Drapac at the Volta

drapac-peloton-volta portugal

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.”

adam phelan break stg7 volta portugal
Adam Phelan in the break on stage 7

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.”

will clarke stg3 volta portugal

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!”

News shorts – Portugal

 

W52 Volta Portugal

78th Volta a Portugal

Sunday saw the end of the country’s premier race, the 11-stage Volta a Portugal. Once again W52-FC Porto-Porto Canal – or ‘Team Sky of Portugal’ as some have christened them – won, though winner of the past two editions Gustavo Cesar Veloso missed out to his own teammate, Portuguese all-rounder Rui Vinhas.

Vinhas took the leader’s jersey as part of a breakaway that gained 3:51 on the peloton on the hilly stage three to Macedo de Cavaleiros. For the rest of the race he confounded expectations, riding stronger than many expected to keep the lead over the famed mountains Senhora da Graça and Alto da Torre, leaving himself an advantage of 2:25 on Veloso going into the final time trial stage in Lisbon.

Even with this gap it didn’t seem likely that he could keep the lead over the 32km course – last year he shipped 4:05 to Veloso over a similar distance. Hang on he did though, riding the time trial of his life to limit his losses to just 54 seconds as Veloso won his third stage of the race. W52 took four of the top five spots on the day, finishing one-two-four on the final GC.

It’s by far the biggest victory of Vinhas’ career, and only the second Portuguese victory in the last 13 years. His win also marks a break from Galician victories – Spaniards from the region which lies just to the north of Portugal (namely Veloso, David Blanco and Alejandro Marque) have won the past four editions.

Vinhas W52 Volta Portugal

After the race there was a hint of polêmica as Veloso gave a television interview right in front of his teammate, claiming that “I’ve shown that I was the strongest in the mountains and time trials. I did the job I had to do and next year I hope to win.” Later in the day he took to Facebook to walk back his comments somewhat, congratulating his teammate on the win.

Australian team Drapac rode the race for the first (and last) time. Will Clarke took a stage win for the men in red, outsprinting Androni Giocattoli’s Marco Frapporti from the same breakaway that gave Vinhas the race lead. Look out for a feature on how the team’s race went somewhere in the near future.

The demise of LA Aluminios-Antarte

Long-running team LA Aluminios-Antarte will stop at the end of the season, according to team boss Mário Rocha. The team, which is based on Paredes Cycling Club near Porto, has been running under various sponsorships since 1995.

“The truth is that the manager of LA-Antarte fears cycling is heading for new scandals like in 2008 and 2009,” read a statement from the team. “People involved in the scandals back then have returned to cycling in recent years, and this has happened due to the lack of strength from the FPC (Portuguese Cycling Federation), which seems committed to drag the sport back to the past.”

It’s a strong statement from Rocha, who made reference to the Liberty Seguros team, which ceased operations in 2009. Ex-team manager Américo Silva returned in 2015 to take charge at Efapel, while his rider Nuno Ribeiro (who won the Volta a Portugal in 2009 before testing positive for CERA and losing his title) is manager of the all-conquering W52-FC Porto-Porto Canal team.

LA Aluminios Antarte Volta Portugal

Rocha continued: “Against this background there are not the conditions to stay in the sport, not as sports director, nor as president. During a meeting with the FPC last year I warned that if nothing changed I would abandon cycling.”

“This is the time to abandon cycling, with a clear conscience and my head held high.”

For a scene that has been beset by doping scandals in the past it is hardly a ringing endorsement for the current state of play. The FPC does run a biological passport system, which Continental teams elsewhere do not have to abide, though clearly this isn’t enough for Rocha to have confidence in the way the sport is run in the country.

Towards the end of last season there were rumours about six biological passport cases, and Rocha said that the FPC held a meeting with all the teams about it. No riders have been suspended since, however.

The team, which consists of nine riders, didn’t pick up a stage win at the Volta, though star rider Amaro Antunes finished 6th overall. Another major name and winner of the 2013 Volta, Alejandro Marque, is 34 and could retire, while Hernâni Brôco has already indicated that he will be retiring.

W52 Fafe Volta Portugal
W52 on the front of the peloton near Fafe, a common sight during the Volta

W52-FC Porto to turn ProContinental?

While one team folds, another soars, and after W52’s hugely successful Volta there have been rumours that the team could attempt to move up to ProContinental level next season.

The rumours started when rider António Carvalho appealed to the team president to do so during an interview on live television. Directeur sportif Nuno Ribeiro fuelled the speculation, adding, “We took another step this year and perhaps at the end of the season we can go one step further.”

