Race Design Thread

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Right, seeing as this quarantine has given me some time to come up with ideas for this thread as well as time to write up some of the old ideas, I need to post a few things out of the backlog. And one of the first things that occurred to me was this idea, which I had almost ready to go back around this time last year, but my Deutschlandtour was done first, and then with that being a two week race which took a long time to post, it then got buried in the annals of time along with around three different complete Vueltas and myriad other stage races. The thing was, this particular race and ideas for it was one of the very reasons I started this thread in the first place, but unbelievably when you look back at it, it’s now been seven and a half years since I had a go at it.



That’s right, the cult favourite, the legendary A Grandíssima, part of the reason early August is one of the best times of the year for a cycling fan, and the guilt-free tonic to the Tour, the Volta a Portugal is Europe’s fourth longest stage race, and the second longest professional UCI-categorised stage race outside of the three Grand Tours - the longest being Qinghai Lake, which has 13 stages to Portugal’s 11, although the shorter average stage length in Qinghai Lake means that A Volta often is longer in terms of distances covered regardless.

This was my explanation to Gigs when we were discussing the reason for the Volta’s to-some-inexplicable popularity with the fanbase, that explains why it’s risen to a level of high popularity and importance with the hardcore fans that outweighs its actual relevance and importance in modern cycling:

The Volta is it's own special kind of bizarro world, where the normal rules of cycling don't apply. It has some elements of farce played out for the benefit of cycling fans. These include wattage numbers and rider performances that, if conducted in another major race, would create a Clinic explosion, and tactics that would make Rabobank chasing their own break in Omloop all those years ago look like Liberty Seguros on Pajáres, but the Volta serves it with a nod and a wink. That stuff that is so divisive in other races is part of the price of admission to the great Volta a Portugal show. The fact that the scene has such a bad reputation (especially now that even the few teams that were picking riders from the Portuguese scene have had their fingers burnt, and even those riders that had escaped it and carved out a good WT niche have got popped, like André Cardoso) means that the number of riders out here specifically angling for a better contract with their showing are few, and the fact that young Portuguese of stronger talent levels will tend to get picked up before they spend too long in the scene (e.g. Nuno Bico or Rubén Guerreiro) means there are few of them too. The biggest Portuguese riders no longer race for teams with interest in riding the Volta in the present calendar, and the length and difficulty along with the move of the Vuelta slightly earlier into August means its viability as a warmup race like Lampre, Xaco, Andalucía, Relax-GAM, Saunier Duval and co used to use it as has been eroded, so there are few outsiders who can provide a genuine threat to the domestic riders the way riders like Pardilla and Sinkewitz did in 2010.

As a result, the riders at the pointy end of the race tend to be journeymen Iberian pros, and aging riders who are no longer wanted at the top levels anymore, and combinations of the two. Shorn of any expectation of progressing to higher levels, they cede leadership to the riders with ambition through much of the season, and have nothing to lose come August, the focal point of the season, and don't care what it looks like from the outside. The same old names pop up revolving from team to team, and hydra-headed teams lose the race due to boneheaded tactics. Riders emerge from nowhere and disappear back to the same obscurity, and nobody bats an eyelid, because that's just part of what the race is about.

But a key feature of the cult appeal of the Volta lies in the way that its "wild west" tactics, where teammates chase teammates, DSes insult their riders live on air (the Rádio Popular DS complaining about Alberto Gallego getting into breakaways instead of doing his job for Rui Sousa in 2015, for example), foreign pros visiting the race tweet about its absurdities (Sten van Gucht and Jasper Ockeloen in 2015, Franco Pellizotti in 2016), teams refuse to chase breaks, riders emerge from nowhere to demolish fields while pre-race favourites ride like stuck in treacle, mean that, crucially, it's a completely different experience from the majority of other races we watch. It may not always give us great racing, and it may not give us particularly believable or even likable racing, but it does not adhere to the same tactical formulae as we have come to expect from racing from the elite péloton, and is treated as a big deal by both the presentation and the riders contesting it. It's therefore completely different to anything else we see all year, and especially in a post-Tour comedown, when many cycling fans are jaded when it comes to formulaic, tightly controlled racing, the hedonistic, guilt-free free-for-all of the Volta is a welcome tonic.

The Volta a Portugal is like a libertine professional cycling, stripped of the pretence of conscience that we see the rest of the year.
Nevertheless, ’twas not always thus; the Volta has fluctuated over the years but remains a fixture of holiday season in Portugal. It’s an immensely historic race which holds great importance and tradition within Portugal, but makes nary a wave elsewhere. It has, however, run since the 1920s, and is both older and with more editions run than the Vuelta a España, the Critérium du Dauphiné, and Paris-Nice, and is only one edition behind the Tour de Suisse, which is also six years younger. It has run at higher and lower levels; it has increased in distance up to a three week race in the 80s, and has at times had a relatively high level of prestige, but with the relatively insular nature of the Portuguese scene, its length and difficulty makes it comparatively unattractive to teams in the modern UCI world where points on the Continental Tour become a crucial currency for teams, sponsors, invites and rider negotiation strategies; few want to spend nearly two weeks getting battered by a national péloton that lives for these two weeks, in baking heat, when they could enter a number of one day or short stage races which come down to lucky breakaways and have the opportunity for more points; the reduction in the race’s status from .HC to .1 in 2011 safeguarded a longer entry list (having previously been reliant on a large number of Spanish ProContinental teams that the double-punch of Puerto and the economic recession had destroyed) but has hamstrung the quality of estrangeiro teams because of the lack of desire to take on the August machines with only the relatively limited points of a .1 race available.

Much like the Vuelta, the authoritarian regime of the mid-20th Century hamstrung the race’s attempts to appeal to a wider audience, but while the Vuelta went out of its way to attract overseas talent (often to the detriment of home interest), the Volta remained an insular beast; likewise, Portuguese riders did not often come to the same prominence overseas as their Spanish counterparts - with a couple of notable exceptions of course - until much later, by which time they would have been usurped as exotic outsiders, first by the advent of Colombian cycling’s first golden age, and then by the post-Wende uniting of the eastern and western pélotons; Portuguese riders had not had the chance to develop the same kind of standout reputation that Spaniards had, where until those Colombians arrived in the 80s, the niche that those Colombians filled was very much that of Spaniards - usually gifted, waifish pure climbers who lacked all-round skills so seldom won the Grand Tours, but were regularly key players in their outcomes.

This is where I come in. Like with my Women’s Tour of Britain, in the universe that the Race Design Thread inhabits, I have infinite money and resources to reboot and develop these races, so we’re going on a big mission to rebuild A Volta. I don’t want the Volta to be a World Tour race, I don’t want it to become something it’s not. But what I do want it to be is the best damned Volta it can be. So we can try to improve the startlist, but it has to remain true to what the Volta is. The Volta is about riders from the 90s and early 00s, but competing now. The Volta is a race where regular race tactics go out the window. The Volta is a race where riders hit peak age at around 35. The Portuguese péloton will be going hard for this as ever, and it being coterminous with the Vuelta a Burgos does limit its entry list somewhat, but I was having a think about what would be the best achievable startlist for the Volta, of teams it could appeal to who would bring something to the race? For many years Lampre would race; their sponsor had regional interests in Portugal and so it would be used as a Vuelta warmup race for them - to great effect like in 2009 where Cunego and Tiralongo went on to two stage wins and a GC top 10 respectively. Although Lampre are no longer sponsoring the team, they have three Portuguese riders and the same lineage, so I would be quite hopeful that they would want to enter if there were the hugely increased interest and prize money available in my universe (plus also because of its length, it should give bonus points relative to other .1 races, in my opinion, similar to how the GTs award more points than regular WT stage race). I would expect that in the main, the bigger teams would be sending their lesser names to Portugal, but it would be nice to see Rui Costa enter the race at least once in his career, no?

Then it hit me: who else from the top table would fit right in at the Vuelta? Of course: Abarcá! They have a leader who is 40 years old, and so would be coming into his Volta a Portugal prime. They are flying the flag for bat-guano crazy tactics at the World Tour level, they place great importance on the Vuelta, they in their present form have a good few younger riders they could sacrifice to support Valverde in the Volta while Mas and Soler and co race in Burgos, they’ve got some older guys as reclamation projects that could readily be sent to Portuguese teams if they don’t get renewed anyway - they’d fit right in!

As a result, I put together a best case scenario Volta startlist to compete in my experimental Volta. Of course, the likes of Movistar are never going to come to Portugal, but it’s fun to dream, right? I mean, isn’t that what this thread is about?

UCI World Teams
Movistar Team (I’d guess at something like Valverde, Betancur, Oliveira, Sepúlveda, then some of the track types like Mora and Torres, a couple of neos like Jorgenson who climbs well in hot conditions and Cullaigh who has some experience of Portuguese roads)
UAE Team Emirates (Costa and the Oliveira brothers, maybe Richeze, then some of the neos and lower-down-the-totem-pole guys like Ravasi and Mirza)

UCI Pro Teams
Burgos-BH (they will want to target their home race, so probably the two Portuguese - Vilela and José Fernandes - backed with the offcuts like Guerrero, Langelotti and Fuentes)
Caja Rural (mostly a young team now, they’ll want to hopefully give race days to people like Orluís Aular and Jefferson Cepeda)
Fundación-Orbea (likewise will have their riders like Lobato, Bizkarra and Rubén Fernández in Burgos, so we’ll be left with the likes of Zhyhunou, Soto, Bou and Cuadrado)
Nippo-Delko (Zé Gonçalves and Délio Fernández would definitely be motivated to show and would add a lot to the race, plus maybe some other veterans like Beppu and El Fares and then some younger guys)

National Teams
Atum General-Tavira (Frederico Figueiredo, Alejandro Marque, David Livramento)
Aviludo-Louletano (David de la Fuente, Vicente García de Mateos, Sergey Shilov)
Efapel (Joni Brandão, Antônio Carvalho, César Fonte, Tiago Machado, Sérgio Paulinho)
Feirense (Rafael Reis, Óscar Pelegrí)
Kelly-In Out Build (Henrique Casimiro, Luis Gomes)
LA Aluminios (Bruno Silva, André Ramalho)
Miranda-Mortágua (Joaquim Silva, Hugo Sancho)
Rádio Popular-Boavista (Alberto Gallego, João Benta, David Rodrigues, Daniel Silva)
W52-FC Porto (João Rodrigues, Amaro Antunes, Gustavo César Veloso, José João Mendes, Rui Vinhas, Edgar Pinto, Ricardo Mestre)

As you can see, that’s 15 teams so they wouldn’t be that far off being able to get to .HC status again if so, if they could just get 1 or 2 more Pro Teams to be interested. I’m going to presume they don’t though, and add a few more Continental teams that I think could reasonably do the Volta a Portugal and who I think would really add something to the race.

UCI Continental Teams
Adria Mobil (Janež Brajkovič is a 36-year-old ex-doper so he’s perfect for the race! Rogina and Kump will give some stage options too)
BAI-Sicasal-Petrol de Luanda (Angola’s got historic colonial ties with Portugal, Igor Silva’s a bit old now but the young Angolans can learn, and there’s Carlos Oyarzzún who fits in with the race’s demographic too)
Elkov-Kasper (Jan Barta could be a reasonable name on hand, plus Kankovsky has quietly amassed a lengthy career in smaller races. Karel Hnik is pretty decent too)
Salcano-Sakarya (Mustafa Sayar, Önur Balkan)
Felbermayr-Simplon-Wels (Riccardo Zoidl, Filippo Fortin, Matthias Krizek)
Team Medellin (Óscar Sevilla, Fabio Duarte, Robinson Chalapud)

I think the race is too close to the Tour of Qinghai Lake to attract the Asia Tour teams like Sapura that might be interested with a strong team including Ficara, Celano and others, while its being coterminous with the Tour de Pologne probably rules out Mazowsze Serce Polski (Rutkiewicz, Bernas, Kurek) and Wibatech (Budyak, Paterski) as their best riders will likely be on the national squad for that race. A team of low level pro veterans like Vorarlberg, or a team of random semi-pros and hopefuls like is sometimes seen in the Spanish péloton (Gios-Kiwi Atlantico with their mix of Spanish amateur vets and Venezuelan youngsters, for example). If we’re lucky, it will coincide with one of Matrix-Powertag’s two annual trips to race smaller races in Spain, and we can add them as the 22nd and final team, with Mancebo and Toribio.

I have had a bit of fun with the Volta format, sticking to the now-traditional 11 days, but experimenting with a mix of traditional sites and landmarks along with a large dollop of innovation to try and keep things new and interesting. Starting right from the start.

Prologue: Badajoz (ESP) - Badajoz (ESP), 3,2km





Yes - it’s a nice rarity here, in that we’re actually doing an overseas start. Don’t hate on me just yet - there are reasons for it, and it’s also a bit of a departure (plus maybe a bit of an enticer for some of the Spanish teams). The Volta doesn’t go overseas very often, and of course when it does it has always been to Spain, for obvious reasons of geography.

They’ve been doing it for a long time, though; in fact the first time it happened was all the way back in 1932, when stage 14 ran from Porto to Vigo, with Alfredo Trindade victorious, and then the following stage returned to Portugal. Most Spanish stages in the Volta a Portugal have been in Galicia, as you might expect given the historical and cultural affinity between the two areas. Vigo hosted in 1932, 1933, 1949, and then in 1965 they had a full three stages in Galicia - first the same stage from Porto to Vigo as in previous editions, then a split stage first to La Toja and then to Santiago de Compostela, and then a stage to Chaves which only re-entered Portugal late in the day. That was the last time that the race went to Galicia, but Spain has cropped up since; in 1998, the race started in Sevilla, with a circuit stage won by Jan Svorada, before a stage from Mazagón back into Portugal in the Algarve the next day. And in 1971, two days from the end of the race, there was a stage which crossed into Extremadura, the poorest and most desolate of Spain’s mainland provinces, for a stage finish in Badajoz. With Joaquim Agostinho already holding a significant lead and being by far the best rider in Portugal at that time (and, of course, probably ever), he let the break go, and Serge Guillaume took the win. The only time the race has been back is 2002, when it was the height of the first ridiculous era of the União Ciclista da Maia - Milaneza. Ángel Edo won the stage for the team, a not-yet-ancient-relic Rui Sousa was third, while Joan Horrach held the camisola amarela.

Extremadura does remain something of a cycling backwater, though. Well, it’s a sporting backwater in general with few major football teams either. Its regional tour has never been a professional race and hasn’t run since 2011, while during the era when every Spanish region had a strong team represented at the top level of cycling, Extremadura-Spiuk, the local squad, never rose above the Continental level, and only managed to survive at that for three seasons, with all their best results coming in the first half of their first year, from Aitor Pérez and Jorge Ferrio, both of whom moved on; their most famous alumnus is probably Javier Moreno, who rode there for a season as a 22-year-old. The northern half, around Cáceres, has some cycling interest with the climbs that lead into the Sierra de Bejár, parts of the stages to Ciudad Rodrigo in the 90s Vueltas, and the national championships in Cáceres in 2015 as well as Vuelta stages in 2004, 2006 and 2013. Badajoz and its surrounding province, however, is long forgotten; it featured in a few early Vueltas - 1945, 1946, 1988 and most recently in 1991. The only time there it had any real relevance was the latter, when a trios TTT (yes, really. It seems the Vuelta was borrowing from the Peace Race in that era) was won by ONCE, enabling prologue winner Melchior Mauri to take the GC lead, which he then held for the rest of the race. In 1969, though, the race began in Badajoz, with a prologue which was won by Luís Ocaña. And it is to this that I turn for inspiration for the Volta’s first overseas start since Sevilla ’98.



