Every year in the dark days of February I spend evenings scouring brochures and the internet trying to sort out the family summer holiday.
This year was no different and I finally settled on a two week trip to Portugal in late July/early August. Now the family holiday usually means a holiday from biking. However it was only after everything was booked that someone mentioned to me that the Sintra hills north of Lisbon were becoming known as an excellent mountain biking destination. After a bit of research it was easy to see the appeal, proximity to a big city, fine weather most of the year and a large wooded national park area combined with a rugged Atlantic coast line. Maybe this year I could sneak some riding in.
A quick check with my other half at a carefully selected moment and I had the green light to do a couple of days riding. After some further research I found Sintra Bike a company that run week long biking holidays around Sintra. A quick phone call to Dennis (an Englishman) who runs Sintra Bike and he kindly agrees to book me in for a couple of days riding that would showcase the area.
So it was that I found my self leaving the Quinta I was staying in early on the Saturday morning of my family holiday fully kitted up and not know what to expect. I realised that I had never been mountain biking outside Britain before and wondered, no maybe worried, about such things as how much climbing I’d have to do, how technical the trails would be and last but not least would I melt in the heat. I was picked up by Manuel my guide for the day and driven to the Terratotal bike shop in Colares where a nice shiny Specialized Epic was waiting.
A quick bit of faffing while my pedals were fitted and we were off. A blast along the road, a quick right turn and suddenly we were already climbing. The road turns from tarmac to cobblestones and finally to dirt track as we climb through the upper reaches of the town before entering the forest and the hills proper.
The weather early on isn’t as hot as I’d expected, starting off a bit cloudy and at the height we were the wind was pretty strong. The trails though are totally dry and dusty. This made the bike handling very loose particularly at speed in the corners. Ironically and in complete contrast to my local trails on the South Downs, Manual tells me that after rain the surface in the Sintra hills firms up and become more predictable. Though by the sound of things they get much less rain than we get sun.
We continue along alternating between climbing mostly on fire roads and descending on both fire roads and some sweet singletrack. The fire roads are very worn in places and despite being wide, are technical when climbing and descending. The singletrack is fantastic, with ruts, roots and plenty of rock drop offs. Those wanting a more extreme challenge should find it here too, as we passed some frankly frightening North Shore trails and spotted a group of fully armoured riders driving up the hill in a van.
Some of the climbs were tough but the rewards made it all worth while .The scenery is awesome, with new sights to behold round every corner. One minute we’d be passing some rocky outcrops with views all the way down to the Atlantic. The next we’d be looking across to the royal palaces on the hill tops in Sintra. After one particularly flowing section of singletrack we popped out at a beautiful lake hidden in the middle of the forest. All too soon we had completed our circuit and we were coasting along the road back to the bike shop tired but elated.
After the ride we return to the shop bike shop where Dennis is waiting to take us to lunch. Joining us for lunch will be George who is the landlord of the Terratotal bike shop’s building. George drives the four of us to lunch in his vintage Fiat 500, which is an experience in itself since the restaurant is back up the hills and the old Fiat struggles with the effort of hauling four full grown men. I think George is only half joking when puts his foot out the drivers door to slow the vehicle at one point. The restaurant is the aptly named “Refuge De Cyclistes”. The food here is fantastic consisting of fish or meat barbecued on a huge charcoal pit served with jugs of local wine. We all plump for the sardines and eating these washed down with the local wine seems like a perfectly civilised way to top off a cracking days riding.