Vuelta a España preview: the key climbs

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Alberto Contador wins Vuelta Stage 17 (Image: AAP)

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The Vuelta a España begins this Saturday in Galicia. With eleven summit finishes and no clear favourite, there’s every chance it will be the most exhilarating Grand Tour of the year.

The winner will need to be one of the world’s best climbers.

The return of Giro champion Vincenzo Nibali; the resumption of his battle with Colombian trio Sergio Henao (Sky), Rigoberto Uran (Sky), and Carlos Betancur (AG2R-La Mondiale); the Saxo-Tinkoff armada of Nicholas Roche, Rafal Majka, and Roman Kreuziger; Cannondale veteran Ivan Basso; Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde and Beñat Intxausti; and of course Katusha’s pugnacious Joaquim Rodriguez will be among the top contenders.

Let’s take a look at some of the key climbs of this year’s Vuelta, in chronological order.

1. Alto do Monte da Groba (Stage 2)
The first summit finish of the Vuelta comes as early as Stage 2: the Cat. 1 Alto do Monte da Groba, in Baiona.

On paper, it looks relatively benign at 11km and an average gradient of 5.6%. However, the gradient is uneven and the sector with 2km remaining peaks at 8.3% – perfect for an opportunistic attack to grab a few seconds and perhaps the leader’s jersey.

2. Alto de Peñas Blancas (Stage 8)
After a week of flat-to-lumpy stages, the Vuelta returns to the mountains in Stage 8, as the race enters Andalucia, in Spain’s deep south.

It’s a region famed for its Moorish architecture and stifling heat. A popular beachside destination for sunburnt British tourists, the riders will be hoping to catch a sea breeze as they slog up the 14.5km Cat.1 Alto de Peñas Blancas.

The gradient peaks at a quad-crushing 14.5% on the lower slopes (before anyone can find their rhythm) before flattening out for a couple of kilometres of relief, followed by a long steady ascent at 6-8%.

With a week of hard racing in the legs, it’ll be a good chance for the general classification contenders to test each other’s resolve.

3. Valdepeñas de Jaén (Stage 9)
The official Vuelta website describes this stage finish as “one of the most explosive finishes in the Vuelta a España’s memory” and “one of the toughest ramps in the world of cycling.”

Reaching a chain-snapping 30%, this gut-punch of a final kilometre is made for the most explosive of riders – watch for Betancur – and comes after 160km of jagged energy-sapping hills.

This won’t be a day for big time gaps, but it will be one worth staying up late for.

4. Alto de Monachil and Alto de Hazallanas (Stage 10)
The race organisers describe Stage 10 as the first mountain stage of the Vuelta, which will probably have a few sprinters crying into their paella.

I suppose they’ve got a point, this stage features the first ‘Esp’ climb of the race (the equivalent of the Tour de France’s ‘HC’ category).

As an enervating warm-up, the race first ascends the Cat. 1 Alto de Monachil (8.5km @ 7.7%) which peaks at 15%. A few short kilometres of respite on the descent probably won’t be enough before the race meets the base of the Alto de Hazallanas. T

he climb is officially 15.8km long, but the first few kilometres are relatively gentle, before a very short descent, and then the climb proper.

And what a belter it is! Hitting gradients of 18% at two points, the selection on this climb is almost certain to cost a few general classification hopefuls the race.

Climbs like this are a challenge in cool conditions; in Andalusian heat this could be brutal. The riders will need a rest-day after this effort.

5. Port de Envalira and Collada de la Gallina (Stage 14)
Rested and relaxed after a few days for the sprinters and breakaway merchants (or a few days riding hard over constantly-changing terrain, more likely) the GC arm-wrestle will resume in the Pyrenees in stage 14, featuring the highest climb of this year’s Vuelta, the 2,410m Port de Envalira (26.2km at 5.2%, Cat. Esp.).

I would expect a breakaway to lead over this long, grinding ascent, with the GC group saving some energy for the summit finish on the shorter, sharper Collada de la Gallina (7.2km @ 8%, Cat.1).