Yesterday Maximino Pereira, a DS since the team’s inception in 2004, said that “it would not be easy” to do so, adding that it would be up to the football club that sponsors the team, FC Porto. Their deal with the team, which started this season, runs for five years and Pereira added that “in a year or two we can think about it.”

The team already has the largest budget in Portugal, at €700,000. Stepping up to ProContinental level would mean adding another two riders to meet the ProContinental minimum of 14 as well as meeting minimum wage requirements, something which could double the investment needed according to Pereira.

Becoming the first Portuguese ProContinental team since Benfica in 2008 would open up a raft of new possibilities for the team, as it would enable them to compete in WorldTour events. After the way they raced the past few weeks it would certainly be interesting to see how they match up with the higher level of opposition on offer at races like the Volta a Catalunya, Vuelta al Pais Vasco and even the Vuelta a España.

Brandao Efapel Volta Portugal
Could Efapel’s Joni Brandão be on the move?

Transfers and rumours

Trek-Segafredo have confirmed the signing of the talented 23-year-old Ruben Guerreiro on a two-year contract. Guerreiro has raced for American Continental team Axeon Hagens Berman for the past two years, impressing this year with a 13th overall finish at the Tour of California.

In June he became U23 Portuguese National Champion after a 50km solo ride, while he was also on the podium at U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In 2014 he won the Volta a Portugal do Futuro, and is certainly one to watch next season.

Joni Brandão (fifth in the Volta this year) of Efapel has been linked with several teams, including Lampre, Caja Rural and Androni Giocattoli. He’s a strong climber with a good time trial and won the first edition of the Grande Prémio Cova da Beiras in May, demolishing the field on the summit finish. Earlier in the season he showed himself outside Portugal, coming third at the Volta a Castilla y León in a field that included strong Movistar and Caja Rural squads.

Last season he was runner-up at the Volta a Portugal, and is one of the strongest riders in the country. Considering his young age relative to riders like Veloso, Marque and Rui Sousa (who have been dominating presences at the race), he looks like the best candidate to move up to WorldTour or ProContinental level – a move that Portuguese-based riders rarely seem to make.

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José Gonçalves triumphs on stage 7 of the 2016 Volta

Caja Rural’s all-rounder José Gonçalves has also been linked with Rui Costa’s team. Primarily a sprinter, he can climb very well too (13th at the 2014 Volta, 34th at the 2015 Vuelta). This year he won the Tour of Turkey, a race Caja Rural dominated after crosswinds tore the peloton apart on stage three.  He has also taken a stage win at the Volta in each of the past two years.

Meanwhile, twins Ivo and Rui Oliveira are names that have been linked with Axeon Hagens Berman. The pair, who ride for U23 team Liberty Seguros-Carglass, have both seen success on the road at National Event level (amateur, with no UCI points) this season.

Rui won the Taça de Portugal one-day race Ovar-Murtosa, while the pair finished third and fourth behind professionals Rafael Reis and Alejandro Mestre at the Volta a Barraida stage race, with Ivo winning a stage there.

Finally, with the disbanding of LA-Antarte it looks like Amaro Antunes will be on the market. This year he finished tenth at the Volta ao Algarve, including a fourth place finish on the Alto do Malhao alongside Fabio Aru and Thibaut Pinot, while he has finished top ten at the Volta for three years running. He could easily slot in at ProContinental or WorldTour level.

Veloso Vinhas W52 Volta Portugal
Vinhas & Veloso

David Blanco, King of the Volta

David Blanco Volta 2012
Blanco with trophy number five at the 2012 race (Volta a Portugal)

An interview with the man who knows Portugal’s big race as well as anyone

“I cry every time I see one of my wins.” So says David Blanco, a Spaniard, and five-time winner of the Volta a Portugal. “It’s hard to explain but even at the Vuelta, my home race, I never had the same motivation as I did when I raced the Volta.”

“It was a strange symbiosis, but perhaps the sum of many things – the weather, the mountains, the people,” he trails off.

Blanco has won the race more than anybody else since it was first run in 1927. In a twelve-year career, he missed just one edition. And yet the Volta is barely heard of outside of Portugal. Ask your average cycling fan for a podium prediction and it’s likely that you’ll be met with a blank stare.

The level at which Portuguese cycling is run is the primary reason. There are six teams in the country, all of which race at Continental level, the third tier of cycling, and rarely venture outside of Iberia to compete.

There are financial reasons for that, but this insularity is the main cause of Portuguese cycling’s solitary confinement. Names like Rui Costa, Tiago Machado and Sergio Paulinho are familiar to our ears, but what exactly is Paredes Rota dos Movéis?

“I started as a professional there in 2000,” says Blanco. “They invited me to ride the Volta a Portugal Futuro the previous year, and I finished third so they signed me.”

