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Sky Road Gran Fondo sportive

Trevor Ward
20 Jun 2016

Cyclist heads to Portugal for the picturesque Sky Road Gran Fondo, only to find the view obscured by the heavens opening.

Several days ago, at a location 2,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean and thousands of metres high in the troposphere, a big chunk of warm, tropical air collided with a big slab of cold polar air. The ensuing barometric carnage resulted in a weather system that hooked itself onto the southerly trajectory of the jet stream and headed straight for the leading edge of western Europe just in time to drop large volumes of water all over me while I attempt to conquer the Sky Road Gran Fondo Aldeias do Xisto in Portugal.

Although the rain, mist and cold have a lot to do with my discomfort right now, there’s another more subtle psychological sensation I can’t shake off: I’m far away from home and missing my loved ones, I can barely see further than my front wheel, yet I’m only too aware that sheathed in the gloom just to the side of me is a drop of hundreds of metres.

So far from familiarity, so close to oblivion. The Portuguese have a word that captures my mood: saudade. There’s no equivalent in the English language, but it roughly translates as a powerful yearning for something or someone you’re not sure you’ll ever see again. Not quite nostalgia, nor bereavement, it’s often celebrated in Portuguese and Brazilian songs and poetry as a kind of emptiness or incompleteness. 

Right now, halfway through a 170km ride in a remote, mountainous region littered with ghostly, half-abandoned slate villages – the ‘Aldeias do Xisto’ in the event’s title – and wind turbines that loom like disembodied spectres through the mist, I’m overwhelmed by saudade.

This feeling reaches its peak when we arrive at a place – ‘village’ would be too grand a description – at the top of a hill shrouded in drizzle. Its only street is a patchwork of cobbles, which currently has a torrent of rainwater running down it. A handful of buildings emerge from the mist like half-forgotten faces. 

At this point I can’t see any reason for its existence other than to be rained on and laughed at – the latter because the village’s name is Picha, which is Portuguese slang for ‘penis’. The most common reason people visit is to have their photograph taken in front of its name on a sign.

The reason we’re here, however, is because a group of locals have volunteered to refill our water bottles beneath a sagging tarpaulin shelter. Despite the rain, they smile when they see us. I wonder what they do here when they’re not hosting sportives or taking photos of tourists in front of the village sign. To be fair, they’re probably wondering what would possess this pitiful stream of drowned rats to choose to spend their Sunday riding up and down mountains in pelting rain and biting cold. And they have a point, since by now most of us would gladly submit to living in a place called Penis if it meant not having to ride a bike in these conditions. 

But I’m too cold to hang around and attempt to make small talk in a foreign tongue. I just need to refill my bottles and get going again – there’s still another 40km to go. Shivering, I clip back in and attempt to get some traction on the wet cobbles, and soon Picha disappears back into the mist, possibly never to reappear again until next year’s event, like a Portuguese Brigadoon. 

The feeling of saudade continues to gnaw at me, though now for more fundamental reasons: I’ve lost feeling in my extremities and have a powerful yearning to be anywhere but here.

Riding the sky road 

The ‘sky road’ is the series of ridges that run throughout the Serra da Lousã, a mountain range a couple of hours’ drive north of Lisbon. This central region of Portugal is full of remote valleys, broad rivers and unspoiled, rugged countryside. I know this from the postcards on sale at my hotel. It’s some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve never seen. 

Things don’t seem too bad at the start in the town of Lousã. It’s grey, but dry. Yet the organisers have already taken the decision to neutralise the final descent, and finishing times will now be logged at the top of the final climb after 152km. 

The rain doesn’t start until we’re halfway up the first big climb, which comes shortly after the feed station in the village of Colmeal. The previous 44km have snaked between forested slopes and taken us through the pretty, cobbled streets of Góis and across its centuries-old stone bridge. 

At Colmeal, we can see the climb to Carvalhal do Sapo disappearing into the low cloud on the other side of the river Ceira. As we refuel with bananas, an unlikely musical trio serenades us with drum, accordion and triangle – considering what’s to come, a mournful trumpet solo would be more fitting. 

