"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own"   Sri Chinmoy

Funchal - Pedra da Poiso bike ride - Jan 2022 - Madeira

I arrived on the Christmas Trip to Madeira feeling a bit shocked at being out of the UK, after 2 years with only a single step outside my home country (and that had been a dash by car to Pujaloy for just a couple of nights, in a relatively unrestricted window between lockdowns). It was fantastic and also disorientating, to be somewhere new and exotic and back in the flow of Sri Chinmoy Centre life, with 5 meditations together every day and free afternoons to fill with exploration of this unique Atlantic island. With an injury still preventing me from running, I was planning to just hike, swim and cycle in those free hours of the day and the first proper outing was a solo mission on a hired road bike. The bike shop only 200m from our hotel set me up with a Cannondale in roughly my size, with look-keo pedals to match the shoes I'd hastily packed in case the opportunity to ride came up, and gears up to 32' to tackle the steep island roads. The bike shop owner recommended a coastal ride of around 35k that would be relatively flat at only 1300m! I had my own ideas though, having looked at the map, and decided to head inland towards Monte and Poiso for some serious climing. A route on RWGPS of around 35k had taken an american triathlete 4 hours, so I was aware how steep it was going to be. Well, I thought I was! My riding had been quite limited at home as a result of the dodgy knee issues and it was going to be a test of my tendon as well as my fitness to take on so much vertical ascent.

From the hotel, which was right on the sea front, I headed into the centre of Funchal trying to avoid the major highways. I hit a one-way system and some pedestrianised shopping streets, but was soon through those and on to the ascent on a straight road heading north through town. The GPS route took me on a residential sideroad instead of the main E-road and this was a mixed blessing. Instead of winding its way up via hairpins/switchbacks, the road soon became a gravity-defying ramp up into the sky. I have no idea what the gradient was but it must have been significantly over 20% as it was testing me to my limit. I doubt it touched the 30% I once rode in the Lake District but at the steepest sections it might have been high twenties. I dug very deep, with heart rate clearly up to max and legs at full effort too. The road hit crossroads every so often and they gave right of way to the flat road contouring across the hillside, so each of those was a massive challenge - I knew if I stopped dead to check for traffic I would really struggle to get moving again, so at each one I swung right and then doubled back to turn right again and resume the battle with the climb. When I finally hit the point where I turned left on a flat road, I had to pull over and let my heart-rate subside a little as I hadn't hit an effort level like that since October. All this and I still wasn't out of Funchal! Had I taken on too much?

Without trying to look too far ahead, I just rode slowly round the hillside and joined the E103 which began to snake its way up to the hills overlooking Funchal and its harbour. It was steep and difficult but no longer borderline-impossible as I was now benefitting from the switchbacks rather than riding a direct assault on the steep slope. Madeira, it seems, is just coast and mountains - there is no middle ground. I realised why the bike shop dude had suggested the highway to a clifftop viewpoint instead of ia route inland.

Gradually I got used to the gradient, always in the lowest 2 gears and winching my way up into the cooler and clearer air of the hillside suburbs. I realised that I was going to make it after all, but that the first half of the ride was going to be all in the red zone - unrelenting climbing, but with the compensation of exquisite views down to the sea and around me into the hills.

I was in two minds about a coffee stop - I passed several cafes where workers were enjoying a break in the hottest part of the day, but I was keen to stay safe and avoid any chance of picking up covid from outside our hotel bubble, so I stuck to drinking GO Electrolyte and fuelling with bars from my back pockets. After Monte, where the road hairpinned its way past the palace gardens, there was a little relief as things flattened out very slightly. I was occasionally in the 3rd gear up which was progress! It was still a gruelling effort as I was not used to climbing for anything like this long without some flat or downhill sections - in England we just don't have 1500m continuous climbs over 15km of road. I reminded myself how much I love doing new things and having new experiences and that made me laugh - harder to love that new experience when it takes you so far out of the comfort zone! I was enjoying it though, as I had really missed being able to push myself this hard. And my knee was not protesting - I was confident I was not going to aggravate the injury and if anything the effort would help it heal. My physio's advice had been to "load" the tendon and I was certainly doing that.

