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Azores big ride: volcanic craters, tropical landscapes and beautiful roads

In-depth
31 Jan 2018
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Mark Bailey

The exotic islands of the Azores have until recently been no more than a distant, pulsing blip on the radar of intrepid cyclists, a seductive siren call to uncharted adventures away from the more celebrated cycling terrain of continental Europe.

Marooned 1,360km west of the Portuguese coast and 1,925km southeast of Newfoundland, Canada, the archipelago shelters a world of lush subtropical gorges, dazzling crater lakes and towering volcanic ridges, adrift in the crashing waves of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Tales of pirate attacks and mythical princesses are interwoven in the folklore of the islands, but the stories of visiting cyclists are only just beginning to be written. 

Revered as ‘the Hawaii of the Atlantic’ for its lavish beauty, the Azores is a cluster of nine volcanic islands that exists as an autonomous region of Portugal.

This seemingly distant terrain is now accessible by a four-hour direct flight from the UK – the same time it takes to fly to the Spanish cycling mecca of Tenerife. But the Azores isn’t a destination where cyclists come to retrace the training rides of pro cyclists – it’s a spectacular island arena that beckons you to uncover new adventures of your own.

To cycle around its shipwreck-riddled coastline and jagged crater ridges feels like exploring a forgotten island paradise.

The Azores’ location on the nexus of the European, American and African tectonic plates explains its eye-catching fusion of volcanic and subtropical landscapes with a distinctly European array of crumbling castles, ornate churches and bucolic farmland.

Europe is easily overlooked in the search for pioneering cycling adventures, with ambitious riders venturing instead to Asia, Africa and South America, but the Azores is a reminder that Europe still has its own secrets ripe for discovery.  

The arrival

The allure of the Azores seems to ooze even from its name, which fizzes on the tongue like a sparkling Portuguese wine.

This intrigue only increases as my plane tilts and circles before landing on São Miguel Island, at 760 square km the largest island in the Azores archipelago.

I can see a cluster of towering black cliffs jutting out of the ocean and, further inland, the twin crater lakes of Lagoa das Sete Cidades (Lagoon of the Seven Cities) which stare eerily back at me like a pair of dazzling blue and green eyes.

The island’s João Paulo II Airport is the kind of small, neat island airport that conjures up thoughts of a child’s Lego airport, with one solitary runway, groups of smiling, suitcase-carrying passengers and tidy rows of aeroplanes.

Beyond the runway is nothing but the hazy blue blur of the sun-drenched Atlantic Ocean.

New York is a 4,120km swim from here; getting to Lisbon would require a 1,446km backstroke; and even the remote islands of Bermuda are a 3,580km front crawl away.

At the airport I’m met by my ride companion David Hall, product manager for the Classic Road Rides collection at cycling holiday company Saddle Skedaddle, which runs 249 trips in 32 countries worldwide, including here in the Azores.

We’re joined by local guide Nuno Cordeiro, a keen mountain biker blessed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the islands.

David has been scouting our route today and says he is amazed by what he’s seen.

‘Not only does the island have seemingly unending riding opportunities but those roads really pack their punches.

‘It’s really diverse too. Climb a hill, turn a bend, drop into a hidden valley and suddenly you’re in this incredible Jurassic landscape.’

Although each of the islands has its own appeal, São Miguel has the best roads for cyclists and the most dramatic range of terrain (as well as plenty of thermal spas and whale-watching trips to occupy riders on rest days).

The island boasts mild temperatures year-round – even the winter months are warmer here than in Lisbon.

May to August tend to be the driest months, although locals recommend the eye-catching colours of spring and autumn.

Interest in the islands has boomed since Ryanair and EasyJet began flying here from Europe in 2015, with overnight stays increasing by 21% in 2016.

But even then, with 1.5 million overnight stays in 2016, compared to 41.9 million in Mallorca and 23.3 million in Tenerife, the island has retained its sense of far-flung, uncrowded charm.

‘Tourism hasn’t yet taken its toll and visitors are welcomed with smiles and open arms,’ says David, who’s looking lean and fit after a recent cycling trip to high-altitude Colombia.

On the way to our hotel in Ponta Delgada, the largest town on the island, he asks me if I would prefer a 25 or 28-tooth cassette on my bike for tomorrow’s ride.

My glimpse of the island’s sharp gradients from the plane has already convinced me of the need for the latter. I soon discover I was right.  

Ocean views

The next morning we begin our ride beneath crisp, clear sunshine as we pedal through the old colonial settlement of Ponta Delgada.

We bump through a narrow warren of cobbled streets, pass the three arches of the Portas da Cidade (city gates) and ride past clinking fishing boats bobbing on the wharf.

Although the Azores were marked in the navigational charts of the 14th century, São Miguel was claimed around the year 1427 by a Portuguese captain, believed to be Gonçalo Velho Cabral, who was sailing in the service of the pioneering Portuguese prince, Henry the Navigator.

