The Volta a Portugal do Futuro was the biggest race I did for the Caja Rural U23 and Elite team in the 2016 season. Ranked as a UCI 2.2U and going over some famous climbs such as Montalegre, it is a race for the pure climbers. I got the call to let me know I’d be riding 2 weeks before and knew I was in for a hard 4 days.
The day before the race started, we had to get up early start 8 hour drive from Pamplona to Soure in time to eat at the hotel and get out for a pre race preparation ride before dark. I remember feeling terrible on the bike after the journey that evening but as any coach will tell you, it is important to get a ride done the day before so the legs don’t feel heavy on the day of the race.
Our team talk on day one played down the hills on the course, encouraged us to race aggressively and filled us with confidence. In our team of 8 all but two of us were there to work: we had to cover all the moves and ensure that our protected riders were on the right side of any splits. Being a first year, on my first ever Vuelta, I had a lot to prove. I was in the first break of the day and when we were brought back I went with the next one. Throughout the first hour we shared out the breaks and chased any we didn’t have a rider in. I always had a feeling this might not be the best idea, we had a long week ahead with the last two days including over 5000m of climbing. It wasn’t, however, till the first hard climb of the day that I realised just how much energy I had spent early on in the race. One by one 5 of our 8 man team went out of the back of the main group. We each ended up small groups of riders chasing to make the time cut. For the last 50 km I was in a group of 10 or so riders frantically chasing to make the time cut. My group just made it within the time limit only a few minutes to spare. The 5 of us that had made the time cut regrouped in the hotel. We knew we had 3 guys who hadn’t managed to get in within the allowed time but luckily they had come in with a big group meaning the organisers had relaxed the rules and allowed them to be classified on the stage, meaning they were able to start the next day.
For a race of its level, the strange thing about the Volta Futuro is that only 96 riders start the race, 12 teams of 8 riders. This while this makes bunch positioning easier and race starts less stressful, it means there is nowhere to hide. If you can’t finish with the leaders there is no gruppetto, meaning working early on a stage is a dangerous game. If you spend all your energy early on and inevitably get dropped, you could end up on your own. If this happens your week is over: there is no chance of making the time cut if you haven’t got riders around you to share the workload.
After a little scare on day one our race briefing on the second stage was far more relaxed. It was clear from the map and race profile that it was a transition stage. The best way to get from the more rolling central region of Portugal to the mountainous northern border is to go straight up the coast. The race organisers had designed stage 2 to avoid a big stage transfer. We were told to watch out for splits and protect our two leaders but not to go to deep early on like the first day. Having won the first stage, the Basque team, Cafes Baque had the yellow jersey. The pressure was on them to control the race. For the first hour and a half, the peloton was content to let them ride on the front and keep any moves under control. In the second half of the race, the wind picked up causing some splits in the bunch. Once or twice we had to get on the front to make sure we didn’t let any dangerous riders get a gap. Compared to day one, the first half of the second stage felt like a club ride.
After 76km, almost exactly on the halfway point of day two, my gear cable snapped. I was stuck in the 11 sprocket, with 70km to go. Starting to panic, I allowed myself to roll to the back of the bunch and indicated to the neutral car that I needed a bike change. They then called our team car forward and we were able to make a relatively straightforward bike change. There was however, one problem, the replacement bike was far to small. Drafting behind the car riding what felt like a BMX at 60kmph, it was clear to see I would not be able to make it to the finish like that. The mechanic called me to the right-hand passenger window of the car so he could move the saddle up to the limit. This helped but the bike was still difficult to handle. Once back in the bunch I caught up with my teammates, they quickly made it clear to me that there was a strong break of 10 riders up the road. With only 40km to go, this had to come back if we wanted a chance with our leaders on the GC. Luckily for us, the top Portuguese team Liberty Seguros had also missed the break. They were on the front, chasing hard. We soon got instruction from our team car to join in. It was clear we didn’t have the power to bring it back but our team wanted to make it clear to Liberty Seguros that we were going to help all we could. This tactic is often employed by teams in order to stop the team on the front from becoming frustrated with the chase and sitting up. I was told to get on the front and do as much as I could, then find a group and get to the finish inside the time cut. I managed to be up there in the chase till the last climb where I popped. As the team car passed me, they made it clear they were pleased with my effort and that I should get to the finish at my own pace. I put it in the little ring and kept my cadence high for the last 10km to the finish.
