Sign up for our newsletter

The beast of Portugal: Granfondo Premium Serra da Estrela sportive review

In-depth
9 Mar 2018
Advertisement

Words Trevor Ward Photography David Azia

What: Granfondo Premium Serra da Estrela
Where: Manteigas, Serra da Estrela National Park, Portugal
How far: 142km (Granfondo) 102km (Mediofondo)
Next one: 8 July 2018
Price: €35
More information:  granfondopremium.com

The road up the western flanks of the Serra da Estrela to the highest point in mainland Portugal is probably the toughest climb you’ve never heard of. The statistics are chilling enough on their own: the climb drags on for 27km at an average gradient of 7% but with regular, sustained sections at twice that, and occasional ramps of more than 16%.

But the raw statistics are only part of what makes this climb – or any climb, for that matter – so hard. The other half is all the variables: how you’re feeling on the day, what the weather is like, how many kilometres you already have in your legs by the time you reach it.

Seeing the road tilt steeply skywards without any warning or gentle preamble – ‘Hello, my name’s the N339, how are you today? I’ll try to be gentle with you, but you’ll probably regret the day you ever saw me on a map. Enjoy!’ – after you’ve already ridden 50km and over one mountain pass will test your mental resolve as much as your physical strength.

And I haven’t even mentioned the aliens yet… 

Blotting out the Sky

Of course, I am blissfully ignorant of all of this as I sign in for the start of the Granfondo Premium Serra da Estrela. The name of the event, incidentally, used to be the far snappier Granfondo Sky Road, but a global media company worth billions of pounds that also sponsors a certain WorldTour pro team put paid to that with a lawyer’s letter demanding ‘cease and desist’.

So we can’t call it the Sky Road any more, hence the tongue-twisting new name. Even though it’s a road that pretty much disappears up into the sky. A sort of Sky Road, in fact (That’s enough – Ed). 

On the drive to the start in the pretty, whitewashed village of Manteigas the day before, we noted the Serra da Estrela mountains looming ahead of us. We could even just about make out the distinctive twin golf ball domes of the disused radar station of Torre, the highest point in mainland Portugal at 1,993m.

In the late afternoon light, it didn’t look that high. The deepening colours made the golf balls appear close enough to touch. We couldn’t see the road from this side of the Serra, but it couldn’t be that steep, surely?

I filled in my registration and ‘next of kin’ forms with quiet confidence.

It’s only the next morning at the start line when I’m being interviewed by a local film crew that the full gravity of the challenge starts to sink in. After the usual pleasantries about where I’m from, how I’m feeling and had I been to Portugal before, the interviewer suddenly asks me about the Adamastor.

‘I’m sorry, the what now?’

‘The Adamastor,’ the interviewer repeats. ‘Surely you have heard of the Adamastor?’

‘Er, no. Is that the local cheese?’

‘No, the Adamastor is the mythical creature that shipwrecked Portuguese sailors as they sailed around the Cape of Good Hope on their way to discovering new lands.’

‘Ah, OK.’

There is an awkward silence, which I stupidly fill by asking, ‘And what’s that got to do with today?’

‘There is a section of the climb that is called the Adamastor.’

Another pause, before I nervously ask, ‘Why?’

‘Because it will have the same effect on you as it did on those sailors.’

‘What?’ There is a note of rising panic in my voice. ‘It’s not that bad, is it?’

‘We made a video of it last year. It was very funny. Lots of riders were pushing their bikes up the climb. They looked like something out of Night Of The Living Dead.’

Adamastor. The writer inside me is impressed by the sheer poetry of the description. The rider inside me, on the other hand, has just died a little bit. 

Act of blasphemy

Up until now, my plan was to do the longer 142km route, but now the 102km mediofondo is starting to look very attractive. I’ll still have to face the climb to Torre in full, including the Adamastor, but at least I’ll have a few less kilometres in my legs by the time I get there.