The Azores were originally a resting stop for ships returning to Europe with gold, silver, spices, gems and porcelain from the Americas and the Orient.

The Italian explorer Christopher Columbus visited the islands in 1493, on his return from his first voyage to America. But today it’s cyclists and tourists doing the exploration.

We pass the squat 16th century fortification of Forte de São Brás, built to defend the island from pirate raids and now a base for the Portuguese navy.

Rusted cannons stand guard outside. In 1943 air and naval bases here were leased to Britain, enabling the Allies to defend convoys and hunt German U-boats.

As we cycle along the gently rising coastal road, the Atlantic Ocean sparkles all the way to the horizon.

Beneath its striking blue surface are hundreds of sunken Spanish galleons, American World War Two vessels and German U boats preserved on the ocean floor.  

We climb northwest along the coast road to a height of 255m before enjoying a sharp plummet downhill with a stomach-somersaulting max gradient of 25% through the towns of Feteiras, Candelária and Ginetes, then grind up a short 100m climb to the town of Várzea, where a lethargic donkey is tethered to a post.

We peer at the dark fields that tumble towards the cliffs and the slippery black pillars of rock that jut out of the coastal waters.

The scenic balcony road and refreshing sea breeze make this a mellow start to the day.

By the time we tack northeast we feel primed for our first major climb of the day, a zig-zagging 200m inland ascent with wonderful sea views and sharp 9-10% ramps.

The climbs here might not be long but they are loaded with venom, regularly ripping me out of the saddle to ease my flaming muscles.

As we climb, the towns we’ve just passed seem to shrink to clusters of tiny white pebbles, clinging precariously to the cliffs. 

After cresting the summit, 32km into our ride, the next valley descent marks the gateway into the island’s dense, primordial interior.

A sprawling subtropical riot of thick foliage, feathery ferns and soaring tree trunks slides past in a blur. In seconds we seem to have gone from pastoral Portugal to a Central American rainforest.

Glancing over my shoulder as we swirl around one bend, I can see the road is curling around the jagged crust of a crater edge.

After the heart-pumping buzz of the descent comes the reward of our first close-up sight of the twin green and blue lakes.

The lakes sit in the craters of a dormant volcano, separated by a narrow strait that we cross via an arched bridge.

Scientists know these vivid colours are the result of phytoplankton blooms, but local legend says the lakes were formed by the tears of two lovers, Princess Antília and a flute-playing shepherd boy, who were forbidden from seeing each other.

The green lake matches the colour of the princess’s eyes, the blue lake those of the shepherd.

Ride the volcano

If you were to send a drone camera skywards you would see we are riding within the sunken caldera of the Sete Cidades Massif, an ancient volcano built on layers of ash, pyroclasts and trachyte and basaltic lavas.

By climbing to the Sete Cidades viewpoint at around 770m in altitude, we are going to unlock the best views on the island. The climb is about 450m in elevation over a distance of 10km.

It features a savage opening stretch at fiery gradients of 11%, 12% and 13% before calming to a more manageable 6-7%.

Even then there are jolts at 14% that have me fidgeting in the saddle. But every hairpin reveals the twin crater lakes shining below.

Halfway up the climb we reach a stunning stretch of road that wraps around the natural curve of the caldera, offering views of the impossibly green meadows that stretch out to walls of the crater rim beyond.

Three-quarters of the way up the climb we encounter a 3km stretch that is almost completely straight and it feel right to sink into a gentle rhythm and savour the views.

At the top of the climb we hop off our bikes and walk a few hundred metres to a lookout point from where we can see the twin pools nestled in the crater below.

From up here the volcanic ridge that marks the edge of the island appears strikingly steep, like the walls of a colossal stadium.

Beyond that ridge is the endless blue expanse of the Atlantic. The sense of isolation is overwhelming.   

We sit on some sawn-off tree trunks, eating a pasta dish flavoured with chicken, sweetcorn, carrots and (surprisingly delicious) chunks of apple.

David is surprised to find how much the subtropical landscape reminds him of his recent trip to Colombia.

Nuno, who has been following us in the support van, admits that whenever he goes to mainland Portugal he immediately longs for the island’s ever-present views of the ocean.

We enjoy the best dessert a cyclist can wish for: a relentless 14km downhill dash, with a total descent of over 500m, into the heart of the island.

In places we pass pools of steaming water, a reminder of the island’s volcanic underworld. A local delicacy known as ‘Cozido das Furnas’ is a mixture of pork, chicken, beef, blood sausage, cabbage, potatoes, taro and carrots cooked in a sealed pot buried in a steaming geyser.

We’ll try it the next day before flying home and its deliciously dense combination of protein and carbs makes it the perfect post-ride recovery meal.

About 75km into the ride we begin our second major ascent of the day to a scenic ridge overlooking Lagoa do Fogo (Lake of Fire), another stunning crater lake.

The road hosts a brutal 13km climb of more than 800m in altitude gain, which Strava depicts as a sharp Egyptian pyramid of pain.

