Bullets in the mail and soccer ties: what’s going on at the Volta a Portugal?

“Return of the Volta a Portugal today against the specter of doping” headlined the Portuguese newspaper Diario de Noticias, and this particular developing story is probably good enough for Hollywood, let alone black and white printing.

Otherwise, cycling’s unique connection to professional football in Portugal brings another odd undercurrent to the whole story.

Local people in Lisbon say the 83rd edition of the race starts in a heavy atmosphere from the capital. Four drivers who should actually be on the starting line are not, the result of the anti-doping “Operation Clean Test”, in which the winner of the last nine Voltas, W52-FC Porto, was also excluded from the competition.

The four missing from the race come from three of the other Portuguese top teams: Luis Mendonça of Glassdrive-Q8-Anicolor, João Benta and Francisco Campos of Efapel and Daniel Freitas driving for Rádio Popular-Paredes-Boavista.

Mendonça was withdrawn from Glassdrive because the team “wanted to protect their image”, Campos had his contract terminated by his team despite pleading his innocence, while Benta also claimed that in the raids involving 120 officers, his Nothing unusual had been uncovered about the properties and resulted in two arrests as well as “several substances and clinical instruments [being] confiscated, used in athletes’ training and affecting their athletic performance.”

Campos and Freitas both previously rode for W52-FC Porto, the team at the heart of Operation Clean Test, after making an anonymous tip to police last year and were raided of their own four months ago. Banned doping substances were allegedly found and members of the team were then suspended. As the investigation continued, only three riders on the team remained eligible to race and not suspended. The team still planned to compete at the Volta a Portugal, despite their limited number of entries, but were suspended by the UCI after violating anti-doping rules on July 27. A day later, FC Porto, a football club in the top Portuguese league, removed its branding and licensing deal from the team.

The head of Portugal’s Anti-Doping Unit, António Júlio Nunes, said he was the target of threats after the team’s suspension and his family was placed under police protection.

“Unfortunately, threats to my physical integrity are increasing and unfortunately it has been necessary to place my family under police surveillance at home,” Nunes wrote on his LinkedIn page. Also included in the envelope with these threats of violence that were delivered to his home was a bullet cartridge, as pictured above.

These are the clouds under which the Volta a Portugal began and will likely remain as the peloton races through the country over the next two weeks. It’s a mess. But what does this mean for sport in Portugal?

The loss of FC Porto, one of the country’s biggest and most successful football teams, is a heavy blow. For FC Porto, their name is now associated with doping, underscoring the constant reiteration by Benfica, another football club that used to sponsor a two-wheeler team, that they will not return to cycling because of the nefarious connotations.

During nightly football phone broadcasts on the radio, opposing fans use the aftermath of cycling as a cudgel to beat FC Porto over the head. This further tarnishes the image of professional cycling in Portugal, without regard to sports stars like João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) and Ruben Guerreiro (EF Education EasyPost) who have carved their way to the top of the sport outside their home country.

The loss of FC Porto appears to be the final nail in the coffin for the idiosyncratic but intriguing way Portuguese cycling works. The major soccer teams that dominate the country’s sporting landscape don’t pay to appear on the cycling jerseys, but teams can use the brand name to attract other sponsors as the soccer club’s fans are likely to support the team’s cycling counterparts as well. At least that’s how it’s been practiced for around 15 years, locals in the Portuguese scene tell CyclingTips. If you go back to the 1950s and 1960s it wasn’t just financial, there were fierce battles between FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon with half of all overall victories at the Volta a Portugal being shared between these three.

There are other political implications beyond football. With FC Porto out of the running, cities in the north of the country don’t want to host the race if their team doesn’t compete.

And let’s not forget that not all Portuguese drivers are dopers. There are athletes in the peloton who ride clean for minimum wage. Many are U23 and U25 and are racing in the stage race hoping to catch the attention of a Spanish ProTeam.

For cycling fans, their summer memories are days at the beach before watching Volta stages each afternoon. Now that the specter of doping has resurfaced, the waters are muddy and the seas are now rough enough to keep you ashore.

“Cycling in Portugal is going through troubled times,” concluded Nunes. “But perhaps now is the best time for those who truly love this sport to find solutions to protect the same sport that has a secure place in the hearts of all Portuguese.”

Leave a Comment