When the 83rd edition of the Volta a Portugal kicks off in Lisbon on Thursday afternoon, it will do so under a cloud of doping cases and police raids.
While the scandal-ridden years of WorldTour-level racing are – barring a Bahrain Victorious raid or two – apparently far in the rear-view mirror, a world away in the relatively isolated Portuguese racing scene, the Grandíssima gets underway with drugs and suspensions taking the headlines.
Just this week, riders from three of the top Portuguese teams were subject to police raids, with Luis Mendonça (Glassdrive-Q8-Anicolor), João Benta, Francisco Campos (Efapel), Daniel Freitas (Rádio Popular-Paredes-Boavista) all out of the race as a result.
The raids and suspension all came about as a result of 'Operação Prova Limpa' (Operation Clean Race), a long-running police investigation led by the Porto Public Prosecutors which has results in the UCI suspension of the country's top team, W52-FC Porto.
Amid the raids and suspensions, António Júlio Nunes, director of the Portuguese Anti-Doping Authority (ADOP) has been living under police surveillance after receiving numerous threats – including a shotgun cartridge in the post.
The latest raids, conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday, targeted Glassdrive, Efapel, and Rádio Popular riders. Campos, who rode for W52 between 2019 and 2021, subsequently had his contract terminated by his team, despite protesting that nothing had been found in the raid. Freitas, who was at W52 from 2016 to 2018, has been placed under an internal suspension.
Mendonça and Benta, meanwhile, were late scratches from the Volta start list on Wednesday. Glassdrive stated that the former was withdrawn to "keep focus" on the race and "protect the image" of the team, while Benta is out despite protesting in a social media post that he had a "clear conscience" and that nothing had been found at his home, either.
Despite the controversy, all three teams will take the start of the Volta with a full roster of seven riders, with Glassdrive led by a trio of overall favourites in Frederico Figueiredo, Mauricio Moreira, and Antonio Carvalho.
One team that will be conspicuously absent from the race, however, is W52-FC Porto, the squad which has dominated the Volta for the better part of a decade. They have won eight of the past nine editions of the race with Alejandro Marque, Gustavo Cesar Veloso (twice), Rui Vinhas, and Amaro Antunes (three times, including an inherited win from his banned teammate Raúl Alarcón, who was retroactively stripped of the 2018 and 2019 titles).
The squad had been the main target of Prova Limpa, the operation started following an anonymous police tip in 2021. They're currently banned by the UCI under article 10.2 of the UCI anti-doping regulations, concerning the 'Presence, Use of Attempted Use, of Possession of a Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method'.
"The Portuguese Cycling Federation confirms that it was notified today by the International Cycling Union (UCI) that this entity has decided to withdraw the sports licence of the continental team W52-FC Porto, following the information received by the UCI on the process taking place at the Portuguese Anti-Doping Authority. The decision comes into force immediately, so the team is prevented from competing again," read a statement issued by the Portuguese Cycling Federation on July 27.
Three months earlier, W52 had been subject to police raids, where doping products – including syringes, pills, and transfusion equipment – were found.
Lead directeur sportif Nuno Ribeiro (whose racing history includes a failed haematocrit test at the 2005 Giro d'Italia and a Volta victory stripped following a CERA positive in 2009) and a soigneur were arrested, while 10 of the team's riders were charged.
Fast forward to mid-July and ADOP issued the suspensions of eight riders and two staff members, while separately the team's former rider Edgar Pinto was handed a four-year doping ban by the UCI.
The same day, W52 rider José Neves won a stage of the non-UCI race Grande Prémio Douro Internacional, celebrating with a 'shush' gesture, while a day later all of his teammates at the race were suspended by ADOP leaving Neves – one of just three riders to avoid a ban along with Antunes and Jorge Magalhães – to go on to win the race alone.
Despite being down to just three riders, the team were still set to race the Volta up until the UCI suspension eight days ago, with team owner Adriano Quintanilha in Spain at the time seeking new riders to fill out a squad.
Even with four riders and the country's most successful team – and the reigning champion Amaro Antunes – out of the race and scandal a constant in the headlines, though, the Volta a Portugal will roll on.
The 11-day race begins with a 5.4km prologue on Thursday and can be streamed in full and for free here.
Operação Prova Limpa – A timeline
|2021||Anonymous police tip kickstarts 'Operation Prova Limpa'|
|Row 1 - Cell 0||W52-FC Porto monitored for months before raids|
|April 24, 2022||W52-FC Porto hotels, homes, warehouse, vehicles searched|
|Row 3 - Cell 0||120 investigators, 7 public prosecutors involved|
|Row 4 - Cell 0||Doping products (syringes, pills, transfusion equipment) seized|
|Row 5 - Cell 0||DS Nuno Ribeiro, soigneur José Rodrigues arrested|
|Row 6 - Cell 0||10 riders charged, including José Neves, José Gonçalves, Joni Brandão, Daniel Mestre, Rui Vinhas|
|July 15||Neves wins stage 2 of the GP Douro Internacional|
|Row 8 - Cell 0||ADOP suspends 8 W52 riders and 2 staff members|
|Row 9 - Cell 0||Former W52 rider Edgar Pinto handed four-year doping ban|
|Row 10 - Cell 0||Neves, Amaro Antunes, Jorge Magalhães only W52 riders not suspended|
|July 17||Reports emerge of doping products seized in April raid|
|July 22||Volta director Joaquim Gomes confirms W52 can still participate|
|July 27||UCI suspends W52-FC Porto from competition|
|July 28||FC Porto suspend 'naming brand and licensing contract' with team|
|Row 15 - Cell 0||ADOP director reveals his home is under police surveillance following threats|
|August 2||Porto police raid Rádio Popular, Efapel and Glassdrive riders|
|Row 17 - Cell 0||Francisco Campos suspended then fired by Efapel|
|Row 18 - Cell 0||Daniel Freitas suspended by Rádio Popular|
|August 3||Luís Mendonça, João Benta withdrawn from Volta by Glassdrive, Efapel|
|August 4||Volta a Portugal starts in Lisbon|
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Daniel Ostanek is Senior News Writer at Cyclingnews, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later being hired full-time. Prior to joining the team, he had written for numerous major publications in the cycling world, including CyclingWeekly, Rouleur, and CyclingTips.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France and the spring Classics, and has interviewed many of the sport's biggest stars, including Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Demi Vollering, and Anna van der Breggen.
As well as original reporting, news and feature writing, and production work, Daniel also oversees The Leadout newsletter and How to Watch guides throughout the season. His favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Volta a Portugal.