I realise such thoughts may appear blasphemous to some readers. All I can say is, until you’ve heard the word Adamastor pronounced in a growling, menacing Portuguese accent, you haven’t truly known what mild trepidation feels like.

I also decide it would be nice to arrive at the summit with some semblance of my physical and mental faculties remaining intact. So often in the past I’ve opted for the macho option of doing the longer route and arrived with the gruppetto in a salt-caked heap just as they are packing away the podium and the last of the empty food containers.

No, today I’ll ride the shorter 102km route, do my penance on the Adamastor climb along with everyone else, and hopefully arrive sufficiently fresh to be able to enjoy the atmosphere – and free beer – at the finish.

I decide not to share my idea with the British rider I’d met at my hotel last night. I suspect two-times cancer survivor and record-breaking endurance cyclist James Golding would be less than impressed. We’d been chatting about his plans to attempt to ride the 740km length of Portugal’s ‘Route 66’ – the N2 – in 24 hours, and I’d asked what kept him mentally motivated.

His reply about remembering his time in hospital when he weighed just six and a half stone and had been given less than a 5% chance of survival was as shocking as it was humbling.

Now, as the sun beats down at nine in the morning, I’m happy to let James join the VIP section at the front and go and batter the Adamastor into submission. I, meanwhile, will take my place with the 1,100 non-VIPs at the back. We will treat the Adamastor with grovelling subservience.

For unexplained reasons, the start is delayed by half an hour, so the organisers decide to dispense with the opening 10km loop around the village. This means we’re straight onto the first climb of the day, a 17km incline that threads up the forested slopes before emerging onto a bare, rolling plateau.

With an average gradient of just 5%, it’s a gentle but relentless leg-stretcher, and a chance to talk to some of the riders around me. The word ‘Adamastor’ elicits only wide-eyed looks of apprehension – or the occasional finger-across-neck cutthroat gesture.

I fail to find the reassurance I’m looking for, something along the lines of, ‘Don’t worry, it’s all made up, a gimmick by the organisers, it’s just a little bump really.’

But at the top of the climb, I find something else to get stressed about. 

A change in the weather

We had started out in glorious sunshine, but now we have crossed the mountain range and are starting our descent into the adjoining valley where a thick buffer of cloud is creeping up the slopes towards us.

By the time I put on my rain cape, I can’t see more than about 20m ahead of me. I lose sight of the riders in front as I become cocooned in a shroud of mist. This is going to be a long, cold and cautious descent.

Occasionally there’ll be a splinter of daylight, but for most of the 14km into the city of Seia, it is perpetual gloom. Adding to the sense of foreboding is the occasional and sudden appearance of pointy-headed phantoms at the roadside trailing smaller creatures in their wake.

A Portuguese rider I had spoken to the night before, Hugo Marques, had told me the Serra da Estrela mountains were the scene of more UFO sightings than anywhere else in Portugal.

‘There are regular documentaries about it on TV. People are always reporting strange things,’ he had said.

The idea of careering off into the void at Portugal’s answer to Roswell fills me with dread, so it’s a relief when the first of these pointy-headed ‘aliens’ gradually but surely adopts the form of a shepherd with his flock.

We never quite shake off the mist, even when we arrive on the cobbled streets of Seia. I’m distinctly cold, but soon enough the road starts to rise again, so I shed my rain cape in the hope that the sun will break through in the near future.

After 7km of gently rising tarmac I’m no warmer, but suspect things are about to change as we round a bend and are greeted by an inflatable gantry across the road.

A sign announces ‘Adamastor’, and for those still not yet familiar with the meaning of the word there’s a drawing of a fierce-looking, bearded man with bulging eyes and billowing hair (not too dissimilar to an angry Peter Sagan, in fact). I think we can safely assume it’s not an advert for a feed station.

The mist is thickening again, but not before I spot what will become a regular sight at the roadside – a red warning sign announcing ‘Subida acentuada’ and giving the gradient, which at this point is 11%.

