Long road to Lisbon
Our DS sat opposite us in the small hotel room in Santa Maria, Portugal. The room was dimly lit, suffocated by a moist, hot air that glued to our skin. I could almost taste its staleness, as we huddled around — all seven of us — facing him, shirtless, small beads of sweat dripping from our foreheads. The hotel, which sat atop a rocky hill overlooking the unassuming township below, was stuck in the 1980s in every way — its colours bland, its skirtings wooden, its stained curtains beige. If it were not for the Wi-Fi, I would have sworn that we had time travelled into a world predating my existence. I shifted on my seat, wiped the sweat from my brow.
Our directeur sportif and a former professional himself, opened his MacBook. We sat in silence as the screen glowed to life in the dark hotel room and revealed the national flag of Portugal. Across it was a title: The 4th Grand Tour — Or why the Tour of Portugal is fucking hard. He looked at us, a sly smile on his face, then clicked to the next slide. A video began to play.
The video buffers for a second. A bullfighting ring, perfectly circular, colourful and with a red gravel floor comes into focus. The stadium is full, crazed spectators look on, as a man, in traditional 18th-century costume, moves forward from a group of eight others. He begins to take powerful, dance-like steps toward the corner of the ring. The camera pans out. A bull, impossibly muscular, smashes its hooves down on the dusty surface; it is facing the man, a series of deep grunts echoing out into the stadium. Another step. Suddenly, the bull is in full flight, charging with its head down toward the man in the costume, who does not run away, who does not flinch. Instead, the two of them collide with the force of a car crash. The man grapples with the beast’s head, wrestling with its horns. Suddenly, his body is suspended in mid-air. The other men, known as the Forcados, or the ‘Suicide Squad’, move in. They too jump onto the bull, they push and pull until slowly, in a long struggle, they bring the bull down to the ground and restrain it. The crowd erupts; the deafening sound of cheering overwhelms the stadium.
The video stops. We sit there in silence. The light of the small lamp on the side-table casts deep shadows across our sweat-covered faces. Southam looks up from his Macbook, his eyes scanning each of us, as we stare on. We’re not entirely sure what we have just seen. “That is what you’re up against,” he says, that same grin twitching on his face. “These riders are hungry; they mean business and they want to make this as hard as possible.” He points to his laptop. “You are racing people who tackle fucking bulls, head-on, who bring them down. So be ready for it, this eleven days of racing is going to be nothing short of brutal.”
Noise, in deafening waves, swept over us as we came to the base of the climb. Thousands and thousands of Portuguese fans had crammed into the narrow street that cut through a small town. The buildings were all but covered in colourful signs and flags. Only a thin corridor of the road remained for us to ride on. On either side, the crowd pressed in. A group of us pushed through as if we were Moses parting the Red Sea.
This was the fourth stage and I was riding in a small group of 20 riders, well behind the lead group, who were way ahead. The party-like atmosphere had not lulled. Music blasted from speakers balanced on shoulders, or on the tops of vans, or sitting on sidewalk tables. The crowd was ten deep — they were drunk, they screamed. They danced and hosed us down with water. A woman cried out as a rider threw his empty bidon towards her. A little further on, a group of shirtless men held bottles of beers out to us as they downed their own.
As we rode on, up the mountain — my legs aching from the day’s effort and sweat stinging my eyes — the spectators just got more drunk, more passionate, and more naked. What kind of circus was this we had ridden into?
I looked across to my right. Our group was riding up the hill as if we were a part of some parade. I noticed a man standing just in his underwear. The expression on his face was determined, almost possessed. He lifted a heavy, metal axe into the air and smashed the blunt side down onto the metal barrier on the side of the road. Over and over again he hit it. Half-crazed, he was yelling: “FC PORTO! FC PORTO!” It was like some primitive, ritualistic chant to the Gods.
W52-FC Porto is a Portuguese continental team that is linked — as the name suggests — to the football club FC Porto. As I rode further up the mountain, as thousands and thousands of signs, posters and jerseys swept by, I realised that this little-known team (at least little-known globally), were viewed by the Portuguese fans as just that: Gods. And, as I soon discovered, they rode like Gods too. My suffering over the following days would be determined by their will. As we pushed further on into the mountains, their name would be burned into my memory like an indelible stain.
