Pedalling in Portugal: How does the Algarve rate for a cycling holiday?
'Our main selling points in the Algarve are the weather and the roads,' keen cyclist Tony Gavin learns in Portugal
I'm a huge fan of the Garden of Ireland. Like many other cyclists, Wicklow has become my playground and I've had some great days in the saddle challenging myself on its hills and valleys.
But I've had some tough days as well and a recent trip around the Glen of Imaal in a chilly 12°C and driving rain reminded me why Irish cyclists are taking more trips abroad in search of sunshine.
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For years Spain, Italy and France have been the most desired destinations - but the Algarve in Portugal is a new kid on the block.
I was looking forward to putting this part of the world to the test as a cycling destination.
I flew Ryanair into Faro, just a 20-minute transfer to Quinta do Lago where I was greeted by the friendly staff of the excellent four-star Magnolia Hotel. The hotel is modern with large comfortable rooms and a poolside restaurant. In the evenings you can relax in the lounge or sip cocktails in the livelier bar complex.
The basement has a fully-equipped gym as well as sauna, steam room and Jacuzzi. It also has a lock-up garage area which can hold up to 30 bicycles only a five-minute cycle from The Campus.
After a quick lunch in Pure, a nearby restaurant, I pulled on the Lycra and headed to The Bike Shed where I was sized up and fitted with one of its carbon road bikes. I was then taken off by Marcus, one of the guides, for a quick introductory spin around the resort and along the coast.
The Bike Shed is run by former Irish Paralympian, Mark Rohan. Mark (38) is from the village of Ballinahown, Co Westmeath. His spine was severely injured in a motorcycle accident 18 years ago when he was on his way to football training.
He's an inspiration to many using skills learned through sport and a positive mental attitude to help his recovery and maintain his independence as well as staying fit and healthy.
He went on to study sports management in UCD and was introduced to cycling during an internship working in Australia for the Paralympic committee. He says Cycling Ireland and the Irish Wheelchair Association were very supportive to him during this period. Mark went on to win three world championships and two gold medals in the London Paralympics.
He first came to the Algarve when he was endurance training for the Paralympics. When he retired from sport after seven years he fancied living somewhere with better weather than Ireland so he bought an old farmhouse with an orange grove in the Algarve in 2016 to set up a cycling and hiking retreat. The opportunity then arose to work in Quinta do Lago as it was opening its new sports centre, The Campus, and needed someone to help promote the cycling.
Mark told me: "Our main selling points in the Algarve are the weather and the roads. Our staff have a lot of experience, are great and are very welcoming. We cater for all abilities. Whether you are beginning cycling for the first time or are a world champion cyclist. Of course, our biggest market are group cyclists, whether it's three or four people or a cycling club. We have a hotel, bike hire, we have a recovery area, sports massage. It's a one-stop shop here and we can look after everything."
"In Quinta do Lago we have safe cycling routes within the resort from 5k, 10k to 20k loops.
"They are very flat, with low traffic - but we also have off-road loops of various distances, starting down on the river, and they are very popular with families."
Mark says that with more than 70 cycling routes to choose from there is something for everybody from individuals, groups, triathlon and off-road.
"If you want to go off by yourself we can give you Strava routes which you can upload and follow. We have a selection of mountain bikes and gravel bikes as well as road bikes to choose from," Mark adds.
One of the more rewarding aspects for Mark is that he has seen people who started off on mountain bikes progressing to road bikes and who are now completing triathlons.
"During the summer we run social rides nearly every day, some for social cyclists and some for more accomplished cyclists."
On day two I met up for a spin into the Portuguese countryside with our guides, Marcos, a former Brazilian champion triathlete and Nuno, a local champion cyclist and a few visiting cyclists. We cycled off along the coast through Vilamoura before heading into the Algarve hills.
I was delighted to have a 32 cassette on the bike as some of the climbs through the olive groves were quite testing. At all times our guides kept a steady pace and looked out for anyone who was struggling on the hills. We stopped from time to time to grab a coffee and had lunch in the picturesque village of Estoi. After a comprehensive workout of 110km with an average temperature of 27°C, I was delighted to get back to The Bike Shed, get off the bike and sample the recovery areas.
The Campus is a unique, state-of-the-art multi-sports complex in the heart of Quinta do Lago. Apart from The Bike Shed, it offers tennis and padel courts with professional coaches who can provide customised coaching programmes, a high-performance gym, aquatic centre with a heated, outdoor 25m pool and a hi-tech playing pitch. So hi-tech in fact that it was recently used by the Irish rugby team for warm weather training before the World Cup in Japan.
After our recovery, we relaxed with lunch in Dano's, a friendly sports bar and restaurant on The Campus. Later that evening I met up with Mark and some of my fellow cyclists in the Bovino restaurant in Quinta do Lago to chat about our day on the bike. The atmosphere was buzzing as we tried the sharing menu with starters of local Portuguese dishes including grilled Chistorra sausages with slow-roasted Piquillo peppers, local fig jam and goat's cheese parcels, grilled tiger prawns and lamb and mint croquettes.
This was followed by a selection of four different types of steak served on a griddle with gratin potatoes, creamy spinach and fries. After washing this down with a few glasses of local Portuguese wine we sampled the desserts, of which the chocolate hazelnut tart was particularly good.
Well fed and exhausted from the day's exertions, I headed back to the hotel as we had another early start in the morning.
The following day I was back on the bike to join other cyclists for one of their social spins. Once again we quickly found ourselves cycling through beautiful country lanes with hardly any traffic, just the scent of olive trees and citrus fruits permeating the air.
We pedalled through the picturesque villages and were challenged by a few high speed descents until we hit one of the steepest climbs I'd ever cycled in my life just outside the aptly named village of Alte.
With a great sense of relief we stopped for refreshments at the Germano café in Alte which was a museum to cycling and had a collection of vintage bikes and cycling shirts. Then it was time to head back once more to The Bike Shed.
The Algarve may not be the first place that cyclists think of when planning their trips abroad - but what it does have to offer is guaranteed warm weather all year round and its friendly Portuguese welcome. It has reasonably-priced restaurants with excellent local dishes. It's also less crowded than Majorca and some of the other popular destinations.
With Mark Rohan and his wonderful guides to cater for all of your cycling requirements, it's definitely an experience worth trying.
Take Two: Top attractions
In full swing
If you feel like a day off the bike, Quinta do Lago has three golf courses which are among Europe's best and include world-class golf facilities such as the Paul McGinley Golf Academy.
Reducing the strain
After your ride or your on-campus game of tennis or padel, a sports massage in The Campus health and fitness centre will stimulate deep tissue muscles to reduce strain and increase your mobility.
Tony was hosted by The Bike Shed at Quinta do Lago.
* Ryanair flies to Faro from Dublin (daily), and also from Cork, Shannon and Knock. The transfer to Quinta do Lago takes 20 minutes.
* Cycling holidays packages with The Campus, Quinta do Lago - staying at the four-star Magnolia Hotel - start at €569 sharing /€799 single and include six nights b&b, guided bike rides, 3-5 hours per day cycling in the Algarve and access to the high-performance centre at The Campus.
* Bike rental from €155 (Carbon-Ultegra) l Special group rate €120
* For reservations contact email@example.com or call +351018271065
* See more at quintadolago.com/the-campus/the-bike-shed
This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.