São Miguel is one of nine volcanic islands that make up The Azores archipelgo situated in the North Atlantic ocean and lying 850 miles off the west coast of Portugal. While riding around, Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel and his all-the-way-to-11 amps came to mind. In places, this lush green island, with its abundance of tight lanes and lactate guzzling climbs, feels as if it could act as a stand-in for our own. Then it’ll throw in a curve ball that reveals it to be a landscape painted on a far grander canvas.
It may measure just 40 miles across and 10 miles in width but with a height of 1103m at the summit of Pico da Vara (only Ben Nevis and Carn Eige top it in the UK), São Miguel isn’t short on drama.
Roads rise sharply from the coast, pass up through dense woodland and volcanic crater lakes before plunging straight back down again. Farmers’ fields are nurtured on steep inclines that threaten to fold in on themselves. Sulphur gas burps out from deep beneath the earth and the close proximity of the north and south coastlines disorientates to the point where you’re not quite sure where you are. To go with Tufnel’s fuzzy logic, it’s an island where everything is one louder.
I’d actually hesitated about heading to São Miguel. As beautiful as it looked in photos, and while it had a reputation as a mountain biker’s paradise, there was next to nothing online about what its roads were like to ride. What little information I found was critical: too many cars, narrow, badly surfaced roads, nowhere to hire bikes…
You can’t take a few forum posts as gospel, and I was reassured by Andrew Straw, the founder of cycling holiday company Saddle Skedaddle, who’s just set up its first road tours on the island and who had set up our trip.
I had two people for company, Nuno Cordeiro and Rosa Costa, the island guide and business manager respectively of Futurismo, an Azorian adventure company based in the capital, Ponta Delgada, who are assisting Skedaddle locally. São Miguel born and bred, each was fluent in the island’s history. Nuno, a walking Azores encyclopedia, was behind the wheel in the trailing van, and Rosa was Lycra-ed up and ready to jump out and ride. She knows every strip of tarmac on this island and was happy to choose her battles.
Skedaddle’s holiday itinerary averages around 45 miles over six days but I’d just one to see the island, and so asked Nuno to plot me a route that took in the best of it without me having to hitch a lift in the van. I knew it would be around 80 miles, but had no clue as to the elevation involved, though I only had to look up to know I was in for plenty of work.
“There’s flat and then there’s Azorian flat,” warned Nuno, with a smile, early on. Flat roads in São Miguel, as it turns out, are what cyclists in southeast England call the Surrey Hills.
The only way is up
Nuno dropped me off just outside Ponta Delgada, in the village of Relva, right in the middle of some ‘Azorian flat’. It was the main road on this part of the island, the EN1-1A, a 2.5-mile stretch that averaged 2% until a right turn up towards the summit of the Lagoa Azul crater near Sete Cidades. I was on a carbon BH bike (rented locally, so already contradicting one of the complaints I’d read of São Miguel). And apart from the ubiquitous tractors, it seemed I was on remarkably empty roads (which chalks off another).
That right turn was the cue for the start of a steeper, irregular climb of five miles and over 1000ft. Just before the summit, and the spectacular viewpoint above the crater, was the ghost hotel of Monte Palace, a derelict structure that nature’s started to reclaim. Built at great expense in the ’80s, it opened for a few years but has been shut since 1990. It now lies abandoned and its architecture and surroundings bring to mind what Jurassic Park might look like 25 years after the dinosaurs ran riot. One of its main selling points were the views it could offer of the crater, but nobody twigged that for so many days of the year a heavy morning mist would descend and ruin it. Rosa says it would even seep into guests’ rooms.
We were fortunate that our trip coincided with a spell of blue skies but for the island to be as verdant as this, you have to accept the rough with the smooth. It rains a lot here – around 1400mm annually – but Rosa insists its reputation for heavy rainfall isn’t entirely deserved. “I’ll hear on Portuguese radio that it’s raining here but I look out the window and see that it isn’t! We get more than the mainland but it’s spread throughout the year, there’s no rainy season, and it tends to come down in heavy bursts. It’s very rare to have a complete day with rain.”
Most people would see the long, steep descent into Sete Cidades as payback for the climb, but I’ve always been one for going uphill rather than down, never more so than here. The gradients towards the bottom are horrible – always over 10% and up to 25 – and the surface was poor in places. Many roads in São Miguel were cobbled once upon a time and resurfacing was often a case of pouring tarmac over them. Vehicles plus time equals a sketchy descent. On the whole the roads are in pretty good nick and for Brits, given what we have to put up with on our own roads, there was nothing too awkward.
