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Evora Gran Fondo : Sportive

Trevor Ward
16 Mar 2016

The Volta au Alentejo pro race finishes in Evora, Portugal, this Sunday. We did the sportive and found it's a lovely part of the world.

The final 300 metres of the Evora Granfondo in Portugal are a journey back in time. They take you from a modern dual carriageway, past medieval town walls, under the turrets of a 14th century castle and finally to the foot of a Roman temple. 

It’s quite a treasure trail – enough to earn the town of Evora UNESCO World Heritage status – but after 170 lumpy kilometres and six hours toiling against constant head and side winds, the ‘300 Metres’ sign might as well say, ‘Welcome to Hell’. Almost every one of those final metres is uphill and cobbled.

The finish banner stretches from the Corinthian columns of the Roman temple (today witnessing scenes of human endeavour and sacrifice every bit as painful and garishly coloured as the religious ceremonies it hosted 2,000 years ago) to the 600-year-old Torre das Cinco Quinas. After the effort of climbing those final 300m – when it felt as if the cobbles were sucking out every last drop of energy from my limbs – I’m expecting at the very least to be greeted by a beauty in a toga brandishing grapes and a goblet of wine. Instead I join a queue of sweat-encrusted riders for a carton of orange squash and bowl of pasta, hoping that the soggy remains of the food voucher I have fished out of my back pocket will still be redeemable.

After filling my face with pasta, I click-clack across the cobbled square to a stall dispensing bottles of water. I ask the tall, lean figure behind the trestle table to pass me a bottle please. It’s only as I’m gulping it down that I learn that the person I’ve just mistaken as a drinks vendor is in fact local hero and winner of the 2000 Volta a Portugal, Vitor Gamito. I get chatting, and in broken English Vitor tells me he’d struggled up those final few hundred metres of cobbles too. He’d finished the Granfondo in the leading bunch more than an hour earlier. He also reveals he will be making his professional comeback in the Volta in July. 

The thing with professional cyclists is how fresh-faced and glowing they appear so soon after completing an epic feat of endurance. I, meanwhile, look and sound as if I’ve just spent the last few hours clinging for dear life to the roof of a fast-moving train. I wish him well and retire to lie down in the shade of some thousand-year-old ruins. 

Good morning Evora

Six hours previously I’d been marvelling at what a civilised sportive this was – a 9am start! None of this getting up before dawn to find your hotel hasn’t put on an early breakfast and then shuffling bleary eyed by torchlight to your starting pen hoping someone will have a spare safety pin for your number. Instead, it’s a leisurely selection of juices, coffees, cereals, cold meats, cheeses and pastéis de nata – Portugal’s extremely addictive custard tarts – at our hotel before a gentle uphill leg stretcher to the start line in the shadow of Evora’s medieval cathedral. Here the relaxed atmosphere continues as riders choose to bask in the sunshine rather than elbow their way to the front of the pack. It has the feel of an end-of-term school excursion rather than a competitive cycling event. 

I meet up with Martin Thompson and Catherine Deffense, our hosts for the weekend and the directors of cycling tour operator Cycling Through The Centuries. We are joined by the only other Brits out of the 900 riders taking part – two hulking ex-rowers called James and John, and triathlon coach Fiona Hunter Johnston. Completing our group of waifs and strays is Portuguese rider Vasco Mota Pereira, whom we had met during a surreal moment at dinner the previous evening.

Martin had spotted him reading a copy of Cyclist with my gurning face on the cover. He’d travelled from Porto to ride on behalf of a Portuguese autism charity whose name, he explained, had the unfortunate English translation of ‘Happy Endings Association’. 

In the time-honoured tradition of cyclists all over the world, we had tentatively evaluated each other’s riding capabilities with subtle, probing questions such as: what bike do you ride? How often do you get out? And do you wax or shave? At the end of the evening, we’d been sufficiently satisfied with our respective answers to agree to meet up on the start line.

The first few kilometres funnel us down narrow, cobbled streets where constant vigilance is required. I find myself on the wheel of 24-year-old Fiona. I’d been able to match her calorific input easily at the dinner table last night but suspect I’ll struggle to match her power output on the road. Sure enough, as early as the first roundabout she’s already showing her class by taking the shortest line and slotting seamlessly into the animated patchwork of club jerseys and sponsors’ slogans ahead. It’s no surprise that the next time I see her will be on the podium (her, not me) when she will receive a bottle of local olive oil and a chunky medal for being the second elite women’s finisher. 

