Racing the Trans Madeira

By Neil Cottam

Neil Cottam gives us a ‘backie’ on the Pink Panther for five days. Racing across Madeira’s rugged mountains and creating yet another one for the ever growing bucket list.

What can I tell you about Madeira? (Well, you know, aside from the fact that they
make a marvellous cake).

It’s part of a little volcanic archipelago nestling quietly in the North Atlantic, west
of Morocco and southwest of Portugal. The eponymous main island, measuring just 35 miles long and 13 miles wide, is extremely rugged and is dominated by the high peaks of Pico Ruivo (1862m), Pico das Torres (1851m), and Pico do Areeiro (1818m). A tiny package that packs a mighty punch.


My first two weeks were centred around Funchal. I enjoyed a couple of days of uplift with Freeride Madeira, where I met a lovely bunch of guys also from the UK, one of whom, Ned Leary from Nottingham, recognised my Evol 29er – The Pink Panther – it turned out that he was an Alpkit fan too. We also rode a very special trail – Folhadal – accessed by a series of irrigation tunnels cut through the rock (the famous Levadas).


My mates Mitch and Archie Bryan arrived with a few days to spare before the race. We hung out in the lovely little beach town of Machico and pedalled up and down hills quite a lot. One particularly wet day led us to the infamous Boca da Risco (which translates rather comfortingly to “Mouth of Risk”), one of the islands best descents, famous for its knife-edge views of an angry ocean far below. It didn’t go all that well. It turns out that it’s not at its best when it’s wet. We fell off quite a lot.


The Trans Madeira comprises of five days of racing, thirty special stages (SS), 222km of riding, 4,355m of ascent, and 12,500m of descent (oh yeah).


The first three days were the toughest, both physically and technically, the organisers clearly had no intention of easing us into it. Each morning we would be bussed up to a high point, followed by a short transition to the stage, and then racing would begin in earnest.


Day one began at 1500m with the first five stages taking us all the way back down to sea level, each averaging between two and four kilometres, and about 5-8 minutes of flat-out commitment. It’s not easy to race blind on hard technical trails. From there we were again bused back up into the mountains and were to face our nemesis – Boca do Risco. A relatively flat 6km transition gradually peters out from forest road to singletrack and you arrive at the start gate. All the way there we were discussing, and dreading, what the trail might have in store for us. As it turned, with no rain in the area for a couple of days, we were presented with a sublime descent in primo condition. It was outstanding,
and one of the most exhilarating and thrilling rides I’ve ever had. It was a far cry
from the misery we had endured a few days previously. Archie had a marvellous
day and finished 18th overall. Mitch and I were solid mid-pack.


I’d like to tell you that we slept like babies that night, but we didn’t. We were camping on the beach; the gently rolling waves should have lulled us peacefully to sleep, unfortunately the local dogs had other ideas.


The lack of sleep was not the ideal preparation for Day two and the grey, wet,
conditions that greeted us on the summit compounded that. I had a challenging day; I’m red/green colour blind, and it’s quite high up the scale. The flat light and dark, wet, woodlands meant that I struggled constantly to pick out the trail and features – I crashed more times than I care to remember; three or four times on “Ratboy” alone, including a spectacular over-the-bars on a jump that I didn’t see until it was too late – fortunately for me there were several spectators there to witness my tragic ineptitude.


SS11 – Porto da Cruz – was bonkers. I think it was pure survival for most riders. Around ten minutes of steep, technical, exposed, insanely rocky singletrack. There were times when I was just a passenger and was thankful to roll out of it unscathed.


Mitch had an excellent day. Archie suffered a day of mixed fortunes after he smashed his rear dérailleur on Porto da Cruz and had to walk some of it – his hopes of a high placed finish were in tatters. That night we camped on the seafront in Funchal.


Day three proved to be a tough one. We started high, above the clouds,
at 1805m on Pico do Areeiro, dropping a thousand metres before embarking on
a very long transition, interspersed with an extraordinary hike-a-bike. It was steep, rocky, and relentless; I thoroughly enjoyed myself, it was my kind of challenge. Archie and I were together all day. We stopped for a short break and waited for Mitch to catch us up. The excitement was building amongst us; we knew what was coming, I’d been extolling the virtues of Folhadal all week.


We donned our headlights and set off through the tunnels. As we emerged from
the second we were greeted by a vertiginous waterfall cascading down the
rockface to our left, and on our right fell away a vast steep valley gilded with dense primordial forest. As stunning a view as you will see anywhere in the world.


Twenty minutes of teetering along the pencil thin lip of the Levada led us to
the start gate.


A steep committing drop-in was followed by a sweeping right-hander that led us into twisty forest singletrack, which in turn transitioned to the most amazing natural gulley, thick with a sublime mixture of organic matter – Lava Loam. We swooped left, then right, then left again, and on it went; floaty drops, perfect transitions, and berm after natural berm; eventually firing us out, exhilarated, into a sunny glade.


Days four and five were the antidote to the savagery of previous days. After camping on the football pitch at the Sao Vincente, in the shadow of a huge, vertical, wall of rock, we were treated to great singletracks through scrub woodlands, jungle, and sun-kissed alpine meadows, all the way down to the sea and back again; less technical and more flowing, our aching bodies and battered bikes were nursed to the finish line. A classy hotel, infinity pool, and a party with
free beer, rounded off, perfectly, a perfect week. And best of all? The company of old friends. Obrigado.

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