By Alan Hart
It is known as The Bradley Wiggins Factor. His victory in the Tour De France and the Olympics inspired a surge of sporting cyclists throughout the UK.
But it isn’t just super-fit young men and women who have climbed back in the saddle, nor even those notorious Mamils – middle-aged men in Lycra.
There’s a new breed of British cyclists who come in all ages, shapes and sizes. They are re-discovering an old-fashioned way of exploring the countryside and their healthy hobby is taking them to foreign lands.
Instead of hunching over drop handlebars with their legs furiously pushing the pedals, these born-again cyclists set a more sedate pace as they go on gentle journeys through sun-soaked landscapes.
They include families with young children and those who are beyond the first flush of youth.
Manchester-based Freewheel Holidays offer more than 40 tours designed for the occasional cyclist in ten European countries.
One of their most popular destinations is The Algarve, on Portugal’s southern coast. Here their clients mix with multi-national hikers, trail-bikers, golfers and fishermen taking advantage of the mild Mediterranean weather as winter turns to spring.
Paul Beesley gave up his job in the IT industry and emigrated from Tadcaster, Yorkshire, so he and his associates could set up an activity holiday company in The Algarve. After giving us a test run on his hybrid bikes, we were ready to roll.
In late February the temperature was in the 70s as we were taken by minibus to the Hotel Apolo in Vila Real De Santo Antonio, a lively town on the banks of the Guadiana river which divides Portugal and Spain.
Here, at the ANG snack bar run by the Naval Association of Guadiana, we basked in the sunshine, admired the yachts bobbing in the harbour a few feet away, and enjoyed our bargain-priced lunch of salad and huge toasted sandwiches washed down with two bottles of Sagres lager and two bumper-sized glasses of quaffable local white wine for only £13
Every morning after breakfast in our comfortable hotels, we climbed aboard our personally-adjusted hire bikes, donned the helmets provided and followed the planned routes from maps and descriptions which clipped neatly on to our handlebars.
As we travelled westwards, our main luggage was transported to the next hotel to await our arrival. A pannier on our bikes carried spare tyres, repair kits and an emergency helpline.
If the going got tough with any hill climbs, we simply got off and pushed. Sir Bradley might not have approved but we were here to enjoy ourselves.
Averaging 25 miles a day, we pedalled along cycle tracks and trails through lemon and orange groves, passing sandy beaches in the early stages and then taking a route inland through vineyards.
Although we were free to go our own way to our nightly destinations, like most Brits we preferred to follow the route prepared by Paul.
We enjoyed many memorable meals during our stay. On our first night we dined at the Churrasqueira Arenil , a restaurant run by two generations of the Rodriguez family and steeped in nostalgia.
Next day we stopped for lunch en route to Tavira at the Marisqueira next to the beach at the quaint fishing village of Fabrica; another highlight was the suntrap rear garden of The Lemon Tree on the edge of Almancil; and at the Retiro do Campones on the outskirts of Loule, where they specialise in steaks.
Our tour took us from Vila Real to the Residencial Mares at Tavira, the sumptuous Real Marina at Olhao, the Jardim at Loule, where we stayed two nights, the Alte Hotel with its panoramic hilltop vista above the village of Alte, and finally the Colina dos Mouros at Silves, where from our balcony we watched a stork nest-building near the Arade river.
Halfway through our journey we were given a day off from cycling to explore the town of Loule, which boasts sandy beaches, a castle, five attractive churches – not to mention a fruit and nut museum.
The town’s highlight comes at the end of summer with Noite Branca – The Festival of White Night. Tourists and locals converge on the town dressed in white for a dazzling display of dancing, music and pageantry. Young people wander the streets dressed as royalty, demons or fantasy figures while live bands play.
On the subject of music, you might be tempted to listen to a night of fado singing. This is a melancholic rendering of sad songs, accompanied by acoustic guitar. I can only say it is a taste which I failed to acquire.
Portuguese food on the other hand was far easier to stomach. Locally-caught fish is available on most menus. You may have to wait for the cataplana (fish stew) to be prepared, so order yourself a bottle of deliciously crisp vinho verde (new white wine) while you tuck into your covers – bread, cheese, sardine paste and olives.
Arroz de Tamboril (monkfish rice) and salada polvo (octopus salad) were tasty local dishes, and if there’s still some room try the tarte mista algarvia (fig, carob and almond pie).
You can rarely go wrong with a random visit to any cafe or restaurant, where a warm welcome for the Brits is standard from our oldest allies, the Portuguese.