A city of 150.000, Badajoz is a really attractive city which is hamstrung from development by its relatively peripheral nature within Spain; its position as a border bastion, first in the wars against the Moors and then in dividing Spain and Portugal, has left it frequently fought over, and it has changed hands a few times over the years. It is now a scenic fortress town, with a mixture of old-fashioned Islamic and classical Spanish architecture. Portugal has periodically tried to wrest control of the town from Spain, with sieges and occasional battles, as well as a brief period during the Peninsular War when it came under French control until British and Portuguese forces wrested it back into Allied control. It also is the site of one of the Guerra Civil’s worst atrocities, when after the nationalist victory in the Battle of Badajoz, the victorious forces indiscriminately murdered people in the streets in retribution for examples of Republican ‘Red Terror’ in Extremadura earlier in the conflict. This gave way to a more industrial-cum-theatrical manner of murder, as something between 2 and 4.000 people were frog-marched into the Plaza de Toros and systematically executed by firing squad. With the nationalists having won the war, no official investigation took place, and so there has never been an investigation of the kind that took place to bring those responsible for the similarly bloody Srebrenica massacre to justice. The 21st Century has seen the traditional bloodsport rejuvenated, with the city being home to one of the most celebrated modern bullfighters, Alejandro Talavante. However, for its connotations to the population, the old Bullring was left in disrepair and eventually destroyed, with Talavante plying his trade in the new, modern Plaza de Toros which was constructed in the latter days of Franco’s tenure. The site of the massacre was pulled down once and for all in 2000 to make way for the new Palácio de Congresos. The city is most associated, however, with the Alvarado family of conquistadores, the most famous of whom is Pedro, who was part of Hernán Cortés exploratory force in Mexico, and later played a leading role in the conquest of much of Central America, later becoming governor of Guatemala and later also of Honduras.



The stage begins outside the 13th-Century Catédral de San Juan Bautista, and is a typically short prologue of just over 3km in length. The Volta a Portugal tends to start with a prologue - it has done every year since 2007, so I see no reason to break from tradition considering as most of you are aware, I am not a fan of TTTs and a prologue is a nice way to open up small gaps early on, let the crowd see everybody, but not completely shoot the race apart on day 1 or risk everybody getting hurt in a sprint pileup. The riders will head down to Plaza del Pilar, before passing the dramatic modern Palácio de Congresos and circumnavigating the modern bullring. A left to the south of Parque de la Legión and then a right and then a second, shallower right onto Calle Joaquín Rojas Gallardo sets into motion the most interesting part of the prologue, a slightly technical stretch on cobbles and slightly uphill around the walls of the old bastion and the Alcazaba - which eagle-eyed linguists (and even most not-so-eagle-eyed ones) will obviously be able to recognise as being derived from the Arabic “al-Kasbah”. This then becomes Calle Castillo, through a left and then a right hander at the Torre de Espantaperros, a stylish 10th-Century watchtower that exemplifies the old Casbah and is a prominent example of military Islamic architecture of the era.



From here, we pass through a pink archway into Plaza Alta, one of Spain’s most beautiful and impressive squares, combining the functionality of middle-ages marketplaces with Islamic religious architecture, its network of painted archways make for an incredible sight and it will be great to see the riders emerging into the square, in that same sense of theatre that also greets riders into Piazza del Campo in Strade Bianche, or the emergence into the bullring in the 2012 Vuelta prologue in Pamplona.



I mean, who can argue with that for a bit of drama? Shortly after this, the riders turn right, head through the Puerta de Carros and finish within the walls of the Alcazaba. It’s only a 3km prologue so the gaps won’t be huge, but it’s a nice and scenic way to enjoy the Volta’s first trip to Spain in almost 20 years.
 
Stage 1: Olivença (ESP) - Proença-a-Nova, 181km





GPM:
Serra de São Mamede (cat.2) 6,7km @ 6,5%
Senhora da Peña Castelo do Vide (cat.3) 3,2km @ 6,0%
Serra de São Miguel (cat.3) 4,4km @ 4,0%
Alto da Vila Ruivas (cat.3) 3,4km @ 6,8%

No, that’s not a typo in the stage heading. The town of Olivenza, in westernmost Extremadura about 20km south of Badajoz, has an interesting history, and as a result this is perhaps the most experimental thing about my Volta design. I have tried to play positive with Realpolitik in a lot of my race designs over the years (for example, a Vuelta starting in Morocco just two after one which included a stage in Ceuta, or the entirety of the Tour of the Former Yugoslavia I did); I’m not married to the Olivenza stage start if it’s too problematic, but it likely wouldn’t be in modern cycling at least; if it is I’ll just start the stage either in Badajoz or back into Portugal in Elvas. Olivenza has only once recently hosted the Vuelta, in 2004, when it was the start of a fairly nondescript flat stage to Cáceres, but given we’re into week 3, the break was allowed to take the stage, with José Cayetano Julià winning ahead of Tadej Valjavec.



At this part of the border between Portugal and Spain, the Guadiana river forms the border, however from 1297 to 1801, Olivença and its outlying villages was a Portuguese village. It was in fact originally Portuguese, but then spent over a hundred years under Muslim control before being returned to Portugal. It was cut off from the rest of Portugal after Spanish forces destroyed the Ponte da Ajuda in 1709, and then during the Guerra de las Naranjas it was seized and occupied by the Spaniards in 1801. At the end of the war, under the Treaty of Badajoz, Spain returned all of its captured towns west of the Guadiana to Portugal but retained control of Olivenza. Over the coming years, they forbade Portuguese teaching, currency, and switched all administration into Español. Recapturing Olivença (I’m switching between the two names to reflect the different sides and opinions in the conflict, rather than accidental inconsistency) was one of the stated goals of the Portuguese in the conflict. It was a Portuguese demand at the Treaty of Vienna that “endeavouring” to return Olivenza to Portugal was part of the conciliatory efforts; when Spain eventually signed the treaty two years later, it was under the proviso that their interpretation was that this did not make the return of the towns mandatory; and when Portugal annexed Uruguay as part of the territorial disputes in South America, Spain withdrew once and for all from talks to return the town. The dispute was omitted entirely from the Treaty of Lisbon which only fixed the border until the crossing between Elvas and Badajoz, and it does periodically raise its head, however in recent times it has not been a sticking block between the Iberian nations; the Portuguese declared the Ponte da Ajuda a heritage monument, and in 2010 the Spanish restored the long-lost Portuguese street names. The new bridge next to the Ponte da Ajuda was built and paid for by the Portuguese, and doesn’t show a border sign like any other border crossing road in the European Union.

Anyway, we leave de facto Spanish territory over that new bridge after just 9km of the stage and immediately head into Elvas, a UNESCO World Heritage site for its perfectly-preserved trace italienne citadel. The most recent pro race to rock up into town was the 2005 Volta ao Alentejo, when Cândido Barbosa (who else?) took the win.



For the most part this is a mid-length rumbling stage of the kind we often see in the Volta a Portugal; it’s not quite a flat stage, but it’s not a hilly stage either. It’s going to see a reduced bunch, but it’s liable to end in a sprint - but there’s still enough complexity in the stage to mean that they’re going to have to work for their chance to settle it - and it won’t suit the powerhouse sprinters like Marcel Kittel either. Stages like this can end in big sprints, but also with the wild west tactics of the Volta they can also end like the 2010 opening road stage from Gouveia to Oliveira de Azemeis, which is not too dissimilar to this stage in profile in fact, and saw Palmeiras Resort (Tavira) grow frustrated with nobody helping them pace the bunch as they had to split their duties between Cândido’s sprint train and Blanco’s GC ambitions, and allowed lone breakaway Oleg Chuzhda to take a solo win with nearly 2 minutes’ advantage.

We are travelling through Portalegre district, so it makes sense to have an intermediate sprint in the capital of the region, while entails travelling into the scenic Serra do São Mamede area. This gives us the opportunity to take a quick detour in order to take in a couple of reasonably sized (for Southern Portugal) ascents, including a genuine cat.2. It also gives some good camera time while Marco Chagas recounts his ideas of what will happen in the stages to come in his usual laconic, but somewhat magnetic drawl. It just isn’t August without Chagas’ voice guiding you through it.



The second climb in the range is over toward Castelo de Vide, which will give us good views of the incredible scenic Marvão; I originally had a stage finish here in the first draft of this course, but balance put paid to it, besides, it meant the ensuing transfer was a little excessive.

After descending through Vide, however, the scenery begins to give way to more what we expect of Alentejo in August, that is to say straw-coloured fields and hot, exposed roads that will give us the usual fun of the early Volta. The final intermediate sprint comes in Nisa with 52km remaining, last seen in racing in 2009 in the Volta ao Alentejo when… you guessed it, Cândido Barbosa won the stage. At that point in time, Cândido won everything that was flat and you just begged for Manuel Cardoso to get a win here and there just to break up the monotony. We have another couple of small climbs - both cat.3 status - either side of our last true monumental site of the stage, the Portas de Rodão, which are enshrined as a natural monument. This geological formation is essentially a ridge of mountains which rapidly descend into the Tagus near Vila Velha do Rodão, producing a narrow fissure and a scenic location of natural beauty which is a slightly hidden gem of Portugal’s geography, nestled along the less populated eastern part of the Tagus’ path through the country and on the state borderline both historically (between Alentejo and Beira Baixa) and in present divisions (between Portalegre and Castelo Branco).



28km remain after the 3km, 7% climb out of the river’s northern shoreline, but they aren’t totally flat either. The road north to Proença-a-Nova is paved with those uncategorised low-gradient, high-attrition slopes that characterise a lot of Portuguese racing, with traditional sprinters marginalised in favour of the more adept at these kind of finishes. It’s a scene which favours both the more durable sprinter and the more nimble; there’s 3km at a little over 4% into Peral around 15km from the line, and then most of the last 15km are on a slight uphill - only at about 1-2%, but long enough to form a bit of an obstacle to the Kittels of this world. Or, to put it another way, the kind of rider who would have racked up the wins in the last decade if Portuguese races were World Tour would probably have been Michael Matthews. He can give a good account of himself in the sprints against the pure sprinters, but in the more complex finishes when the sprinters are also duking it out with the likes of Valverde and Alaphilippe… Matthews can still be there until the gradients get up to the Mur de Huy levels. And we aren’t going to see any of that in Proença-a-Nova.

Proença-a-Nova means “New Province”, but the town has so far defied a widely-accepted explanation for how it acquired that name. And believe it or not, it has never hosted the Volta, which usually hangs a right here to head toward Castelo Branco, or continues along the foothills of the Serra Lousã to Sertã, which hosted stage finishes in a road stage in 2011 (won by Jacob Rathe from a break of GC irrelevances which also featured a little-heralded unknown Barbot domestique called Raúl Alarcón, who would later go through a reinvention in his early 30s that made David Belda look like David Moncoutié), and a time trial in 2014, won by Gustavo César Veloso in the camisola amarela, ahead of Victor de la Parte and Stefan Schumacher. The last 2,2km average 4%, but this is very consistent and along a series of slight curves but no technical corners or anything. It definitely favours the bunch. At most, if the bunch is particularly aggressive and a lot of pure sprinters get burned off, it will be a finish a bit like Guarda in 2009, a much easier run-in than 2019's version and definitely easier than the one in years before that that went over the Alto da Torre. More realistically, though, the rolling nature of the course in the final few kilometres and the consistent low gradients means it’ll be more like the 2018 Portalegre stage, won in a sprint but by Vicente García de Mateos, or the 2015 Fafe stage won by Davide Vigano.

 
Great, another version of La Grandissima, sounds interesting.
Meanwhile here's a WC RR that takes place on the Southern hemisphere:

Wellington WC RR; 21.4km circuit




Men Elite 12 laps; 256.8km
Women Elite 7 laps; 153km
Men U23 8 laps; 171.4km
Men Junior 6 laps; 131.6km
Women Junior 4 laps; 85.6km

The race takes place in Wellington, the Capital of NZ, a town that is famous for being the worlds's windiest city with an average windspeed of 16.6 m/h or 26.7 km/h. That said, it's not always windy, but when it's windy there are really strong gusts of wind, therefore we get a high average windspeed.
When visiting the city my personal impression was that it's filled with waffle shop owning hipsters, but maybe I just got the wrong idea.


The race starts and finished on Wakefield Street in the central city.

After 1.2km of flat the first climb of the circuit already starts and it's the longest one. Brooklyn Road, 1.6km at 7% with ramps up to 12%. As yu can see it's a rather wide road, so it looks less steep than it actually is.
The following descent isn't technical at all, it's usually just a 2-3% gradient and no proper corners, so the group will have to work on the descent and the speeds will be absurdly high. The interesting thing is the sharp left turn after the descent, from here onwards until the start of next climb we're near the ocean and really exposed to wind from the South, if the wind is blowing it could get really hectic and this is the place where echolons could happen.
After that the riders will have to face a short Murito, Hungerford Road, 500m at 12.8%. It's a short all out effort that's gonna hurt in your legs. The following descent isn't that technical, but the 2nd part is really steep, apparently it's 300m at 18.1%, but it doesn't look that steep.
Now we have 2.5km of false flat, before the final hill of the day starts. It's Crawford Road, 600m at 6.7% on wide roads with 200m of false flat on top of the climb, so it's by far the easiest climb of the day.
From now on the riders will ride alongside th coastline with very little shelter for the final 6km of the circuit, but we're inside Evans Bay and Oriental Bay and I don't know how much of a factor the wind is inside those bays. The crucial part could be the turning point at Point Jenningham with 2.3km to go, it's another point where some echolons could happen (before the final lap).

We've got around 370m of altitude gain per lap, so 4,440m of altitude gain for the Men's Elite race, but the mayor ascents come durning the first half of the circuit, so the Ardennes specialists and climbers will have to attack earlier, their teams will have to make the race hard starting from a few laps before the final one. The combination of ascents is in my opinion really well balanced, I might even call it a triptych of shorter ascents. First comes the longest climb, then the steepest one and the final climb is really the easiest one. The steep one tops with 10.3km to go and the final 6km are flat and alongside the ocean, so the Ardennes specialists will have to attack early and the climbers like Nibali, who lack the punch and are at their best in a war of attrition, even earlier.
The daily high temprature at that time of the year is below 15 degrees and if the wind is blowing it could become a really hard race and the winner could be a proper hardman, someone like GVA who does well in a hard race, has a good sprint and can defend himself pretty well on the climbs could do really well, I feel that the first climb could be a bit long for the likes of MVP, if the climbers and there teams are willing to drop the hammer early on. Ala would probably be the big favourite, but guys lik remco and Formolo could also surprise people with a long range attack.
 
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That's a nicely-balanced course, and also back to the days of pretty long circuits rather than the shortish ones or the "long run-in then circuits" format that seems to be in vogue (Innsbruck an exception, but that was just long by necessity and was obviously a 'climber's worlds', whereas yours could give anything from a Geelong type race for a durable sprinter to a puncheur-a-thon.

