How a third division team beat the biggest names in cycling

How a third division team beat the biggest names in cycling

The story of the underdog is as fascinating as it is timeless. The ‘against all odds’ vanquishing of a way more powerful adversary but a little-known protagonist has a romance to it that never tires. The sport of road cycling, with its nuances, variables, conditions, luck and tactics is the perfect setting for a David vs Goliath scene. Add the benefit of a home advantage and we have João Rodrigues, riding for a third division team, trouncing some of the biggest outfits in world cycling, and rewriting history.

The Volta ao Algarve has UCI Pro Series status, ranked equally with legendary races such as Paris-Tours, Tour of Britain, Vuelta a Burgos, Trofeo Laigueglia and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. A trophy at any of these races would be treasured by even the most decorated rider. On a pragmatic level, the event’s UCI status means that the top tier teams are in keen attendance, pursuing the significant number of points on offer i.e. the likes of Ineos Grenadiers, AG2R Citroën, Bora-Hansgrohe, Groupama-FDJ, UAE Team Emirates and Deceuninck-QuickStep.

So for a UCI Continental team like W52-FC Porto-Reconco, running on a fraction of the budget, it’s a tall order to make their mark (and score points) at the country’s most important race against these all top-ranked, UCI WorldTeams. In fact, 2006 was the last time a rider won the Volta ao Algarve who was not from one of cycling’s top tier teams. Of course, as a small bike brand when compared to the big five, we feel a kindred spirit, knowing full well what it’s like going up against the big guns. On Sunday the 9th of May, João Rodrigues reminded us what is possible, if we just dare to try.

It was the last day of the 47th Volta ao Algarve – the finale after four stages of hard racing. Rodrigues and his team had taken an ambitious yet realistic approach to the opening stage – clearly a day for the sprinters. They stayed alert and near the front, but almost predictably, the best lead out train in the world led arguably the best sprinter in the world to the line, with Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Sam Bennett taking the win and the yellow jersey.

However it didn’t take long for Rodrigues and his colleagues to show their cards – on day 2, the 182.8km stage from Sagres to the hilltop finish at Fóia, team Ineos Grenadiers pushed hard with Iván Sosa, Ethan Hayter and Sebastián Henao looking to stamp their authority on the race. They did, with Hayter taking the stage. But Rodrigues made the selection, staying close by. They ended up level on GC, with the Englishman taking yellow having won the spectacular stage (and Rodrigues wearing the KOM jersey).

Stage 3 was one for GC consolidation, and for Sam Bennett, again. The Irishman secured the points jersey competition with a win in the mass sprint. The following day’s individual time trial turned out to be pivotal, not just for the usual reasons that the ‘race of truth’ reveals. GC leader Hayter was on a superb day, till he pushed a fraction too hard into a 50km/h left hander, crashing hard. He was back on his bike almost immediately, but the loss of time and momentum cost him around a minute. All the while, Rodrigues was turning in a solid performance, and putting his knowledge of the roads and their surfaces to good use. With Hayter’s misfortune, Rodrigues stayed in GC contention, and the W52 – FC Porto rider was only 12 seconds shy of the race lead.

170 kilometres and a spiky profile between Albufeira and Alto do Malhão (Loulé) stood between the 26-year-old and making cycling history. The stage became animated early one with attacks, but only at 30 kilometres did the day's escape, with 13 riders clear, but it all came down to the final climb. W52 – FC Porto set the pace from the bottom putting pressure on the yellow jersey. With a few kilometres to go, the attacks came and Rodrigues and his lieutenant for the week Amaro Antunes responded promptly. Élie Gesbert (Team Arkéa-Samsic) made the move that stuck, ultimately breaking the elastic between the small group that had formed and the yellow jersey. This was the move that counted and Rodrigues and Antunes quickly realised this was their race winning opportunity.

As the road tilted upwards, the gradient of the Alto do Malhão climb proved too much for Hayter to follow, no doubt suffering from his injuries from the previous day’s fall. Despite his huge efforts, the time gap grew. With the ruthlessness of bike racing on full show, Antunes went to the front of the trio (including Gesbert and Rodrigues), sacrificing his own chances of a stage win for the greater cause.

When Antunes was spent, Rodrigues took over. Knowing he had bigger fish to fry than a stage win - overall victory - he made up the lion’s share of the pace-setting, allowing Gesbert the slight respite of the Portuguese rider’s draft and leaving the Frenchman fractionally fresher for the sprint. The Gesbert’s efforts secured his second professional victory and also fifth place overall at the 2021 edition. Rodrigues was momentarily disappointed in losing the stage, but with Hayter crossing the line 21 seconds later he realised he’d taken a greater prize – the GC win by nine seconds!

“It was a crazy fast race, high speed, but the breakaway was always under control. It was all or nothing. That was the strategy. Amaro (Antunes) was amazing, the whole team was amazing,” Rodrigues told sports newspaper O Jogo.

Similar to Rodrigues’ win at the 2019 Volta a Portugal, he never wore the leader’s jersey until he stepped on the final podium once the race was over. Hayter ended up second overall and Tour of Flanders winner Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-Quickstep) finished third overall at 28 seconds after finishing eighth on the stage, 19 seconds back. It was a victory for the whole W52 - FC Porto - Reconco team, not just on the results board, but also proving that they have what it takes to compete with the biggest and the best teams in the world.

"I’m very happy, after this team effort. Even more so because it’s the Volta ao Algarve and me, being a local, it’s very special. I knew it would be very hard to do so because of all the world-class riders that come every year. I feel very happy, of course, it’s an incredible feeling. I must thank the team, my coach and everyone else that supported me,” said Rodrigues.

João Rodrigues picked the latest iteration of our Ultravox marque as his weapon of choice – check it out in the RACE section.

Photos: João Fonseca @joaofonsecaphotographer