The team, now known as LA Aluminios-Antarte, boasted another familiar name at the time, Ezequiel Mosquera. “I chose them because Ezequiel (a fellow Galician) was there,” he says. “In Spain the level of talent was very high so it was tough to turn pro. Because of that, Spanish riders were cheap, which meant that there were around sixty riders in Portugal then.”

Blanco was twenty-five when he turned professional, late thanks to his time at university, studying business in Santiago de Compostela. Born in Berne, Switzerland to Spanish parents, Blanco’s family relocated there when he was five years old. Soon after his love affair with the bike began, inspired by 1988 Tour de France winner Pedro Delgado.

The Galician city, which Blanco still calls home today, is the end point for one of the largest religious pilgrimages in the world, The Way of St. James. Hundreds of thousands of people set out on foot, by bicycle or on horseback, in a nod to their medieval counterparts, to visit the shrine of the apostle.

Blanco, a Catholic himself, sees a similarity in the Volta. “It’s like a party for everybody. The word I use is romería (a Catholic day of celebration and pilgrimage),” he says. “It doesn’t feel like any other race. People, even those who don’t care about cycling, visit as they would a party.”

At the Volta a Catalunya in 2006 (AFP)
At the Volta a Catalunya in 2006 (AFP)

That the race is held in August, a time when much of the public are on holiday from work, is both a help and a hindrance.

“The race’s place in the calendar is its biggest problem. Before the ProTour (now known as the WorldTour), plenty of big teams visited but now the Tour de Pologne and the Vuelta are too close. It will never be moved from August though.”

It’s something of a conundrum then. Whereas once upon a time the race could boast startlists featuring Lampre, Festina, QuickStep and more, Spanish ProContinental squad Caja Rural are the cream of the crop in 2015, while a smattering of foreign Continental-level teams will also take part.

In the mid-2000s the race enjoyed 2.HC status (it’s now 2.1), and there was a push towards the ProTour, but such a move would have been at the detriment of the local teams.

“Thank God they didn’t upgrade. Portuguese teams would’ve disappeared because they’re too small, too poor to move up,” says Blanco. “Just look at what happened in Spain. We have no races, no teams, no future.”

WorldTour teams do visit the country, but only for February’s Volta ao Algarve, a training race, closer to their home bases in northern and central Europe than the likes of Oman and Qatar. The race is a rare success story for Portuguese cycling in the wake of the global financial crisis, which hit both Iberian countries hard.

From a combined twenty-three teams (nine Portuguese) in 2006, the countries now share just ten, while numerous races have also disappeared from the calendar.

“Of course there’s less money in Portugal. Since the ProTour was introduced, it has been good for the elite teams but misery for the rest,” Blanco says. Disdain for the elite of cycling is a recurring theme in our conversation, with Blanco referring to the UCI’s top tier pejoratively several times.

“All my life I dreamed of becoming a professional cyclist. I achieved it, but when I saw what was behind the curtain it felt like a nightmare.”

“Portuguese teams have budgets of €300k or so. In my final year the salary was a complete joke,” he says. “I can thank God I earned good money before so that wasn’t a problem for me but there are many riders there earning €1k a month or less, sometimes not even that.”

Just as in wider society, a growing economic disparity is a problem in cycling, with the idea of a budget cap being mooted by figures such as Oleg Tinkov in recent times. One would assume though, that Tinkov had his own roubles in mind, rather than the financial security of riders.

Riding for Geox-TMC at the 2011 Vuelta a España (Cor Vos)
At the 2011 Vuelta a España with Geox-TMC (Cor Vos)

Financial security was at the forefront of Blanco’s mind when he chose to join Spanish team Geox-TMC in 2011, his penultimate year as a professional. Yet despite the team winning an exciting edition of the Vuelta a España with Juan José Cobo, Blanco had bitter memories of the season, calling it nothing short of a disaster.

“I could never find good condition on the bike. Later I learned that I had a bacterial problem with my stomach that affected me all season,” he says. “The salary, along with my Volta wins, meant that I put too much pressure on myself, and tried to race far more than I was used to.”

“It was nice to win the Vuelta, even though in the end it helped nothing. To this day I still don’t understand why Geox left – perhaps Formula One is more chic than cycling.” Geox now sponsors the sports Red Bull team.

While undoubtedly a miserable time for Blanco, his experience with Geox was hardly the only dark point of his career. May 2006 saw the eruption of Operation Puerto, the biggest doping scandal to hit the sport since the Festina affair of 1998. At the time, Blanco was riding for one of Spain’s premier squads and the team at the centre of the investigation, Kelme.