The sound of the axe slowly faded as we wound our way up the mountain. Near the summit, where the stage ended, the road spiralled back in on itself like a snail. There, I caught the eye of a man and woman at the rear of the noisy crowd. The man was big and round, and the woman had long, thick curly hair that fell down past her hips. They were drunk, their hands linked. They began to dance — seemingly unaware that there was a bike race on around them. They would pull each other in before spiralling away from each other, stumbling and giggling, as if they were the only people there. And it was just them, alone. They were blind to the thousands of other fans who were cheering this group of exhausted riders on as we zigzagged up the road. There, watching the man and the woman dance as I rode across the finish line, I smiled. Portugal is hot and it is hard, but more than anything else it is full of infectious passion. It sets your heart on fire.
Later that night, I sat on my bed in my suffocatingly hot hotel room, the aircon machine next to me colourless and dead. On the bed opposite me, my teammate Tom Scully — affectionately known as Scud — had his legs stretched out, up against the wall. We had not seen each other all day, despite being in the same race.
“Did you see the guy with the axe?” I asked.
“Yeah, the naked dude? He had lost it, ay?” he said.
“You know, an Italian guy in my group grabbed a beer… and he got through most of it,” Scud said, pulling his legs down from the wall and facing me. “I could barely breathe, but right next to me was this Italian grabbing a beer and slamming it down — no worries!”
I laughed. I thought about the hundreds of other stories that could potentially be told about the same race: the crazy crowds, the half-naked guys, the girls eyeing the Portuguese riders — all seen through different sets of eyes as we raced. It’s here, I thought, in these airless hotel rooms, after a race, that stories such as these are offered up and traded like playing cards. I take a sip from my cold water bottle that rests on the table next to me.
“Did you see that drunk couple dancing at the top?” I ask.
Two stages later, after I crossed the finish line, I realised I had spent less than 60 seconds in the peloton for the entire stage. A deep ache throbbed throughout my muscles. The finish banner was suspended from two white buildings that skirted the narrow and steep cobbled street. Exhausted, relieved even, I unclipped and grabbed the Sprite my soigneur was holding out to me. Afternoon sunlight broke through the small gaps of moving spectators that filled the street. It flickered and danced across us. I was completely spent. I hung my head down, arms slumped over my handlebars. The Volta a Portugal is fucking hard, I thought to myself as I stared at my dry salt-crusted skin.
Earlier, we had set out under a clear blue morning sky. This was the queen stage of the tour: two twenty-kilometre mountain passes and several other climbs made up its intimidating profile. This was the stage everyone feared. The peloton passed the red kilometre zero sign. The race was on. Like a series of electric shocks, riders immediately shot off the front of the peloton. Again and again, they went, trying their hand at making the breakaway. Less than five kilometres later, I too was off, head down, sprinting across to a group of four. I made it, my lungs close to collapsing, my head spinning.
I made it, I thought, we got a gap, this is it. Hanging briefly onto the back of the group, I tried to get my breath back. As if I had just resurfaced from a long dive, I took large, dramatic gulps of air. We rode on, swapping turns. The pace was hard, and fast. I pushed on too; the breakaway had a solid gap, and I figured, with massive mountain passes to come, we had to be let go. Surely. Twenty kilometres into the stage, with five kilometres left till the start of the first mountain pass, my radio crackled in my ear. “Thirty-five seconds and FC Porto is chasing… These arseholes aren’t gonna let you go.” I was completely smashed, my body ached. I swore out loud. My fellow riders looked across at me. Why the hell are they chasing us guys when we’re 20 minutes down on GC? A depleted peloton caught us three kilometres into the mountain climb. The front of the bunch was pure white and blue, the colours of FC Porto. Like soldiers charging into battle, their vision was narrowed and focused. They had one goal in mind and that was to go up these mountains fast, and to make everyone suffer. I was caught and slowly I drifted back, rider by rider, till I was at the rear of what was left of the peloton. At the front, FC Porto rode on, pushing the speed higher and higher. I did not know whether to be in awe, or to just cry. It was only 40 kilometres into the stage, and there I was, dropped along with the majority of the peloton. I looked around for anyone who might help form a solid group. There was always safety in numbers, I thought. “Grupetto, grupetto!”