Stage 2: Castelo Branco - Sabugal, 176km





GPM:
Miradouro da Portela Gardunha (cat.3) 5,5km @ 5,1%
Alto da Senhora do Pilar (cat.2) 2,9km @ 10,1%
Alto da Senhora do Pilar (cat.2) 2,9km @ 10,1%

Stage two sees us continuing up the eastern side of Portugal, starting at one of the Volta’s most established and traditional hosts, Castelo Branco. It was first introduced to the race in 1927, and has stayed faithful ever since. The first world-renowned name to succeed in the city was Dalmacio Langarica, in 1950, but once the race moved towards including major mountains with finishes closer to them, the fact that Castelo Branco is a good distance from major summits meant that the big GC men were not the major players in the city; instead it became a sprinters’ preserve, and for many years the biggest name to win in the city was Cândido Barbosa - because obviously it was. An interesting and different tonic came in 2006 when it hosted the final day of the race, a 40km ITT won by David Blanco who thereby wrested the final victory away from Carlos Pinho, who had been in the break in the Senhora da Graça stage and was a bit of a lame duck in the lead. Castelo Branco has also hosted the race start in 2012, when in a rare coup for non-Iberian teams Reinardt Janse van Rensburg won the prologue and took the jersey. From 2013 to 2016 it sat as a late-middle race stage option with rolling stages that resulted in sprints but not necessarily of typical sprinters, therefore stage winners have included Sergey Shilov, Edu Prades and Zé Gonçalves, but in recent years it has moved back toward the start of the race again, and it is this role that I include it in here.



Before it was a Volta a Portugal mainstay, Castelo Branco was the site of a Luso-Roman castle on the Colina de Cardosa hill, around which the city was built. This settlement fell into ruin, however, and the modern castle and city was built by the Knights’ Templar in the 13th Century. It is most famous for its immaculate baroque gardens and as the denomination of origin of the eponymous soft sheep’s or goat’s milk cheese which now has protected status within the EU.

It isn’t especially far to head from Castelo Branco to today’s destination of Sabugal, but that doesn’t mean we’re heading that way. Instead, we have a bit of a looping route heading to the east, descending into a lower basin, before crossing the Rio Ponsul and climbing (!) up to our first intermediate sprint in Idanha-a-Nova. This would actually be a reasonable cat.3 climb - 2,2km at 7% - so this could be really interesting from the perspective of it only coming 36km into the stage. Would the GC men think of persuading their team to control it and fight out this intermediate sprint? Maybe not, but maybe… Idanha-a-Nova had a period of being en vogue in the Volta, hosting a stage start every year from 2006 (the TT to Castelo Branco) to 2010 (the Alto da Torre MTF which was abbreviated by fires); however in the decade since then it hasn’t been seen. It’s also the host of the Boom Festival. In fact, this same ascent was categorised in the 2014 Volta, when it featured on a stage from Sabugal to Castelo Branco, so the exact opposite of mine here today.



We then loop back westward, toward Fundão, and add a further - and this time categorised - climb (longer but not that steep), then there is a rolling 40km or so before we head into our closing circuit, which is a long, long loop of 45 kilometres, which we do one and a half laps of. Instead of heading up on the N233 after crossing the Ribeira da Meimoa (symbolising the transition from Beira Baixa to Beira Alta in older times, but a few kilometres away from the new border between Castelo Branco and Guarda provinces), we instead stay in the valley of the river for an uncategorized two-stepped climb, first up to the Barragem da Meimoa, and then into the foothills of the Serra da Malcata, a nature reserve that runs through the lower foothills of this western part of the Sistema Central, the penultimate range before the final range, which contains the Serra Lousã and the Serra da Estrela. This uncategorised ascent consists of around 1700m at 4%, then a kilometre of flat, and then 1300m at 6% before a descent into the village of Meimão (not to be confused with Meimoa, at the base of the other side of the climb!!!). And then, we have something nasty for the riders.

Sabugal came to the Volta a Portugal party late, first appearing as a host in 2011 when it hosted the start of a difficult TT into Guarda which was won by Ricardo Mestre, underpinning his triumph that year. This same TT was reprised 2 years later when it was similarly instrumental in Alejandro Marque’s triumph, with him just overcoming teammate Gustavo César Veloso who in turn had just overcome Rui Sousa to take the virtual GC lead. In 2014 and 2018 it hosted the start of sprint stages won by Sergey Shilov and Riccardo Stacchiotti respectively. But in 2012, for the one and only time to date, Sabugal was a host of a finish, in an interesting looking stage which was won from the break by the unluckiest man in cycling, Kai Reus.



As you can see, it included the punchy but not super-threatening climb of Sortelhã, but rather reduced its impact with a rolling 38km circuit. Sortelhã was made much more effective when the city appeared in the Volta do Futuro in 2017, which included Penhas Douradas as well as a longer version of Sortelhã which, thanks to the wonders of not including a pointless circuit à la Foix 2012, was now only 12km from the finish and able to play a role in the race, with Cyril Barthe winning the stage as part of a three-man-group that took a small lead to the line, also including race leader José Fernandes, a gifted climber who had won on the brutal São Macário climb the previous day and now rides for Burgos-BH.



But interesting though that may be, Sortelhã is only 4,6km at 5,7%, with the final 2,4km at 8%. It’s punchy, but it’s not going to be super decisive. A few kilometres southeast of this, we’re taking on something a bit nastier - the Alto da Nossa Senhora do Pilar is a bit shorter but the gradients are more serious; it’s like somebody squashed Sortelhã into a space only 2/3 the distance… it is 2,9km in length and, in pure Mende style, it averages 10%, with the final 1700m averaging a pretty consistent 13%.





Oh, and the distance to the line is 1/3 shorter, too - just 8,3km between the summit and the finishing line, although with the long circuit that means that firstly, 50km or so remain the first time over Senhora do Pilar, and secondly, most of the action will happen in the last 10-12km. There’s no real ‘descent’ per se, though; instead we have a sort of vague sauntering downhill on a straights road, before a technical and slightly uphill run-in borrowed from that 2012 stage. You can see a small amount of the run-in in this short summary video. The finishing circuit is long, definitely, but I didn’t want a stage of only around 130km at this point, and any circuit in Sabugal shorter than this will only serve to make the climb less effective. With a climb that opens up Montée Laurent Jalabert-style time gaps but crucially is not directly at the finish but giving enough time to chase back on or for groups to form, this will create an interesting early dynamic, whereas other attempts that the Volta has had to break things up in the early stages have struggled somewhat, such as the Santo Tirso stages that finish on Monte Assunção - these create some interesting battles when they come after the first MTF and there are gaps to be chased down and time to win and lose, but when everybody’s legs are fresh it ends up being a sprint at the top of the climb; not so here, there’s no choice for that with Senhora do Pilar, because we’ve got to descend into Sabugal first.



Sabugal is a pretty small city for a stage host, with only around 3.000 in the city proper, although the municipality and outlying suburbs quadruple that. It is most famous for its castle, built in the 12th Century and reinforced 200 years later, and also in much more recent times as the birthplace of film director Joaquim Sapinho, who came to my attention for the Bosnia Diaries, a first-person documentary of his experiences in Bosnia in the immediate aftermath of conflict. As somebody who was fascinated by and rather fell in love with Sarajevo when I visited, this was an engrossing documentary that I came to several years after what had already been an oft-delayed release as the film was very much a labour of love type of production for Sapinho.

After two times up Senhora do Pilar, it’s not quite so interesting perhaps as my final stage circuit race in Sarajevo when I did the Trka Kroz Bivšu Jugoslaviju, but this is early in the race still - and after this one, we might just know who won’t be contending for the win, at least…
 
Not too much to do in these covid-19 times, especially when the weather is 5 degrees celius, rain and a chilling wind. So perhaps I shoud post some of the tours I have created a long time ago, but not yet found the time or energy to post here. It's actually several of them, three one week tours, one fully finished grand tour and one partially finished grand tour. We'll start with the one week tours and do them in chronological order according to the race calendar. First the race to the sun, Paris-Nice:

Paris - Nice: Stage 1: Fotainebleau - Bourges, 188 km:

The race starts just south of Paris, in the forrested commune of Fontainebleau, once a residence for the French kings and now a Unesco world heritage site. The place was originally a retreat and a hunting lodge for the royal family an nobility, before building of and expansions of big Chateau in the forrest made it a residence for the French royal familiy in the summer months.

But this time the area is location for the start of the Paris-Nice. The race starts with a pretty straightforward sprinter's stage. From Fontainebleau, they head pretty much south and slightly southeast the entire day. First through the forrest area surrounding the starting town, then through large areas of agricultural land, before again crossing through forrests just north of Bourges, capital of the Cher department and also home of a cathedral on the Unesco world heritage list. The whole stage is more or less flat, and there are no categorized climbs. These will almost certainly end in a mass sprint with the best sprinters battling it out.

Profile:


Map:
 
Agreed, Olav, that's kind of what I'm doing here, clearing a bit of the backlog, or at least putting the written summaries to the existing race framework.

Stage 3: Guarda - Mondim de Basto (Alto de Nossa Senhora da Graça), 192km





GPM:
Alto de Trancoso (cat.3) 9,5km @ 4,1%
Alto de São Lourenço (cat.3) 3,6km @ 6,2%
Alto da Quintela (cat.1) 10,7km @ 6,1%
Alto de Nossa Senhora da Graça (cat.1) 11,2km @ 6,3%

Yup, on the first Saturday we’re already going to the icon.

But before we get there, there’s a whole stage to get through. Although it’s not as difficult as a lot of the stages we’ve seen to Monte Farinha - except in an era of comparatively disappointing stages there that ended up Unipuerto effectively in the mid-2010s - there is a very deliberate stylistic choice in this stage which will become apparent as the race continues.

The stage begins in the city of Guarda, which is the highest altitude city in Portugal, being at over 1000m above sea level. Established as a city in the late 12th Century on the site of an earlier Celtiberian settlement when the Pope granted Rei Sancho I the right to transfer the Idanha-a-Velha diocesan centre to the town, it has grown to a high-point of 50.000 people in the mid-20th century, though it is declining at present, having stabilised its population at around 42.000. Its position on a hill perched on the northern shoulder of the Serra da Estrela made it an important strategic position and its castle and bastion made it a strong town through Portuguese military history, although its cathedral, the Sé da Guarda, remains its main tourist attraction.



Its location also, of course, makes it prime cycle race hosting material, and as a result it has become one of the hubs of Portuguese cycling, dating all the way back to the first Volta in 1927. Of course, Portugal is a much smaller country in terms of land area than the three GT nations, so it is inevitable that in running a race of sometimes up to 3 weeks’ duration through it, a level of repetition is going to happen, but nevertheless. The stage was one of 8 won by Quirino de Oliveira in that inaugural Volta, and was also the last - he won 8 of the first 10 stages then dropped away significantly to finish 3rd overall. The tendency in the early days for mountain stages into Guarda meant a few KOMs won here, such as Fernando Moreira in 1947, João Rebelo, one of the first Portuguese riders to play a starring role overseas when he contended for the win in the Vuelta in the late 40s, Fernando Sá, João Alves, Adelino Teixeira in 1977, and then into the modern era.

Through the 90s, Guarda was often left off the route, and apart from appearing as the departure town for the queen stage in 2000 (Vitor Gamito won atop the Alto da Torre), it was then absent until 2006. Since then, though, the city has been almost ever-present in the Volta, with a mixture of hilly stages for durable sprinters, puncheur finales, race-settling time trials and high mountain specials. It also held a short-lived U23 stage race over three days, and hosted a stage start in the Vuelta a Castilla y León, somewhat bizarrely, in 2015, in a stage which featured a duration of 208km of which 207 were in Portugal (go figure). 2009 gives you an example of the uphill sprint variety, with Barbosa winning ahead of pre-Vini Fantini Mauro Santambrogio and Danail Petrov, while 2011 and 2013 give you the TTs mentioned in the previous stage. In 2016, a high mountain stage was introduced featuring Guarda as the destination of the Torre stage, which was fine enough, as W52 imploded with phone war with Gustavo César Veloso forced to subordinate his desire to win a third Volta in a row thanks to the success of teammate Rui Vinhas in defending a lead granted in an escape earlier. But in 2017, we got something else. Something truly special - because somebody had, somehow, some way, manage to hi-jack the broadcast to show us complete high-definition footage of Tabriz Petrochemical Team slaughtering the Asia Tour, or the Rojas Brothers’ obliteration of the national péloton in Costa Rica, where they ride away en bloc with 80km to go and just keep on gaining time, only with the protagonists’ names changed to Raúl Alarcón and Amaro Antunes, and an actual European mostly professional péloton being dismantled like this. It was enough for even the hardcore aficionados of Portuguese cycling, who’ve had to suspend their disbelief countless times, to baulk. This was the kind of thing that made Emanuele Sella’s 2008 Giro look like Tombak and Moncoutié in the Cofidis dressing room.

What has been seen… cannot be unseen!

Either way, this is a fairly lengthy stage which sees us heading for the Douro’s meandering path through northern Portugal, and into the mountains of the north, as the Macizo Galaica extends into Trás-os-Montes. That means a gradual downhill for the first 10km, which will mean it will probably be a high pace and difficult to establish a break until we drop into the plateau, so it may well be on the categorised, but gradual ascent into Trancoso that the breakaway is formed. The main urban establishment in this early part of the stage will be Moimenta da Beira, which hosted the start of a stage of the 2010 Volta won by José João Mendes. Here, it is home to our first intermediate sprint.

When I first drew up this stage there was a tougher loop around Lamego, focusing on the Alto da Santa Helena at Tarouca, which has been used as an MTF in smaller races in Portugal and was mooted as the replacement for Senhora da Graça when I seemed like the mighty Farinha might not be accessible for A Grandíssima in the early 2010s, having been seen a couple of times in the Volta in the 1990s. However, you can’t climb all the way up AND down on tarmac, and cutting off half of the climb rendered it a pointless detour that made the stage overlong especially considering the finish. So instead we have a small cat.3 climb to the east of Lamego, and then a long, sweeping, largely non-technical but with a couple of significant switchbacks descent into Peso da Régua, before a stretch of flat terrain as we roll along the Douro vineyards.



We emerge out of the banks of the river via a cat.1 climb which is surprisingly little known to the Volta, the Alto da Quintela. At 10,7km @ 6,1% this is a legit cat.1 ascent which is effectively two-parted - 3km at 5,5%, a flat kilometre, and then a final just shy of 7km at 7,5%. It’s a useful little build-up climb to put some pain in the legs before we head to Senhora da Graça.

Only one problem with that: it’s 60km from the finish.

There are a good few climbs that, over the years, have served as the backbone of a Senhora da Graça stage prior to Mondim de Basto. Here’s a gallery of a sample of Mondim de Basto stages in recent years:

2014 via Alvão
2015 via Alvão
2018 via Barra + Barreiro

The Alto do Barreiro climb is a relatively recent discovery, only being added to the race in the last couple of years. Historically, three climbs have stood out as the main lead-in. These are the Alto do Viso (the first 9,2km, then detour into Reno and descend gradually into Mondim de Basto), the Alto Campanhó, also known as Alto do Velão or occasionally Alto da Barra, which entails a bit of a loop around Mondim de Basto (it also has a harder side but that means that there’s only about a 15km loop around Ermelo so they don’t tend to risk this) - this is 13km or so at 5,5%, but can be cut off after the first 9 if desired; and finally, and most commonly, the classic - and part-cobbled - Barragem do Alvão, which has broken up many an edition of the Volta.

The general rule of thumb is that the later in the race Senhora da Graça comes, the more difficult the lead-in. In 2008, a stage from Fafe to the mythical climb saw an opening cat.2 climb, before climbing Monte do Viso, descending into Mondim de Basto, and then climbing Campanhó, descending into Vila Real, and then climbing Alvão before descending to the final climb. The stage - won by Juan José Cobo - was complete carnage with Rui Sousa capitulating after having taken the camisola amarela on a big breakaway in the Torre stage. Héctor Guerra did everything he could but while he could rein in David Blanco, he couldn’t break him, and the former Kelme man had too much time in hand for Héctor to overcome in the final time trial. It was the closest Guerra ever came to the Volta, a heartbreak after the previous year he was well-positioned to set up a three-way ITT battle for the win on the final day, but the team called him back and sacrificed him to Cândido Barbosa on the Alto da Torre - although much as I had been a Guerra fan, I couldn’t feel too bad because Xavi Tondó was the man who took the overall win in that final TT battle, and everybody is already well aware I was a big Tondó supporter.


