I’ve always said that one of the best things about mountain bike racing is the places it takes you. For a road race, I might make it as far from my home in London as the surrounding counties, or the occasional foray to northern France or Belgium. Fun, but not exactly an adventure.
The UCI marathon series, on the other hand, includes a real mix of locations. You’ve got the established races in Europe, such as the Grand Raid, Dolomiti Superbike, Roc Laissagais or Sellaronda Hero. Then you’ve got some further afield – Costa Rica, South Africa, Argentina. But this weekend just gone was a reminder of what amazing places there are to ride within only a very short flight from London.
The Meda 100 takes place in an area of Portugal east of Porto, about three quarters of the way towards the Spanish border. I found it one of the most peaceful parts of Europe I can remember going to. Portugal as a whole has a population of just over 10 million – i.e. not much more than my home city. And from what I could see, not many of them live around Meda! Sleepy villages where people look up in surprise to see someone riding a mountain bike down the street; roads where you can ride for miles without being passed by a car; fields actually being ploughed with oxen! And old ladies dressed in black tending the vineyards by hand. Quite eye-opening to find some of these sights in western Europe.
And some really glorious scenery: no big mountains, but plenty of hills, some of them rolling, some of them steep and painstakingly terraced to allow the olive groves to cling to the sides of them.
The race is new to the UCI calendar this year, but organiser Joaquim Santos has big ambitions – there’s a bid being formed for future European / World Championships. And a good thing too – I’m all for spreading the love around some of these more off-the-beaten-track events, rather than just sticking to the mainstream. And Joaquim and his team have got a lot of the ingredients right – good course, great landscape to race in, pretty much flawless route-marking, plenty of marshals, many from the local Bombeiros in their red jackets, and good support from the local community in general.
The race itself had its own distinct character. In some ways it reminded me a bit of some of the stages on the Absa Cape Epic – vineyards, occasional bits of sand, fast farm tracks, loose rocks and dirt roads. But it had at least two features that I have not seen in any other race. First, it took us through what appeared to be a fully-fledged archaeological dig – excavations, roped-off areas and all. And second, the course went through the mediaeval castle of Marialva – in fact, one of the best bits of the course was the rocky stepped section coming down from the castle. It’s hard to imagine many other places where this would happen, but it made for a really spectacular part of the course, including one of the feed stations.
The men’s race went with the formbook, with Tiago Ferreira of Team Protek taking a convincing win over Pedro Ocampo of Extremadura Specialized. The women’s event was somewhat closer, going by only a minute to Tania Neves from Agueda.
My own race seemed beset by problems in the lead-up. First, a cracked frame discovered only three days before departure; second, a strike by Air Portugal pilots for 10 days (10 days!) over the entire period of my trip. And then when team-mate Jeff and I were in Portugal, a careless moment by Jeff while packing bikes into the car left him without a front QR skewer. Cue a lot of scrambling around trying to find anything that resembled a bike shop, although an unusual design meant that finding a direct replacement was unlikely. Who should come to Jeff’s rescue, however, but the cigar-smoking head honcho at the local motorbike / chainsaw / agricultural machinery workshop, who proceeded to weld a new head onto a resized 15mm bolt to fit the width of the fork. Lightweight? No. Functional? Yes; and best of all, this bit of bike servicing involved a complimentary glass of home-brew port. Which was surprisingly tasty.
Jeff’s and my races were somewhat opposite in character – Jeff struggled to get going, before coming good just in time for the substantial amount of climbing in the last 20k and taking a nice 18th place; I started well, sticking with the group for 9th until about 60k, then gradually feeling worse and worse, suffering like a dog up the final climbs and clinging on for 20th – achieving my goal, but only by the skin of my teeth.