He had finished tenth at the 2004 Vuelta whilst working for team leader Alejandro Valverde, who ended up fourth, while another teammate, Carlos Garcia Quesada was fifth. An opportunity to move to the powerhouse Banesto team followed, but Blanco remained at Kelme, a decision he calls, “the biggest mistake of my life.”

“Anyway, after Puerto I was destroyed emotionally. My teammates had stopped training but I decided that I had to do something special if I wanted to continue in the sport.”

“To tell the truth I never thought I could win the Volta, but I knew Portugal well and knew there were teams with good money who could offer me a future,” he says. “I was disappointed with what happened in 2006 and how the ‘elite’ reacted to me so I lost the motivation to race in the ProTour again.”

The rest was, as they say, history, with Blanco winning two stages on the way to opening his Volta account. Portuguese teams chased his signature, but Blanco instead chose to join a newly-founded team, run jointly by Russian footballer Valery Karpin and the local government.

As it happened, he never turned a pedal in anger for Karpin-Galicia. A meeting with Duja-Tavira, the Algarve-based team which has existed in some form since 1976, saw him rescind his contract and return to Portugal.

Trophy number four in 2010
Trophy number four in 2010 (Volta a Portugal)

The late Xavi Tondo won that year’s Volta, with Blanco finishing fifth. He only had to wait a year to take victory number two though, beating future teammate Cobo, as well as a young Dan Martin.

Blanco’s third victory came in 2009, although he was second originally. Nuno Ribeiro of Liberty Seguros had won the race, but it was later announced that he had tested positive for CERA just before the start, along with teammates Isidro Nozal and Hector Guerra. The scandal saw the Spanish bank leave the sport for a second time in three years.

“I count it as a victory but what happened in 2009 was bad for everyone,” Blanco says. “I never felt the happiness of a win, and I think Portuguese cycling is still suffering from that stigma.”

If there is a stigma surrounding the sport, it’s an unfair one. The Portuguese Anti-Doping Federation (ADOP) runs its own version of both the Biological Passport and the ADAMS Whereabouts system, the only country in Europe with such a program in place for Continental-level teams.

With Ribeiro’s disqualification, Blanco not only won his third Volta, but he was also elevated to first place on stage ten, which finished atop the famous climb of the Alto da Torre.

Far from a single-lane goat path climb you might see in the Vuelta, the road to the top of the second-highest peak in the country is smooth and wide. The gradient constantly changes though, and at 27km long, it takes well over an hour to race up from the town of Seia.

“It’s a very special climb. You need to know it to be able to win. I suffered in the early steep sections,” he says. “The rest of the climb is for powerful riders – my favourite part.”

“I never understood why riders waited for those to attack, rather than the sections where I would suffer more. The only time they did that was when Tondo won in 2008,” Blanco says, smiling.

After 2009’s retroactive victory, he was first to the top again the following year, also taking the win at the other summit finish of the race at Senhora da Graca. Fellow countrymen David Bernabéu and Sergio Pardilla would join him on the final podium.

Blanco climbing to victory on Torre in 2012
Blanco climbing to victory on Torre in 2012 (Volta a Portugal)

It was win number four, taking him ahead of Portuguese cycling legend Joaquim Agostinho, and level with Marco Chagas, who now commentates on the race for Portuguese television. His fifth would have to wait though, with the move to Geox meaning that Blanco would miss the race for the first time.

“After Geox I was just thinking about my happiness. I was about to retire after that fiasco, but I wanted to do another year, just to erase 2011 from my mind,” he says. “In January I decided that I would try and be the first to win five Voltas, so I started the search for a new team.”

Efapel-Glassdrive was the destination for his final season as a professional. Once again, he was victorious on the Alto da Torre, climbing into the lead on his favourite mountain.

“The last Volta win is my favourite. That year I enjoyed every race as if it was my last,” he says. “I cry just thinking about how happy I was. It really was a dream come true.”

Riding into Lisbon in the yellow jersey was his last act as a professional cyclist, and then Blanco was off. To Africa, specifically. He moved with his wife to Equatorial Guinea, where she worked. Blanco admits to “doing almost nothing” during those three years – a well-earned rest.

Now back in Santiago de Compostela, Blanco has grand plans in an altogether different sport, moving from one type of climbing to another.

“I’m currently working to open a climbing wall centre, with help from ex-World Champion Ramón Julián,” he says. “I started climbing thanks to my brother-in-law, and I loved it. Together we had the idea to start this project.”

Blanco will take some time out from working on his new project to visit the Volta once again this week. It will be a while before he sees anyone come close to his record-breaking five victories, but perhaps he’ll witness the beginning of a challenge.

The 77th Volta a Portugal runs from July 29 – August 9. Indoorwall in Santiago de Compostela opens September 4.