When I rode the race last time in 2015 day 3 was a special conflagration of all that was wrong with my racing ambitions. Too much beer the night before (and the night before that), and well, you get the idea. I also missed a critical water station at the bottom of the last big climb (a trick I repeated this time as well – more on that later). I cramped hard under the intense afternoon heat, and found myself wallowing in a kind of post-race delirium. There was lots of beer at the finish, so I felt fine soon enough, but the crappy performance bothered me a lot over the last couple of years.

The start of Day 3 is a quiet affair this year. There is still excitement in the air, but the legs and the body are working a bit harder this morning to get started. The ice shower from last night helped, and maybe the silent comedy of screaming and squirming and dancing on one foot in the shower did too. Mostly the body is a bit Batenberged and in need of tight packaging and refrigeration to keep it in the game. Consume best by date is fast approaching. It seems like a tough stage to come.

Despite my misgivings the stage turns to be a lot of fun. By fun I mean the terrain changes endlessly and frequently and dramatically. There is a strong feeling of discovery en route. Happy riding. We have a short ride from the hotel to the start line. Out of the gate I’m on the front with the (almost) lead group. We weave and drop from one chute to another lane, to a twisty forest section to punchy late morning climbs and fast road descents as well as teeth chattering double track mountain trails. Am scratched up by the close encounters with brambles on the trails. The flow of the course is fantastic.

I manage to break a friends’ camera by dousing it in water as I cross a small river coming into a checkpoint, and pump the track up out of it with gusto. A rider on my left ensures that I take the “hard” line and of course never one to miss a showboating opportunity climb up a short steep rocky section to mental applause.

The party’s soon over and am back on my own for much of today after the first checkpoint. Very long tarmac. Very long climbing solo. Pick up and drop a couple small groups, then get picked up and dropped by Terrance and Phillips from the chasing “South Park” group near the top of the first big summit. At least my dignity holds up today – it took them over 4 hours to catch me J. They ride with me a while, we trade abuse, there is some laughing and then they drop me. As usual. I hear an inappropriate song  on the distant sullied air.

I see race director Alfredo on the course a bunch of times today, he’s always encouraging, checking if I’m ok, which is really appreciated. Would love a support car and a whipping posse even more, or the Budweiser girls dancing in the pickup, but he’s a big help – so thank you! As I get to the final checkpoint I try and negotiate for a “dropped” Red Bull to help shoot me uphill, but he taunts me right back saying it can only be the empty can.

The upshot is that I head up the start of the final climb of 15kms with practically no water.

I also follow the route map which is wrong at a critical turn and waste a good 10 minutes screwing around. Not good. I change from being a confident happy rider to a water seeking hillbilly.

My Boy Scout training kicks in. I’m looking at every sign in the woods for water. The sound of a stream, evidence of a small pool. Anything. There’s a recollection from last year that there was a tap somewhere on the first switchback section, but it comes and goes with nothing. Stresscalation. A rider goes by with a full bottle. I consider a Moon of Endor attack. Another rider kindly gives me some shot blocks. Thanks dude from S Africa! I gulp them back with Pelican-esque gullerty.

Many, many minutes later I see a small stream and then see it again on the next switchback and hop off, bushwhack up to the source and crouch into the stream and fill both bottles against the soft moss. Guzzle one. Think about sheep poop and disease. Fill another and guzzle it too. Ahh, that’s better. Wish I could take a selfie crouched there but not a good idea. I didn’t bring carabiner and rope. Feel a like a leaky bucket but who cares. I won’t sweat out like last time now.

The mountain beckons. I have a simple plan. To ride without dismounting. It’s easy to say get off and walk but I am determined. At least till the first very steep loose section. Then I get off and walk. The view is amazing, why not enjoy it and take a couple quick pics? I have time on my side.

The two extra “granny” gears – let’s call them ultra-grannies – are working their magic. With a mega-ring of 46 teeth there isn’t much I can’t deal with. My fitness level is also improved somewhat. I get dropped no more, it’s just me and my big legs on big rings and all is well in the world.

It’s funny how the days go sometimes, and the really cool thing about Trans Portugal seeding system is that you never know who you will finish with. It works out that some days you finish with people who you would never have ridden with all day and really turns the unexpected out of the of the race. For me it encapsulates equally the silliness and the gravitas of amateur racing

So here it is, at the end of a hard stage – I’ve been climbing for over an hour on the last big pitch, and I’m chatting to a very nice older Spanish gentleman I come up upon who is giving it heck into the final few kilometers. So we chit chat and I tell him a bit about what to expect, and he’s all skeptical and tired, which is fair enough. I never believe anyone who says 5 more kilometers either. It’s looking like the never-ending climb. He hasn’t done the stage finish before. I have and know exactly what to expect.

Vaguely infantile competitive urges kick in and I move ahead a bit, up the last couple steep sections, when I feel him coming around me attacking for the lead! I kid you not, he’s going hard. I’m thinking to myself as he gets ahead 20, 30 meters do I let him go or just pull back and finish with some gas in the tank? How far ahead dare I let him go? The debate ends when I decide to gun it and drop him. Well, slow drop. As in very slow motion drop. Enough for us to transmit a lot of inter-biker data.

Still it’s a very funny moment because here I am, head down and tongue hanging to beat a guy to the line who is 25 years my senior. I have a ridiculous sense of accomplishment as I turn onto the final road section. When he gets to the finish line there is a steady stream of Spanish amidst which I pick out some well-known swear words about me. We laugh, shake hands like warriors and the day ends well. Very well.

Not to take anything away from the day – it’s a big relief to cross the line in time and unscathed. It’s also very clear that I have lots of work to do on my uphill race management. Back home a few weeks later I’m on a ride with a buddy who reminds me that you don’t get fast on hills by riding them slowly. I know what I need to do for next time.

The usual post-race jive talk ensues and much fun is had chatting with racers and staff alike. More potatoes and potato chips and tomatoes and no beer are consumed. I’m happy sitting there knowing I whipped the beast.

Sadly the spa has closed since 2015 and I lose out on my post-race Ice-bath, settling instead for another very cold shower. Dinner is again excellent and once the race briefing is out of the way head back to hit the sack early.

I lie listening to the rain hammer on the tin roof outside and think about how wet and cold it’s going to be tomorrow. There’s a smile on my face as I fall asleep.