But here… not one of those three climbs. Instead, we have a rolling stretch including an intermediate sprint in Amarante, a UNESCO-inscribed city of music, and with a cult popularity for its… erm… interestingly-shaped traditional pastries. We also pass through Celorico de Basto, a neighbouring town to Mondim on the other side of the Tâmega, which is the base of the Alto do Viso and is also one of those cities that, despite the best efforts of Carnation Revolution activist Rodrigo Lopes de Sousa e Castro, is still most famous for a fictitious inhabitant, João da Ega, student associate and best friend of Carlos da Maia, main protagonist of Eça de Queiros’ Os Maias, Portugal’s greatest novel and a long-time compulsory study text for Portuguese children.

I could have done the same stage as 2015 from Peso da Régua, going to Vila Real and then over Barragem do Alvão. But I’ve actually taken inspiration from a pretty poor Senhora da Graça stage design - the ones from 2011 and 2012 - because of what I want from this stage.

Time spreads of Senhora da Graça climbs in the last 10 Voltas:

2010 (David Blanco): Top 10 52”. Top 20 2’08”
2011 (Hernâni Broco): Top 10 26”. Top 20 1’06”
2012 (Rui Sousa): Top 10 27”. Top 20 55”
2013 (Sérgio Pardilla): Top 10 35”. Top 20 1’43” (including Vladislav Gorbunov)
2014 (Edgar Pinto): Top 10 16”. Top 20 1’08”
2015 (Filipe Cardoso): Top 10 25”. Top 20 1’12”
2016 (Gustavo César Veloso): Top 10 1’02”. Top 20 2’31”
2017 (Raúl Alarcón): Top 10 42”. Top 20 1’44”
2018 (Raúl Alarcón): Top 10 58”. Top 20 2’38”
2019 (Antônio Carvalho): Top 10 48”. Top 20 3’11”

In the last two, the stage was relocated to the end of the race but apart from one edition when it was stage 3 like it is here, the rest were all on the first Sunday of the race (Stage 4). Notice how in 2014-15 there are pretty small gaps but apart from that there are really clear gaps between the spread of the field in 2011-12 on the less difficult stages and on the others where they include either Campanhó, Alvão, or both. I don’t want to completely blow up the field here because there are other stages for that to come, but how could I skip this?

The other thing is that this route makes it easier for me to arrive in Mondim de Basto to travel through the town, rather than having to take that somewhat awkward detour through industrial back roads, or taking the longer southern route from Bilhó to Mondim de Basto via Ermelo, because you have to travel through the centre of Mondim for the final intermediate sprint, because this is probably the most iconic sight of all of the Volta. For many years it felt like the race only truly started when the riders arrived in Mondim, because that was where the crowds turned this from being a somewhat-better-produced-than-usual 2.1 continental race too “oh my God, this is the Volta a Portugal and this is a really big deal”. It is always a special moment in the race when they arrive in Mondim.



From here, though, you know the drill. Everybody knows the drill. Everybody that’s seen the Volta a Portugal knows what’s coming, and of course the race could not be without its most iconic summit, its most mythical finish, the mountain which has the mythos far exceeding its actual difficulty, and whose role in the race is pure history. The Alto da Senhora da Graça is to the Volta a Portugal what Alpe d’Huez is to the Tour de France, what Lagos de Covadonga is to the Vuelta a España, what the Santuário de Arrate is to the Vuelta al País Vasco, the Alto de Los Patios in Colombia, Lagunas de Neila in Burgos, the Trouée d’Arenberg in Paris-Roubaix, the Madonna del Ghisallo in Lombardia. It is not the hardest climb in the race, it is not always the decisive climb in the race (in fact, it tends not to be these days), but if you’re only going to win one stage in the Volta, this is the one you want to win.



Torre was long used in the Volta before Mondim, but until the ski resort was completed it didn’t host finishes. Penhas da Saúde has been used as a MTF before Senhora da Graça was introduced, but it has been superseded by Torre and so its inclusion since has been sporadic. Senhora da Graça was brought into the Volta in 1978, so between Alpe d’Huez’ reintroduction in 1976 and the Vuelta’s discovery of Los Lagos in 1983. João Costa was the first man to win on these hallowed slopes, a forgotten but talented climber who retired young and died in 1987 at the age of just 32. The following year the climb’s legacy was cemented as Marco Chagas became the first man to take the win at Senhora da Graça and take the GC victory. Of course he later lost that win to Joaquim Silva after a positive test, but the status was cemented nonetheless.

1980’s stage was cancelled, but then the stage was moved toward the end of the race for 1981, and carved out its niche. It was omitted in 1982, but returned in 1983 with Venceslau Fernandes victorious and Manuel Cunha the following year, lending it a ‘kingmaker’ reputation as winners on Monte Farinha would later go on to win the race (Chagas after 1979 becoming the record winner of course, Fernandes in 1984 and Cunha in 1987). Chagas, after being docked his 1979 victory, sixyears later became the first man to win Senhora da Graça AND the Camisola Amarela, a feat repeated by Cássio Freitas in 1992, Massimo Lelli in 1996, Zenon Jaskuła in 1997, David Blanco in 2010, and Raúl Alarcón in both 2017 and 2018. Gustavo César Veloso won the 2016 stage with a monstrous acceleration, but Rui Vinhas’ escape the previous day meant he held on to the jersey and Gustavo didn’t join this merry band.

Similarly, while David Blanco won the climb in 2010, his acceleration in 2009 was even more impressive, but the escape of Nuno Ribeiro (later DQed for doping) and João Cabreira was well up the road so despite one of the most absurd mountain accelerations of all time (the riders he leaves standing include Tiago Machado, who would then be signed to Radioshack and be one of their best riders in 2010, and he catches and immediately drops Rubén Plaza, who would subsequently return to the top level the next year and spend a decade among World Tour names, finishing 11th in the Tour de France the following year). You can see this at 8:25 of the below video.


Other notable winners on the mythical summit include Joaquim Gomes, who was the reigning champion when he won on the summit in 1990 and has been for several years the Volta’s race director; Carlos Moreira who won twice on the climb in the 80s without troubling the GC podium; Claus Michael Møller, who won on Monte Farinha in 2000 and won the GC two years later; longtime ProTour stalwart Joan Horrach (who took the yellow jersey and only lost it to Møller in the final day ITT); David Arroyo, probably the (second) most famous of the winners on the Alto da Senhora da Graça, and as of last year the one with the best Grand Tour result, having finished 2nd in the 2010 Giro d’Italia in one of the greatest nearly stories of all time (in your face, Jaskuła!) - however until recently he had been surpassed by Juan José Cobo, whose team were barred from the 2008 Vuelta and after being withdrawn from Le Tour following multiple doping infractions, procured new sponsors and targeted the Volta leading to his win on Senhora da Graça; he of course had a tumultuous up-and-down career, the highlight of which was being the winner of the 2011 Vuelta a España, until his being quietly erased from history for biopassport violations restored Arroyo to the peak of GC results for Senhora da Graça victors. There’s also Sérgio Pardilla, who got a start in the Italian ProConti scene as a late bloomer before carving out a niche as a mountain domestique at a top team, followed by a second lease of life as a ninja at Caja Rural; Adolfo García Quesada who looked like a coming man in the mid-2000s, and João Cabreira, who was a low-level Mick Rogers/Andreas Klöden kind of teflon, being involved in the LA-MSS scandal, being suspended for sample-tampering and then exonerated allowing him to ride the 2009 Volta where he and Nuno Ribeiro got away on Alvão and did a deal on Senhora da Graça, before he served part of a suspension before an early return to win the national title a year later.

In recent years it’s been a bit of a who’s who of Portuguese cycling, either the comical late bloomers out of Spain (hello Balarcón), or at least riders who have bloomed late in Portugal but had an actual pretty decent palmarès before (hello César), or the Portuguese home hopes, from the relatively well-reputed (Hernâni Broco) to the… well… heroes of Portuguese cycling (Chris Horner). Quality young and young-ish Portuguese climbers like João Rodrigues and Amaro Antunes have yet to carve their legacy into Monte Farinha, but 2019’s stage felt like a changing of the guard, with Carvalho winning ahead of Rodrigues and Joni Brandão, leaving ageing dopers like João Benta trailing behind. Brandão is the big omission from the winner’s list here - he finished alongside durable sprinter Filipe Cardoso who just held on from the break, putting in a time he had no business doing against a heads of state group which was also putting in a time they had no business doing, in 2015.

There is no immediate lead-in climb to Monte Farinha today. The riders will have a bit of difficulty on Quintela, sure, but their legs should have freshened up by Mondim unless they let some people that shouldn’t be allowed in the break into the break. And then it’d be a mad chase to the base of the final climb. Which can’t necessarily be a bad thing. There should be about a minute between 1st and 20th here, so plenty of people will still be in contention afterward, but this should be a turbo festival. The gradients are not so steep that riders can’t force the tempo, but they’re not shallow enough that a real climber can’t make a difference. This is a tough old climb. 11km at 6% doesn’t quite show how it ramps up, while 8km @ 7,5% doesn’t make it sound as tough as it is. There’s a couple of ramps of up to 15%, and the penultimate kilometre is at 9,6%. It will probably be that penultimate kilometre where the differences are made, leaving ample time for the riders to put a hellish pace forward and try to see how far up the line they can drag themselves in the Subiendo Como una Moto awards, where the Volta on Senhora da Graça frequently flies the flag for non-WT racing. It’s not that dissimilar in profile to Verbier, so you know, maybe that’s where we should look for inspiration? This is an icon, so it deserves some iconic performances.



 
Stage 2: Moulins - Clermont-Ferrand, 174 km:

Stage 2, and it's time for the first test for the contenders who want to fight in the GC. The riders have transfered from Bourges to Moulins for the start of the stage, and from Moulins they head south towards the Massif Central. The first part of the stage is a bit more lumpy than stage 1, but still pretty easy. The first categorized climb starts after about 119 kms when they peloton have reached the outskirts of the Massif Central and the Auvergne Regional Nature Park.

After descending from Luzet, they continue south towards Clermont Ferrand, but just before reaching the city the riders turn right onto Rue de Cheval and the short, but very steep climb to Col du Chevalard. It's also a narrow road and not the best condition of the surface, so this should be a real first test. After climbing and descending, they loop around north and back to the climb once again, tackling it for a second time. From the top of the climb the second time, there is a short descent to the stage finish in Clermont Ferrand.



Climbs:
123 km: Luzet: 4,3 km, 6,3 %
148 km: Col du Chevalard: 1,7 km, 10,9 %
168 km: Col du Chevalard: 1,7 km, 10,9 %

Profile:


Map:
 
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Stage 3: Clermont Ferrand - Villefranche Sur Saone, 198 km:

After the two first stages headed in a southern direction, the riders now turns east and heads for the Saone valley in a fairly classic Massif Central breakaway stage. From the start in Clermont Ferrand, the first 40 km is pretty flat before a uncategorized climb of 4-5 km at 3-5 %. This is followd by a some km of false flat, before the first real climb of the stage starts after 57 km. This is probably the toughest climb of the stage, and a breakway is probably formed before the climb.

After a fairly long and gradual descent, they head directly into the second climb of the stage, La Mataude. After descending from this, there is a long section of flat terrain, before starting the more decisive part of the stage. First with Col du Pavillion and followd by an uncategorized climb right after this. After a long descent, the last climb to Croix Rosier starts after about 174 km. This could be possible point to attack with just over 20 km left of the stage, first a 7-8 km descent followed by 15 km flat to Villefranche.

Climbs:
64 km: Col de la Charme: 6,9 km, 7,2 %
86 km: La Mataude: 5,5 km, 5,1 %
145 km: Col du Pavillon: 4,9 km, 4,3 %
174 km: Col de la Croix Roiser: 3,5 km, 6,6 %

Profile:


Map:
 
Stage 4: Macon - Amberieu en Bugey, 175 km

From Massif Central in stage 3, the peloton heads for the Jura Mountains in stage 4. The first half of the stage from the start in Macon and eastwards is mostly flat. Then, just before halfway, the peloton cross the Ain river and the profile changes completely. There is hardly any flat sections in the last half of the stage, and a total of 5 categorized climbs, typically 5-9 km long and 5-6 % gradient. Not the longest or steepest climbs in the Jura, but the total amount of climbing on the stage should make a real test.

After the first climb to Berthiand, the riders turns south and desends before starting the second climb of the day, to Col du Cendrier. When descending from Cendrier, the riders pass just by the finish town of Amberieu en Bugey, but instead of heading straight for the finish, there is still over 50 km left. First they loop east to climb Col des Evoges, then south for Col du Aranas. After about 160 km, they are once again on the main road heading for Amberieu, but there is still one last climb to tackle, to Mont Luisandre just north of the finish town before descending to the stage finish.

Climbs:
89 km: Col du Berthiand: 5,8 km, 7,8 %
112 km: Col du Cendrier: 9,1 km, 4,7 %
134 km: Col des Evoges: 8,7 km, 6,1 %
151 km: Col du Arandas: 7,7 km, 4,9 %
167 km: Mont Luisandre: 5,1 km, 5,9 %

Profile:


Map:

 
Stage 5: Lyon - Lyon, 26 km ITT

The ITT of this version of PN, and it is ridden in Lyon and the city's surrounding hills. From the start in Lyon, the route heads north and then east over the hills of Mont d'Or and Mont Thoux just north of Lyon. First a 5 km, 5 % climb here before descending towards the city and doing another short climb of 1,5 km, 5 % on the way to the stage finish.

Climbs:
Mont d'Or: 5 km 5,3 %

Profile:



Map:
 
Stage 6: Romans Sur Isere - La Mure, 166 km

Now it's time for the only uphill finish in this Paris-Nice. The peloton have transfered a bit south, to Romans Sur Isere where the stage starts. From here they move eastwards into the Vercors mountains, a very scenic area perhaps a bit underutilized in the big cycling events, especially the Tour and Criterium Dauphine. In this PN they are first climbing towards the village of Port en Royans and then riding at the higher altitude at the northers outskirts of the Vercors, passing Villard de Lans and descending through Saint Nizier du Moucherotte towards Grenoble.

Just before reaching Grenoble they turn south and and head into the Vercors again, this time at the eastern edges of the area. The first climb is also the longest, and the highest point of this PN, to Col de l'Arzelier. They continue south and then east over another couple of climbs before turning off the main road towards the small village of La Mure.

Just after crossing the Drac river, the climbs towards the stage finish starts. It's short, but very steep, and on narrow and poor roads. The categorized part is only 3 km, but with an average gradient of almost 10 %. And the climb continues as a false flat the last 2,5 km to the stage finish in La Mure. Perhaps a perfect stage for a rider like Alaphillipe?

Climbs:
119 km: Col de l'Arezelier: 11,1 km, 6,9 %
130 km: Alt de Saint Guillaume: 3 km, 6,1 %
150 km: Col de Cornillon: 5,5 km, 6,3 %
163,5 km: La Mure: 2,9 km, 9,6 %

Profile:


Map:

 
Stage 7: Carpentras - Frejus, 213 km:

A rather easy stage giving the GC contenders a chance to regain some strength before the last stage in Nice. From Carpentras just south of Mont Ventoux, the peloton move southeast towards the Mediterranean. Just before halfway, the they pass the two only climbs of the day. The last 100 km is more or less flat, giving the sprinters another chance to win a stage when they arrive the finish town of Frejus at the Mediterranean coast.