It’s a 12km slog with an average gradient of around 7%. The forested valley we have just cycled through eventually fades from view beneath the cloud, and the fine mist evolves into a steady drizzle. 

At the top is a 10km undulating stretch of ridge. The only man-made things up here are the rows of wind turbines, which loom out of the fog like crazy, arm-waving robots. 

I’m riding with Martin Knott Thompson, whose company, Cycling Rentals, has provided my bike for the day. With him are a group of friends and fellow expats who all live in or near Lisbon. The strongest rider of the bunch is rugby player-turned-rower John Gilsenan, who offers me a tow along the ridge. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I jump on his wheel and soon we’re steaming along at 40kmh, leaving the rest of the group and assorted other riders in our wake. It’s the perfect pick-me-up after the drudgery of the previous climb, and I’m disappointed when the ridge comes to an end. When John turns round to check I’m still with him, his smile is almost as big as mine. ‘That was a blast, eh?’ he says. I can only nod in agreement. If there are no views to enjoy, we might as well put our heads down and do some work – although in reality it’s John who’s put in all the effort. All I’ve been doing is hanging on for dear life.

By now the rest of the group has caught up with us again, and the road starts to wind downwards to the foot of the San Luisa dam. It’s only when we get to the bottom that I dare to look up at the concrete wall towering over us. At the same time I notice the impossibly steep-looking trajectory of our route as it threads up the next rocky escarpment. 

Zigzagging zombies

With rain jackets stuffed into our rear pockets, our group is soon reduced to a dishevelled, fractured peloton of zigzagging zombies, eyes and sinews bulging as we wrestle our bikes up the cruel gradient, which rarely dips below 9% and hovers at around 16% for almost 2km. Tough though it is, I’m relieved to discover that the throbbing in my temples is actually the sound of a group of drummers beating out encouragement to us from the top of the climb.

We regroup at the plateau and put our waterproofs back on as the rain really starts to bucket down. The next 12km are a long downhill into the village of Pampilhosa da Serra. Under normal circumstances, this would be a fast, thrilling descent, but with the sheets of rain and the rapidly diminishing visibility, we form an orderly procession and take our lines cautiously. 

At the feed station in Pampilhosa, another of our group, research scientist James Yates, tells me he’s actually quite glad about the weather ‘as we haven’t had any real rain in Portugal since April’. Having spent the whole of a waterlogged British summer training for this event, I’m not quite as enthusiastic. I feel my spirit wilting like the soggy cheese and quince jelly sandwich in my hand. As we get back on our bikes, James – a veteran of three previous Sky Roads – has even more depressing news for me: ‘Make sure you’re in the small ring. There’s a 20% ramp around the next corner.’

It’s not just the gradient I have to contend with, either. The unevenly cobbled surface and malevolent camber are just as energy-sapping. There isn’t much room for error – or zigzagging – as the narrow street is hemmed in by walls and dotted with manhole covers. Again I hear a pounding in my head, and once again I’m relieved when it turns out to be a group of local drummers around the next corner rather than an impending coronary. Every climb on the Sky Road, it seems, is accompanied by a joyous soundtrack of drums, flutes and accordions. 

The gradient finally eases and we regroup again just as a fresh blanket of mist envelops us. The ascent continues for the next 4km, but rather than emerging above the mist, we become entombed in it. Once up on the next section of ridge, we can barely see further than a couple of hundred metres in front of us. 

It’s at this point that I realise my numbness of both spirit and limb, and my yearning for warmth and light, is perfectly encapsulated by that word: saudade

The road is now wide, sinuous and gently descending. It would be a delight to ride on any other day but today – you’d hardly have to touch the brakes at all. We’d have views of the broad, serpentine River Zézere to our left (I know this only from studying a map several days later). But today, the descent is a miserable, attritional affair. I’m shivering uncontrollably, despite a base layer, jersey and top-of-the-range waterproof jacket. 