The gradient is consistently at around 8-9% but in some sections it spikes to a glute-torching 22-27%. I can barely keep the bike from toppling sideways.

David, lean and sharp after his jaunt to Colombia, blasts up like a pro.

We ride into another primordial forest thick with luxurious palm trees, dense ferns, straggling vines, colourful hydrangeas and azaleas, and jagged black outcrops of rock.

The light is so bright it feels as though we have switched to ultra-HD, with every leaf and scurrying insect appearing vividly sharp as I pedal past.

I watch David ride ahead, dwarfed by the colossal tree trunks towering all around him and cheered on by the gently waving limbs of palm trees.

When we decide to unleash a few bursts of full-throttle effort, sweat tumbles from my helmet onto the sun-dappled tarmac.

As we near the summit the landscape changes again into a barren scrubland. In sections the road doubles back on itself, opening up views of the snaking passage along which we’ve just cycled.

From here we can now see the rich blue pool of Lagoa do Fogo around which the road is curling.

The sight of radio and satellite pylons marks our arrival at the summit and by the time I unclip from my bike my legs are quivering.

The silence up here is almost unsettling. As we peer down on the blue crater lake, the wreaths of mist swirling below us only add to the beauty of the volcanic vista.

David is wowed. ‘Riding here is an exotic, almost prehistoric experience. As you climb away from those crater lakes past those tree ferns and overhanging vines it’s like you’ve entered a different world.’

Long lost silver

With the sun diving towards the horizon, we head for home. The final stretch starts with a 12km high-speed descent from the crater ridge, a mix of sweeping hairpins and turbocharged straights.

Those sharp gradients crank up the pace and we end up descending so fast my ears pop.

From the bottom of the descent to Ponta Delgada all that remains is a leisurely coastal ride. We pause to watch some people scramble over the lava rocks before passing the beach of São Roque, which is watched over by a striking black and white clifftop church.

The watchtowers of the Forte de São Brás are still peering sternly out to sea, as if searching for a Jolly Roger flag on the horizon.

This Azorean ride has served up a cornucopia of cycling landscapes. In one ride we seem to have sampled the sun-drenched coastline of Greece, the colourful crater lakes of Iceland, the pristine fields of rural France and the swaying palm trees of a Costa Rican jungle.

Even the Atlantic Ocean seems to have mutated as we rode. This morning it throbbed with a rich aquamarine blue.

By the time we climb off our bikes in Ponta Delgada, it has changed to a silver shimmer beneath the setting sun: a glittering finale for an island of undiscovered cycling treasures.

• Looking for inspiration for your own summer cycling adventure? Cyclist Tours has hundreds of trips for you to choose from

A to Z of the Azores

Follow Cyclist’s route around the Atlantic island

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/69azores. From Ponta Delgada, go northwest on the EN1-1A, then at Várzea swing right in an easterly direction on the EN9-1A towards Sete Cidades.

After crossing the bridge between the twin lakes, continue on the EN9-1A, then at the crossroads near the top turn left and ride 10km to Covoada.

Here take a left and continue to EN3-1A, heading northeast until you reach Santa Barbara.

Briefly join the ER-31 before taking a right on the EN5-2A up and over the ridge around Lagoa do Fogo.

When you return to the coast, rejoin the EN1-1A to Ponta Delgada.

 

The rider’s ride

Specialized Tarmac SL2 | evanscycles.com

The Azores may be tiny islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean but their coastal roads and volcanic ridges really pack a punch, with sharp gradients and some sinister leg-busting ramps, so you need a light, comfortable and reliable bike.

The Specialized Tarmac SL2 is a universally popular road bike for good reasons: the overall build is light enough for climbing, even at this entry level, and the Shimano 105 components offer functional gear shifting and the kind of adventure-ready reliability you need when taking a bike abroad.

The ride feels racy and responsive, but seldom compromises on comfort. I hadn’t ridden this bike before travelling to the Azores but even with minimal personal adjustments it proved to be smooth and stable during a long day in the saddle.

For a reliable ride at an economical price, the Tarmac SL2 remains hard to beat.

 

How we got there

Travel

Ryanair flies direct to Ponta Delgada from London Stansted between April and October from £39.99 each way. SATA Air Azores flies from London Gatwick during the same months.

Accommodation

Cyclist was a guest of cycling holiday company Saddle Skedaddle (skedaddle.co.uk). Prices start from £750pp for an eight-day, self-guided road cycling trip.

The trip includes B&B accommodation in four-star hotels in Ponta Delgada and Furnas, airport transfers, luggage transfer, route notes and maps, and local support.

Daily departures are available between April and October. Saddle Skedaddle also runs guided tours with a support vehicle from £870 and an eight-day guided tour with vehicle support from £1,455.

Bike hire starts at £185 per week.

Thanks

Thanks to Saddle Skedaddle representatives David Hall, David Brookbanks and Fran Wilson, as well as local tour operators Rosa Costa and Nuno Cordeiro for their help and support.