Climbs:
85 km: Col de Montfuron: 5,1 km, 4 %
104 km: Col de Manosque: 4,2 km, 4,7 %

Profile:


Map:
 
Stage 8: Nice - Nice, 140 km:

Last stage, and it's the classic hilly stage both starting and ending in Nice, but this time it's one of the far tougher versions. The stage starts in a pretty standard way, where the peloton rides northwest from Nice, before turning east and over the back-to-back climbs of Chateaneuf and Calaison which are climbed from the same side in most versions of PN.

After Calaison they start to climb towards Col de Peille, which is the same as the "standard route" for the classic Nice stage. But instead of descending towards Nice after Peillie, they continue to Col de la Madone and then descend to Menton. From Menton they continue just outside the border to Monaco and start the La Turbie climb from the western approach. After descending the southern route, they immediately start the most classic of all Paris-Nice climbs, to Col d'Eze.

Usually, Eze would be the last climb and they would finish the race after the descent to Nice. But this time they descend almost all the way to sea level at Villefranche sur Mer, before starting the ascent to Quatre Chemins via some narrow and steep city streets. This ascent is significantly steeper than the side used in PN the last few years, and should provide a real last test for the GC contenders.

Climbs:
27 km: Cote de Chateauneuf: 4,2 km, 5,4 %
42 km: Col de Calaison: 6,5 km, 6 %
70 km: Col de la Madone: 11,5 km, 6,1 %
98 km: La Turbie: 6,7 km, 5,9 %
113 km: Col d'Eze: 6,8 km, 6,4 %
130 km: Col des Quatre Chemins: 2,9 km, 9,6 %

Profile:


Map:
 
Stage 4: Fafe - Santuário do São Bento da Porta Aberta, 185km





GPM:
Portela de Leonte (cat.1) 12,0km @ 5,8%
Porta do Mezio (Alto Soajo)(cat.2) 10,1km @ 5,1%
Alto de Danaia (cat.1) 5,5km @ 9,6%
Miradouro Mixões da Serra (cat.1) 5,2km @ 8,8%
Campos Abades (Alto de Santa Isabel)(cat.1) 9,1km @ 7,3%

For Sunday’s primetime stage, we have a bit of innovation as we take on some of the unheralded, unknown climbs of Portugal’s north, utilising the Peneda-Gerês national park and its dramatic scenery. There’s still a good bit more that could be discovered this far north in the country, but I’ve stayed within certain bounds. The Volta has historically not used too much of this terrain, even in recent years, although some of the cities around here are regular hosts. None more so than the stage’s starting point, Fafe.



Fafe was first introduced to the Volta in 1938, but was only sporadically used as a host for a long time. It wouldn’t be back until 1963, for example, and then after three stage in the 60s, it was then a city out of vogue with the Volta all the way until 2001, when the race’s penultimate stage finished in town with Unai Yes victorious. It was, however, a common host of the GP do Minho, incepted in 1977, which travelled around this part of the country providing the kind of use of the north of the country that the Volta itself lacked. These smaller Portuguese races sometimes got decent fields, and that is reflected in that somebody like Pablo Lastras, who never rode for anybody other than Abarcá in a 20-year career, won a stage in Fafe in 2000, and other recognisable pro names from the kind of level of teams not normally present in August, like Josep Jufré and Janek Tombak won during that era. That race died off at the pro level after that, however, and it was left to the Volta. But Fafe had got the cycling bug, and soon became an ever-present as either a stage start or finish in the Volta. Ángel Edo, Adolfo García Quesada, Ricardo Mestre, António Piedra, Cesar Fonte, Délio Fernández, Davide Vigano, Francesco Gavazzi and Rui Sousa have all won road stages into town, while the city has also hosted two prologues, in 2011 (won by Hugo Sabido) and 2014 (won by Victor de la Parte) and one race-ending final TT, in 2018 (won by Vicente García de Mateos, but not by anything like enough to overcome his deficit to Balarcón). The undisputed king of Fafe, however, is Cândido Barbosa, who has won stages to Fafe no fewer than four times.


Cândido shows off his typical climber’s physique

Fafe is not far from Mondim de Basto and frequently hosts the start of stages to Senhora da Graça as a result. Here we are once again including it as the host of a mountain stage, but it’s a very different one. Stages in and around Fafe tend to be hilly affairs, despite the number of wins for sprinters like Vigano and Barbosa. They’ve got more interesting in recent years, starting with this stage which actually goes close to where we’re going today and does a better example of showcasing what we’re doing than most Volta stages in this region; more recently we got some real intrigue mixing genuine mountains with the discovery made in that previous stage (the hybrid was this badass 2017 stage) - which was related to Fafe’s other sporting heritage - as the host of a stage of the Rally de Portugal, meaning we got some real sterrato climbing.



While we don’t use any sterrato today, this stage profile perhaps gives us a better idea than most of what to expect from my Fafe stage. It’s definitely something that is potentially decisive and could leave all manner of different outcomes on the table until very late in the day. This should be fun.

The early part of the stage is a rolling, undulating trip - actually a fairly sizeable ascent to Serzadel, but only at an average of 3% so I’ve not categorised it - before descending to the banks of the Cávado river. We actually pass by just 3km away from the stage finish, but do not overlap the path of the stage later, just 34km in, at the network of widenings around Admeus and Raposeira.



From here, it’s a trip northwards, on a very underused climb in both the Volta and the Vuelta, the Portela do Leonte. In fact, I don’t think it’s ever been used in either. Can’t trace any stages that use it, though that doesn’t mean it wasn’t used early or mid stage at some point way back when in the Volta if they went into and out of Spain as I’m doing here. Its proximity to the border is probably a reason for that, in fact - it’s very much a classic cat.1-sized climb, being as it is 12km @ 5,8% with a steepest kilometre averaging 9,5%, a good length and a wide road. And for good measure, part of it is cobbled! The issue is that its summit lays 5,7km from the border with no side roads enabling you to take any other option but to press on toward Spanish soil, and there isn’t enough room at the summit for a finish; you could finish at the neighbouring summit of the Portela do Homem, named for a scenic nearby waterfall. It’s just a short dig just afterward, and forms a sort of partner-summit rather like Soulor and Aubisque scaled down, or La Colladiella and La Mozqueta on the routes where you have to crest both. A finish at the Portela do Homem would be along similar lines to the 2011 Paris-Nice stage over the Col de la Mûre to Vernoux-en-Vivarais; however as has been pointed out before, stage finishes at an actual border are rare - though they do occasionally occur, such as the Grand Saint Bernard MTF in the Giro della Valle d’Aosta a few years ago.

Either way, we continue into Spain and descend the Portela do Homem, which from this side is just a couple of false flat kilometres so gets no categorisation of its own, just as Soulor is not categorised when descending from Aubisque usually. The detour into Spain is very brief, as after the descent we turn left onto the OU-540 and return to Portugal via the banks of the Limia in short order - less than 20km and we’re back in Portugal, so all of the important kilometres are on the race’s home soil.

We ride along by the Barragem do Alto Lindoso which dams the Limia near the border, and descend back into the Parque Nacional Peneda-Gerês, before turning right to head through Soajo, famous for its espigueiros, ancient buildings effectively on stone stilts to protect and warehouse crops, up a cat.2 ascent - a reasonable length at over 10km, but at a very consistent 5%, so not a real threat. The descent takes us into Arcos de Valdévez, where we cross back to the south of the Limia, into the scenic Ponte da Barca, where the second intermediate sprint takes place, 68km from the line. It is also where the riders say goodbye to flat terrain entirely.



The Serra do Gerês is a very, very under explored area for cycling geography. It could offer great opportunities to both the Volta and the Vuelta if the desire was there. Sadly, despite its proximity to a number of Volta hosts - Viana do Castelo, Fafe, Braga, Felgueiras - the desire doesn’t seem to be. Enter me.

Shortly after Ponte da Barca, one of the first villages passed through is Cuide de Vila Verde, and there, se armó un zapatiesto, as we turn into a serious, serious climb. Cresting circa 60km from the stripe it isn’t likely to be super decisive, and all, but you never know with the Volta. After all, originally the new Torre stage design to Guarda was slated as not expecting any action, it was disappointing in 2016… and then we got 2017. Anyway, we now turn to the ascent of the Alto de Danaia. Actually there’s a bit of a plateau when we get to Danaia, as you can see from the profile, so I could have disguised the difficulty by putting the summit later, but I’m not quite that evil… I’ll let the gradients do the talking and be straight with people - it’s only 5,5km in length for the steep part of this climb, but it does average nearly 10%. And it wears its toughest stuff in the early middle - a first kilometre to warm the engine before a kilometre at 12%. Why not? The APM Forum post I got this profile from says this would be one for Javier Guillén but I fear not - simply because it wouldn’t suit an MTF and we know he’s only interested in super steep stuff if he can put an MTF on it. Here, it’s just one part of the battle.



From here we could either take the M1148 back down to Terras de Bouro, in the Homem valley, with a short descent then a drag up to Gondomar, or head straight on up a low gradient grinder to the Miradouro Mixões da Serra. Or, we can do what I’m doing, and take a technical, two-stepped descent into Vila Chã, which gives us the chance to take another nice cat.1/cat.2 type climb, to the same Miradouro, but from the north which entails, instead of a low gradient grind after the genuine cat.1 of Danaia, a second, similar climb, of just over 5km at around 9%. This is probably the most over-stated cat.1 climb, admittedly - but it’s still not that dissimilar from, say, the Alto del Cordal in the Vuelta (5,5km @ 8,9%) which gets cat.1 status, but is definitely easier than Danaia. And there’s always the Côte des Chevrères in the Tour de France, a climb that barely merits that accolade in Paris-Nice; Mixões da Serra is definitely, demonstrably tougher than that. It crests 43km from home, so this will be the start of the battle. There’s a bit of flat at the summit before a 9km or so descent into Terras de Bouro, which hosts our final meta volante. After this, it’s time for our final climb, a two stepped and tricky ascent to a village called Campos Abades, also known as the Alto de Santa Isabel, which crests 22km from home and has enough inconsistency and difficulty that it should definitely, definitely justify some action. At least in the final 2km which average nearly 11%. I would compare this to possibly the Col de la Mûre, or the Mirador del Fito in that mid-length, steeper-than-average-but-not-super-steep kind of bracket. Other possible avatars would be Santuário de Canolich in Andorra, Alt de Serra-Seca in Catalunya, and Ax-3-Domaines in the French Pyrenées.





Again - all photos taken from the poster Embalaje at APM.

The one time the Volta could have used this climb, they instead headed further along the river and took on a much smaller, less significant climb of the (somewhat topically named) Alto de Covide. That’s just over 10km in length but only around 4,5%, across a couple of steps including a 3km at 8% ramp in the middle. It would be feasible to do a bit of a circuit with Santa Isabel, with a junction after the first 6km of the climb and a gradual descent back into Terras de Bouro, but it cuts off the steepest final part of the climb and it would extend the stage unnecessarily.

Originally, my plan was to continue the stage towards Braga but that would have meant that these climbs would end up being over 40km from home, or nearly 50 if we add the Santuário do Sameiro climb that has characterised the Braga stages of the Volta in recent years. Instead, however, I noticed that in that the Viana do Castelo - Fafe stage a couple of years ago there was a sanctuary that was passed on the way down from the Alto de Covide, and also the Caniçada climb from that stage is close to the end of the descent from Santa Isabel/Campos Abades too.

This gave me a choice to make. If I went up the Caniçada climb, I could connect it to the very steep final climb to the Santuário de Nossa Senhora da Fé. I thought, however, from a balance point of view this was sub-optimal for two reasons. Firstly, that final climb is 2km at 11%, which would dissuade earlier moves as riders may be afraid of it, and secondly, because Caniçada is a fairly consistent 5 to 5,5% climb which is about 6km in length, so not difficult enough to really generate many moves, so it would serve to move Santa Isabel further away from the line - to between 35 and 40km - while simultaneously risking that it would allow riders to leave it to the last couple of kilometres. On the southern side of the much more gradual face of the Alto de Covide, the Santuário São Bento da Porta Aberta was much more fertile ground, I thought.



Originally a chapel constructed in a small mountain town in the early 17th Century, the current sanctuary basilica was constructed in the 19th Century and has grown into a large religious complex of the kind that often is seen in bicycle races in Iberia and southern Italy - with a paucity of ski resorts, these religious and monastic sites often were built on mountaintops to emphasise seclusion or closeness to God, and have become tourist attractions which has given them the amenities to host racing. Obviously to Portuguese cycling, Senhora da Graça is the icon, but there’s also Nossa Senhora do Assunção near Santo Tirso which has been a regular host. Spanish cycling fans will no doubt be familiar with Arrate in País Vasco, Acebo in Asturias, and Monserrat in Catalunya - while there’s also climbs like Santo Toribio de Liébana which have been used, and complexes like Covadonga and Arantzazu that are available. There’s plenty of space for a finish at São Bento da Porta Aberta, but perhaps most crucially, it’s not much of a climb, so it won’t deter action on Santa Isabel.

The descent is somewhat technical, but then we have a very rolling, twisting and turning route along the banks of the Cávado river, because yes - we’re passing literally 100m from where we crossed the river earlier on the way to the Portela do Leonte. Two additional valleys feed into the longer path of the Cávado here, leading to a cross-shaped formation in the river, which partly inspired the construction of the sanctuaries on the corners of it - so we crossed from southeast to northeast earlier, and we go from southwest to west here (there is no bridge to northwest, one would have to cross to the southeast side of the cross and follow the route we took earlier in the stage into Vilar de Veiga and then take a smaller road around the northern valley edge too get there) so not crossing over ourselves or retracing our steps from earlier.


View from São Bento

The ascent up to the finish is not a tricky one at all, it’s 2,5km at 5,2% which in the context of this stage I’ve elected not to categorise at all; it does gradually steepen but never becomes steep per se - the last 1200m are at 6,3% and the steepest ramp is 9%, so it’s not a decisive ascent puncheur-style. A sprinter who made it over these climbs (obviously a theoretical one because if somebody makes it over all of these climbs to contest the sprint, they don’t really count as a sprinter anymore, because we’d likely be talking somebody like Julian Alaphilippe or Alejandro Valverde, capabilities-wise). If anything is a valid comparison in recent years it’s probably the dig up to the finish at Cercedilla in the all-important 2015 Vuelta stage where Dumoulin cracked and Aru took the maillot rojo, but Campos Abades is much harder than Cotos. The 2011 Paris-Nice stage to Vernoux-en-Vivarais is a better comparison with its short but shallow run-in, however the Col de la Mûre was much closer to the finish there than Campos Abades is here. Nevertheless, we have a whole sequence of tough climbs here that it’s likely none of the riders in the race will have seen in race conditions, seeing as they’ve never been in the Volta, and while my google-fu is drawing a blank on stage profiles etc. for the GP do Minho, that race has not been held since 2010, and not at the pro level since 2002, so even if they were included, the chances of anybody remembering them well enough for it to hamper racing are slim. I’m hopeful that given the connectivity of the climbs and the vagaries of the Portuguese péloton meaning secondary and tertiary contenders getting into early moves can turn the race on its head, we could get up to 50km of serious action here, with things like the Nuno Ribeiro/João Cabreira group and the David Bernabéu-led counter move in 2009 in mind, as well as the 2010 Campanhó move that held on on Senhora da Graça and brought Rui Sousa and Hernâni Broco into contention.
 