We eventually reach the village of Castanheira de Pêra and the last feed station of the day. A group of riders are standing under the leaking, thatched roof wrapped in foil blankets. Another rider, also wrapped in foil, is seated in an official car looking dazed and blank-eyed. The rain is relentless. I’m half hoping we’ll be told the event has been abandoned on safety grounds. 

My spirits are lifted when a silver urn is produced and tea dispensed from it. It’s watery and milkless, but it’s hot. I get through about six cups and another round of cheese and quince sandwiches before I feel sufficiently revived to begin the final 14km climb.

Breaking point

I launch an immediate breakaway, less in pursuit of glory as in a bid to get the blood pumping through my veins. The gradient is shallow and constant at around 3% or 4%, and John, James and an American called Nate have soon caught up with me. Although visibility has improved, it’s still raining and the slopes are densely wooded, so there’s a lot of speculation between us about how much further there is to go. Unlike the first climb of the day, this one doesn’t have any kilometre markers. 

I’m convinced by my Garmin that there can only be 2km to the summit (and the finish), but James thinks there’s at least double that. If so, I’ll have no choice but to drop off the back as my energy reserves are almost depleted. But then James spots the now-familiar phantom shape of another wind turbine and its lazily spinning blades rising from above the trees. ‘That’s it,’ he shouts. ‘You only get windmills on the ridges, so we must be nearly there!’ Soon afterwards, a 500m sign confirms this, and a sprint finish ensues. 

The descent back to Lousã may well be neutralised, but it’s still 17km long, highly technical in places, and rivulets of rainwater are pouring down the sides of the road. Our already chilled-to-the-core bodies will be subject to a wind chill factor of roughly zero degrees as we coast downhill. So it’s no surprise that we see some riders dismounting at the top and climbing into a minibus that has been laid on by the organisers. 

The next half hour is terrifying, exhausting and uncomfortable in equal measures. As well as being narrow and technical in places, the road also has a constant stream of traffic coming from the opposite direction. Reluctant to use my brakes too heavily on a patch of wet leaves, I almost swerve into a car on one tight bend. A lot of debris has been washed onto the road surface and I’m scared I’m going to puncture (I learn later that John suffered a double puncture halfway down), plus my hands and feet have lost all sense of physical sensation but for the pain in my fingers when I apply the brakes. 

In fact, the only feeling I have is the one that no English word can adequately do justice to, a feeling more associated with unrequited love or tragic loss than a bike ride: it’s a yearning for happiness, contentment and warmth, usually embodied in the form of loved ones and home. Saudade

For now, though, I’ll settle for a hot shower, a cup of tea and bowl of pasta. 

Rider’s ride

Fuji Gran Fondo 2.7C, £1,199.99, evanscycles.com

As the name suggests, the Gran Fondo is aimed at long days in the saddle, where comfort is prioritised over performance. The 2.7C is at the bottom end of the scale, but still provides a good quality carbon frame that manages a decent balance between stiffness and compliance. Where it falls down is in the rest of the spec. A Shimano Tiagra groupset and weighty wheels mean it isn’t the sprightliest of rides, but it will get you to the finish line in one piece, and that’s what matters most.

How we did it

Travel

The nearest airports are Porto and Lisbon. Lousã is quite remote, so car hire is the best option from the airport. Driving time is approximately 90 minutes from Porto, two hours from Lisbon.

Accommodation

Options are limited in Lousã itself, but the beautiful university city of Coimbra has plenty of hotels to suit all budgets and is only a 30-minute drive away. We stayed at the Hotel Dona Ines on the edge of the city centre. Double rooms start at around €50 (£39) a night, not including the early breakfast they laid on for Sky Road riders. Visit hotel-dona-ines.pt for more details.

Thanks

Thanks to Martin Knott Thompson at Cycling Rentals for arranging the trip and providing our Fuji Gran Fondo 2.7C. Cycling Rentals delivers road bikes to any residential or hotel address in Portugal and Spain, and collects afterwards. Its Race Pack deals, priced from €155 (£120), are aimed at sportive riders who don’t want to travel with their own bikes. See cycling-rentals.com for more. Thanks also to António Queiroz, organiser of the Sky Road, for his hospitality and help.

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