Taking place over ten days in August, JLT Condor were given a wild card entry to the 2017 Volta a Portugal. Dropped in at the deep end amid a European heatwave, here's what they learnt.
Once known as the fourth Grand Tour, the relentless Volta a Portugal is the longest stage race in the cycling calendar outside of the big three (Tour de France, Giro and Vuelta).
JLT Condor's debut in Portugal saw riders face oppressively hot weather, more summit finishes than this year’s Tour de France, and unrelenting competition from Portuguese teams accustomed to the race.
Treated as a build up to the Tour of Britain — rather than racing to win the riders finished in bits — former U23 National Champion, Ed Laverack, and seasoned climber, Ed Bradbury, are eager to go back for more.
1. “Drink until you feel sick and then keep drinking”
Riders gulped down their first bottle of fluid within 15km of the stage and consumed an average of 11 bottles during the stage, they even got up in the middle of the night just to drink some more fluids. “Drink until you feel sick and then keep drinking”, says Edmund Bradbury.
“I finished stage 2 in 42-degree heat and I suddenly had goose bumps and felt really cold. I doused myself in water, because that was a sign I was overheating. James Gullen left the race on day four with heat stroke. Everyone became acutely aware of the effect of the sun after that.”
2. “Portugal is a stunning place to ride a bike”
“I would definitely go back to Portugal for a training camp. It is a stunning place to ride a bike.”
The race went through Serra da Estrela, a National Park to the east of the country. Edmund Bradbury earmarked it as a place he’d like to visit again. “There are plenty of climbs up to 2000m. It's beautiful and the food is cheap. You can get a coffee for 50 cents.”
3. Training in the heat is scientifically better than training at altitude
According to the University of Oregon, "training in the heat creates faster adaption and performance gains compared to training at altitude. The stresses of heat force the body to increase blood plasma and thus increase oxygen delivery to muscles."
“Acclimating to the heat is additional stress [on the body], just like more miles or intervals, so you can’t simply pile it on. Something on the training side has to give”, explains Ed Bradbury.
“We rode the first 7 days conservatively but they felt like some of the hardest days. Following the rest day we'd been in Portugal for 10 days and despite the final three stages of the races being the hardest we rode much better.”
4. "The Portuguese know how to handle a bike”
Ed Laverack was impressed just how drilled the Portuguese team riders were. The Welshman explained it was akin to how it would be riding against Team Sky.
“The Portuguese teams rode well together They’d drop back for water in pairs and overall in this race the number of crashes was quite low.”
“I felt safe at the front of the peloton, but to be up there was tough. They are so good at positioning themselves and they don’t give up space easily. I think it is how I’d expect Team Sky to ride on one of their GC mountain days.”
5. "The hardest stages were our favourites"
“I’d never encountered anything like it. On paper stage eight and nine were the toughest. We had already 7 days of racing in our legs. Knowing it was the penultimate day I really wanted to attack the stage and see how well I could ride", reflected Ed Laverack.
The 184km queen stage featured a 25km climb up to 2000m. Three more shorter 10km climbs followed. Ed Laverack held his place in the main GC group over the first climbs.
“I drew a lot of confidence, the GC teams would surge out of the hairpins, which meant others around me kept sprinting but I focused on keeping my pace. The surging thinned the group over the first 45 minutes on the climb. I didn’t go with them, just kept at a pace and I'd get back to the group.”
6. “There was always a good cake for dessert”
Race food at hotels can get pretty boring. “Eating rice or scrambled eggs for breakfast gets pretty bland and when you’re tired and hot it's worse. Our dinner meals at race hotels were always followed by a cake. I thought they were pretty decent at desserts”, says Ed Laverack.
“Mostly vanilla and egg-filled pastry, cinnamon buns and syrupy pastry. Check out Fiovos de Ovos and Toucinho do Céu, if you have a sweet tooth.”
7. “The atmosphere is amazing”
Despite racing around the world, Ed Laverack pinpointed the Volta a Portugal as one of his favourites. “Even on the remote climbs in rural Portugal there were people who turned out to see us race and the atmosphere was amazing. It helped me get through the early stages when we faced cross winds in that unbearable heat.”