Stage 5: Povóa de Varzim - Viseu, 173km





GPM:
Alto de Pegureiros (cat.3) 12,5km @ 2,8%
Alto de Cabril (cat.3) 13,0km @ 3,8%
Alto de Povóa de Caldo (cat.3) 4,9km @ 4,0%

Monday, and it’s a transitional stage to move us back in to the middle of the country. Actually travelling through an area which includes some of the most interesting terrain in the country (I have designed many a stage using the climbs around Arouca, Castro Daire and São Pedro do Sul, including ascents like Serra da Arada, Senhora da Mó, Coelheira, Serra da Freita, Cerro do Cão, São Pedro do Campo, Montemuro, São Cristovão, Arestal and my beloved São Macário. These may one day appear in another Portuguese race as I’ve also got the makings of a Volta with no Torre or Senhora da Graça, the equivalent of doing a no-Alps no-Pyrenées Tour), we bypass most of the toughest climbs to arrive back in the central plateau of the country as the riders deserve a bit of respite after a difficult weekend (plus of course, I don’t want to stop people from giving it their all in the São Bento da Porta Aberta stage). So today we ride through riverside and valley roads giving the riders a chance to catch their breath and the sprinters to have a chance if they want it and are durable enough, or the breakaway a stage to duke out if not.



Povóa de Varzim is a city on the coast, around 30-40km north of Porto, and now that it has swollen to the extent that it forms an extended urban area with neighbouring resort town Vila do Conde, it is part of the 7th largest urban area in Portugal. 60.000 people live in Povóa de Varzim itself, and this doubles with Vila do Conde and its other outlying villages added in. It has been continuously inhabited for around 4000 years, evolving out of a fishing village and growing to considerable wealth with shipbuilding a primary industry during the Age of Exploration. There was at one point a Viking raid on the area, and the city and local region has therefore retained a bit of an affinity for Norse culture, although this is very much in the background nowadays. In the 18th Century it became popular as a bathing resort due to its high seaweed content, thanks to a sheltered bay nearby, and then the urbanisation of the waterfront’s near 12 kilometres of sandy beaches has turned it into a well-to-do service economy city which is a popular tourist getaway for the population of Porto and inland areas of northern Portugal. This development as a resort in the 19th Century led to it becoming a centre for the arts, and two of Portugal’s most established and famous authors of the era lived in the city, and remained diametrically opposed to one another throughout their careers - the tragic romanticist Camilo Castelo Branco, who moved to the city early in life and whose tumultuous life with multiple examples of adultery, two prison sentences, and eventual suicide lent him the air of a romantic hero, juxtaposed against José Maria de Eça de Queiroz, 20 years younger and born in Povóa de Varzim, but a literary contemporary of Castelo Branco, and a representative of a trendy, cosmopolitan, modern middle class milieu whose writing was realistic, matter-of-fact, informed by that of Zola, and of course is responsible for Portugal’s most famous novel, as mentioned in the Senhora da Graça stage. Coincidentally, considering the two authors disliked one another and were diametrically opposed in their societal and philosophical outlooks, Castelo Branco’s first stint in prison was cut short thanks to the influence of the important judge in the region, Teixeira de Queiroz, father of Eça.

It has also become a prominent surfing destination, but also has further athletic heritage in the form of major swimming and rowing regattas, holds regular yacht racing and sailing events, and a significant track and field event is held each summer in the city’s streets. And sporting sons include the distance runner Aurora Cunha, winner of the Paris, Tokyo, Chicago and Rotterdam marathons and multiple world champion in road races over 10 and 15km; the footballers Bruno Alves, Hélder Postiga, Lima Pereira and Fábio Coentrão; but most importantly for us, a guy who shares his name with one of Portugal’s footballing greats, but has gone on to achieve something unique among the Portuguese population: he’s won a UCI World Championships Road Race.


Joaquím Rodríguez imagining the multifarious ways he wants to cause Alejandro Valverde great, great pain in this precise moment

Rui Costa turned pro early with Benfica, winning the Giro Delle Regioni and podiuming the Tour de l’Avenir en route to getting a contract with Caisse d’Epargne for 2009. He won the Quatre Jours de Dunkerque in his first season and was 2nd there the following season, but otherwise his claim to fame was fighting Carlos Barredo after the latter assaulted him with a wheel in hand during the 2010 Tour. Growing frustrated with his lack of opportunities at Abarcá, he was planning to leave the team when a sample from the 2010 Portuguese National Championships was positive and he and his brother Mário were banned. Rui was one of those rarest of cases, though - a cyclist who proclaims their innocence and actually meant it. He claimed supplement contamination, and successfully proved it, which led to the ban being quashed and his returning to the road, although now mid-season and lacking in options, he took up a role at the same team he had previously been at; as a make-up present they took him to his third Tour de France and he repaid them with a stage win at Super-Besse, along with winning the GP Montréal and the Vuelta a Madrid. In 2012 he showed hitherto unexpected climbing chops; he had previously been thought of as a man for hilly Classics and medium mountain terrain, but a podium in Romandie was followed by a mountaintop win at Verbier in the Tour de Suisse, before he successfully turned himself inside out to take the GC. He replicated these Swiss results the following year, this time winning TWO mountain stages in June, one at La Punt after Albulapass and the other in the Flumserberg MTT, then two Tour stages, one medium-mountain to Gap and one high mountain (well, ish. It had Croix-Fry) to Le Grand Bornand, before the infamous Firenze World Championships, when Purito was away solo, Valverde was marking Nibali who had been in the move with Rodríguez before the latter’s final attack, and then El Imbatido fell asleep at the wheel with just over a kilometre to go and stayed with Nibali when Costa pushed on, allowing the Portuguese to hunt down the exhausted Rodríguez and outsprint him at the line.

Costa moved to Lampre for the following season, with their sponsors’ Portuguese interests playing a key role in their determination to land the rainbow jersey. He has remained there ever since and long since abandoned the one-day role, now becoming a one-week racer and a placement specialist, scoring a lot of strong results, but the wins have progressively got harder to find. He did treble up with his third consecutive Tour de Suisse in 2014, winning the race on the final day with a win at Saas-Fee, and finishing on the podium of the Giro di Lombardia, as well as finishing 2nd in an atrocious edition of Paris-Nice. He’s scored strong GC positions in races like Paris-Nice, País Vasco, the Dauphiné, the Tour of Oman, and the Abu Dhabi Tour (which he won in 2017), but he has become a staple of those “most top 10s without a win” games nowadays, and has started to move towards doing the Giro and Vuelta instead of focusing myopically on the Tour as he did for much of his career. Let’s see what he can do on home roads in August!!!

However, the stages for Costa will have been stages 2, 3 and 4. He probably won’t be so interested in this one, which is largely rolling and though there is plenty of altitude gain, most of it is at negligible gradients unlikely to make a difference to the outcome. Povóa de Varzim’s location means that it is usually used for transitional stages when the Volta does rock up into town; the last time it did so was 2009, when Danilo Hondo, riding for PSK Whirlpool after returning from suspension, won a stage in São João da Madeira. The GP CTT Correios de Portugal has had a couple of finishes here in the same era, Enrico Degano and Francisco Pacheco winning sprints in the city.

Before we’ve gone far, we pass through another important city for the sport in Portugal, Maia. The União Ciclista da Maia was one of Portugal’s most established teams through the 90s and 00s, introducing the world to the likes of José Azevedo and going to the Vuelta twice in the late 90s, though it was for two eras that it would later become notorious. The early 2000s Milaneza-Maia incarnation of the team was a force to be reckoned with, winning the Volta in 2001 and 2002 with Fabian Jeker, a Festina refugee, and Claus Michael Møller, discovering his GC strength in his early 30s including winning a mountaintop finish in the Vuelta in 2001. They locked out the podium of the 2002 Volta, with Joan Horrach in 2nd and Rui Sousa in 3rd (his best performance until his Indian summer in the early 2010s) Horrach’s performances with Milaneza were like Murilo Fischer in 2005 - he parlayed these performances into a decade at the top with Abarcá and Katyusha, and never came close to replicating this. Rui Sousa - not yet the reanimated corpse he later became - had a similarly outlying year in 2002, while Ángel Edo had an impressive Indian summer with the team too. Invites to races like Paris-Nice and the Tour de Romandie followed, with David Bernabéu and Francisco Pérez joining the party, the latter having a particularly outlying year including the podium of Romandie. They lost the Volta to Nuno Ribeiro, but still put Møller and Rui Lavarinhas on the podium, then in 2004 won the Volta again with David Bernabéu. With Jeker and Møller now gone, however, the golden era was fading, and with Abarcá poaching their key talents like Fran Pérez and Alexei Markov, they had a couple of quiet years. Milaneza left as sponsor, to be replaced by LA Aluminios, who had been split from the Liberty Seguros team as the latter withdrew their funding from their World Tour team and focused on the Portuguese Continental team instead.

Puerto reawakened the slumbering beast, though, with the 2007 Volta being a bit of a battleground between teams and lots of the Puerto names fighting over Vuelta prep, they let the Volta go, and non-Puerto Spanish import Xavier Tondó, who had lost his spot at Relax-GAM to make room for the Puerto refugees in fact, won the race outright for the newly rechristened LA-MSS. Then, in 2008, the new team decided that it should go to the same levels as the 2002 team. It was ugly. With Ángel Vicioso and Tino Zaballa imported from Spain, 33-year-old Pedro Cardoso riding at levels far beyond any achieved before, João Cabreira being João Cabreira and promising youngish Portuguese Bruno Pires and Bruno Neves, they laid waste to the calendar. In May, things went crazy. The team dumped everybody bar Stefano Garzelli out the back in stage 1 of the Vuelta a Asturias, with what was effectively a TTT to the line, before Vicioso out climbed everybody from the bunch on Acebo and they locked out the podium with Vicioso, Tondó and Pires (it was this race that led Vaughters to reject Tondó for Garmin and led to his public apology after Tondó shopped the Catalan drugs ring to the police). A week later, they locked out the podium again, at the GP Rota dos Movéis, with Pedro Cardoso ahead of Zaballa and Vicioso. At the same time, Bruno Neves had had a heart attack on the bike at the Clásica Amarante and died. The police swooped in, and beaucoup doping was found. Team manager Manuel Zeferino was banned for ten years, doctor Marcos Maynar likewise, João Cabreira was suspended ten months for dodging testers - he was cleared 5 months later and was convicted of sample tampering dating back to May 2008 less than two months later. Pedro Cardoso returned a hot test from the GP Rota dos Movéis, was given a 1 year ban from which he never returned, Estevão Faria never raced again, and the team was barred from the Volta. With that, the sponsors withdrew, and the team was no more, leaving its legacy heavily, heavily tarnished.



Not long after, we have an intermediate sprint in the town of Valongo, which also is home to a team. Aluvia-Valongo is a long-standing amateur team in Portugal that has run since the early 2000s; the changes made to pro team registration in the early 2010s in the intention of protecting the domestic péloton meant they, with the support of then sponsors OFM and additional financing from Quinta da Lixa, were able to step up to the pro registration. With the Spanish ProConti Andalucía team breaking up that year, they raided it for talent, picking up former Xacobeo-Galicia man Gustavo César Veloso and Jesús Rosendo, along with another former Xacobeo man already in Portugal, Délio Fernández, another Galician in Alejandro Marque, and Spanish amateur standout Eduard Prades. The team was an instant success; Délio and Gustavo instantly meshed, and Marque was climbing better than ever, and in the end internal rivalry meant that they effectively engaged César and Marque in a chrono-off for the GC on the penultimate day; Marque won by 36”, overcoming his fellow Galician by just 4” (which Gustavo could easily have taken on Torre had it not been for fratricidal tactics). Marque was signed by Movistar, but then jettisoned circling around a disputed TUE-related positive that he was exonerated in full for - it seems clear in retrospect, however, that Abarcá needed to clear some funds for a couple of ex-Euskaltel riders they hadn’t expected to be available, so hung Marque out to dry in order to secure Igor Antón’s services.

This success started the transformation of the former amateur standouts into a professional juggernaut. Marque was missing in 2014 following that convoluted transfer saga, but in his place came another Spanish amateur standout, Arkaitz Durán, after a year at Efapel, on-the-up Ricardo Vilela, and 2004 (and original 2009) Volta winner Nuno Ribeiro. Prades left the team after being omitted from the Volta team to go and race in Japan, but the team didn’t miss a beat, once more sticking 2 riders on the podium in the Volta, this time César Veloso taking the lead on the first mountaintop at Serra do Larouco, and holding it for over a week to the line, with Fernández supporting en route to 3rd place. For 2015, clothing brand W52 came on board as sponsor, and the team brought in some older domestiques like Rui Vinhas and Raúl Alarcón to help along with Volta KOM Antônio Carvalho. The domination of César come August was even more significant this time with the team taking 4 stages, the team classification and the GC, and as they became THE team in Portugal, FC Porto were interested enough to join the fold and give the team the blue and white striped jerseys we’re now familiar with. Délio was signed over to France to ride at a higher level, but the much older Gustavo César Veloso was left to rot in Portugal; his resentment spilled over when a tactical blunder meant that he was left unable to chase down his teammate Rui Vinhas in the 2016 Volta, leading to the former journeyman domestique taking the win ahead of Veloso, who had a rather undignified prima donna meltdown about the whole situation. The team now had won four Voltas in a row, and had now signed 2011 Volta winner Ricardo Mestre, and the best Portuguese climber around, Amaro Antunes, as well as the best Portuguese prospect climber, João Rodrigues. They were not the main topic of conversation in 2017 though (despite Antunes’ fantastic win in Algarve on Alto do Malhão. Nor was long-established team leader Gustavo César Veloso. No, they had to cede the limelight to 31-year-old unheralded former domestique Raúl Alarcón, who had shown hints of this in the 2016 Volta, but in 2017 he went all out, to a level that made Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, Mauro Santambrogio, David Belda and Sergey Firsanov put together look like child’s play, being absolute horse excrement in the early season, before climbing with Quintana to win the Vuelta a Asturias, losing the Vuelta a Madrid on countback, won the mountain stage of the GP Beiras, and then won two stages of the Volta, before unleashing that hilariously over-the-top exploit on Torre that was pure insanity. Antunes was 2nd, and was promptly hired to a higher level. Alarcón, of course, was not, which left him free to win the GPN2 and the Volta - including three stage wins, two of which were the MTFs - making it 6/6 for the team since turning pro.

As a result, they decided for 2019 to jump up to the ProContinental level. As expected it wasn’t quite a resounding success, and being subject to the bio passport suddenly meant that Alarcón was less good and got suspended. Go figure. No fear though - the team just signed Edgar Pinto, Joaquim Silva and brought back Rafael Reis, and Gustavo César Veloso rediscovered his mojo at 39, and the team crushed the Volta even more mercilessly than before, with young phenom João Rodrigues winning and César, Carvalho and Pinto all making the top 5 too. The team set a personal best with 5/10 stages won, and so we can look forward to continued domination from the men in blue and white.



The rest of the stage isn’t quite so interesting. We cross the Douro after some undulating terrain, then we have a long false flat that gets 3rd category status, and then a long slightly harder false flat a bit later on. This is that typical Volta stage which is tough for a pure power sprinter but will not drop the more versatile ones, so will be a sprint, but the question will be who of.

This is pretty nice scenery for a flat stage, though, as we trace the path of the Rio Paiva, known for a series of scenic walkways along its length through this mountain range which ends as we arrive in Castro Daire, which appeared recently in the GP Portugal N2, celebrating the north-south main trunk road, and which also had a similar characteristic but was won by Raúl Alarcón over 2 minutes ahead of anybody else despite the minimal gradients on the long and gradual Bigorne climb. This was the stage profile that day. Castro Daire is also the birthplace of Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, who became the first ordained rabbi in the Americas when he established a synagogue, a mikveh and yeshiva in Pernambuco, Brazil, to house Sephardic Jews who had escaped from the Portuguese Inquisition.

