Words by Sadhbh O’Shea | Photo by ASO/GOMEZSPORT
On Sunday morning, Mitchelton-Scott posted a social media video asking their riders to describe the Alto de l’Angliru in a single word. Brutal, ridiculous and horrendous were just three of the words used.
The Asturian mountain is unrelenting and will test even the strongest of climbers, with gradient pitches of 24% at its steepest. It first appeared in the Vuelta a Espana in 1999 and was the Spanish race’s answer to the iconic climbs of the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia.
Though it is a relative newcomer to the cycling scene, it has cemented itself as an iconic climb over the last 21 years. That this year’s Vuelta a Espana is only the eighth visit to the Alto de l’Angliru only adds to its mystique.
My first experience of this brute of a climb came in 2017, during my Vuelta a Espana debut as a journalist. I was like a child on Christmas day as we drove to La Vega de Riosa, near the foot of the climb, where the press room was situated. Aside from a changing tent for the riders, the podium and a small press tent, there is next to nothing at the top. Nevertheless, we set off for a day on the Angliru.
The organisers had put on two shuttles for journalists hoping to go up. We would only make it five kilometres before we were unceremoniously chucked out and told to walk the rest of the way. There had been a miscommunication between the organisers and police and there was no way the little minibuses would make it to the top. On we marched before a kindly person with a pickup truck, who was working on the race, allowed us to climb into the back.
There were several times as we navigated some of the steep hairpin bends that I thought we wouldn’t make it, but we did. In the 20 or so minutes it had taken us to get to the top, sunshine had turned to driving rain. I’d lost the blood circulation in my foot due to our cramped conditions and had to stand in the wet as I waited to get enough feeling in it again to be able to walk across the car park. Mine were minor inconveniences compared to what the riders would face in a few hours as the race hit the lower slopes.
In 2017, the Angliru hosted the final mountain showdown of the race and Alberto Contador’s last professional victory. Contador’s hopes of going out with a final Grand Tour title had all but gone, that would be wrapped up by Chris Froome, but the irrepressible Spaniard was not giving up on a stage win. He had been one of the most aggressive riders in the race and came close on several occasions and the Angliru was his final chance.
Contador attacked just before the foot of the Angliru on the descent of the Alto del Cordal. It was a fitting final bid from a rider that rarely played it safe. A late push from Froome and Wout Poels looked like it might put an end to Contador’s fairy-tale ending, but he held on in the mist and the rain.
The short downhill section inside the final kilometre was a small reprieve for Contador as it was for Primoz Roglic in 2020. Unlike Contador, the Angliru was much more about damage limitation for Roglic than anything else. Sepp Kuss proved he was worth his weight in gold as he guided his team leader up the toughest part of the ascent. His support seemed to be more psychological than it was physical, but it paid dividends, nevertheless. Roglic may have lost the red jersey for the second time in the race but he gave just 10 seconds away to Richard Carapaz in the end. It was a grind to the top for all the riders, as is often the case on the Angliru. Hugh Carthy, with a range of facial expressions that Thomas Voeckler would be proud of, put in a huge ride to take the win and place himself back in a virtual podium slot.
As the race enters the final week, the overall classification is primed perfectly. Unless anything dramatic happens – and we all know the 2020 season is fully capable of that – Roglic should retake control of the red jersey in Tuesday’s time trial. The penultimate stage to the Alto de Covatilla will be the last all out battle for the spoils, a climb that Dan Martin knows well after taking his first Grand Tour win there in 2011. The other teams will have to throw the kitchen sink at Roglic and Jumbo Visma to try and unseat him before Madrid.