The Beast Of Por­tu­gal

Leg­end tells of a mon­ster that de­vours un­wary trav­ellers. Cy­clist dis­cov­ers it at the Gran­fondo Pre­mium Serra da Estrela in Por­tu­gal

Cyclist - - Contents - Words TREVOR WARD Pho­tog­ra­phy DAVID AZIA

Leg­end has it that the Adamas­tor is a mon­ster that de­vours ship­wrecked Por­tuguese sailors. Cy­clist tack­les a sportive where the Adamas­tor climb does ex­actly the same to un­wary cy­clists

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.

By the time I put on my rain cape, I can’t see more than about 20m ahead of me. I be­come co­cooned in a shroud of mist

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 wideeyed 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.

I try to take a pic­ture of ev­ery gra­di­ent sign we pass, but the ef­fort of lift­ing my arm be­comes like stir­ring con­crete

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

Fur­ther ahead I en­counter some more rem­nants of The Liv­ing Dead

It’s 3km of soul- shred­ding false flat be­fore the off to the radar sta­tion

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 turnoff 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. Trevor Ward is a free­lance writer whose ‘Pro Star’ name is Adam As­tor

Right: With fresh legs, there’s friendly chat among the pelo­ton dur­ing the first 17km climb out of the Man­teigas Val­ley

Pre­vi­ous pages: The field is strung out by the top of the climb, but at least the sun is still shin­ing

Left: The mist comes rolling in at the top of the first climb, and it will be a chilly and gloomy de­scent into the city of Seia

Right: Por­tuguese feed sta­tions are re­as­sur­ingly well stocked

The road to Torre - all 18km of it - is wide and well sur­faced, and on the day of the event is closed to traf­fic

Cy­clist rises to the oc­ca­sion (sort of) on the Adamas­tor

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.