Plenty of extended sections of cobbled roads remain on São Miguel, most notably the road round the Lagoa das Furnas crater at the end of our ride. Add to this its steep climbs and you wonder why more pro teams don’t come here ahead of classics season. Perhaps it’s the unpredictable weather or because the riding is too difficult at that time of year. It could even be that the road cycling world doesn’t know about this island, we certainly didn’t.
A common sight in Sete Cidades, and one familiar throughout the island, is the use of horse and carts. The financial crash hit São Miguel hard. More cows (300,000) than people (240,000) in The Azores makes farming the biggest industry on São Miguel and some have taken a back-to-basics approach to their work. It adds to the off-the-beaten-track feel I enjoyed about the place.
The climb out of Sete Cidades was typical of what I discovered – very direct, very steep – and there’s something quite demoralising about seeing a climb stretched so far out in front. Ignorance is indeed bliss.
Another steep descent brought me back onto the main road, EN1-1A, and through the towns of Ginetes and Feteiras. Again, this is a main road on the island and it’s empty. The ’90s saw a major upgrade to the island’s road networks, with major roads continuing to be opened as recently as 2011. This one perhaps isn’t the best example, but towards the north east of São Miguel, traffic has been diverted away from the smaller roads and the result is a road cyclist’s dream. For a long time Rosa had doubts about the suitability of the roads for a cycling holiday, but no longer. Investment has brought out more roadies and motorists have become increasingly aware of how they must drive past cyclists.
I returned to the point where I took the right turn up to Sete Cidades, but instead took another right to traverse the centre of the island and an idyllic lunch by the sea at Ribeira Grande.
From there it’s the biggest climb of the day, six miles and a smidgen under 3000ft, to the highest point accessible by road above the Lagoa do Fogo crater. Fortunately (I think) I left my Garmin at home. I used my iPhone to map the ride so had no idea about gradients or climbing until I finished. All I knew was that this was among the hardest sustained spells of climbing I’d done. It’s got aspects of all the famous terrain in Europe – the rolling hills of the Ardennes, the medium length climbs of the Lake District, the longer climbs of the Pyrenees, even the cobbles of Flanders. But it’s the sustained steepness that makes it unique. Skedaddle had hosted its first road tour the week before my arrival and that was the feedback, for better and worse.
The summit revealed darker clouds shrouding the south side of the island, compared with the sunny north, and is a common occurrence here. At the end of the descent we were back onto the southern main road, a leg-sapping stretch that took us through the towns of Vila Franco Do Campo and Agua De Pau.
A hopeless drag inland towards the spa town of Furnas finished my ride and with Nuno and his van hovering in eyeshot just up the road it was so tempting to throw in the towel it had been that hard. In some ways I’d had enough, in others I felt like I was just getting started with the island. A quick Strava processing at the end revealed I’d climbed a staggering 10,194ft in 80 miles. Little wonder I was on the brink of collapse.
It’s not a bad idea to base yourself in Furnas if climbing’s your bag. It’s situated in a volcano, which means it’s banked on all sides by steep climbs. I wasn’t in any state to ride any of them at this point but out of curiosity I asked Nuno to show me the worst (best?). Honestly, it made the Lake District’s Hardknott Pass look like a molehill.
Plenty to go round
From initial hesitation São Miguel proved to be an absolute revelation, quite simply a mind-blowing road cycling experience. For a pure riding experience – strip away, say, the history involved in riding the Tourmalet for the first time – I might even have it at the top right now.
Some of you might have reservations about how small São Miguel is and whether there’s enough riding to spread over a week. Don’t worry, every corner of this island makes for prime road cycling and I’d only scratched the surface with what I did. It might measure 290 square miles, compared to Majorca’s 1400, but the best of that island is crammed into a small area in the mountainous northwest. São Miguel has also never been easier to get to. Ryanair had just started flying direct from Stansted, for a measly £75 return when we went.
I’ll certainly be back. Unlike a lot of cycling destinations in Europe São Miguel has stayed remarkably quiet for a place that’s got so much to offer. It’s about time it took a leaf out of Tufnel’s book and turned the volume up.
DirectRyanair from London Stansted (prices start at £65 return in January); SATA from Gatwick.
Via LisbonTAP Portugal and SATA from Gatwick and Manchester
Food and drink
We ate lunch at Tuká Tulá in Ribeira Grande and dinner at Cais 20 in Ponta Delgada
Many of the roads in this article are found in guided and self-guided road tours from Saddle Skedaddle. Both are available from April to November. For more information visit skedaddle.co.uk or call 0191 2651110.
Cycling Plus Features Editor and tireless domestique John has been putting in a shift for the magazine for seven years. Despite having been a ‘proper’ road cyclist for the last decade, he still can’t work out what his main motivation for punishing all-day rides is. A freewheeling attitude towards cake is the popular theory, however.