It was late afternoon in the northeast Portuguese town of Macedo de Cavaleiros. Thick crowds, enjoying the summer holidays, lined the roads awaiting the arrival of A Grande, the Big One, the Volta a Portugal. No doubt they were all were clamouring for a home win.
Would it be a rider from one of the teams sponsored by the big soccer clubs in the blue stripes of W52-Porto, or the green stripes of Sporting Clube-Tavira? Maybe a victor from Efapel, in their yellow fluo kit?
The expectant crowds would be disappointed though, as two men – an Australian and Italian – in red rode into town first – Drapac’s Will Clarke and Androni Giocattoli’s Marco Frapporti. The peloton, some five minutes further back, was out of the picture. The duo’s fellow breakmates were long gone too, having been left behind some 70km into the 159km stage.
Frapporti was the only obstacle that stood between the Clarke and a stage victory – on only the third Volta stage his Drapac team had ever raced. The Italian had been keeping Clarke company ever since the duo launched their attack at an intermediate sprint two hours earlier.
“Up to that point it was full gas, and I think some in the bunch were happy for the respite,” says Clarke. “The bunch was in pieces. I knew Marco from some races before, and I know he races hard so he was a perfect breakaway companion.”
Their gap to the remains of the break, which in W52’s Rui Vinhas included the man who would be riding to a surprise overall victory, quickly ballooned out to two minutes. It didn’t start falling until the cat-and-mouse games began.
“In the last 10km I think we knew we’d stay clear, and I was expecting Marco to attack me on the final climb before the finish,” Clarke recalls. “That didn’t happen though, and Tom [Southam, Drapac DS] had me keep an eye on him. I started feeling really good on that climb and then when we got over I was confident for the sprint.”
Clarke’s gameplan was put into action in the final 2km as he took up prime position on the Italian’s wheel. They waited, waited, waited… Until the 500m sign. The race through the final bends was reminiscent of a track sprint, and then with 250m to go Clarke dived up the inside of the final corner. It was over.
It was the Clarke’s fifth win of the season, though his explosive effort wasn’t a surprise given prologue victories at the Herald Sun Tour and on the arduous Kitzbüheler Horn prologue at July’s Tour of Austria. The result also meant that the Volta was already a success for the men in red.
“Coming in, we aimed for at least one stage win,” said teammate Lachlan Norris. “Wilbur’s strength early on really made us lift the bar, and we contested every day.”
Southam agreed. “None of these guys knew what to expect here, but they’ve come through with a well-executed win and a handful of really strong rides on other stages [Drapac racked up four other top ten finishes at the race].”
But why the Volta? The eleven-day race is held at the height of the Portuguese summer – when temperatures regularly touch 40 °c (100F) – and is raced at a furious pace by the domestic teams for whom it is the focus of their entire season.
Two-time Giro d’Italia winner Gilberto Simoni said “never again” after racing to an anonymous 108th place in 2005, while just this year Androni Giocattoli’s Franco Pellizotti admitted he was wrong to laugh at the level of competition.
Back in the mid-2000s, the likes of Lampre, Saunier Duval, Fassa Bortolo and Southam’s old team Barloworld raced there, but nowadays only a handful of ProContinental teams turn up at the start. It’s perhaps understandable given the length, heat and position on the calendar, so what did Drapac see in the Volta?
“Racing here was a very considered, deliberate choice,” says Southam. “I wanted the team to come here as I believe it’s one of the hardest races we could go to this year.”
“One of my – and the team’s – objectives was to push the guys to develop through quality, hard racing, and the Volta is perfect for that.”
Southam has experience racing in Portugal, describing the experience as “telling myself I would ride one more kilometre before I’d get off, and then repeating that 160 times a day.”
And after hearing what his riders have to say it doesn’t seem like racing there has gotten any easier.
“There’s only one way to describe it and that’s hard. From start to finish,” says Clarke. “They really push it more on the downhills than I have experienced in any other race and quite a few selections were made even before the key climbs.”
“The courses are mega,” says Norris. “But it’s also how they race – they race up, they race down and they don’t stop! It was hot as well, which was another challenge.”
“Yeah it was very hot every day and it took a few days to get used to it,” Clarke agrees. “In the first days, it was hard to breathe deeply because it irritated my lungs and made me cough.”
“Overall I really enjoyed it though,” he continues. “It was well organised and had a nice atmosphere, with huge crowds [the race is held during Portugal’s summer holidays] which was really cool. The race was really big over there.”
Even climber Brendan Canty found the race tough going. The 24-year-old Victorian, who has been linked with a move to Cannondale-Drapac as part of their upcoming merger, harboured GC ambitions before the race. His form was good, having won a summit finish the Tour of Austria, while earlier in the season he took the white young rider’s jersey at the Tour of Oman.
Through the prologue and first three stages he was going well, lying in 31st overall – just 15 seconds behind reigning champion Gustavo César Veloso, one of the many Spanish exiles to have raced across the border in recent years. But come the race’s first summit finish on stage four – the famous ascent of Senhora de Graça – hopes of a high overall placing unravelled.
“Initially we had a couple of riders with GC ambitions, but as the race progressed our focus turned towards stage results,” says Canty. “Unfortunately I didn’t make the bottom of Senhora de Graça with the front of the race after the peloton had split up during the stage.”
“Personally, I was a bit disappointed with my own performance, particularly after a strong result at the Tour of Austria,” he continued. “The crowds were really impressive though. It was one of the best atmospheres I’ve experienced in a race.”
Despite the GC disappointment, it was a successful race for the team, their first Volta but sadly also their last. Just before the Tour de France, lead sponsor Drapac confirmed a five-year deal with the WorldTour Cannondale team.
The upshot of the deal is that the ProContinental team will be dissolved, with the staff and riders either going to the WorldTour, the Continental development squad Drapac-Pat’s Veg, or elsewhere.
With many team members facing uncertainty over their future, the deal must have affected how they raced in Portugal?
“There’s extra pressure to perform, and no doubt the current scenario could cause some problems amongst a team,” says Canty. “However, it also takes an entire team working together for someone to achieve results. Given next year’s situation, it’s really impressive to see the team come together and ride the way we did.”
“This time of year there’s always a lot going on!” says Norris. “At this stage, I haven’t signed with a team but I’m hoping what I’ve done over the past two seasons will show my worth to a team for 2017.”
So despite the unease about the future for some of the Drapac boys, there was no hint of a falling-out or intra-squad rivalry. Well, at least not on the road anyway…
“We did have an internal moustache competition during the race,” says Canty. “As judged by the podium girls… I ran a surprising third place!”