From this moment onwards it’s no longer a bike ride, but an attritional grind. It’s mostly horrible, with fleeting moments of exhilaration and beauty. But mostly it’s the stuff off those motivational posters you see in gyms, except I don’t think my suffering is quite as photogenic.

I try to take a picture of every gradient sign we pass for reference, but eventually the effort of reaching into my back pocket for my phone and lifting my arm becomes like stirring concrete. What I remember is a lot of signs saying 12%, and a couple pronouncing 16%. The punishment continues until just a few kilometres from the top, when at last the road starts to behave sensibly again.

We emerge from the clouds with about 15km of the climb to go and feel the sun on our backs for the first time since the descent into Seia. I can almost feel the sudden explosion of endorphins in the riders around me. This is one of those fleeting moments of beauty, soon to dissipate as the road ramps up mercilessly again at the next hairpin.

Another moment of beauty – even though I have to pull over to one side and let the thudding in my chest subside to fully appreciate it – is the sight below us. We are above a sea of clouds. No other bits of planet Earth protrude through the mantle of mist – we are now the highest humans in Portugal. 

The Living Dead

Among the trail of crumb-like figures on the road below me, I see that many have climbed off their bikes and are now walking. I’m looking down on them, but only in the literal sense. They have my pity. After all, I may have survived the Adamastor but I still have 10km to climb and could yet be forced to join them.

Further ahead I encounter some more remnants of The Living Dead. What’s the etiquette here? Should I offer words of encouragement or respectful silence? At one point, as the gradient again nudges 16%, it seems to take forever to overtake one of them. I’m not sure who pities who more.

I crawl past a yellow smiley face pinned to a snow pole with a slogan in English: ‘Smile. It’s only cycling.’ Even if I wanted to, I don’t have sufficient energy to shape my facial muscles into anything other than a grimace.

I can see a junction on a ridge ahead. It takes an eternity to winch myself up to it, and I’m rewarded with a water tanker refilling bidons. ‘Easy now’, says the driver, though I’m not sure if he’s telling me to moderate my rate of consumption or that it gets easier from this point onwards.

We’ve got 5km of climbing left. There’s no sign of the gradient slackening until a crest that offers us our first views of the radar station and its distinctive twin golf balls. I squint and try to trace the course of the road between them and me. We appear to be on a plateau of scrubland and boulders.

It’s 3km of soul-shredding false flat – during which we pass Portugal’s only ski resort – before we reach the turn-off to the radar station, and then the gradient ratchets up again for those final few hundred metres.

Up ahead I can see a banner across the road and hear the throbbing of music. This is actually the end of the timed section of the route and where we are handed our medals. The remaining, spectacular 20km back down to Manteigas and the free beer will be neutralised.

I grab a sandwich and bottle of water and cycle past the throng of riders and a PA system blaring out Kraftwerk’s Tour de France. I find a vantage point near one of the golf balls and stare out. On this side of the mountain there is no cloud cover. I have conquered the Adamastor and have the whole of Portugal at my feet. I feel on top of the world.

 

Do it yourself

Travel

Cyclist flew to Lisbon and from the airport took the metro to Oriente, and from there the train to Covilhã (up to five services a day, 3-5 hours, €17 each way, bikes free, timetables at cp.pt/passageiros/en). From Covilhã it’s a 45-minute taxi ride to Manteigas, costing roughly €40.

Accommodation

We stayed at the friendly Hotel Berne in Manteigas (hotelberne.com), a 10-minute ride from the start line. Double/twin rooms cost from £60, including breakfast. Accommodation in the village is limited during the Granfondo so book early.

Bike hire

We hired our bike from Cycling Rentals (cycling-rentals.com), which will deliver a road bike to any hotel in Spain or Portugal. Prices range from €60 for three days for an aluminium frame to €110 for carbon.

Thanks

Many thanks to António Queiroz for organising our entry, accommodation and transport for our photographer. Thanks also to Catherine Deffense at Cycling Rentals for providing our bike.