Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by ASO/GOMEZSPORT
Before looking ahead, just a quick look back on Friday’s Vuelta stage into Villanueva de la Serena, where Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Florian Sénéchal claimed his first Grand Tour victory, outsprinting Matteo Trentin from the very small lead group that split away in the final three kilometres.
Behind the podium, the Frenchman met teammate Fabio Jakobsen, winner of two sprint stages in the race already and the leader of the points competition. The Dutchman congratulated Sénéchal, but was critical of his tactics. ‘If you don’t look behind, you’re not a lead-out man,’ Jakobsen declared sharply.
It was one of those interactions that would normally take place in the sanctuary of the team bus, but on this occasion happened to be caught on TV. Those reacting on social media divided into two camps, for and against Jakobsen, with a few in the latter serving up some pretty spiteful comments on a rider who is one of the most engaging and popular in the peloton.
My take, for what it’s worth, is that Sénéchal made a mistake but redeemed himself, while we were also extremely lucky for once to hear the recriminations that often take place when riders are back in the bus or their hotel. Let’s hope for the Frenchman’s sake that the points that Jakobsen may have missed out on don’t end up costing him the green jersey as the Vuelta reaches a long run of mountain stages where Primož Roglič, currently in third place in this ranking, is likely to make some substantial gains.
After this weekend’s stages in the mountains of central Spain, the action will switch in the middle of next week to Asturias, the northern region where the verdant terrain will offer a stark contrast to the dusty shades that we’ve seen pretty much every day since the Vuelta left Burgos a fortnight ago.
It’s a beautiful place to explore by bike, a region of wonderful contrasts. I remember spending the night in a small hotel overlooking a bay overlooked by high cliffs, the sound of the Atlantic surf pounding in on the rocks below very clear as we sat down to a locally-caught fish dinner in the restaurant that evening. The next day, within a couple of hours of setting out, we were high up in the clouds as we made our way very slowly up to the watershed on the border with the neighbouring province of León, which lies to the south.
It’s wonderfully lush, and for that reason has always been Spain’s principal dairy region, but also, as we found out that day, the climbs tend to be fearsomely steep. Rising up thickly wooded hillsides from narrow valleys, the roads often seem to be no more than livestock trails that have had asphalt laid on them, scampering quickly upwards with little heed to the gradient.
Asturias is also a region with a long cycling history, its regional tour one of the first to be established in Spain, its clubs renowned for producing great talents, often pure climbers, including the likes of 2008 Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez, long-time US Postal domestique José Luis Rubiera and, arguably the greatest climber of them all, José Manuel Fuente, who terrorised Eddy Merckx at the Giro in the early 1970s. Its most renowned team, CLAS (Central Lechera Asturiana), won the Vuelta title in back-to-back seasons in the early 1990s with Swiss Tony Rominger and also brought through the race’s current director, Fernando Escartín, who spent four seasons with them.
In more recent years, I’ve been back there a couple of times. Firstly, to do a feature on the Angliru, hitherto the most infamous Asturian climb. ‘I hope your car’s got a good clutch on it,’ Samuel Sánchez told us after we’d interviewed him on a bright spring morning in his home city of Oviedo, close the statue erected in his honour after his Olympic victory. He gave us directions to the foot of the climb and we set off southwards to La Vega.
It’s an ascent of two halves, the first tough, at a bit more than 8%, which reaches a long false flat. The second is off the scale of ridiculousness. The “easiest” of the next half dozen kilometres averages 11.5%. There’s one whole kilometre at 17! Once above these ramps, a short descent leads into a remote bowl with a small lake, misty peaks looming all around. Arriving there, especially on a day when there’s no one about – which is most days – you can’t help wondering, ‘Why?’ There’s no weather station, observatory, or onward road. Is its only purpose to test the physical limits of professional cyclists?
The last time I was there was in 2017, when Alberto Contador signed off his career with a swashbuckling victory at the Angliru’s summit on what was his final mountain day and Chris Froome wrapped up what appeared to be his first Vuelta title but would later become his second after Juan José Cobo was stripped of his 2011 success.
This year, after first visiting the Asturian Alpe d’Huez that is Lagos de Covadonga, the Vuelta is sidestepping the Angliru for a new climb that tops out just a handful of kilometres to the south of it, the Altu d’el Gamoniteiru. Only at the very top, and then only briefly, does the gradient touch 17%. Yet, while it lacks the Angliru’s savagely steep pitches, the Gamoniteiru compensates with relentless brutality.
Averaging nigh on 10% for 14.6km, its profile is frightening, but it I wonder whether it might serve up a better spectacle than its near-neighbour, where the action is reduced to slo-mo and the gaps between the favourites are rarely excessively big. Could it offer the chance to Enric Mas to knock Roglič from his red jerseyed perch? Or will the Slovene, aided by his Coloradan climbing lieutenant Sepp Kuss, emerge as the strongest man in the Vuelta’s final week, as he has done in the last two seasons?
And is there a goat-track running between the two summits that might be able to accommodate a layer of asphalt? If there is, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the Vuelta organisers were pushing for it to be surfaced. Just imagine the stage that could serve up…