Friday, May 3, 2013

Racing the TransPortugal for Cancer

The TransPortugal Garmin is a 1,150 km and 24,500 m climb mountain bike race crossing Portugal in 9 days, north to south and finishing in Sagres - the southern west point of Europe.

This is a self-supported and GPS-led race, somewhat like orienteering but on a mountain bike. There are no signs, ribbons or arrows to indicate the way.

The race has a unique format of levelling the playing field by factoring age and gender. So being male and 44 years old, I have a 2% handicap advantage, meaning to say that I get to start from between 4 to 8 minutes earlier depending on the length of the stage. Some female racers get to start more than an hour earlier.
Lovely Singapore Airlines crew

This seemed like a worthy race after last year's Absa Cape Epic in South Africa, and I wasn't disappointed.

My goals were just to finish the race, particularly after I had ruptured my medial meniscus in the left knee 2 months before the race; and to raise $10 for every km I race for the Singapore Cancer Society, in other words $11,500.

Visiting Portugal was quite symbolic for me, as they were the first western nation to colonise Malaysia in 1511, the country where I was born.

Mug shot
I flew via London to Lisbon, and the city was not unlike what I had envisaged - historic and majestic buildings, monuments and castles, some of which had seen better days in bygone eras.

The adventure commenced with a 7 hour bus ride up north to Bragança with my race partner Morten Hansen. And following the tradition from the 2012 Absa Cape Epic we formed Team Singapore Racing, just to inject some "pro" flavour to a couple of MAMILs (middle-aged men in lycra) with our logo emblazoned jersey, FaceBook page and all.

So thank you very much Attitude Bikes, Entro Cycles, Fitness First, Limar Helmets and The GoodWater Company for your generous support and sponsorship.

There were 76 participants, which was about the maximum that the race can take given the logistics of a different town every night and the capacity of the local hotels.

The race organisation by Ciclonatur was superb, with José Carlos and team going out of their way to accommodate our many requests and to make this a memorable event.

Stage 1 - Saturday 4 May
Bragança to Freixo
142 km distance 3,800 m climb

The race commenced in the northern town of Bragança, with the first few days rather chilly at below 10 °C in the mornings.

We were welcomed by never ending climbs mainly on double tracks with many trails on uneven, harsh and cobblestone terrain.

It was a little hard on my body without rear suspension as my weapon of choice was the Specialized S-Works 29er hard tail, but it performed flawlessly except for a broken rear derailleur cage on Stage 6.

My initial feelings about the race were mixed, as the body and mind struggled to the shock of racing on average 7.5 hours and climbing almost 3,000 metres every day, for nine consecutive days.
Superb post-race bike care & tuning

A few racers had asked me how I trained in a flat country like Singapore, with the highest point being Bukit Timah at all of 163 metres, and I guess that was why my body had protested.

My 6 month training programme was adapted from the Daisyway Coaching Systems, supplemented with strength training and Bikram Yoga but it clearly lacked the long hill climbs.

Stage 2 - Sunday 5 May
Freixo to Guarda
110 km distance 2,800 m climb
Technical descent at Calçada de Santana

The timing for the race could not have been better. It was the tail end of Spring and transitioning into Summer. The countryside was teeming with greenery and an explosion of white, yellow and purple fields of flowers.

We were also lucky as it was relatively dry, with some heavy rains just the week before our race. The scenery and gorgeous vista of the mountains were amazing.

The heart-thumping descent at Calçada de Santana could have easily resulted in a nasty outcome if one were to fall over the side of the cliff, but thankfully there were no dramas except for a couple of torn tyres.

But for some reason I was feeling tired, my energy level was low and I couldn't get my heart-rate up. Perhaps it was my preparation, or just the body taking time to adapt to this work load - I wasn't sure. What I was sure was that I had to press on and stay the course.

There were a few serious race casualties already, including a broken collar bone and lung infection.

Almeida fort-village

Stage 3 - Monday 6 May
Guarda to Unhais Da Serra
108 km distance 3,600 m

Stage 3 was an epic day with 3,600 m climb in just 108 km!

The scenery was the best so far as we traversed near the Serra da Estrela and the snow-capped Torre, the highest mountain in Portugal.

Today was the coldest day on tour and the rain and wind chill at the final descent clad with only lightweight summer racing kit was not fun.
Water stop

I couldn't feel my fingers and was shivering until the finish line. I must admit that my body was beginning to hurt.

Nevertheless, I was feeling a lot better after the first three days as I settled down into a rhythm.

Also, I "discovered" the iPod after seeing a few racers using them and confirmed that this was not against the race rules. This really helped to take my mind away from the pain. 

Stage 4 - Tuesday 7 May
Unhais Da Serra to Monfortinho
110 km distance 2,900 m climb

I got into a silly accident today. It was an unnecessary high-speed chase and I got caught in a tyre rut and fell which resulted in a lacerated and swollen right knee. So I guess this complemented my left knee with the ruptured meniscus ... left and right leg power were more balanced now.

Luckily, the swelling did not get worse and with daily ice treatment, I managed to continue but was careful not to overload my knees.

