Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by José Mendes
The NSJBI Victoria team aims to raise the level of riders from the Philippines by drawing on the experience of racers from Portugal
A few weeks back, a series of almost unheralded one-day races in Uzbekistan attracted wide attention when accusations were levelled at the winner of the first of those events because he had allegedly been given shelter by motorbikes or even held on to one driven by his coach. No evidence has since emerged of wrongdoing at the Tour Oqtosh-Chorvoq Mountain I on Ulugbek Saidov’s part, although his close to three-minute margin over the second-placed rider on a 9.5km time trial is enough to raise eyebrows.
While digging into this story for an episode of the Radio Cycling podcast, I tracked down two-time Portuguese road champion José Mendes, who competed at WorldTour level with Bora and has raced and finished all three Grand Tours. I noticed Mendes had taken sixth place in the controversy-hit Oqtosh race and tracked him down to a Polish hotel, the day before the four-day Tour of Maropolska.
Mendes hadn’t seen anything underhand taking place himself, but he confirmed that protests had been made to the UCI commissaires on the race. As we talked, though, a quite different and much more uplifting story emerged, that of an emerging cycling nation, the Philippines, turning to a much more experienced country in the shape of Portugal to mentor to its riders, which led to the creation of the NSJBI Victoria team at the start of this season.
“This is a new project,” Mendes explained from the hotel lobby, the only place he could get reliable Wifi. “The guy behind it is Paco Ochoa, who’s also a rider on the team. He came to Portugal three or four years ago to race. He met a Portuguese guy who collaborated with him on starting the team. Now the project is a little bit different. The guy who started as the sports director is not on the team anymore, but we’re here helping the Filipino guys come to Europe and race. Not in the big races, but smaller ones where they can gain experience.”
Mendes said that the Filipino riders were mostly limited to experience of national races before joining the team, although some had competed occasionally in other Asian countries. None, though, had ever raced in Europe. “This team’s big goal and challenge is to try to put one Philippine guy in a big team or in big races. The Portuguese riders are here to race, but also to try to help the organisation within the team, to teach the riders everything – how to race, how to eat, how to train. It’s a big challenge for us, but we’re very happy and motivated to take on this project.”
Mendes (seen on the front of the team’s line at the GP Beiras e Serra da Estrela) admitted that the team struggled during the opening weeks of the season because they couldn’t find races that would offer them a place on the start line. “We didn’t know what we were doing wrong. Maybe the team’s sports directors didn’t organize things in the best way. But now we have a busy calendar. We raced last week in Portugal. Now we are in Poland. Next week we go to Azerbaijan. We need some time to get on the right track, but race by race we seem better as a team,” he said.
Now 38, Mendes was close to hanging up his wheels last year, largely because the domestic cycling scene in Portugal is in the doldrums. But he says that he’s glad he made the decision to continue for another season at least. “I’m really enjoying being part of this project. I know that it’s not easy. We sometimes have to do everything – be the mechanics, organise basic things in the team. We know that these aren’t the best conditions, but helping these guys and seeing this team getting better and better is a good reward for me,” he said.
The experience is providing novelties in other ways too. Mendes and many of his teammates are racing in countries that are completely new to them, Uzbekistan being one of them. “It was a completely different style of race there. It wasn’t a stage race – we had one uphill time trial, a flat stage, a flat time trial and then a stage with an uphill finish. For us, it was good to start these races. We could race more as a team, because there weren’t many other teams, although the level was still quite high.
“There was a Kazakhstan team, a team from Thailand, Roojai, a Greek team, some strong riders. For us, being in a race where we could stay in the lead positions, in the top 10, was really good. So Uzbekistan was a good experience. Not everything was perfect in the race, of course, but I think they have a lot of potential to improve.”
Mendes turned pro in 2008, and went on to become one of those riders who’s always there in the background in the major events, but never steps fully into the spotlight and gains significant fame. He raced all three Grand Tours, and six in all, finishing each of them. He also won the Portuguese national road title in 2016 and 2019. “Competing in those races were the highlights of my career. Of course, the years when I was the Portuguese champion were the best. I was lucky enough to start the Vuelta and the Giro in the national champion’s jersey. I also rode the Volta a Portugal in the champion’s jersey. I’m happy with how my career has gone, even though I didn’t have too many victories,” he said.
“Now, though, I’m in a different part of my career, and I’m enjoying it. I don’t know if this will be my last year. I’m already thinking about the next step. I want to stay in cycling, as a sports director or in some other position. I still don’t know. But now I look at things in a different way. I’m more relaxed. I don’t stress when things aren’t perfect like they were before. I’m just trying to help these guys that are just starting in cycling.”
Reflecting on the state of cycling in his home country, Mendes said that he hopes that João Almeida’s third place in the recent Giro would provide it with a lift. “Everybody said congratulations to him from the President and Prime Minister down. He was the first Portuguese finisher on the Giro podium. I think before that the best finish in a Grand Tour was Joaquim Agostinho. So it was a really big result for Portugal, and it can help cycling there. We now have many young riders who can follow Almeida. We have António Morgado and many riders who are at a good enough level to be in WorldTour teams. I think Almeida’s performance was really good for these racers. It showed how far they can go,” he explained.
His hope is that it might lift the country’s national tour as well, a great and extremely challenging race that has lost much of its stature. “For me, the Volta a Portugal is one of the most beautiful races in cycling. I did the Tour, Vuelta, Giro, Dauphiné, Paris-Nice, Tirreno. They’re all big races, of course, but the Volta a Portugal has something special. I feel a bit sad that Portuguese cycling isn’t at the top, that no WorldTour teams want to come to the Volta. But I hope that things can gradually change.”
Like the Philippines, Portuguese cycling could do with some more support too.