The following unedited text is taken from my soon to be released book: Follow the Blue Line: Cycling the Algarve which is now available for pre-order on Amazon. The book is currently undergoing its final edits before being handed over to the designer for publication on August 31, 2018.
This book could have just as easily been titled How Not to Cycle the Algarve. It’s actually based on numerous attempts at the route but focusing mainly on my first, albeit unplanned, disastrous solo expedition in 2012 and two more successful but none-the-less traumatic (fun) trips made with equally unprepared friends in 2014 and 2018. Other stories are taken from shorter rides along the various stretches of the route whilst holidaying in the region with my family.
If you’re looking for a cycling book documenting the efforts of finely tuned athletes, pushing themselves beyond acceptable barriers of pain to cross huge distances at a ridiculous pace, this probably isn’t the book for you. For a more gnarly read, perhaps I can recommend you pick up the excellent Life Cycles by Julian Sayarer (ISBN: 978–1782199038) or the equally enjoyable The Man Who Cycled the World by Mark Beaumont (ISBN: 978–0552158442). Both of these gentlemen’s epic global journeys make my jaunts across Portugal look like a holiday (which of course they were).
This book is for the rest of us, whose dreams and abilities are perhaps a little less extreme. If you like the idea of getting lost on a bike for a couple of days in the glorious sunshine, lubricating your inner mechanisms with the occasional cheeky beer along the route and just not taking yourself too seriously (how could anyone take themselves seriously in cycle shorts) then stick around — I promise you, it’ll be emotional.
The Ecovia do Litoral
There’s no need for the hard sell here. Why would anyone not want to go cycling on the Algarve? But if you want me to put my Algarve Tourist Board hat on, here goes:
The Ecovia do Litoral (the coastal eco-way) is a cycle route which, as the name suggests, follows the coast across the beautiful Algarve region of southern Portugal. The route stretches some 214km (133 miles) from the frontier town of Vila Real de San Antonio on the Spanish border to the dramatic, 75 meter high cliff tops of Cape St Vincent on Europe’s most southwestern tip. The multi-surface route, encompassing (mainly quiet) roads, dedicated cycle paths and dirt tracks (of various quality), takes in pretty much everything the Algarve has to offer, from sleepy fishing villages to bustling tourist resorts, cosmopolitan cities (Faro) and some of the best (and most expensive) golf real estate in Europe.
The Ecovia also takes in many hidden treasures, largely unseen by the millions of tourists who visit the region each year and stick like glue to the beach or the golf course, including thousands of acres of orange, lemon and olive groves, the curious frozen moonscapes formed by the region’s famous coastal salt pans and the seemingly bone dry, yet highly fertile, agricultural small holdings where modern-day farming practices have yet to make an impact.
The route is incredibly accessible. The majority of the ride is on the flat with only the occasional and mostly non-challenging hills (meaning there are a couple of killers along the way), enabling riders of all abilities to tackle the journey. Seriously, my 70-year-old parents-in-law have completed the ride over five days, so what’s your excuse?
The abundance of budget flights into Faro from across the UK and Europe; and cheap accommodation (particularly out-of-season) also makes the long weekend trip required to complete the journey at a comfortable pace, very affordable.
In terms of expense, I’ve personally done the ride for less than £500, including flights, bike hire, hotels and spending money. However, it could be done for much less if you swapped the hotels for camp sites and fuelled your ride at supermarkets along the way instead of stops at bars, cafes and restaurants.
Naturally, it’s also possible to spend a bit more (or in some cases — a lot more) money on the ride and there are a number of companies who will help you do this by providing all manner of package deals including airport transfers, luggage forwarding services and even tour guides. It’s just a case of what you are comfortable paying for and your level of confidence out on the road.
For cyclists looking for a half-way house between complete independence and a little security, it’s always worth checking if your bike hire company offers roadside assistance should you have any mechanical problems or emotional meltdowns.
I personally like the feeling of “roughing it” and, I believe, the greater sense of achievement you get when you do things independently — but I won’t judge you if you want to make the ride a little more comfortable. There is already too much snobbery in cycling — let’s leave that nonsense for those cyclists (because there is a cyclist in everyone) who haven’t yet found their way off the golf course.
The route is served by an excellent, if not rather slow, train service which runs from Vila Real de San Antonio on the Spanish border to the town of Lagos in the west — some 34km short of the route’s end. Bike carriage is free and tickets are cheap (certainly when compared to the UK), providing an excellent insurance against any mechanical issues, injuries or plain old bouts of laziness.
Note: If you don’t want to tackle the whole ride, cycling between stations and then letting the train take the strain for a while is also a great option.
The weather, the scenery, the food, the wine and the people you meet along the Ecovia (all detailed in this book) make the Algarve a very special place to me. In fact, I couldn’t think of anywhere else in the world where I would rather ride my bike.
That’s not to say, everything is perfect with the Ecovia and this is where a little better planning would come in handy.
The Ecovia is not well mapped (at least not on paper). This was a fact first highlighted to me by a visit to a Tourist Information Centre on a family holiday prior to tacking the ride for the first time. I was reliably informed that because the route had only recently opened (some three years previous) nobody had quite gotten around to producing a map yet. More than a decade later, I’ve still not seen a paper map of the route.
Note: On our last ride, I employed detailed routes found on the excellent Bikemap.net website which can be downloaded and followed easily on the equally excellent BikeGPX smartphone app (available for free from the Google Play Store and Apple App Store).
The lack of maps wouldn’t be a problem if the route was clearly marked and in places the signage is excellent. However, this experience is not guaranteed. For example, the blue line referenced in the title of this book (a navigational aid marking the road sections of the route) can lead you into a false sense of security.
The Blue Line
I was first made aware of the blue line when I initially discussed the idea of cycling the Ecovia with my father-in-law. As a regular visitor to the Algarve, he told me the route was nice and easy and clearly marked (he’d recently completed a 30km stretch himself).
He reliably informed me, “Just follow the blue line and you won’t go wrong.”
Sadly the blue line isn’t so reliable. One minute it’s there and the next it’s gone. If a road has ever been resurfaced, you can bet your bottom dollar that the blue line will be hidden under the fresh layer of asphalt and never be re-painted. Typically, the blue line always seems to disappear at road junctions and the most obvious onward route is always wrong. As your eyes adjust to the bright Portuguese sunshine, you can sometimes make out the outline of where the blue line used to be. Reconnecting with the blue line after a period in the wilderness can become something of a, albeit short-lived, celebration.
The blue line is supplemented by an assortment of other navigational aids ranging from detailed metal signs, bike symbols and the occasional roughly spray painted arrow (normally yellow) on trees, walls and rocks. Apparently the various municipal authorities responsible for maintaining the route couldn’t come up with a more uniform system. Perhaps more frustratingly, the route occasionally and without warning just ends, with new construction sites and high wire fences, forcing the rider to find alternative paths.
In my mind, this just adds to the charm of the route. In our normal lives, most of us follow the same old, boring paths every day. I personally like the idea of feeling a little lost every now and again. My lack of planning skills certainly helped out in this direction.
In many ways I share a number of personality traits with the Ecovia. We are both fairly easy-going, a little shambolic at times and very much a work in progress. Shouldn’t life always be very much a work in progress?