On January 12th a year had passed since the death of Paulo Gonçalves, the best rider from Portugal, in an accident during the Dakar Rally. This was a tragic end to an unrivalled career in his country, translated into a bright representation of Portugal’s motocross overseas. His highlight was the winning of the FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship in 2013, but he was also known as a regular contester of Dakar.
An early talent
Born in 1979, Paulo Gonçalves started competing, like every champion, from a very early age. A rival recalls that, in 1993, the tiny and young Gonçalves excelled at mastering the motorbike, throwing himself into the corners and the jumps in a pure, brutal and fearless way. If sports betting platforms like NetBet sport were available at the time, someone would have bet on Gonçalves to achieve big results in the distant future. His nickname, Speedy González.
Few people know that, in the Nineties, Gonçalves was taken by Harry Everts in Spain to a test, where he was paired with another unknown talent and hot prospect: Grant Langston. The South African, of course, would become World Champion in 2000 and AMA Champion in 2003. But back in the day, Langston had a very rough task, trying to keep up with Gonçalves, who was told by Everts to slow down.
Another anonymous story relates to a race of the European 250cc Championship of 2000, in his native Portugal. Starting 12th, Gonçalves climbed to second at mid-race, just to find the leader 10 seconds away. The second half of the race was dedicated to chop the advantage until getting the win in the final.
One could say that this was made easy because he was “playing” at home soil. But Gonçalves was suffering from a herniated disc, which did not allow him to practice for several weeks before the event. Because of that, his hands were not ready to cope with the demands of the race, and he was bleeding at the end of the race. He could hardly receive the trophy on the podium because of that. He was second to none regarding determination and will to win.
Creating a space
Athletes of sports that are not predominant or well know in the countries where they are born have to face additional obstacles. The Portuguese motocross scene was vibrant, but there was always some limits regarding the available budgets.
One would be willing to do some comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo, the soccer superstar. “CR7” had to cope with amazing obstacles, leaving his family at the tender age of 12 years old to come to Lisbon and develop as a football player. But he was already getting a place in one of the best places of the industry, where we could easily be picked up to higher echelons, like indeed happened in 2003.
The international career of Gonçalves had to cope with the fact that Portugal did not have such a motocross tradition equivalent to soccer. Today, if one can say that Portugal is a well known country in the Rally Raids, it’s thanks to the determination of Gonçalves and a couple of other riders, like Rúben Faria and Hélder Rodrigues. Gonçalves, or Speedy as he was known (likening him to the cartoon character Speedy González), was the first Portuguese to integrate a motorbike Dakar Rally squad. He would amass 13 participations, including four Top-ten finishes and a runner-up in 2015. World motocross will miss him.
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