The weather was beginning to get warmer as we headed down south, and the casualties were beginning to take its toll. Now we have two broken collarbones, a broken thumb, a few saddles sores and a virulent stomach virus that's making it's rounds.

Amazing rock climb up to Monsanto Castle

Stage 5 - Wednesday 8 May
Monfortinho to Castelo De Vide
144 km distance 2,600 m climb

Explosion of colours in the countryside

We were now just over the half-way mark with 610 km and 16,000 m climb so far. By now, I would wake up in the mornings with stiff legs and joints, the fingers now permanently numb from the constant handlebar judder. It was amusing to see people including myself walking around like old people ... hobbling and stiff legged.

The scenery alone was worth it

Steep climb up to Castelo De Vide
Nevertheless, I was feeling much better as the days went by but my knees were still uncomfortable, especially the right knee. But after a while the pain went away, perhaps they just got numb from the constant cadence.

The weather was getting much warmer now and we were racing through many private farmlands. I was riding mostly solo today so I had to open and close quite a number of farm gates myself, some of which were so tightly strung like a bow that one false move and it could have lopped my fingers off.

Stage 6 - Thursday 9 May
Castelo De Vide to Monsaraz
165 km distance 3,200 m climb

First big climb from Castelo De Vide

Stage 6 was the longest stage at 165 km. One word to describe todays stage - rough. The trails were hard-packed through many sections with hardened water bars and tractor tracks. My chain kept falling out of the jockey wheel which I found out later was because of a broken rear derailleur cage.

Drafting with Neil
There were altogether 35 farm gates, some very tricky and I teamed up with Neil Kirkpatrick from 40 km onwards to make it easier, who also spotted my Garmin GPS on the ground after being ejected from the incessant stem judders (thanks Neil!).

One thing I loved about travel was meeting new people and cultures. I had a great time bantering with the South Africans, they were such a funny bunch.

This one was gold: "Q: How to you tell between a male and female zebra? A: The male is black with white stripes, and the female is white with black stripes!".

Stage 7 - Friday 10 May
Monsaraz to Albernoa
146 km distance 2,000 m climb

I was feeling stronger and coupled with a relatively flat terrain, Stage 7 turned out to be one of the fastest stage traversing through endless olive farms, vineyards and sleepy towns. I have got into a routine of downing a couple of expressos with a coke every few hours when I could find a cafe. This gave a me a huge sustained energy boost.

José Carlos - awesome
organiser & host
Every day was the same routine - after race shower, massage, dinner, race briefing, preparation for the next day and sleep. Race nutrition consisted of a couple of packed sandwiches from breakfast, dark chocolate, Hammer products like Perpetuem Solids, Bars, Endurolytes and Gels all stuffed in my back pocket and "bento box".

With massive calories burned everyday, I always looked forward to the post-race recovery meal and sumptuous dinner. And oh, applying a generous dollop of saddle cream every morning for a happy bum was mandatory.

The daily massages really helped, with Rui Queixada and the crew ever obliging and friendly.

Stage 8 - Saturday 11 May
Albernoa to Monchique
138 km distance 3,100 m climb

Final cobblestone
descent to Monchique
The race mechanics fitted a new rear derailleur and the transmission was shifting sharply again. João Aragão and team did a superb job in ensuring that my bike was prepared and perfect everyday.

Stage 8 was one of the hardest days - lots of long and seemingly never ending climbs and the temperature was getting hot too, but nothing that a coke and expresso cannot fix. 

My hydration management for the race was perfect, with water supplies from taps and cafes sufficiently spaced out for my 2 bottles.

Stage 9 - Sunday 12 May
Monchique to Sagres
99 km distance 2,000 m climb

Team Singapore Racing
The final stage to Sagres was special, with the realisation that I had survived relatively unscathed with just the final leg in front of me. I was feeling strong and was powered up most of the way. 

It was very windy as we got closer to the coast and when I saw the massive wind mills and the shore line, I knew I had made it.

And crossing the finishing line at the beach was a priceless experience. Whilst obviously ecstatic, I really felt for the other racers who couldn't finish - only 2/3 of the field managed to complete the race.

I finished the TransPortugal in 46th place in 67:44:35 hours, which included a 30 minute penalty (for ignoring a 3-second stop at a Stop sign) and the 2% handicap advantage.

Sagres coastline

No, not blood test for EPO
but for university research
Some folks asked me how I compared the TransPortugal to the Cape Epic, arguably one of the toughest mountain bike stage in the world? To me, they were quite different races. 

The TransPortugal whilst being longer and higher, was a little less technical and intense as it was not a UCI race. The racing field was much smaller and thus the atmosphere was friendlier especially during the evenings which were enhanced by the wonderful Portuguese wines.

Regardless, both events were long and hard endurance races requiring solid preparation, a strong mind and some luck in order to finish.

Live GPS tracking of racers
And to top off this wonderful experience was the generosity of the donors who helped me raise $25,000 for the Singapore Cancer Society.

Sincere appreciation to all my friends, family and sponsors for helping make this happen. I am privileged and humbled to be have been able to do this.

The racing contingent