First mount challenge in Portugal

Conquering 144 km with a 4500-meter Elevation Gain: Granfondo Serra da Estrela 2024

Riding 144 kilometers with a 4500-meter elevation gain in the Granfondo Serra da Estrela 2024 challenge was one of the most grueling and emotionally charged days of my life. It was not just a physical challenge but also a test of my mental resilience and willpower.
This article will take you through my journey, from preparation and initial expectations to the triumphs and struggles I faced along the way, culminating in a deep sense of accomplishment and pride.
Darina Balabai

Darina Balabai

Preparation and Expectations

Setting Goals

My journey began with setting clear goals. Unlike many participants who aimed for a podium finish, my objective was more personal. I wanted to push my limits, test my endurance, and experience the breathtaking scenery that the Granfondo Serra da Estrela route promised. The scenic beauty was not just a backdrop but a source of inspiration and motivation.

Training Regimen

Training for such a demanding event required meticulous planning and dedication. My training regimen, masterfully crafted by our club coach, was intense and structured. It started with an FTP test to determine my functional threshold power and establish accurate power and heart rate zones. This approach allowed me to train more effectively and push myself harder.

My workouts ranged from strength and explosive VO2max sessions to building an aerobic base. The program included both long rides of 3-4 hours and shorter sessions for rest and recovery. The variety in training ensured that every aspect of my fitness was addressed, preparing me comprehensively for the race. While I can’t share the exact details of the program, I highly recommend joining our club to experience it yourself!
TSS by Week Average: 555 TSS*, 0.65 IF
In summary, these metrics indicate that my average weekly training load (TSS) is 555 points, with my workouts performed at an average intensity of 65% of my maximum effort.
Time In Power Zones by week
It shows how much time I spend in each power zone during all my workouts for each week. Since I'm mainly working on increasing endurance, I spend a lot of time training in Z1 and Z2.
Time In Heart Rate Zones
This metric shows how long I spent in each predefined heart rate zone (e.g., Zone 1, Zone 2, Zone 3, etc.) during all recorded workouts. It helps analyze the intensity and impact of my training sessions on my fitness.

Equipment and Gear

Equally important was my gear, although my bike was not entirely suited for mountainous terrain. Enthusiasts might point out that the profile of my bike's wheels should have been lower, which would have made climbing easier. However, I chose not to worry about it and didn’t spend extra money on new wheels. I already had experience riding my bike on long, steep climbs (forgive me, Granfondo Torres Vedras and the Serra do Socorro mountain). My bike was a Canyon Aeroad with 12-speed Shimano Di2, and it had served me well on challenging routes before.

My attire was chosen to provide maximum comfort and efficiency. I wore our club’s high-quality cycling kit from Gobik, which was both breathable and supportive. For added protection against the cold during descents, I had on an EM3 wind vest, gloves, and arm warmers. These elements ensured I remained comfortable and well-prepared for the varying weather conditions throughout the race.

Hydration systems, energy gels, and nutrition bars were meticulously selected to ensure my body received the necessary fuel throughout the race.

Mental Preparation

Mental preparation was as crucial as physical training. I spent hours visualizing the race, mentally rehearsing the climbs, and strategizing for the challenging sections. This mental rehearsal helped me build confidence and resilience, preparing me to face the inevitable mental battles during the ride. The book "Flow" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was incredibly helpful in this preparation. It taught me how to achieve a state of flow, where I could fully immerse myself in the experience, stay focused, and maintain peak performance, even during the most challenging parts of the race.
The Start and Initial Difficulties

The Starting Line

The excitement at the starting line was palpable. Cyclists from various backgrounds and levels of experience were gathered, all sharing the same nervous energy and anticipation. The weather was cool, with temperatures at the start around +12 degrees Celsius, indicating it would be very cold at the summit and during the descents.

Early Struggles

As the race began, I felt a sense of calm and was fully relaxed for the first time. I had a plan to stick to the second power zone on the climbs and enjoy my long training ride in the mountains. So, when the first climbs started, I remained composed, and my heart rate stayed between 100-120 beats per minute, indicating full control over my well-being.
The First Mountain and Unexpected Challenges

The First Major Climb

The first major climb was a test of endurance and mental fortitude. As I ascended, the gradient became steeper, and every pedal stroke required more effort. The scenery, though beautiful, began to blur as my focus narrowed to the task at hand. My muscles screamed in protest, and my breath became labored. The climb seemed endless, and doubt began to creep in.