Flattening to deceive

As the cobbles turn to asphalt and the historic architecture gives way to fields stretching out to cloudless horizons, we are strung out two abreast along an arrow-straight road that is heading almost imperceptibly downhill. Vasco, looking disconcertingly like Richie Porte in his replica Team Sky kit, is at my side and for the first hour we are flying. The route profile had looked a lot spikier than the gently undulating landscape surrounding us now. I know the bulk of the 1,600m of climbing comes in the second half, but scan the horizon anxiously anyway, like Inspector Clouseau checking for booby traps set by his assistant Kato. 

A fleet of police outriders is operating a rolling road closure as we plunge deeper into the countryside. One of them manoeuvres alongside me. He’s just seen me snap a selfie and is now shouting something at me in Portuguese. Fortunately, he’s also smiling broadly. Vasco translates: ‘He’s worried he might be in the picture and you can see him eating his sandwich, which he thinks won’t look very professional.’

Vasco points out that our average speed has been nudging 42kmh for the last hour. We’ve overtaken scores of riders – as much a consequence of starting so far at the back of the bunch as anything else – and decide we should take a breather by tucking in behind the next group we catch.

But it seems every group is going too slow for us. Our momentum knows no bounds. I can’t speak for Vasco, but feeling all that sunshine on my bare arms and legs after an endless Scottish winter has sent my endorphins into overdrive. We have to rein in this exuberance before it ends in an exhausted, spent mess on the side of the road. Just like the rider who has skidded off at a sharp left turn in front of us, in fact.

The first climb is so sudden and steep it jolts every sinew. Wrists and calves are suddenly called into action as I stand on the pedals for the first time since the start. Without the courtesy of even a warning sign, the road has ramped up to 15%. A ribbon of riders flutters all the way up towards the medieval fortress town of Monsaraz. I’m struggling to stay on Vasco’s wheel, but he’s already proving to be my very own super-domestique, always checking behind to make sure I’m there, ready to drop back when I’m not. 

He drags me past rider after rider until we arrive at the first feed station in a cobbled layby that offers a stunning panorama of the broad, sweeping Guadiana river and distant flatlands of Spain. That’s 55km completed. A speedy refill of water bottles and we’re on our way again, the fast descent delaying the realisation that we are now cycling into a stiff headwind that will haunt us for most of the remaining distance.

Black pigs and wheelsuckers

The countryside looks deceptively flat, though in reality is closer to the rolling roads of Spring Classics territory. We’re in the heart of the Alentejo region, famous for its whitewashed villages, black pigs and cork trees. (On the drive from Lisbon we’d stopped at a service station where everything in the shop seemed to be made from cork: handbags, belts, aprons and even shoes.) There’s also a lot of exposed landscape between settlements, meaning long stretches of relentlessly straight roads where small clusters of riders struggle to take turns giving each other shelter from the wind. 

Fortunately, I have Vasco, a master of the art of taking long, generous pulls at the front. And God help anyone who tries to hitch a ride with us – Vasco is transformed from a mild-mannered Cyclist reader to a snarling rouleur casting accusing glances back at the wheelsuckers. ‘Passem pela frente!’ he shouts – ‘Come to the front!’ – though generally most offenders are too terrified and back off. (In view of this, it comes as quite a shock at one point to see Vasco take a breather on the wheel of a rider who is cycling with one arm in a sling. ‘I didn’t realise, honest,’ he protests later.)

We’re offered occasional respite from the wind when we cycle through the narrow streets of villages where the whitewashed homes sport yellow and blue borders – the traditional defence against plague and ‘the evil eye’. Many residents have emerged from their houses to line the pavements – some still in their pyjamas – and cheer us on. But it’s a case of swings and roundabouts: what we gain in shelter we lose in comfort as it invariably means bouncing over cobbled streets where the idea of asphalt has long been dismissed as the work of the devil. 

The anti-climax of A-roads

Back in the countryside, where the fields are speckled with the yellow and lilac of lupin and wild lavender, the landscape is changing. Though hardly mountainous, a range of hills – the Serra de Ossa – is looming. The road spirals up through acres of eucalyptus forest to the highest point of the route – 500m – before a long descent takes us back down to the home straight. 

This final section is a bit of an anti-climax. As Vasco says, ‘It’s all estradas nacionais [A-roads], which seems a bit unnecessary. Personally, I’d have thrown in a few more climbs.’

With 10km to go, we crest another short climb and I suddenly sense I’m alone. I look behind and there’s no sign of my faithful lieutenant. I slow down and Vasco appears, waving at me to continue to the finish. If I do, I have a good chance of making my target time of five and a half hours. I look back at the obviously struggling Vasco in his Team Sky kit and wonder what Wiggo would do. I decide to wait. Vasco catches up and says, ‘It was the man with the hammer. What do you call it, the bonk?’ 

He gets on my wheel and together we arrive back in Evora and make that final, 300m climb through 2,000 years of history, side by side.

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