Volta a Portugal gets off to a flying start.jpg

Volta a Portugal gets off to a flying start

Volta a Portugal, the country’s most famous national bike race, now in its 68th year, departed from Portimão last weekend. In total, 17 teams began the 1,544 kilometre cycle, which will take them from the Algarve, through Portugal, to the finish in Castelo Branco (Beira Baixa). Running from August 5 until August 15, the race is comprised of 10 comprehensive stages.

This year, 149 cyclists make up the 17 teams, 10 of which are from Portugal, three from Spain, two from Italy, and one team each from the UK and Austria. However, last year’s winner, Russian Vladimir Efimkin, will not be taking part in this year’s competition.

It is a welcome return to the Algarve for the race this year, as it has not included the region or the Alentejo in its route for some years. The race departed from Portimão’s Sardine Festival at midday on August 5 and passed through Lagoa, Alcantarilha, Guia, Boliqueime and Loulé, to complete 50km of the first stage. The route then took the cyclists into the Serra do Caldeirão, where they faced their first mountainous challenge at Barranco do Velho. From there, the riders passed into the Alentejo, passing Almodôvar, followed by a sprint to Castro Verde and finally, following the IP2 road, finished the 186km stage in Beja. The stage was won by Portuguese cyclist Cândido Barbosa of the LA Alumínios team, one of the favourites to win the overall event. Other favourites include Nuno Ribeiro (LA Alumínios), Daniel Petrov and Bruno Pires (Maia-Milaneza), Claus Moller (Barbot-Halcom) and Hugo Sabido and Felix Cardenas (Barloworld).

This year, organisers planned the route so as to avoid longer stretches of terrain, which tend to make the races less exciting, as was the case in last year’s event, when Efimkin managed to win the Serra da Estrela leg, one of the most highly anticipated stages of the race, relatively unchallenged.

Stages this year have been planned more strategically around the rest day (August 11). The first six stages are directed more towards sprinting as they consist of flatter terrain. However, after the rest day, in the Serra da Estrela region, the cyclists will want to be positioned at the front of the pack in order to give them a fighting chance over the challenging sections of the mountain region. The final stage is the highly anticipated individual “against the clock” race, which finishes in Castelo Branco, and will decide the winner of Volta a Portugal 2006.

Director of the competition and former winner, Joaquim Gomes, thinks that this year has a “well-balanced” field of competitors. In addition to being a great overall athlete, the vital component of success is the cyclist’s “ability to recuperate” as there is very limited time in-between races for the body to recover. The former cyclist confessed that, this year, the inclusion of the passage through Torre, in the penultimate stage, will be “crucial to the overall result”. The seventh stage, which finishes in Senhora da Graça in Mondim de Basto, is also highly anticipated. In terms of a winner, he would prefer it to be a Portuguese cyclist “so that the public can celebrate in the streets”.

The second stage finished in Lisbon, and was won by Manuel Cardoso of Carvalhelos-Boavista. The third stage finished in Viseu and was won by Martin Garrido from one of the two Algarve teams competing in the event, Duja-Tavira, the other being Imoholding-Loulé Jardim. By the end of the third stage, Barbosa had retained the yellow jacket position, holding a six second lead over second place Manuel Cardoso.

Speaking about the event, Barbosa pointed out: “As the finish at Serra da Estrela has been taken out this year, the finishes at Felgueiras (fifth stage) and Fafe (sixth stage) are going to be very important to highlight the main challengers going into the final four stages.” The last time a Portuguese athlete won the event was in 2003, when Nuno Ribeiro was awarded the yellow jacket.