Internal Dialogue

Two hours into the race, the first and most challenging climb of 21 km with an average gradient of 6.4% began, with the last 6 km reaching gradients of 13-14%. I noticed my heart rate rising, and maintaining the same wattage became increasingly difficult. I had to gather myself and continue riding at my own pace, now adhering to my working Zone 4 heart rate. Before the toughest and final segment, my lower back muscles cramped, forcing me to stop and perform exercises to relieve the tension. Once I felt better, I resumed my climb.

At the end of this mountain, I began to hear two voices in my head. One voice questioned the purpose of my effort, arguing that there was no benefit in continuing, while the other encouraged me, saying that this experience would make me stronger. I had the chance to turn back and end it all, but looking at my bike computer, I realized that only one mountain remained and I had already completed half the course. The weather, growing colder with every meter and shrouded in fog, offered no additional motivation. Despite the harsh conditions and my muscles suffering, I kept pedaling, understanding that this mountain would not be the end.

The Feed Zone and Revelation

At the feed zone at the end of this mountain, I stopped because my stomach demanded a sandwich. Not because I was hungry, but because my brain realized the extent of the ordeal and started consuming more energy. Gels and bars were not enough – I wanted bread! At this stop, the organizers told me I was third! This revelation was both surprising and motivating. Despite the struggles, I was in a strong position, and this news reignited my determination.

Unexpected Challenges

As soon as I saw my competitor stop at the feed station, I resumed riding. Remembering that I had already overtaken her and she seemed far behind, I now realized she was very strong and likely not riding alone but with someone helping her. Grabbing two sandwiches and refilling my bottle with water, I continued on. I ate the sandwich on the go and washed it down with water. Taking a caffeine shot, I started pushing harder watts downhill and quickly pulled away, which allowed me to enjoy the beautiful descent into Manteigas.
The Battle on the Descent

The Thrill of the Descent

The descent into Manteigas was exhilarating. The wind rushed past as I navigated the twists and turns of the road, the landscape unfolding in a blur of greens and blues. This was a moment of pure joy, a reward for the grueling climb I had just conquered. My bike felt like an extension of myself, responding to every subtle shift and movement with precision.

Strategy and Execution

My strategy relied heavily on my bike, which was specifically optimized for descents, and on my well-honed descending skills. Knowing that my Canyon Aeroad with its 12-speed Shimano Di2 was built for speed and stability, I placed my confidence in its performance. For the first time in 2.5 years of cycling, I felt completely at ease on the descent, merging with my bike as one entity. It was an incredible feeling. I focused on relaxing as much as possible, allowing my body to flow with the bike. Looking ahead, I meticulously calculated every meter, carefully planning my trajectory to smoothly overtake other riders. This involved precise timing and positioning to maintain speed while ensuring safety, maximizing the advantage provided by my equipment and skills.

Near the end of the descent, I encountered a cobblestone section, and the high speed caused my shoulder to cramp. However, I refocused, kept going, and pushed through the section as quickly as possible. I felt that I had gained a few minutes' lead, which made me even more at ease.

Enjoying the Moment

As I descended, I took a moment to appreciate the beauty around me. The lush forests, the clear sky, and the distant mountains created a picturesque scene. This was why I loved cycling – the opportunity to immerse myself in nature and experience its beauty firsthand. Despite the physical exertion, this moment of tranquility reminded me of the joy and freedom that cycling brings.
The Final Climb to Torre

Approaching the Final Challenge

After the descent, the final climb to the main mountain of continental Portugal, Torre, began almost immediately. This was the ultimate test, the climb that would push me to my limits and beyond. The segment was 18 km with an elevation gain of just over 1000 meters. I had climbed this mountain three times from Covilha and roughly understood the gradient, but that knowledge did little to ease the trepidation I felt.

