When you're under pressure, apply pressure
W52-FC Porto was no doubt the favourite team going into the 82nd edition of the race, having won five of the last six editions. That comes with a long list of pressures, from the media and the fans, not to mention the sponsors. Being the favorite also comes with expectation from other teams, that they’d be responsible for controlling the race, which of course is a resource hungry task (and resources are limited to seven riders…) After the prologue and early stages, other teams held the lead and the Portuguese team was therefore absolved from chasing the breaks of the day. On stage 2, Joni Brandão attacked the chasing peloton in the closing kilometres and took second, moving up the GC. In terms of time gained, it was minimal but it was the pressure that was important and that their rivals felt it. Then again on stage 4, the team put three riders on the front at a critical point on a climb and that split the peloton into pieces. More pressure, which was felt. This left eventual winner Amaro Antunes the perfect platform to make his move in the finale where one of the team's key rivals was isolated. It also resulted in a cool looking polka-dot jersey for Antunes at the end of the stage.
Keep your rivals guessing
In the team there were three previous winners and one who had been runner up several times and was keen to convert his almost-theres into an entry into the history books. With the helter-skelter action in the early part of the race, the team still had three riders who were very much in contention after stage 4, and the lowest ranked on GC was the 2019 winner! One moment Rodrigues would make a move, the next it was Brandão, then Antunes. That made it very hard for the other teams to form an effective battle plan – after all, to beat your enemy you have to know who your enemy is. At no time in the race, up until the final few stages, could the other teams determine exactly who the W52-FC Porto team leader was. Considering the race was won by only 10 seconds, this factor alone could have been responsible for that victory.
Win or learn
The 2021 of the race saw the UK's youngest UCI Continental Team SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling try their hand at racing on the Continent, at what is thought of as the 4th Grand Tour. It could be said this is the big league for the relatively inexperienced and youthful riders. It was a baptism of fire, but to their absolute credit, they soaked up every moment of it, even though the level was way beyond what they were expecting. They left Portugal empty handed in terms of trophies, multicolored jerseys and teddy bears, but what they learned far exceeded that, and the day in day out suffering on the challenging terrain, in the searing heat. It was all part of the big picture, where the team's strategy was to use the race as a build up to the Tour of Britain, their home race and their best opportunity all season to prove themselves. There is not enough space here to list all of the lessons. That's another story. Safe to say that those seven riders were changed on a molecular level and learned as much in 10 days than they had since they first swung a leg over a racing bike.
Practice practice practice makes perfect (and wins races)
Eventual race winner Antunes went into the final stage with a 42 second advantage over Mauricio Moreira. For the pure climber going into the time trial stage it was not enough. The TT specialist looked likely to take over a minute off the 2020 winner and pundits we're nodding to a foregone conclusion. That was until Moreira pushed just a little too hard into a tightening right hander, drifted onto the shoulder and lost control of his bike. Amaro simply had to keep his nerve and pedal home to the win. We like to think it’s because he was on his sure-footed Neurogen, however that would take away from his fastidious attention to detail to his preparation. A critical part of that preparation is best described in his own words, said immediately after the end of the TT, "In a parcours like this it's the small details... The corner where Mauricio crashed I practised it around 10, 15 times... to make sure I would get it right."
Try and try again, because you never know
Team SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling appeared out of their depth and with regards the form and experience of the local riders. Stature also came into it – most of them over 1.8m and 70kg and ill suited to the spiky terrain that the Volta a Portugal is infamous for. But they tried their luck anyway in a true David and Goliath approach. What could be the worst that could happen!? On stage 1 Andy Turner got involved in the early skirmish when the breakaway tried to escape. That failed. The very next day he tried again and it stuck, this time paired with Kyle Murphy Marvin Scheulin. The trio soon became a duo as the finale heated up, and with the time gap that they had, it looked clear that the winner would come from one of these two. On the very last rise. Turner's legs gave in and he was caught, leaving Murphy to take the stage. A few more days of trying to get in the break and SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling got into a move, this time with Alex Peters. The terrain was certainly more challenging than stage 2's and Peters arrived in Santo Tirso in a creditable 11th place. As the racing (and the heat) ramped up even more, the UK team went into survival mode. But while they were grimacing, bleeding, reaching for ice bags and pouring as much cold water over themselves as they could, dealerships in Portugal were being inundated with calls enquiring about their bikes, and in fact one dealership completely sold out of SwiftCarbon bicycles. That's what we would call a happy sponsor!
When rivals think you will do one thing, do the opposite
Going into stage 9, Antunes had a slender advantage over his rivals and needed to extend it. It was do or die for W52-FC Porto and it all was to come down to the finale on the first category Snr da Graça summit finish. As it turned out, the race actually started to take shape on the descent prior to the legendary climb. Riders began attacking on the sinewy downhill, knowing that Moreira’s bike handling skills we're not as good as they could be. Following on were Brandão and Rodrigues who immediately went to the front and began pulling hard with Marques following, one of Antunes big rivals, with Antunes isolated behind in the chase group. Conventional tactics would have dictated that Rodrigues and Brandão would wait for their leader and not pulled for Marques. But the crafty riders actually had the upper hand. The team used the advantage that the leading trio had, leaving Team Efapel to chase, softening up their potential attack near the top. They had no choice but to comply with the unorthodox chess move and play straight into the hands of Portugal’s top team. Amaro took full advantage, and all he was left to do was drive home as much time as he could up to the finish. The rest is cycling history, and another great lesson to us all – keep them guessing, always.