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PENAFIEL, Spain (VN) – Friday’s 19th stage pushed ever closer to Madrid and the conclusion of what’s been a wildly exciting Vuelta a España.
The only thing standing between Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) and his second Vuelta crown is the Bola del Mundo summit at the end of Saturday’s penultimate stage. The brutally hard 170km course, with four first-category climbs, caps a grueling Vuelta featuring no less than 10 uphill finales.
“It’s a very difficult, dangerous climb,” Contador said. “It’s incredibly steep and probably harder than Cuitu Negru (Monday’s stage 15 finish). It’s going to be spectacular. The climb is so hard, that despite living around there, I rarely go up it.”
With 23-percent ramps up a narrow, concrete service road at a ski station north of Madrid, Bola del Mundo is the last in a string a Vuelta full of outside-the-box climbs.
Organizers hope that climbs like Bola del Mundo and Cuitu Negru drive media interest and bring out the fans. So far, their prognostics have proven correct.
But what do the riders think? They’re the ones that have get up these new, beyond-steep climbs that the Vuelta and the Giro d’Italia have embraced over the past decade.
Surprisingly, most riders VeloNews talked with over the past several days don’t seem to mind the excessive climbs.
Chris Froome, the Sky captain who’s suffered more than the Spanish mountain goats up the explosive climbs, said it’s all part of the business of racing.
“It’s certainly one of the talking points of this Vuelta,” Froome told VeloNews. “Those steep climbs are challenging. There’s nowhere to hide. It puts the riders on the complete extreme. I rode a 38×32 up Cuitu Negru. I certainly could have used another gear.”
The Vuelta and Giro have both pushed the boundaries of what a grand tour should look like and what kind of mountains the peloton can climb.
The Vuelta first pushed the envelope by introducing the Angliru climb in 1999. The 12.5km climb deep in the heart of the rugged Cantabrian mountains was the first to feature extreme grades, with the steepest ramps at 24 percent. The Giro countered with the Zoncolan climb in 2003.
That seemed to open a sort arms race between the Vuelta and Giro, with each race unrolling new, unexplored roads each year.
Riders ridiculed the Plan de Corones climbing time trial up gravel roads in northern Italy when Giro organizers introduced it a few years later. Jens Voigt laughed, calling it a “gimmick,” and said the Giro had gone too far.
Not to be outdone by the Giro, the Vuelta scoured Spain for hidden climbs. In 2010, it introduced the short but very steep Valdepeñas de Jaén hilltop finale as well as Bola del Mundo.
This year, the Vuelta took the race up Cuitu Negru, which is a ski run and maintenance road at a ski resort. It also hit the 2km climb up the Mirador del Ezaro last week in Galicia. With ramps at 30 percent, it was the steepest road ever to be featured in a professional bike race.
The irony is, in a Vuelta riddled with double-digit grades and knee-busting steeps, it was the relatively easy four-percent grades of Fuente Dé on Wednesday where Contador blew apart the race.
Some of the new climbs are so steep that it’s nearly impossible to attack. Riders use such low gearing — Contador rode a 36×32 up Cuitu Negru — that they can only crawl their way up the walls and rarely manage to open more than small gaps.
Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), who admitted he isn’t a fan of the extremely steep climbs, said that he fares better when the entire stage is challenging. Climbs such as the short, but very steep 30-percent ramps at the Ezaro climb along the Galician coast, are much harder to manage for the young American.
“That is the only downside, because at a certain point, it’s so steep, you cannot attack, you just have to get up,” Talansky told VeloNews. “It is very exciting and the fans go crazy, but there is a happy medium. I like to see a climb where people can attack.”
Not everyone likes the trend. Sprinters have a hard time getting up the climbs and this year’s Vuelta was so mountainous that most of the top sprinters steered clear. Daniel Teklehaimanot (Orica-GreenEdge), a strong climber, was puking at the top of Cuitu Negru while others simply collapsed on the ground after crossing the line.
Even some climbers don’t like the trend toward ever-steeper climbs. Laurens Ten Dams (Rabobank) said the Cuitu Negru was so steep he described it as a “cave of pain.”
“It might be nice for the fans, but it’s terrible for the riders,” he said. “It was terribly steep. I had to use a compact for the first time of my life, and I am glad I did. It was just terrible. You try to get up the climb as fast as possible, but it was terribly slow. Normally it’s only three minutes when there are three kilometers left to go, but this took us 15 minutes.”
Most riders seem to take what’s thrown at them in stride.
The Angliru — so steep that David Millar once took off his race bib and placed it on the finish line in a sign of protest when the race went over the climb in torrential rain in 2002 — seems to be the one climb that truly puts fear into the cyclists.
Talansky got his first taste in 2011 and said he hopes he doesn’t have to go up it anytime soon.
“Something like Cuitu Negru was completely acceptable. It was very hard, but it wasn’t over the top,” said Talansky. “I remember thinking last year up the Angliru, wondering why this is even in a bike race. When you look back, you realize it’s good for the race and provides a great spectacle for the race and the fans. I still think the Angliru is still a little extreme.”
After unveiling such climbs as the Angliru, Bola del Mundo and Cuitu Negru, Vuelta organizers already have some new plans cooking up theirs sleeves.
There’s talk of ending the Vuelta next year up the Teide volcano on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Riders can only hope it won’t be spitting ash and smoke, as was the case in last year’s Giro when they climbed Mount Etna. Regardless, the arms race for ever-more extreme climbs in Italy and Spain is on and erupting.