At the finish line, on the cobbled street, the Sprite still in my hand, I saw the winner of the stage step up onto the podium. He lifted his hands in the air, the crowd cheering, but he did not smile. He seemed unfazed. It was as though he had not ridden the one hundred and eighty kilometres all the rest of us had, let alone done it forty minutes quicker than me. It did not seem like he had just won the stage. No, he was there, on the top step, just going through the motions. Because he was meant to be there. As if there was no other option.
Cycling is a game of strategy, much like chess, where, knowing the rules of the game, you play your pieces, make your move, with some kind of predictable outcome in mind. In Portugal, these rules do not seem to exist. It is a different game altogether here, where the norms of professional cycling have been wiped away. This was a game we needed to adjust to. We needed to learn what the new rules were if we were going to beat them on their own turf.
Later that night, as we sat at the restaurant table trading stories from the day, I was told what had played out all those minutes ahead of me. Joni Brandão had attacked from the peloton. He went solo, and then alone, in the long shadow of the mountains, he raced on ahead. For 60 kilometres, up mountains and down, as the rest of the peloton exploded and fractured, he rode out front without another soul anywhere near him. On and on he pushed. When he was caught, by what was left of the peloton, it was with less than one kilometre to go. Even then, at the end, up the short, steep finishing climb, after the 60 kilometres of what had essentially been time-trial riding, he raced on. He kicked up that last climb as if this had been the moment he’d been waiting for, not like he’d been riding out on his own for what amounted to most of the stage. He finished fourth in the sprint. It was as if these riders raced in another world, another reality. It was a long road to Lisbon, I thought.
The next day, a group of young women surrounded a pair of FC Porto riders as they stood near the sign-on podium at the starting village. I sat down a few meters away from them, my teammates next to me, as people in suits and ties, skirts and dresses, walked around us in a constant stream. We were seated in the cordoned-off VIP section reserved for riders and important looking people, their faces all bright and beautiful. The Portuguese riders were like magnets, surrounded by groups of people who giggled and laughed, who took selfies as if they were meeting a teenage heartthrob from their favourite Hollywood film. Off to one side, another knot of people. Even though I didn’t know this particular rider’s name, I could tell from the girls who surrounded him that he was a megastar. They saw nothing else but him. I turned to my teammate Lachlan Norris and wiped a bead of sweat from my forehead. “You’d have no idea that in a couple of minutes we’re gonna be suffering like dogs for five hours or so, would you?” I said. He looked at me, a small smile breaking through his tired face, and slowly shook his head.
We were sitting under the shade of a yellow umbrella, a large misting fan blowing cool air on our faces. Our feet rested on chairs opposite us, as we cradled our coffees in our hands, talking about nothing in particular. It could easily have looked like we were on vacation, or at a business conference by the beach. In truth, we were the walking dead. Our bodies tired, our brains dulled, drinking the caffeine we needed to get our bodies moving, to get our minds prepared to accept another day of suffering, another fight under the Portuguese sun. It was so far removed from the reality of our day to come, so far from the real battle we were all about to contest. I smiled at people as they walked by me, although I did not know why. I nodded. I drank another coffee without thinking.
A minute before the start. The mood is still calm as we stand up and gather our things: Garmin computer, helmet, glasses. We leave behind a graveyard of coffee cups, and begin our slow procession to the group of riders that are already lined up under the starting banner. A minute later, that calm has vanished.