Stage races are decided as much on the bike, as they are by factors off of it. Between each race day, rest and recovery are an essential part of a rider’s routine. Even the smallest things after a stage can affect a rider’s performance for the following day. In the grand tours, you often hear of riders avoiding the race lead early on, or being reluctant to wear the young rider’s or sprint competition jerseys in the early stages of a Tour. Teams and riders worry that even a factor as small as daily trips to the podium can affect recovery as riders have to wait before they can eat and relax on the team bus. A rider in the white jersey on the The Tour de France for example, will need to give interviews, sign jersies and appear on the podium. Meanwhile, their rival already has his feet up enjoying a recovery drink. Teams such as Team Sky even go to the trouble of bringing a mattress for each rider to grand tours to ensure rider sleeps on a bed they are used to no matter the hotel they are staying in. While we weren’t exactly Team Sky, having a massage every day and eating as soon as possible after the race was hugely important for the team.
My massage after day two was key. I had knee and back pains after having raced on the replacement bike and was exhausted after two hard days. While on the massage table, I began studying the race profile of stage 3. This was the queen stage of the race, with an intimidating 4 classified climbs everyone was nervous about it. I knew that, no matter how much work I had to do, I needed to get onto the finishing circuit before getting dropped. I would still have 25km to go and a 1st category climb but I could at least ride this at my own pace and make the time cut.
Liberty Seguros had taken the stage win on day 2 and, with it, the overall. Just like stage two with Cafe Baque, the bunch let them ride on the front. Only a small break was allowed to go and it was kept almost in sight. Liberty Seguros are a well drilled team: they knew what they were doing. The pace set was just slightly too hard to allow attacks from other teams but not hard enough to split the bunch. This allowed Liberty Seguros to control the race without dropping their own riders to soon. The stage was a war of attrition with most riders near their limit on the climbs. It was relatively uneventful for us until our leader crashed going up one of the long climbs. It was just a touch of wheels but it was enough for him to need a bike change, as someone had ridden into his rear mech. Luckily the team were close to him so we could all stop and help him chase back on through the convoy of cars.
The temperature was a major factor in the Volta Futuro. Most days were over 35 degrees and we were often going quite slowly up long climbs. This made bottle duty a big job. As well as grabbing mousettes filled with bottles from team staff in feeding stations, I had to make regular trips to the car for bidons. In this week alone, I learned most of do’s and dont’s of one of a domestique’s main job.
I managed to get to the 25km finishing circuit with the front group, but I didn’t even attempt to ride the final climb at their pace. Exhausted from ferrying bottles, I sat up and joined a small group of other dropped riders together we watched the race disappear ahead of us. As the Caja Rural car overtook me, I was given a can of coke and told to save as much energy as I could because tomorrow was to be an even harder day.
41°C. according to my Garmin on the start line final stage of the race. We had our leader in 4th position on GC and a list of bib numbers written on our handle bars corresponding to riders we weren’t allowed to let out of our sight. The plan was not to chase unless one of these riders decided to make a move. I hadn’t been following the stage results much during the week, I was concerned only with my job and how my teammates were getting on, but Saturday’s result was impressive. Until day 3 the Colombian continental team, Boyaca, had been anonymous in the race. They had clearly been saving themselves for the more mountainous terrain on the Saturday and Sunday. This proved a very good tactic as they had taken first and second on stage 3, the yellow jersey and the mountains classification.
Leading the race, it was Boyaca’s turn to ride on the front. The last stage was all up hill for the first 15km and in the heat it was brutal. Just like Liberty Seguros the day before, Boyaca set a consistent hard pace meaning no one could attack. After the first climb the course was downhill for almost 45km, then once again, the road went upwards. The second half of the stage had no flat or downhill: it was a steady 6okm onto La Sierra de Larouco and up the famous Montalegre.
After about an hour and a half of racing the yellow jersey stopped. No one was sure why, he must have been ill or feeling faint. Still with second place on GC his team pushed on. This moved our leader up to virtual 3rd on GC, giving us extra motivation.
On the final stage, my race was over before it really got started. Just at the foot of the 2nd category climb which marked the start of the second half of the stage my chain came off. I had to stop and pull my chain from between the chainring and the frame. Despite chasing hard, all I could manage was to make it to the nearest group. There were 10 of us at first and we were doing steady rotation to try and make it back to the race convoy. Gradually we picked up more and more riders until we had a gruppetto of around 20. We were told by the commissaires that if we stuck together we would be allowed in the time limit. We ended up getting to the top of Montalegre 35 minutes after the leaders. Once at the top I learned we had remained in 4th on GC. A podium was what we were after, but 4th was still a good result.
The drive back to Pamplona gave me some time to reflect on the week. I felt I had done my job well and learned some important lessons of being a domestique. At time fetching bottles or chasing breakaways can be miserable but it is an important part of any bike race and something that, when done well, can be as rewarding as racing for yourself. While I didn’t want to be bottom of the pecking order forever, I considered that week very important for my development as a cyclist.