There’s one more climb to come before the line, another cat.3 climb 17km out, but this really shouldn’t be a major threat; it’s a lot like, say, the Alt de Lilla in the Volta a Catalunya; it’s a major road with no significant corners or tough gradients. It’s 2,5km at 6% that then flattens out gradually toward actual flat and even a slight downhill, before a final 700m at 5%. As you can see - maybe a fulcrum to attack from, but definitely not one to put great fear into the sprinters that have chosen to race here, as we head towards the finish on an almost ramrod straight road - no technical challenges at all so the chase will be favoured on the way to a wide open and safe finish - there’s a roundabout at 800m to go but apart from that there’s literally nothing to challenge the riders on the run-in, and even the two or three roundabouts in the last 4-5km are very wide, with at least two full lanes to use, and they’re large traffic islands that can be taken at reasonable pace on our way to a finish in a Volta classic.



Settled since the Celtic era, Viseu is a long-established city and centre of a diocese since at least the 6th Century, although it like most of the area changed hands many times during the era of Moorish Iberia. It was elevated to the status of fiefdom when Infante Dom Henrique (better known as Henry the Navigator, for his role in Portuguese exploration of the wider world in the era) was granted the title of Duke of Viseu in 1415. It swiftly became a cultural city, and was the birthplace of Portugal’s greatest renaissance painter, Grão Vasco. The city nowadays has a population of 100.000 and is a popular stop-off for the Volta, which ties in to an endurance sports heritage - Portugal’s first ever Olympic gold medal was won by Carlos Lopes, who was from the city. The city is also home to a number of footballers, including 90s national stalwart Paulo Sousa and, more recently, Atlético Madrid wunderkind João Felix.

As mentioned, Viseu has a lot of history with the Volta, serving often as a gateway into, or out of, the Serra da Estrela, and therefore has hosted the race frequently. It has hosted the race’s start on a number of occasions, most recently in 2010, 2015 and 2019 (inevitably a prologue), and the finish even more frequently, most recently in 2005, 2007, 2009, 2013 and 2017 (usually an ITT, but 2013 was a road stage). It was first introduced to the Volta in 1932, when eventual GC winner Alfredo Trindade won a stage from Castelo Branco to Viseu which traversed the Serra da Estrela (either via Penhas Douradas or via Torre). The difficulty of that stage meant a shorter version from Covilhã was introduced the next year, which makes me think it was probably Torre. For three straight years 1933-35, Ezequiel Lino would win the stage to Viseu, but he could only manage 2nd in the race GC. Other renowned names to win in Viseu include Dalmacio Langarica in 1950, José da Silva in 1953, António Moreira in 1966, Venceslau Fernandes in 1981, but then it fell out of vogue through the late 80s and the 90s, as too many nearby cities were also hosting to make room for it on the route, with Tondela, Lamego and Mangualde all hosting to create a range of alternative options and potential medium to high mountain stages. Tarouca also would host, allowing MTFs at the Alto da Santa Helena to be added, which have of course fallen out of vogue with the race now being shorter and committing to its two main mountain spots.

In 2003, the race was changing, though. This was the first of the current format 11-stage Voltas, and Viseu hosted the final stage ITT, won by Claus Michael Møller. This started to set a formula for the coming years, as ITTs would regularly finish the race in these years, before a stupid and irrelevant parade stage was added temporarily in the early 2010s. José Cayetano Julià won from a break in Viseu in 2004 before Møller again won an ITT the next year. 2006’s sprint stage was won by Martin Garrido, while 2007’s race-deciding ITT was won by Héctor Guerra, just ahead of Xavier Tondó, who with his chrono took the camisola amarela out of the hands of Eladio Jiménez, who fell off the podium entirely after losing over 2 minutes. Francisco Pacheco won the 2008 sprint stage, and Héctor Guerra once again won the ITT in 2009, only for this to be rescinded due to a positive drugs test as part of the Liberty Seguros group bust with Nuno Ribeiro and Isidro Nozal; the win was therefore ceded to David Blanco, in both the GC (from Ribeiro) and the stage (from Guerra). 2010 saw the format changed up, and an absolute travesty for the Volta took place, when a man who had a very good anti-doping reputation, Jimmy Engoulvent, won the prologue in the city. This would not do, so a very, very flat sprint stage was arranged for the following year. How flat? Andrea Guardini wasn’t dropped. So he won. This therefore means that despite contesting NINE stages into the city, Cândido Barbosa never took a stage here, a glaring omission from his palmarès I’m sure you’ll agree. Then began an almost unprecedented run of estrangeiro wins - Jason McCartney and Jake Keough for United Healthcare in 2012 and 2013, followed by Phil Bauhaus for Team Stölting and then in the 2015 Prologue, Gaëtan Bille for Verandas Willems. Order was restored more recently though, with Vicente García de Mateos, Gustavo César Veloso, and Samuel Caldeira winning 3 of the most recent 4 stages in Viseu (Riccardo Stacchiotti, for MsTina-Focus, was the interloper in 2018).

I’m not giving the sprinters that many chances in this race, so they’d better not waste this one.

 
its INSANE the amount of research that you've done!!
Are you Brazilian? if not, even more incredible!
the start of #16 would be close to impossible. S.J.Meriti nowadays its a war zone. Just like the stage 17. The "ring" around Itaguai, Japeri, Seropedica MUST be avoid at all cost. But it could very well be done further north through Valenca, Vassouras, Miguel Pereira, Paty dos Alferes..
For stage 16 UCI makes a GFondo climbing from Mangaratiba-Rio Claro(serra do piloto) an excellent constant climbing that head north trough very well paved asphalt and little traffic. The rest could be done north of BR-101 or to Cunha that host a GF like you mention.
Stage 18 would have the same "problem" starting in Mage but again can be done starting somewhere east.
All the area in the middle of that stage, Teresopolis-Petropolis is VERY popular among cyclists.
The final mountain you designed is awesome! Could be used but very forgotten since the "new" road was built(+/-50 y) to get to Petropolis. So the area was/is left to its own luck, irregular constructions and very badly maintain. Anything northern to the axel Petro-Tere its fine and have plenty of options..
I couldn't even finished reading all this.. unbelievable! but I will..
this makes Giro-Eshnar previews kids homework...
 
Long-time lurker in this thread, sitting on quite a lot of material myself. With cycling not returning for a while, this is the right time to start posting here, I guess.

Tour de Suisse
I'm using the format that was used until last year: nine stages, with both weekends centered around a single stage host and featuring a time trial.

The race starts from Fribourg, a small city with a well-preserved centre. It features frequently in the Tour de Romandie, but occasionally hosts the national race as well. Its last inclusion as a stage town was in 2000, when Wladimir Belli won from a group of seven with a late attack. The stage was quite difficult, with Chemin de Lorette and the easier Wolfeich in the final 20 kilometers, and was raced hard - that group of seven also featured Garzelli, who'd just won the Giro, Casagrande, who'd finished second and was the defending champion at this race, in addition to Boogerd, who took the race lead, and Mazzoleni, who later won a stage at that year's race.
Since then, the city has seen many Tour de Romandie stages, often on lacklustre routes. Here's a rundown:
  • In 2007, Fribourg hosted a prologue after a decade of absence, centered around the cobbled climb of Rue la Grand-Fontaine. The stage was won by Savoldelli.
  • In 2008, Chemin de Lorette was back, but at the start of a flatter, longer loop than in 2000, and so many sprinters, including stage winner McEwen, survived.
  • The 2009 stage featured a similar circuit to the 2000 stage. It would also have included the Jaunpass, but snowfall caused the route to be shortened. Serrano won from the early break as the peloton wasn't really bothered.
  • 2010's stage featured the same lap as the 2008 stage. Despite it being raced twice, Cavendish took the stage in a bunch sprint.
  • It took until 2014 until the race returned. This time, the entire race was on the same lap, with Lorette omitted. The break narrowly survived and Albasini, unsurprisingly, won.
  • The 2015 stage didn't feature any laps, but the undulating terrain, combined with atrocious weather, meant the breakaway survived yet again. Küng won the stage with quite a lengthy solo.
  • In 2018, Fribourg was the site of the prologue again. Grand-Fontaine was the main difficulty again, but this time, the stage focused on the old bridges on the Sarine river. Roglic and Dennis had been extremely strong all season, but came in third and fourth as Matthews won the stage.
  • This year, the final time trial would have been held here... let's not dwell on that.

Fribourg.

Stage 1: Fribourg (Place Notre-Dame) - Fribourg (Rue de l'Hôpital), 4.24 km (ITT)

I really liked that 2018 prologue, it had everything it needed - technical turns, cobbles, a punchy climb, a scenic route - so I've pretty much lifted it here. The only change is that I've added 200 meters at the end of the route, so that I can use the same finish for the road race without finishing in a bend. Here's a recon of that stage (starting from 1:20).





The start is on Place Notre-Dame (between the two churches at the bottom of the picture above), then the route heads onto Pont de Zaehringen (the two-layered bridge), before looping to the north to descend and pass underneath the arches, parallel to the river. We cross the Sarine twice more in short succession on Pont de Berne and Pont du Milieu, both of which are cobbled and visible at the top of the picture.

A right-hander leads us onto another cobbled bridge (Pont de Saint-Jean), from where the climb to the finish immediately starts. The climb is 1.4k at 6.5%, but that somewhat masks the difficulty: the road rises from the river, flattens as we bend to the right, then a sharp right-hander leads us onto Rue de la Grand-Fontaine: 400 meters of (fairly easy) cobbles at roughly 10%. We turn 180 degrees onto the wide Route des Alpes, where the road ramps up again until the final right-hander with 250 meters to go. The climb flattens out here, although it rises again in the final meters, as the riders pass through a slight left-hand turn onto some easy cobbles and the finish.

Stage 2: Fribourg - Fribourg, 181.8 km

Seven laps of the circuit below, we're going in a clockwise direction. The first lap is neutralised in the first two kilometers.





The finish line is at the same location as yesterday. From there, we head east to pick up the route of the prologue, so the section between both cobbled climbs is narrow and sinuous, which should help attackers. However, where we turned right onto the final bridge yesterday, we head onto the first categorised climb of this year's race.



The LaFlammeRouge profile uses a slightly different cutoff than me, but you get the idea. 800 meters at 12% is difficult enough as it is, and it's on some (not overly difficult) cobbles. However, it comes at 22 kilometers from the finish here, so if racing is conservative, it could end up being underused. Mountain points will only be given on the odd-numbered laps. There's a reason this climb used to be raced often - this is twice as long and just as steep as the Paterberg, for example. While Romandie has ignored it in recent years, the Tour de Suisse did head up it last year. The stage design was poor, however - it came at about 50 kilometers to go, with little of note after it, but the finish was 200 meters after a sharp turn from a long, straight road onto some steep cobbles, and so the stage was decided by Sagan barging through Degenkolb to be positioned ideally in the turn. Anyway, here's footage of the climb up Lorette from that race.

There's no real descent after the climb as we head back north. To avoid using the same road twice within five kilometers, we turn right onto quite a decent climb through a residential area. The main climb (Route Joseph-Chaley) is a kilometer at just under 8%, before some false flat downhill and a short incline on a narrow road to head into the countryside.

We go through some rolling terrain, but the climbing is never steep in this section of the route. We descend towards Fribourg, but again, continuing would force us to double back upon ourselves. Instead, we take a sharp turn left onto a narrow, steep road to Brünisberg. 800 meters at a shade under 10% is tough, particularly as the turn will greatly slow down the riders. It's the penultimate climb of the circuit, coming just inside the final 10 kilometers, and the final chance to attack once we're on the final lap.

The route back into Fribourg is slightly downhill. Once we cross the Sarine again, there are a few kilometers on wide roads with few turns. This ends at 1.7 kilometers to go, when we head back into the valley through some hairpins. We rejoin the prologue route at the flamme rouge, and immediately hit the cobbles of Grand-Fontaine again. The remaining section of the climb averages 7.3%. On the even-numbered laps, so directly before the mountain points on Lorette, there will be an intermediate sprint at the finish line. Riders will hit the toughest part of the climb at speed, but if this does end up being a reduced bunch sprint, the peloton will be strung out, and there's no real opportunity to reposition for riders too far back. Even if a gap doesn't open up on the cobbles, moving up on the 400 meters between that and the right-hander will be difficult as it's uphill, and being near the front going into the corner will be key.

However, this doesn't have to be a bunch sprint. I think the combination of the climb to the finish, Chemin de Lorette and Route Joseph-Chaley within 10 kilometers is hard enough to do some damage, particularly with Brünisberg breaking up the section in between. I'd expect at least some decent racing.
 
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Might eventually get to start posting stuff once I've finished the write ups and not start creating even more races.

Loving the Volta so far, partly because it's a great race anyway but because Portugal is beautiful country.

I feel the profile for your Worlds circuit doesn't do the course justice of what would be an interesting course.
 
Jungle Cycle - could stage 18 start in Guapimirim itself?

I always like a Tour de Suisse because the thing about Switzerland is, like Austria, I always get waylaid by there being too much choice. There's so many mountains that I never end up with an edition I'm happy with because there's always something I've discovered that I want to use and can't. And then every time somebody introduces a race there, they come up with something I either didn't know about, or knew about but they do something with it I'd never thought to do.

Speaking of things you knew about, but doing something different with them...

Stage 6: Oliveira do Hospital - Gouveia, 187km





GPM:
Alto da Torre (Vide/Carrazedo)(HC) 24,1km @ 6,3%
Alto de Atalaia (cat.3) 5,2km @ 5,1%
Alto da Torre (Covilhã)(HC) 23,6km @ 6,2%
Alto do Santo Estevão (cat.1) 13,1km @ 7,0%

Yes: sound the alarms. Call the cops. Someone's gonna get their head kicked in tonight. There’s going to be a murder, as we head deep, deep into the fiery pit of the Serra da Estrela, the Volta’s queen stage prime real estate, the Portuguese racing equivalent of the Dolomiti, the central Pyrenean circuit of Tour favourites, the Vlaamse Ardennen, the absolute epicentre of the race’s most epic stages. If you’re not familiar with Torre, you know nothing about Portuguese cycling. It’s that simple. The Alto da Torre is Portuguese cycling 101. It is the highest paved road in Portugal, it is a monolithic pass with multiple sides. It is the Volta. Without the Serra da Estrela, there is no true Volta.



The “Torre” that the name speaks of is a 7m watchtower which stands at the summit; the mountain itself is 1993m in height, so the tower was built with the express purpose of making it a round 2000m. Since then, observatory domes have been constructed that stand tall over the traditional tower, and Portugal’s only major ski resort, Estância de Ski da Serra da Estrela, has been constructed at the site. There are two major nodal roads that cross the Serra da Estrela, the Alto Das Penhas Douradas, and the Alto da Torre. The latter is higher, steeper and less consistent, so it has come to great prominence in the Volta a Portugal; the Torre stage is almost invariably the queen stage, and has played an instrumental role in shaping the GC at the Volta for generations. Winners atop the mythical summit include Dinis Silva, Marco Chagas, Américo Silva, Joaquim Gomes, David Blanco, Nuno Ribeiro, André Cardoso, Eladio Jiménez, João Rodrigues, Délio Fernández, Rui Sousa, Gustavo César Veloso, Adolfo García Quesada, Santiago Pérez, Vitor Gamito, David Arroyo, Wladimir Belli, while winners of crucial stages including the monolith also include the likes of Agustín Tamames, Fabian Jeker and Amaro Antunes. The former has plenty of Volta prominence of its own, but we’re going to omit it from this particular edition. But before we get there, we’ve got some travelling to do.



