Never should 122km be as hard as this! I have ridden many longer days in the saddle, and many days with more metres climbed, but I'm struggling to find a ride in my memory that was as hard as this one.
This is the first time I have ridden the Montemuro Granfondo. It's held in the beautiful Douro Valley in Portugal and organised by Bikeservice, who also organise four other granfondo events in northern Portugal. With the amazing scenery and amazing routes available they are on to a good thing, and regularly get 1500+ riders attending.
The Montemuro Granfondo starts in a small town called Cinfães, about 80km from Porto. The town itself is high up in the hills at 400m and the highest point nearby is at 1200m so there is plenty of scope for some good climbs in the area.
I have to say that the organisation of the event was first class. This year's event took place on Sunday 14 April. We arrived on Saturday afternoon, and already the event village was set up with directions to where we could sign on and pick up our rider numbers and timing chips (attached to the number board).
We were very pleased to be given a bottle of Vinho Verde, the local wine with our entries - one of the many reasons I love Portuguese granfondo events, they always look after you well.
The day of the event was a bit gloomy with low cloud over the tops of the hills but at least it was dry.
The three of us riding together were all in starting box 501 - 750, so right in the middle of the whole pack of riders. This proved to be a slight issue just after the start because once we had passed through the arch and timing mats, we then headed straight downhill for a couple of hundred metres to a roundabout. Although the police had temporarily closed the road, there was the inevitable bunching where riders slowed to take the roundabout on damp roads.
We then headed along a cobbled road that was also downhill. I must have swerved past about 20 bottles that had jumped out of their cages and one Garmin that I recognised belonged to a guy stood next to me in the start area. I saw him walking back up the road to find it which would have been a task.
The route continued downhill for about 5km and I would say this was probably my only criticism of the whole event. There were many riders who were poor descenders - especially on damp roads - trying to get down the hill whilst being scared witless by faster descenders shouting at them to move out of the way.
Given the location of Cinfães, the organisers were limited where they could send riders but sending about 1500 people downhill in one go was probably asking for trouble and as an organiser of a granfondo myself I would have looked for a route to thin the crowds before giving them a big descent.
The rest of the route was a dream though. Traffic-free roads - and the police stopped traffic in the very few places we came across any - stunning scenery, and fantastic climbs and descents.
The first proper climb of the day was a long but gentle affair at 9km but only averaging about 4% gradient. Of course, being a bit stupid I attacked it in the big ring and was very pleased with how well I was going. I should have taken notice of the knowing looks of the locals. This was just the start of a 60km climb to the highest point (although broken up with a few descents). Little was I to know what was in store later!
The Douro Valley was living up to its UNESCO World Heritage status, providing stunning views over the steeply banked valley with the traditional terraces where the vineyards were just beginning to sprout leaves.
This was taking my mind off the fact that we were still climbing relentlessly. After some time we came to another one of the categorised climbs. It was steeper than the previous ones - 5km at 8.6%. So fairly tough, but nothing I haven't done before on plenty of occasions.
The first km was fairly innocuous at about 6%, then we had another km at about 7.2%, so I knew that the final 3km would be a bit more than 8.6%.
Well, that was an understatement! With 2km to go the gradient hit 14% and the final km averaged 16% with some parts at 18%. I have never been on a ride where so many people were walking. I managed to ride all of it, but did cheat by stopping to help a damsel in distress whos chain had come off.
Fortunately at the top of the climb was one of the excellent feed stations. The usual array of fruit, sandwiches, cakes and drinks were on offer along with local Presunto Ham, carved off the bone. Deliciously salty and a real treat.
A fast descent followed for about 10km before virtually every other rider turned left for the long descent back to Cinfães on the Mediofondo route (they knew what was in store) whilst we turned right to follow the Granfondo route.
Looking at the profile, a 7km climb at 6.6% doesn't seem too bad, but after the horrors of the previous climb it was like pedalling through treacle.
I somehow managed to battle up to the top at over 1100m where we took a quick rest and chatted to a policeman who must have been bored out of his mind as there was no traffic to stop and no riders to direct.
A 10km descent on a deserted road down the side of the valley gave my legs a bit of a rest and reminded me why I do these things. This was followed by a short 3km climb of about 8% to the final feed station, which stupidly, I ignored.
After the feed station the road wound its way down the valley for another 16km. A real twisty, fast treat, with glimpses of the river below.
Once we hit the road just above the rider we were treated to glorious views on still deserted roads. This place is truly amazing!
The final climb from the river back to Cinfães was billed as 5km at 5.6%, but the organisers neglected to tell us that in fact the climbing starts at about 12km before the finish, even though the official climb is only 5km. When we hit the climb it was steady enough, but the official top of the climb was over 1km from the finish of the Granfondo - and that 1km was all uphill! Let's just say that some choice words were used!
Once we had finished we were welcomed to the event village with a medal for our efforts and a choice of free beer, wine, water and local soup. We didn't have any soup as they were heating up another pot and we didn't want to wait but I can definitely say the cold beer was excellent.
Looking back on the event a day later, I can say that it is an excellent event that is well organised and has some fantastic routes. The Granfondo route is very deceptive as it is much harder than it appears when you look at the route profile. Probably why less than a third of riders taking part rode the Granfondo route.
Would I do it again? Yes, definitely - but I'd be a bit less gung ho on the early climbs next time!
If you're interested in taking part next year you can find details when published at montemurogranfondo.com.