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25-04-2024 | Wouter Fioole

GF Torres Vedras: in the footsteps of Napoleon

I'm doing the Granfondo Torres Vedras, some fifty kilometers above Lisbon. Fslightly but nonetheless stepwise, I overtake disillusioned participants on foot. The gradual climbers are participants in the medio fondo, myself now suffering the 2-kilometer climb at an average of 12% up after 130 kilometers. Average! Because after 700 meters at 20%, there's still just under 250 meters of descent. After that it's over a kilometer with a maximum of 21%. It 'brilliantly kills' to get to the top at all. So it is by no means a shame to have to get off the bike. Certainly not with the idea in the back of your mind that even the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte did not get up here.

In order of entry

What is not the most well-known story about Napoleon is that it was here in these Portuguese hills around the town of Torres Vedras that he suffered his first real defeat in his war campaigns. Napoleon had ordered all European ports to keep English ships out, but the Portuguese were too good friends with the English for that. Reason enough for Napoleon to invade Portugal and try to take Lisbon. To do so, however, he had to pass through the Linhas de Torres, a fortress system atop the crests of the kind of ridges that make up the mountain landscape here. Actually, it was impossible to get a good result, which was true for both Napoleon and me. Indeed, lesson 1 of riding gran fondos in Portugal is: sign up on time! You get a start number based on the order of registration. And you have to start in the start box belonging to your number. I had number 1400 (out of just over 1500 participants) and was thus at the very back.


Always up and down

A good result was therefore going to be very difficult for me as well. However, I didn't let that put me off. A few minutes after the starting gun, I crossed the line and began a furious chase to the front of the field. The pack was immediately split up and already in the first kilometer there were huge gaps between the pelotons. All distances (the mini of 66 km/ 1000 m+, medio of 90km/1800 hm and gran fondo of 150 km/ 2500 hm) started at the same time. For about 50% of the participants it is really a race, but for the others mainly a wonderful sportive.

Like the Linhas de Torres, the route extends from the Atlantic coast to the Tagus River and back again. A climb of about 3-4 kilometers up, over the ridge a few kilometers of glowing road (it doesn't get flat anywhere) and down again in search of the next ridge to repeat all this again immediately. The scenery is truly phenomenal, the trail actually completely car-free. The Portuguese - even the fanatical ones - are very friendly and relaxed. Even in the now small group I'm in, they really take each other into account. Despite racing through the field of participants at high speed, I hardly encounter any dangerous situations.

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Relaxed but fast

Where at French gran fondos I sometimes doubt the safety of the course, at German Jedermannrennen I really do get a quack every now and then and I see big rather massive falls, there it is now actually very relaxed but very fast cycling. At first we overtake whole pelotons, which slowly but surely become smaller groups. The smaller groups become tufts of up to five riders and after overcoming a few more ridges, we only pick up loners. This must have been how Napoleon experienced it when he took over 65,000 men into the hills here; after each ledge the groups got smaller and smaller.

The advantage I had over Napoleon was that I did get food from the Portuguese along the way. Indeed, the (later) Duke of Wellington (the one from Waterloo, yes) used scorched earth tactics during the defense. Nothing edible was allowed to return to the French. In my case, the only scorching was the pace at which several teammates had now taken the lead of my group. But there was plenty of food at the feeding stations. Then 20% ascent is a victory, you don't have to get off your bike to get food and drinks. I went up more than slowly enough for that anyway.


At the summit, I can't resist giving my legs a rest and taking in the breathtaking (if still necessary) view. Something I did on just about every summit honestly for a while. Then I threw myself into the descent, hoping to catch up with the two in my group who pulled away from me in the last 20 kilometers to the finish. This succeeds, but the final sprint is my personal Waterloo. Although I shouldn't speak of that of course, on this absolutely top day! The story about Napoleon notwithstanding, perhaps most fans are more interested in the fact that the finish line is right next to the statue to the greatest Portuguese warrior on a bicycle ever: Joaquim Agostinho! The man of the region.

At this organization, I'm glad I get to ride two more gran fondos. During GF Medio Tejo I have start number 864 and at the GF Terras do Bastos 455. With that alone I win a lot of places. You can read about my experiences at these races on this site later this spring!

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