The stage departs from the town of Oliveira do Hospital, a town of 20.000 on the northern/western edges of the boundary between the Serra da Lousã and the Serra da Estrela, which first hosted A Grandíssima in 1982. It was brought back in 1991, but has recently carved out a role as a regular host, usually of transitional stages away from the Serra da Estrela after a Torre stage. Sérgio Ribeiro and Andrea Guardini have won sprint stages leaving Oliveira do Hospital, while Marco Tizza won a punchy stage to Guarda from the town in 2019. 2018 is the only time in recent years Oliveira has hosted a stage finish, with a very punchy finish with several ramps and repechos meaning it ended up being a more decisive finish than expected, with attacks on those climbs meaning a more dramatic than expected stage where Raúl Alarcón took the leader’s jersey, ahead of García de Mateos, Brandão, Edgar Pinto and Henrique Casimiro. Here, however, the stage won’t be surprisingly impactful for the GC. It will be knowingly impactful for the GC, seeing as it has been conceived with precisely that intention. This is the queen stage, and the hardest, nastiest Torre stage in many, many years, as well as featuring a bit of innovation and creativity. The Volta has been trying its best to develop new ideas with Torre in order to keep things fresh, and that has led to some cool options, such as this from 2013, a particular favourite which introduced the Lagoa Comprida ascent, which is actually a stopping point on the way to Torre but from a different side.

The start of my stage takes that one as inspiration. The early phase is easy enough, descending into the valley through which the N230 runs, which sits in a trench to the southwest of the Serra da Estrela. After 17,6km we pass through Vide, and then the climbing begins. And it’s nasty from the word go, as we’re now going to climb up to the Alto da Torre, right off a cold open, via the Alto do Carrazedo. Carrazedo was itself used as the primarily lead-in to the climb of Torre from Seia in the late 2000s, and was granted cat.1 status in and of itself despite being thoroughly dwarfed by Torre. There are two, parallel roads from Vide to the Portela do Arão, which is an alternative name for Carrazedo realistically (I think actually the summit of the northernmost of the two roads is Arão and Carrazedo is the crossing slightly below, judging by the 2013 stage profile vs. Mine, and also the profiles of the 2008 and 2009 Torre stages, where Carrazedo was the lead-in, and the stage profile suggests both times they took the southernmost of those two roads, the same one I’m climbing now, which is an in-and-of-itself 9km at 7% ascent, so a considerable one in its own right. Nevertheless, we’re going to then connect up to the rest of the Lagoa Comprida ascent from that Volta (so we have a steeper first part, the same second part, and then we extend the climb further to reach the ‘true’ summit).



Yes, the first climb of the day is 24km at over 6%, a real, genuine bona fide HC, with a 5,7km @ 8,7% ramp in the middle of the Carrazedo climb, then a slight easing, then 2,5km @ 8%, then around 3km at lower gradients before another ramp of 2,5km @ around 10% from the Miradouro da Rocha to Lagoa Comprida, and then up to the summit. We leave off the last 750m or so as we’re taking the pass rather than continuing up to the tower this early in the stage (or at all), but this is really going to sort the men from the boys from a breakaway perspective. And it’s not like it’s any less scenic than the conventional side, either. Here's a profile of the section from Carrazedo to the summit.



That said, there’s a whopping 139km from the line when we crest this one, so it’s not likely to be decisive, per se. We descend down to the Piornos plateau, where the riders are given two choices - either continue up a small climb to Penhas da Saúde and descend to Covilhã, or, turn left and descend down to Manteigas. You should know precisely which option I chose: Manteigas is by far the least interesting side of the Alto da Torre, so of course it’s the side I’m going to descend! In recent years, only once has the Manteigas side been used, and that was in 2010, after forest fires rendered the Seia side inaccessible. Time gaps were far smaller than usual - 14 riders within a minute - as this is comfortably the most consistent side. It has largely been more selective when used as an MTT from Manteigas to the Piornos plateau, as in the 2001 Volta, when Fabian Jeker won the stage ahead of Joaquim Gomes and Raimondas Rumšas, 11 months away from the TDF podium.

Manteigas is, however, one of Portugal’s more beautiful mountain towns; it does not have the touristy apartment blocks of Vila Real or Covilhã, and is away from the ski resort connection at Penhas da Saúde, Piornos and Torre. Instead, this quaint small town of 3.500 people maintains traditional architecture and retains an old-fashioned charm. It used to be a regular finish town for Serra da Estrela stages in the Volta, offering two sides to Penhas Douradas as well as a spot at a descent from either Torre or Penhas da Saúde. Unfortunately many of those stage profiles are lost to time, but you can see from this stage how Manteigas connects with Torre, and also if you look at the stages to Torre from circa 2012 you can see how it connects with Penhas da Saúde - it is at precisely the base between that climb and Penhas Douradas on this profile. Winners in Manteigas over the years include Américo Silva, Venceslau Fernandes and Bernard Richard.



From here, there’s a fairly innocuous 35km as we travel around the base of the Serra da Estrela, save for a cat.3 climb to Atalaia, also known as Sarzedo. In fact, we do basically take this 2018 stage wholesale from around the 95km mark onward. That’s because we’re looping around to Covilhã, because we aren’t done with the Alto da Torre just yet. Covilhã is a major town of over 35.000 which is a de facto capital for the Beira Interior historical region, which serves as the base from which the Penhas da Saúde resort is administered. From there, of course, you can access the Alto da Torre, giving us a second climb of the monster from a much more difficult side than had we descended this way and ascended from Manteigas. In fact, Covilhã was introduced much sooner to the Volta than other mountain areas, dating all the way back to 1928, when GC winner José Maria Nicolau won in the city. Alfredo Trindade also took the Covilhã stage and the GC win in 1933, while other winners include João Rebelo, Joaquim Agostinho and Firmino Bernardino. In 1959, however, it ceased to be a regular stage finish, as it was usurped by the Penhas da Saúde MTF at the ski station, after which Covilhã would host the ensuing stage start.

This particular MTF is essentially the first 14,5km of the eastern face of the Alto da Torre, and includes 3,5km at 10% in the middle. 14,5km @ 7,1% is a genuine climb, no doubt (although depending on where you are in Covilhã to start the climb and how you arrive it could reduce to 10km but increasing the gradient to 8%), and in the Volta péloton it necessitated some serious climbers to win atop the climb. The first was Aquilino Mina, and others include Joaquim Agostinho, twice, Herculano de Oliveira, twice, Marco Chagas, Adelino Teixeira, and most recently, in that 2018 stage, Raúl Alarcón (of course). It has been somewhat forgotten since the 80s, only hosting finishes twice since, although the station also paid for the Piornos time trial and of course is administered by the same people as the Torre finishes. Here, though, we continue on past the ski station (that would be a sub-120km stage, no thanks) and cross-over to where we descended before - no risk of any issues here though as there’s been nearly 70km between when we descended here and when we climb back through it, not even Andrea Guardini trying to keep up with 1999 Giro Marco Pantani would fall that far behind without climbing off and getting into the team car. This means we pass the ski station for another 2km of fairly low gradient climbing, have a brief descent then climb for another 5km at 7,4% to the summit of Torre for the second time today, this time with just 62km remaining. Which still seems a lot, but, well, 2017, guys. 2017.



We start to descend the Seia side of Torre, which has been the side most commonly climbed in recent years, and is 28,5km @ 5,1%, but broken up into three distinctive sectors, including a very tricky first part, then a descent into Sabugueiro and then a steep second ramp before easing to a plateau and kicking back up again a few more times - you know, one of those multi-stepped ascents, like Croix de Fer or El Morredero. Before we get to Sabugueiro, though, we take an alternative route to get to Seia. Instead of continuing on the N339, we take a side route. They did this in 2013. too, to be fair, enabling them to descend from Lagoa Comprida and still climb from Seia without any issues. But while they took a brief, gradual ascent to hook up with the Penhas Douradas descent (as you can see here), we instead turn left before the town, onto the M513 into São Romão. You can see a map that shows the route from a now-lost APM user here - as you can see from the profile, it’s a much more consistent and ergo not so interesting side of Torre, at least as a climb. There’s also something better they could have done from Sabugueiro in 2013 too, as we shall see.

While a much less interesting climb than the Seia side, the São Romão side of the Alto da Torre is, on the other hand, very interesting as a descent, with a range of technical and twisty corners, including a couple that are off-camber as well, thankfully not near any major drops. I’ve then chosen to take the Seia bypass road that loops to the west of the town, largely because that continues the descent and enables us to have a sprint in Seia after we’ve already started the climbing on the final climb of the day - a Volta a Portugal unknown. You see, Sabugueiro sits at the bottom of a small descent after the first part of the Alto da Torre climb. There are in fact two roads that connect sideways from Sabugueiro, on the N339 trans-sierra road from Seia to Covilhã via Torre and Piornos, to the neighbouring N232 trans-sierra road from Gouveia to Vale Formoso via Penhas Douradas and Manteigas. There’s the very gradual one from Sabugueiro itself, which they took in the 2013 Volta… and there’s another road, which links up to the N339 not at the village of Sabugueiro, but instead at the summit of the Alto do Sabugueiro, a kilometre or two further back toward Seia. This is the Alto de Santo Estévão, and it enables us to take the first part of the Alto da Torre, and add a bit more pretty solid climbing, before connecting immediately to a proper descent.

Here is the profile of the classic western side of the Alto da Torre. Note how, at just before the 21km mark, there is a junction marked “> Gouveia”, after which there’s a couple hundred metres more climbing, then nearly 2km descent into the village.


There’s about a 6km trunk road that runs from the N339 to the N232, and about 2/3 the way there’s a summit; this is about 3,5km at 7% further up the road. As a result, instead of some nothing false flat, that 2013 stage could have had another climb of around 5,5km @ 6,5% - maybe even a cat.2 in the Volta - between Lagoa Comprida and the MTF, without making the stage any longer. But that’s by the by; we’re climbing this now with the full side from Seia, so none of that false flat from Sabugueiro to the junction nonsense - we’re climbing the first part of Torre plus this final part, lending us a total distance of 13,1km during which we ascend at a relatively consistent 7%. The first half is at roughly 7,5% on average with a couple of easier kilometres dragging the gradient down, the second half is at roughly 6,5% on average with a couple of tougher ones raising it up. The summit is 20km from the finish, so this should see plenty of action if double Torre wasn’t already enough.




Into the valley looking down toward Gouveia

After a couple of kilometres of descent, we connect with the Penhas Douradas road, at the 9km mark, the first of the two junctions for Sabugueiro, on this profile. This could be used, therefore, with a bit of false flat to the summit of Penhas Douradas, to lead into Torre or Piornos from Manteigas to offer different choices. Or, alternatively, you can just descend into Gouveia and return to Seia like in 2013’s Torre stage, or… you can go to another Volta classic.



Gouveia is an absolute staple of the Volta through the years. Its gradual, cobbled ascent into town has meant it has iconic status despite its meagre gradient, and it is often appended to the end of stages over either Torre or Penhas Douradas. You can see some great archive footage from 1988 here, back in the days where you might get Torre from one side one day then the other the next, as they were filling a three week race (and when you still had the classic Volta theme not in its awful modern iteration). You can see the fuller extent of the climb from the 2003 stage here too, with Vitor Gamito outsprinting Rui Lavarinhas from a mountain escape along with an unheralded Galician domestique who didn’t get to do too many climbing races showing that he’s quite adept at them - named Ezequiel Mosquera. The city turned up in the Volta for the first time in 1947, and since then, winners on its cobbled roads (other than Manuel Cunha and Vitor Gamito of course) include Patrik Sinkewitz, Marco Chagas three times (in an ITT from Seia to Gouveia in the afternoon after a Torre stage in the morning twice (!), and in a semitappe from Covilha after an MTT on Penhas da Saúde another time), Luís Espinosa, Pedro Horrillo, and Sérgio Paulinho. A non-mountain stage in 2007 was won by Cândido Barbosa.

And in 2013, the same year as they discovered the Vide side of Torre, organisers committed a level of sacrilege in Gouveia, by not including the cobbled ascent. Because they wanted to make some other climbs more decisive. And it actually kind of worked. You see, to add that cobbled ascent you either had to descend Torre then have around 10-15km of flat from Seia and then up the climb into Gouveia, putting the summit some 50km from the line, or you descended Penhas Douradas and went directly past Gouveia, turning right onto the N17 for a few kilometres before turning right again to almost touch where you had been just a few kilometres earlier. So they decided to shave those kilometres off to make the climb of Penhas Douradas more difficult. Well, that and they looked at the recent Gouveia stages, which had travelled over the fairly consistent 4% grind of Penhas Douradas and then done a circuit with the also not much over 4% Gouveia ascent in it (sample stage from 2009) and decided that these hadn’t been generating the kind of time gaps that they used to, and the city was too far from Torre (plus Seia was paying for MTFs at this point) to do the classic “Torre from Covilhã then descend and climb Gouveia” format, even if the péloton at the time was conducive to it working (which certainly wasn’t the case from 2010 for a few years with the Portuguese péloton badly hit by the losses of Maia and Liberty Seguros in consecutive years). So instead they descended straight from Penhas Douradas and didn’t bypass the city at all; instead they cut the final cobbled climb to just a few hundred metres and added Penhas da Saúde before Penhas Douradas (from the Estrada Forestal São Sebastião rather than the N232). This was the last time the Volta came to town in Gouveia, and it was a great deal of fun, with Sérgio Pardilla’s MTN team willing to let a break go, to save weapons for Torre the next day, Efapel doing classic Volta a Portugal things like chasing down their own attack, and in the end a 27-year-old nobody domestique for Louletano-Dunas Douradas, who had had a cup of coffee at the top level before being unceremoniously cast back to the amateurs and was now making a second go of it in Portugal, who had just spent two years at Efapel achieving next to nothing bar a stage win in the Troféu Joaquim Agostinho when he was too far down to worry about letting up the road in a four day race, and managed to take what was then by far his biggest career victory. He would follow it up with a CQ scoring goose egg in 2014, and even started 2015 without a team when it seemed he would have to quit this cycling business, before W52 picked him up as injury cover at the end of March. He would go on to achieve great fame as Balarcón, the man of mythical strength and superpower.


If we had only known

Anyway: this is the queen stage. I hope it lives up to the billing. I’ve given the riders more than ample opportunity to make the race, and at the Volta they tend to want to make it more than anywhere else, so here’s hoping.
 
Fantasy Tour de Suisse:

Stage 1: St.Gallen -Winthertur, 137 km:


My second version of Tour de Suisse, and the main objective is to create a route which better utilizes the main climbs and passes of Switzerland better than the vast majority of the versions of TDS. Usually there a couple of single climb MTFs, typically medium tough climbs like Verbier, Arosa or Leukerbad. An other typical sign of a poorly designed stage in TDS is lack of use of the easily connectable climbs in the Valais region, especially the climbs around Sion. Instead of using 2-3 or more possible back-to-back climbs here, it usually ends up with a MTF at Crans or Verbier.

This version starts in the more hilly region in northern Switzerland, more specifically in the northeastern corner in St.Gallen. The route takes the riders westwards and slightly north for the most of the day. The landscape is hilly, and have several short and steep climbs scattered throughout the most of the stage.

The top of the last categorized climb is 29 km before the stage finish, but there is still a rolling terrain with several shorter “lumps” in the last part of the stage. The stage will most probably end with a mass sprint, perhaps with reduced peloton, but the terrain makes it more likely that a breakaway can keep a chasing peloton behind them all the way to the stage finish.

Climbs:

27 km: Schwellbrunn, 2 km, 9,2 %
70 km: Hulftegg: 3,1 km, 6,1 %
82 km: Sterneberg: 2,8 km, 7,8 %
108 km: Girenbad: 3,9 km, 4,6 %

Profile:


Map:
 

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