The 2020 Tour of Portugal nearly never was. Although bike racing ranks low on the global pandemic of Covid-19’s casualty list, we spare a though for this year’s decimated race calendar. Portugal’s biggest race was under threat, leaving Portugal’s top team W52–FC Porto wondering if they’d be defending 2019 title, and in fact maintaining their impressive winning streak with an eighth successive victory. Thankfully, the Portuguese Cycling Federation stepped in, and the race took on the title of Volta a Portugal - Special Edition.

Any victory in cycling involves a complex mix of tactics and firepower. In W52–FC Porto’s case, there was also a rock solid unity and loyalty, with three notable men’s stories playing a vital role in the unfolding 9 day race.

The Revenant: Amaro Antunes
For the 2020 season, Amaro Antunes returned to the team he left in 2017 after an impressive season in which he’d achieved some top national level results and stunning the field at the 2017 Volta ao Algarve by claiming the final stage on the Malhão climb in a peloton packed with UCI World Tour riders. He finished the race 5th overall, behind top calibre riders like Primož Roglič and Michał Kwiatkowski.

He would then sign a two-year deal with Team CCC, in turn making the move up to UCI World Tour level as CCC merged with Jim Ochowicz’s BMC Racing Team. Jump forward three years, returning ‘home’, he immediately proved W52-FC Porto’s faith in him at the pre-Covid Volta ao Algarve with a top ten performance in what was widely regarded as the most competitive peloton ever in the race’s history.  

Antunes is a gifted climber and feared in the Portuguese peloton. There have been few times more evident of this than on stage 2 at this year’s Volta when he launched himself from the main group with 38km to go. To many, this early in the week, it may have seemed a mere tactical move, with all eyes on 2019’s winner João Rodrigues and veteran pro Gustavo Veloso. Yet in retrospect, this was the moment the race was won. Antunes pressed on, balancing raw power and knowledge of the final Snr da Graça climb, with masterclass tactics from DS Nuno Ribeiro who’d set up the perfect situation – yellow jersey Gustavo Veloso safely back in the peloton, leaving GC rival Frederico Figueiredo and his team Atum General – Tavira – Maria Nova Hotel with the responsibility to chase. All Antunes had to do was jump his breakaway companion on the final Senhora da Graça climb, 500m before the line, claim the bonus seconds and take yellow.  

Protected from a barrage of attacks all week, Antunes held a tenuous 13-second lead over Figueiredo going into the final 17.7km time trial. It would be all or nothing on the flat but technical, cobbled course. Antunes had lost 9 seconds in 8km in the prologue the previous weekend. Granted, the final stage’s parcours requires a completely different effort, more suited for pure time trialists (the prologue being a more explosive and hillier test).

In the end, and despite being of similar age, Antunes experience made just enough of a difference, as well as being at one with his bike. It wasn’t just the hours spent on his Neurogen - in his own words, it was the neutral handling and ride compliance that allowed him to focus purely on getting his power onto the road, and accurately carving through the cobbled old city roads of Lisbon. The rest is cycling history.   

Always there and thereabouts: Gustavo Veloso
Gustavo César Veloso is the most experienced rider in the W52–FC Porto squad, both in terms of palmares, having ridden multiple years at Pro Continental level, winning the 2008 Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and taking a stage in the 2009 Vuelta a España. In 2020 he turned 40.

This season was supposed to be his last, as the Galician announced last year after his third place at the 2019 Volta. The two-time Volta a Portugal winner is always under close watch for the GC, by the race commentators and competitors alike, for his time trialling skills and his ability to rock the status quo in the mountains, with climbing abilities that belie his age.

In 2020, despite the pandemic that left him and all the racers with little competition days left, Veloso had a very good season with hints of his form improving from last year – he’d garnered a podium spot among the Portuguese UCI World Tour riders in a time trial that marked the restart of racing in Portugal and a top ten at the Spanish National Championships both in the road race and in the time trial.  

Veloso started the Volta in style at the prologue. Proving that age is just a number, he confirmed his post-Covid form by taking the win and yellow, surprising many on a course requiring such an intense effort (it should normally suit sprinters, like Caldeira in 2019). On Stage 2’s finale up the Senhora da Graça climb, with Antunes’ attack putting him up the road with 38km to go, Veloso was seated in the main group, letting rival teams do the chasing work. This was part of the team’s masterplan to win the Volta – either with Antunes holding the lead till the end or Veloso biding his time till the final TT to reclaim the lead. The ultimate plan had the ultimate back-up plan.  

One for all, all for one: João Rodrigues
João Rodrigues - 2019’s Volta winner - had a very different race from last year. The leading actor in the drama that was the 81st Volta a Portugal felt good form early on. He knew it was strong enough for a top 10 and maybe a top 5 but was it good enough to win? Stage 2 had the answers, while he saw Amaro fly to victory and Veloso defending his lead in the GC. No one can say Rodrigues cracked, but he lacked the power at the finish, losing a few seconds in a race that promised to be decided by seconds.

Rodrigues wouldn’t sit back. Instead he honoured the number 1 on his back in the next best way - by supporting his teammates. On the queen stage, up the highest mountain in mainland Portugal, he set a pace worthy of a true climber, controlling the race. He took the responsibility squarely on his shoulders, protecting Antunes in yellow, and Veloso - the card up W52-FC Porto’s sleeve. The attacks came on the 20km climb, but with Rodrigues on the front, setting the pace and responding to the other teams’ attempts. He would continue to be the ‘unbreakable’ last rider, both at the top of the climb and also toiling in front of the yellow jersey for the remaining stages of the Volta. He still managed to finish the race in a respectable 7th, contributing to W52-FC Porto’s teams classification win for the 7th time.

As a consummate professional, Rodrigues knows the cycle of life as a racing cyclist. The singular mindset of a team leader often has to make way for the selflessness of working for the team, repaying the hard work they’ve put into defending his lead in times of need. While Rodrigues’ performance is noted in detail, his teammates Daniel Mestre, Samuel Caldeira, Rui Vinhas and Ricardo Mestre, all highly accomplished riders (some having won the Volta themselves), deserve just as much credit.  

Often perceived as an individual sport by the general public, with only one rider raising their arms in the finish line, cycling fans will know, it’s about the whole team. With all on-board working to a single-minded, yet adaptable plan, victory for the team is everyone’s reward – that everyone’s work and sacrifice contributes to the celebrations on the top step of the podium. It’s especially true when there’s a line-up so strong that many of the riders could be contenders themselves, yet all choose to unite and work towards the bigger picture and a greater win for the team.