This climb peaks at 15%, and the last kilometre is a difficult 10% – steep enough for a punchy climber to steal a stage win and some time if the race hasn’t already broken apart on the lower slopes.

6. Puerto del Cantó, Puerto de la Bonaigua, Col du Port de Balés, and Peyragudes (Stage 15)
The Vuelta organisers take a lesson from the Spanish Inquisition in Stage 15, with a tortuous route including four Cat.1 climbs, finishing in France as an homage to the 100th edition of the Tour de France.

On its own, none of these climbs would be enough to strike fear into the hearts of the peloton. Taken consecutively, it will be an extraordinarily tough day in the saddle.

In fact, the extreme difficulty is likely to stifle any outrageous moves until the final climb to Peyragudes (16.7km @ 4.7%, Cat.1).

There’s a false summit with just over 6km to go, then a short descent before the final climb to the finish. If that isn’t the perfect launching pad for the likes of Samuel Sanchez, I don’t know what is.

7. Aramón Formigal (Stage 16)
The Pyrenean adventure continues in Stage 16, and for the third day in a row, a summit finish. This time it’s the Cat. 1 Aramón Formigal (15.8km @ 4%). Battling the effects of fatigue, this will be tougher than it looks on paper.

A bad day in the saddle could result in a simple mistake that a rider could pay for, and it will be a relief to survive and earn a brief respite as the Vuelta returns to the flat the following day.

8. Peña Cabarga (Stage 18)
By now, the peloton will be certain that the race organisers are just messing with them. Only one sprint stage? More mountains?

This lumpy stage has four Cat. 3 bumps, before cruising to the base of Peña Cabarga, where we can expect fireworks.

It’s a short, sharp beast (5.9km @ 9.2%) that looms up to 20% inside the final kilometre. Another perfect opportunity for Betancur, Rodriguez, or another puncher to grab a victory.

9. Alto del Cordal and Alto de L’Angliru (Stage 20)
The Queen stage of this Vuelta, Stage 20 takes in the breathtaking scenery of the stunning region of Asturias. It’s a part of Spain that is ignored by many international tourists, to their loss, as it’s a region that combines beaches, forests, caves, lakes, and some outrageous mountain passes.

Both of the day’s major climbs come in the last 30km, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the race will be decided here, in the penultimate stage.

The day’s first important climb, the Alto del Cordal (Cat. 1, 5.3km @ 9.6%) will likely be ridden hard and fast, as nobody will want to let attacks go clear. It will be enough to put the pain in tired legs, but it’s nothing compared to what is coming next.

Asturias is famous for its sidra (a tart, natural apple cider), which the locals pour rather enigmatically, holding the bottle high above their heads, and the glass as low to the ground as their armspans will reach. As the sidra falls through the air and hits the glass, the impact aerates the liquid, improving the flavour.

Such will be the descent of the Alto del Cordal, as the Vuelta fizzes into a sharp and satisfying finish on the terrifying fog-enshrouded slopes of the Angliru.

At 12.2km, ascending 1200m at an average gradient of 10.3%, this would be a difficult climb. But this doesn’t begin to tell the full story: the Angliru reaches a peak gradient of 23.5%, and has a 21% kicker in the final kilometre before the summit, making it one of the hardest climbs attempted in any Grand Tour.

If it rains (and never mind the rhyme about the rain in Spain, Asturias gets more than its fair share of precipitation), team cars have been known to lose traction and stall on the ascent.

The last time the Vuelta climbed the Angliru, in 2011, Juan Jose Cobo won decisively on the Angliru, cracking Bradley Wiggins in the process, and held on to win the Vuelta a few days later, defeating Chris Froome by a mere 13 seconds.

On that day, Cobo rode with a compact 34-tooth chainring and a 32-tooth cog: ridiculously low gearing by the standards of professionals. Make no mistake, this is not a mountain to be taken lightly.

This year, there are no more chances after this climb. Whoever is leading the race at the end of the stage will ride into Madrid the following day as Vuelta champion.

Tim Renowden has been following professional cycling closely since Indurain won his first Tour. An ex-runner, now a club grade bike racer, Tim tweets about sport at @megabicicleta.
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