morocco needed the Mason ISO. So I drove down from the UK via the Plymouth/Santander ferry and a 1000km through Spain into Portugal.
I spent a night at a lovely rural hotel near Tavira about 25km from the race start in Faro. Found it on booking.com at the last minute and got lucky.
The following morning I rode a random 50km route into the hills behind the hotel and didn’t realise until later that I was actually on the first big climb of the race topping out just under 500m.
It was then a short drive to Faro and the Eva Senses hotel set in the heart of the bustling town overlooking the marina and coastal lagoons.
I was sharing a room with Derrick – we had met on the Oman ride where he had ridden as pair with Ed (I rode with Ed in Peru). This was to be Derrick’s first solo ultra distance race and from his kit and preparation clearly meant business.
Pre race days were the usual indecision about how much kit to take. Bags packed and unpacked in between walking into town to grab some food and a drink (or two). We were in the heart of the tourist streets packed full of good places to eat. A few Bikingman riders sat at a bar often expanded to a large group – on one occasion a poor woman quietly reading a book generously moved twice to accommodate us. Derrick did put a beer behind the bar for her when we left! Such a gentleman!
Race briefing was a formal affair in the town hall and we had the honour of being welcomed by the Mayor of Faro. Quite a protracted detail briefing followed being in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese – not surprising it took a while.
Awake before the alarm sounded at 0315hrs we were up and after a good breakfast gathered at the historic arched gateway to the old city. Nervous tension prevailed until the gun went at 0500 and we were away under a neutralised start to safely clear the city for the first 25 km with a police escort.
Once set free I could see a procession of red lights climbing the first big hill ahead as dawns early light, a beautiful red and purple glow, started to turn black to grey and finally lit up the browns and russet of the rugged Portuguese landscape.
Derrick and I rode together for a while until he finally took off and that was the last I saw of him. He was riding strongly and it was great to follow his tracker as he built a great ride up ahead.
I played leap frog with Vincent, from the island of Ireland, during the first day. We had last met on the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland during the TAW ride last summer. We were skirting the Spanish border and rode the shore line of the Guadiana River after 100km of riding. It was a surprise to see ocean going yachts moored so far inland. Spain lay the other side of the river. I was delighted to find a nice riverside cafe and ordered coffee, sandwich and cold drinks. The day was warming up fast.
I had passed a group of stationary riders a little earlier and saw the problem was a broken derailleur that looked pretty terminal. Fair dos to the rider – he got back to a bike shop in Faro, got it fixed and still finished the ride ahead of me!
The route took us north towards CP1 and we passed through an ever changing landscape of lakes, cattle country and olive groves as far as the eye could see.
As dusk approached I stopped at a lonely restaurant and managed to order a large Spanish type omelette and chips. A couple of other riders arrived while I was eating. There was still over 60km to go to the Vila Viçosa Checkpoint and I decided to keep going.
I headed off into a dark night, there was no moon, and soon made a silly mistake and missed the turn towards Monsaraz. Eight kilometres later on a lovely gentle descent I realised my error and cursing and swearing at the black sky above rode back to rejoin the course! My only excuse was that the GPS signal had been out of sync with the map and the Wahoo had kept giving me false off course alarms – it had cried wolf once too often and I missed the genuine call! Schoolboy error!
Just before midnight I pulled into CP1 to be greeted by the volunteer team sat with blankets against the cold.
There were in the courtyard of a hotel and right next to the Ducal Palace, a royal palace of Portugal. An impressive stopover but all too brief and in the dead of night. I asked at the hotel desk and they were happy for me to bivouack in the car park. I found a quiet spot and set the bivi up and got a couple of hours sleep.
Day One was 352km with 4432m of climbing. Moving time was 15:32 at an average of 22.7km/h. In hindsight I had probably gone too hard but reaching the CP was my motivation.
I got a bit chewed by mosquitos in the bivi and and crawled out, stiff and dopy at 0400. I had saved some bits and pieces for breakfast and said goodbye to Didier at the control and got on the road just after 0430. Winding my way over the cobbles of the town it took me a while to get warmed up.