Once in the open country with the roads just a little flatter a new challenge arose in the shape of a cold, biting headwind that came down off the mountain directly ahead. This kept me down in the lowest gears even though the climb was not quite so steep. It was sapping my body energy too and I paused to pull on a jacket and my neoprene gloves - actually diving gloves that I had brought along for sea swimming, not cycling gloves, but they took the windchill off. I switched the buff from its role as neck-wear for sun protection to warm hat for insulation and that helped. The downhill was going to be cold but I had enough kit. I later learned that the temperature can drop around 20C from sea to summit on Madeira - I think it was around 5C at the top of the ride. Certainly felt pretty fresh.

Relief came in the shape of a pine forest that brought warmth and shelter, as well as the gorgeous scent of the trees, the cold but rich air filling my lungs and giving me an all over sense of wellbeing. The air seemed so pure, it had come off the Atlantic and across just a few miles of mountain before descending into this forest so it felt pristine and energising. This was the payoff for that relentless climb - a true mountain experience only 15km from the beach. There was only the occasional car or truck, now and again a public bus (they seem to tackle even the steepest roads in Madeira and often occupy both lanes of the road, but I had got used to them on the way to Monte) so I was treated to silence most of the way through the woods.

Out of the pine forest and past the Funchal Eco Park I was back into open country under clear skies, with my old friend the brutal headwind back on the scene. I soldiered on and drank in the sights and sounds of the high plateau.

Here and there the road had precipitous drops to the side, but there were always fences for protection - in my exhausted state in the closing stages of the climb I was glad of those! I finally came to the junction just before Poiso and after the unrelenting climb, I paused for a sunlit selfie and began the equally relentless descent. It proved to be as challenging as the way up had been!

I don't have photos of the way down, as I was struggling all the way to maintain pressure on the brake levers and this became painful and difficult as the harsh descent wore on. I wasn't in a mood to take off gloves and shake the circulation back into my fingers to take a photo - I just wanted to get down off those precipitous slopes and out of the cold that was starting to feel harsher now that I wasn't climbing at max effort. I had just enough kit to stay the right side of freezing, despite the brilliant sunshine.

Turn by turn I descended through more lovely pine forests, catching glimpses of hawks and finches, treated to the odd view down to the coast when there were gaps in the trees. The road was quiet and I was making good progress until I hit the roadwords - the surface had been taken up and I looked ahead of me to see the rather daunting sight of endless grit, more like a farm track than a road. My fatigued hands were not relishing more endless braking and I was not sure of my stopping power on such steep slopes on an unfamiliar bike. At first I lowered myself down slowly with one shoe unclipped to steady myself if the bike started to run away from me, but as I hit a stretch that was particularly steep and covered with loose gravel, I felt my back wheel starting to slip out and decided to get off and walk it. I had no idea how long I was going to be hiking the bike, but as I rounded the bend I was on, I saw with immense relief that the newly surfaced road was just a couple of hundred metres ahead of me. All in all I probably only walked 400m and then I was off the treacherous gravel and on to the slick, dark road to speed into Funchal. The descent got less steep as I went and I hit some high speeds as my braking muscles had a chance to recover - then I was passing under the Teleferic and into the outskirts of Funchal. I managed to avoid the tunnels (I had no lights) and the steepest descents and just follow signs and back roads to the Avenue do Mar with its palm trees and sea breeze - such a contrast from the icy winds and pines of the mountains just a few minutes behind me.

I felt really satisfied as I rolled up, exhausted, at the bike shop and handed back the bike, helmet, lock and tools. It had been a massive challenge on the ascent and equally hard coming down, but I had climbed more than ever before in such a short ride (it ended up being 1600m, all that ascent coming in around 15km) and my knee had been more than equal to the task so I was confident that once back home in the UK I could restart Audax riding. 2022 was starting with a very particular feeling about it - immense challenge, opportunity, positivity. I hope this feeling carries on into the heart of the year.

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