Back in 1999, having fallen off my motorbike three times in slow speed incidents, I thought I ought to do something about this tendency and so I joined London Advanced Motorcyclists, spending several happy years touring Norfolk, Wales, France and Germany with a wonderful group of LAMkins who became – and remain– great friends.
In 2003, when my first child was born, I took a back seat from LAM and hung up my Observer badge, and poor Gwendoline (my beloved 1998-vintage ZX6R) took up a protracted residency in the garage, where she has stayed for almost the entirety of the last 20 years.
So some might say it was bordering on suicidal madness to say, when looking at a map of Madeira when my youngest had her school trip cancelled in 2020, “That would be a great place to hire a bike”.
April 2022 dawned bright and shiny, and Marc and I picked up our Honda CB500X bikes from the hire shop in Funchal, the capital. I had kept meaning to get back on Gwendoline and remind myself how to ride a bike before departure, but the best laid plans…. Hence I was now wobbling slowly down a hilly street and into the fast moving local traffic. Back to the hotel to regroup mentally and put on the biking gear we’d rammed into our cases, and off we went to explore.
Madeira is a Portuguese territory, in the middle of the Atlantic just north of the Canary Islands, some way off the West African coast. Formed by volcano (with three dormant peaks), it can be warm on the coast, and wet and windy in the mountains, with both geography and climate changing from almost minute to minute. You can go from sea level to 1800m in a very short space of time.
The plan for Day 1 was to take it easy, stay on the main roads, minimise the wigglies, while finding my metaphorical feet. My heart was in my mouth most of the time and, if I hadn’t been gripping the throttle so hard, my hands would have been shaking too.
We crawled out of Funchal in low gear (the bikes having fantastic low-down torque), and my first test was to wind our way up to the highest sea-cliff in Europe, Cabo Girao. The sense of achievement as we reached the top was enormous. A heart-rate monitor would have made amusing reading.
From there, we headed north. The Via Rapide (??) was hairily fast for a rusty rider like me as it snaked up the main pass that divides the island in two. Fortunately the cars around us seemed to be tourists too, gawping at the near-sheer mountains rising either side of the road. Arrival at the coast was marked by the spray from the crashing waves rising up like a mist and coating glasses and visors without prejudice. Time for lunch – freshly caught fish was the order of the day, even for me (not a fishy fan) – and then a jaunt along the coast to a small beach to break out the flipflops and sunhat for the first time. We bikers should be applauded for our adaptability, changing from full Kevlar to bikinis in seconds.
I’m going to spare you a kilometre-by-kilometre account, but there are a few highlights (of many!) worth sharing:
Via Difficilo (as it became known) was insanely steep, and we cackled like maniacs as we thankfully arrived in Monte, one of the nearby tourist traps.
The ride up to Pico Arrieiro was a fantastic introduction to wigglier roads, if a little blowy; then zig-zagging through the ancient wooded mountains drenched in the scent of eucalyptus and mimosa out to the very east of the island where the tarmac ended, and back home via the sandy beach at Machico and the coast road.
We went up to the high plateau, then over to the very north-west to play in the rock pools, but it was too blowy and cloudy so headed for the sun around the west coast on the old 101 road, meandering in and out of tiny villages where every turn was dripping with bright and beautiful osteospermum, nasturtium and agapanthas.
On our last day we took the bikes up to ‘Nuns Valley’ (Curral das Freiras), took a wrong turn to the head of the valley where we found a tiny bar that served a great coffee, with the best view ever, deep in a cauldron of green peaks. (Restaurante Lagar Antiguidades, if you’re interested. They were just firing up the wood oven and if it hadn’t have been so close to breakfast, we’d have stayed for lunch).
From there we bravely turned eastwards onto our smallest road yet which started with a near vertical but thankfully straight climb, and then the next couple of hours was spent on THE most mind-blowingly beautiful stretch of constant-radius twisties and hairpins and jaw-dropping scenery. We could easily have done it much faster but we found ourselves pausing at almost every layby for a photo-stop.
So to my motives for sharing this trip with you all.
Firstly, I cannot thank LAM enough for giving me the skills I needed to both survive and – critically – enjoy the hairpins, off-camber bends, and steep inclines. Observers from my potluck days (Carsten, Hugh, Wookie) will remember my chicken-flapping arms as I tried to shake the tension out of my shoulders. So much rust has been rubbed off this old GLAMkin; Gwendoline will be out of the garage as soon as I can unSORN her.
Secondly (and not unrelated to the first), Madeira appears to have had a recent period of frantic road-repairing. The majority of surfaces are fresh and smooth, one might even say flawless. However (!) there are plenty of places where the opposite is true. Unexpected hazards (are there any unexpected hazards for an Advanced Rider?) were sheep, goats, cows, loose dogs and cats, pot-holes which would beat Surrey roads hands-down, drivers who seemed to adhere to the French ‘priorite a droite’ rule, very dark tunnels and a waterfall cascading into literally the middle of the road. If you want to know more, get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thirdly, I’m grateful to my LAMkin husband Marc who navigated all week and knew exactly where I was coming from mentally and emotionally!
All in all, I am so very grateful for the experience gained on LAM trips to the Nurburgring, Normandy and Norfolk, not to omit the A470 in Wales, where I learned to raise my vision, to select the best gear for the corner and to remember above all to breathe. It really is a Skill for Life.
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