Hours into the stage, the breakaway would shatter. With 30 kilometres to go, when Marque Alejandro, a former winner of the Tour of Portugal, attacked up the short rise, I would have his wheel. I’d hang off it like my life depended on it. Another rider, just the one, would make the cut over the top of the short climb. With the finish line getting ever closer, we’d be down to three. Initially, we’d been out for a hundred and fifty kilometres, five of us racing together under the hot sun. We’d worked well as a group all stage, as breakaways must, but as the kilometres slowly ticked over and the time gap to the hunting peloton rapidly fell, the nervousness in the group had begun to rise. The play for the possible stage win had begun. I thought back to several stages earlier, to when my teammate Will Clarke — nicknamed Big Horse — was in the breakaway. I thought about the moment he crossed the finish line that day. He had won the stage, his arms raised in powerful triumph. Let’s make that happen, I told myself. Let’s fucking win.
With five kilometres to go, the peloton began closing in on us. Ahead of us was a long uphill drag. The road looked as though it was boiling in the harsh sun. I knew who to watch, the same rider who had cracked the earlier breakaway, the former winner. He was going to go again. We could almost hear the peloton breathing down our necks. Four kilometres to go. Would we stay away? Would we be caught? There was no time for questions like that. We had to push on, make it work; there was no alternative. Marque Alejandro attacked with three kilometres to go. In the drops over the top of a small highway climb. I made it back to his wheel. Behind me I almost heard the explosion as the third rider cracked. Alejandro and I opened up a gap.
Two kilometres to go and I could taste the finish, yet I could smell the peloton too, right there behind us. I didn’t look back, I pressed on. Our whole day had come to this. Of course, they engulfed us like a stampede of horses — the peloton, fast and hungry — with one kilometre to go and the finishing banner in sight. They left us for dead. My day was suddenly done, cut down and torn apart. Once again, FC Porto led the charge to the finish line. I crossed it just behind them, still out of breath. So close, yet so far.
Later still, I saw it in the distance, a blurry haze melted into the horizon. The city of Lisbon, the place that had almost become mythical to me, was a mere couple of kilometres ahead. I still grimaced in pain. My legs still turned over and over. The road was not yet done. I still followed it, my heart bouncing around my chest. For a rider, there is no road so lonely as a time-trial. It’s just you and your bike, going as fast as you possibly can. It seemed fitting, in a way, that this struggle alone and against the clock would be Portugal’s one last test.
A sign on the side of the road. Only four kilometres to go. After the thousands before it, only another four. Like a bucket of water poured over me, the last 11 days suddenly flooded my senses. The hot hotel room in Santa Maria; the angry bullfight; the crazy drunk crowds, with their beers, lined up along the mountainside. The man and woman, dancing and laughing at the summit. The suffering, the climbing, the sweating. The close calls, the hotel room banter with teammates, the buffet food. It was all there with me as I rode.
I could taste the glass of wine we had enjoyed as a team after Will Clarke’s win. I could see the ocean’s shoreline we had raced along just the day before. I could feel myself sprinting again, from the small bunch. Finishing second from that group for fifth overall for the stage. I could taste the dust in my mouth. I could feel the sharp edge of disappointment from another close result. I could hear Tom Southam’s voice telling us, “This is why I entered the team in this race, days like this, days where you suffer, and suffer, and go on. These are the days that will make you a better bike racer.” I ride under the red banner marking one kilometre to go. Beneath me are the cobblestones of Lisbon. Spit hangs from my mouth, sweat stains my clothes. The crowd is cheering under the burning sun. Then, I see the finish line, there in the main square of Lisbon. With the Arco de la Rua Augusta looking down on me, I cross the line. I have finished the Tour of Portugal.
The whole team sits by the team bus. We’re packing our bags for the journey home. The time trial has just finished. My teammate, Gavin Manion, has torn clothes, and blood is leaking from his body. He crashed with 400 metres to go. With a broken bike and broken spirits, with the crowd looking on, he had stood back up and had walked those last couple of hundred metres, carrying his bike over his shoulder, to the finish line. After everything we had been through that week, he wasn’t going to let the roads of Portugal beat him now, not with mere metres left to race.
Under the shadow of Lisbon, we rest our tired bodies against the side of the truck — our bikes are now packed away, forgotten. We crack open a cold beer from the Esky in front of us. We look at each other and nod, as if to say ‘we made it.’ I take a long sip, the cold glass cooling my skin. Beer has never tasted so good.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 16 where it was first printed.