The Climb Begins

The initial kilometers were manageable, and I maintained a steady pace. My legs, though fatigued, continued to pedal, driven by sheer willpower. The gradient gradually increased, and each turn revealed another steep section. My breath became labored, and my muscles screamed in protest. For the first time, I was grateful for the weather. The cool temperatures made the climbs much easier compared to a hot day, providing a significant advantage and allowing me to maintain my pace without overheating.
I even managed to laugh at the jokes of a friendly cyclist from Spain. Thanks, Granfondo Serra Da Estrela for great photos.

The Struggle Intensifies

The last 5 km were tougher than I expected. My legs just didn't want to pedal, even though I wasn't hungry and my hydration was fine. I adhered to the rule of one bottle of water (0.6 liters) with electrolytes per hour, which had never failed me. But despite all my preparation and determination, my body was nearing its limits. Every pedal stroke was a battle against fatigue and pain.

Mental Resilience

What kept me going was my mental resilience. I reminded myself of the months of training, the sacrifices I had made, and the goals I had set. Each kilometer conquered was a testament to my perseverance. The summit seemed so close yet so far, and the only way to reach it was to keep pushing, one pedal stroke at a time.
The Finish and Realization

Crossing the Finish Line

The moment of realization of my physical and spiritual strength, persistence, and tolerance for my weaknesses came immediately when I crossed the finish line. I felt a clear sense of pride in myself and the person I had become. The finish line was not just the end of the race but a culmination of all my efforts and determination. It was a moment of triumph, a reward for the relentless pursuit of my goals.
Finish line Granfondo Serra da Estrela 2024

Reflecting on the Journey

As I crossed the finish line, a wave of emotions washed over me. I stopped being lazy and learned to push into the "red" zone when needed. Growth is impossible without stepping out of your comfort zone. I finally understood how skillfully I had learned to manage my energy to achieve results. This is one of the most important skills in life – to be able to manage your energy and strategically calculate each step and the amount of energy spent on it.

Personal Growth and Lessons Learned

This journey was not just about physical endurance but also about personal growth. I learned valuable lessons about resilience, determination, and the power of a positive mindset. The challenges I faced and overcame made me stronger and more confident in my abilities. I realized that true growth comes from pushing your limits and stepping out of your comfort zone.
The Importance of Team Support

Acknowledging Support

I clearly felt how crucial team support was throughout the race. I am confident that team support is the key to successfully achieving goals. The encouragement and camaraderie of fellow cyclists, the support of the organizers, and the cheers from spectators all played a vital role in keeping my spirits high. Knowing that I was not alone in this journey provided a significant boost to my morale.

Gratitude for Companions

Thank you, Eldar Kabirov, for riding the entire distance with me despite having a slot in the Mediofondo, proving to yourself that you are far from weak! Your companionship and support were invaluable, and I couldn't have done it without you. Your presence reminded me of the importance of having a strong support system and the difference it can make in achieving our goals.

Achieving a Milestone

As a result, I took 3rd place overall and 2nd place in the Masters A category. I was riding in 5th place, moved to 4th at the 60 km mark, and finished in 3rd place. This achievement was beyond my expectations and a testament to my hard work and determination. It was a moment of pride and fulfillment, knowing that I had given my best and achieved something remarkable.

Personal Satisfaction

The satisfaction of achieving these results was immense. It was not just about the positions but about the journey and the experiences that led to these accomplishments. Each position gained was a result of strategic planning, relentless effort, and unwavering determination. This achievement reinforced my belief in the power of perseverance and hard work.

If you want to prepare for the challenge of your life – let us help you. Our professional coaches will help you create a training program tailored to your physiological characteristics. We will help you technically and strategically plan each step to achieve your goal. Cycling is not just a sport but a journey of self-discovery and personal growth. Embrace the challenge, push your limits, and experience the joy and fulfillment that come with achieving your goals.

Join Us

Contact us and start your journey to the top with our cycling academy in Portugal! Whether you are a seasoned cyclist or a beginner, our team is here to support and guide you. Let's embark on this journey together and achieve greatness. The road ahead may be challenging, but with the right support and determination, you can conquer any mountain and reach new heights.
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