..Portugal, April, 8.00am
As I roll up the shutter and open the window, the bright… …morning sun blazed into the bedroom. It’s April, a gentle breeze blows into my room and outside spring is in full swing. The birds in the garden are busy feeding their chicks as the swifts form into small aerobatic groups and scream past the window. But there’s no activity from my neighbours; they’re still slumbering. Sunday in Portugal is very much a day of rest!
Today is like any other Sunday. And last week was just like any other week – Tuesdays and Thursdays Team Volta group rides and finish off the week on Friday with an hours hill training.
Even training days are enjoyable. We set different challenges each week. Who can pedal up the hill in the highest gear seated or maybe the lowest gear with the highest cadence? Those who get to the top disguise their exhaustion by laughing and shouting insults as the last riders, one spinning his legs into a blur battles it out with the rider whose facial suffering, as he grinds an impossibly low cadence out, has the others creased in laughter.
And then there is the last rider. The one who went out last night to celebrate his friend’s birthday at a beach party and didn’t get back to the early hours of the morning. He looks ready to give up so one of us rides down and offers a helping hand up the hill.
Today we will be joined by members of the other local club for a day out and, as I put my team kit on and stuff my pockets full of snacks, I think about the route we’ve planned and how to ride it. We always end with a sprint finish and this time I want to be the winner – not that I’m competitive you understand.
I roll out on to the road as my neighbour steps out onto the balcony, bleary eyed and dressed his pants and vest. “Boa pedaladas!” he shouts, “Quantos kilometros hoje?” I tell him it’s 140 kilometres but we’re climbing 1,500 meters. He seems suitably impressed as his dog jumps out onto the balcony and nearly knocks his coffee out of his hands.
Most of the team had already arrived at the cafe. The owner had been late opening up and a comical scene ensued as riders hobbling around in their cleated shoes, tried to arrange eight chairs around a table the size of a napkin. Table legs screeched as they were dragged over the stone calçada pavement, chairs toppled over as they were separated from the stack and the parasol was just an accident waiting to happen.
It’s amazing that a group of men who had arranged their bikes so neatly against the wall could cause so much mayhem. The barista was no better. He shouted out from inside the cafe how many coffees to the sound of breaking crockery as he swatted a lone fly that had somehow avoided the ultraviolet death machine at the front door.
Even on a Sunday though, this barista had the freshest pastries in town and he was an expert at the Gaggia.
Soon, the other members of the team had arrived and we finished our coffees and pastries and left hastily. Abandoning in disarray our tables and chairs scattered over the pavement. We weren’t late; we just like to leave hastily.
We jumped on our bikes and ambled our way up through the square as the fruit market was setting up. The market was populated by a plethora of brightly coloured stalls. Each one packed full of fresh fruit and vegetables picked from the local smallholdings. The smell of fresh strawberries wafted in the morning air as the stall holders unpacked their crates from an assortment of vans, cars and even scooters. They weren’t too busy though to shout “Bon viagem” to us as we picked our way over the cobbles.
As we rode out of town the other team pulled in behind us and slowly made their way up through the group, shaking hands and offering pats on the back as we greeted each other and settled into a medium pace.
For all the apparent disorganisation, when it comes to cycling, we take it seriously. First ten kilometres always at a medium pace, warm up the legs and get into a rhythm. After that, whoever feels up for it makes their way to the front and leads the charge.
This is one of the best parts of the day. As the pace picks up, the banter and laughing subsides. The group forms two abreast and we gather speed as we roll along the smooth tarmac. We create quite a spectacle as I take my turn at the front and sweep through the whitewashed villages; the old men sitting outside the cafe leaning on their sticks watching the line go past.
As we approach the first climb the group slows and lets those at the back catch their breath. We take the fifteen minute climb slowly. There’s no point rushing. We’ve got all day and our riders are of varying ages and abilities. Having said that, there’s always a bit of commotion towards the top as some of the younger members challenge the more competitive riders.
From here we take the easy road into Alcobaça; famous for its Gothic cathedral and award winning pastries. I know…. we’re stopping for coffee and cake already? But two and half hours of cycling have made us hungry and the pastries in the pastelería we visit are the best. I know this for a fact. The framed ‘gold award’ takes prime place at the entrance.
The stop is brief though. We’ve got a proper climb and two hours of riding to go before we arrive at our next destination.
Within minutes we’re back in the countryside. The roads are deserted. Not that they’re busy during the week though, they’re just even quieter today. The climb starts in a wooded valley and meanders its way through the trees. I stay at the back and take it slow. I know what’s up ahead.
As we turn the last bend the four kilometre climb that clings to the edge of the mountain, presents itself. The guys at the front were already on the ascent as I eased up from the saddle and settled into a rhythm. I’m not the best of climbers but the Friday hill training sessions had improved my strength hugely.
Half way up and having passed several of the team I could see the guys at the front were straining. They had started fast and were beginning to rock from side to side as they pushed through every pedal stroke. I focussed on my breathing and maintained a rhythm. The last kilometre is steeper and I needed to be prepared. I’m not competitive – honest. The front four were now just in front of me with the last kilometres to go. I was feeling good but stronger than this I couldn’t go.
Two of the guys were exhausted, their swaying more exaggerated. As I passed them their efforts evaporated. They clicked down several gears and climbed seated. The road kicked up to 15% for the final 300 meters. My legs were burning. Being first was out of my reach. I was happy to hold on to the wheel in front. I still had the sprint at the end of the day.
We waited at the top, gathered our breath and took photos of the others as they climbed the last gruelling kilometre to the summit. Somebody was missing though so two riders went back down to find him and after a few minutes they reappeared, pushing the last of our group up the final few metres.
Team Director at Volta Pro Tours