An early morning mist was lying in the hollows and got thicker on occasions as the route headed south west towards the coast. As daylight approached the mist cleared for a while only to settle back in. The sun arrived for a few hours and the humid heat built.
There were numerous long straight undulating roads until we arrived at the coast where conditions changed yet again with some driving rain showers running through the coastal hills. Pine trees prevailed and the run due south along the coast was scenic but I caught a couple of the showers along the way.
I was beginning to feel the effects of the heavy first day by early afternoon and needed a five minute nap in a bus stop. I was keen to arrive at CP2 in daylight. Cape St Vincent, the SW point of Europe, could not be allowed to slide past in the dark. So with the need for a good sleep I booked a hotel in Odemira which was 100km short of CP2.
The hotel owner told me where to find the best food and suggested I try BlackPig a local pork speciality. I settled in and headed for the restaurant which turned out to be quite posh but welcoming of a smelly Lycra clad old man – but I was wearing some shorts over the bibs! The Black Pig was special as was the pint of beer. A good evening and I relished the shower and clean sheets!
Day 2 was 263km and 2071m climbing in 11:29hrs moving time at an average 23km/h.
I let myself out of the hotel and got going at 0500 after a great nights sleep. A little mist was again hanging in low spots but created a beautiful landscape as the dawn approached.
The run to CP2 was memorable. Pine forest and small coastal resorts passed in the dark and included a few very sharp climbs similar to Cornish coves. Approaching the Cape we ran along a gravel section, Axel’s surprise, for a few kilometres. The Mason Bokeh with 35mm tyres was made for gravel and she enjoyed the run.
Gravel over there was a nice run down to Sagres and CP2. I arrived at 1025hrs to a friendly welcome and started thinking about how I was going to tackle the remaining 262km to the finish.
The route now headed north east and the first few kilometres were pretty exposed and a strong northerly headwind was blowing making the going tough. I soon pulled into a cafe and had a good bowl of soup and bread with a massive bowl of olives.
Heading up into the hills was hard but rewarding with some spectacular landscapes.
I solved a mystery where numerous trees had had their bark stripped and were numbered. I came across a store with all the bark – cork! Cork oaks are harvested every nine years and have the year of harvest marked in the trunk so the tree isn’t harvested at the wrong time.
I am not sure when I decided to go for the finish but once the decision was made it gave me a lift – probably thinking that Derrick and I had got a room booked and the Eva Senses hotel did one of the best breakfasts!
The evening arrived and I struggled to find a restaurant for some supper so opted for a pot of pate with a loaf of bread and some fruit. I rode out of town and settled down at the roadside for supper as the last of the sunlight kept me warm.
The evening turned to night and at times it got very cold, especially descending into the bottom of valleys where water lay. I cannot remember such sudden temperature changes on a ride.
A little before midnight I started to hit the wall, feeling dog tired. I stopped in a bus shelter on a quiet road and got a 20 minute power nap. Again the mosquitos did their thing. I got going feeling much better and felt quite strong in the ride back to Faro helped by the run down from the hills to the sea.
In the last few kilometres I saw Vincent ahead and we joined each other for the final run through the cobbled streets and into the Race Village arriving just a few minutes after 0500hrs.
Day 3 was 372km and 4693m climbed at an average of 20.2km/h. Total time was 24 hours and moving time 18:28hrs.
My finish time was 3 Days and 7 minutes and came 28th from the 80 starters.
I woke Derrick and got into the room for a couple of hours sleep before hitting the breakfast just before it closed. The rest of the day was spent lazying about and greeting other riders at the Race Village.
The finisher party took place in a beautiful old building and we were treated to some local music and song as well as presentation of certificates. We ended up on at the marina pizza place for food and a few beers.
The Bikingman event organisation was superb as always and a hard task with such a spread out field. The winner completed in just 40 hours! Most of us took much longer!
Many thanks to Axel and his great team.
My Mason Bokeh carried me and my kit with its usual comfort and efficiency. I ran 35mm tyres that went well and were puncture free.