Vuelta a Espana

Los Machucos opens decisive climbing weekend at Vuelta

Paved less than a decade ago, the Los Machucos climb has already become part of Vuelta lore after just one inclusion. This year the punishing climb opens a decisive weekend in the mountains.

Los Machucos — it’s a relatively new climb in Vuelta a España history, but it already has a reputation.

When the brutally steep climb in a hidden valley in Spain’s Cantabria region was inaugurated in the 2017 Vuelta, Chris Froome, the eventual overall victor, nearly cracked under attacks, and vowed to “never to come back.”

The narrow strip of a road, paved less than a decade ago, was long a secret among local riders when Vuelta officials came sniffing around to find new undiscovered climbs that have become the calling card for the Spanish grand tour. With Los Machucos, they found just what they were looking for.

On Friday, it’s back for a second time, and the peloton is bracing in one of the hardest stages in what’s been a highly selective Vuelta route. Race leader Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) realizes it will be a critical day in his red jersey defense.

In 2017 Vincenzo Nibali made his move on the Los Machucos climb, and clawed back valuable time from eventual winner Chris Froome. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

“I don’t know the climb, but I do know it is very steep,” Roglic said. “Everyone has their opinion about the climb. I will have mine when I finish.”

The slender road — also called Collao Espina — rises like a wall up an escarpment in the rugged Cantabrian range, the stout swath of mountains that guard Spain’s northern coast. At the top is a monument to a nearly extinct local breed of milking cow, called the Pasiega, but it’s the mountain goats that will shine instead.

The official distance is just over 13 kilometers, but it doesn’t truly get steep until about 9km to go. It rises like a partition, with ramps as steep as 28 percent for three kilometers. A false flat provides a short respite before another 3km sector that averages 12.2 percent. A short descent leads to the final ramp at 11 percent before the exasperated arrive to the line.

What makes Los Machucos so dangerous is that it stair-steps up the ridge line, with two extremely steep sectors book-ended by several hundred meters of flatter terrain. When climbs are so steep, like the neighboring Anglirù, gaps are often minimal because climbers can only move so fast up interminable climbs. In contrast, the staggered nature of Los Machucos allows attacking riders to open up gaps and drive the wedge on the false flats.

“It’s a really hard climb,” said Slovenian sensation Tadej Pogacar (UAE-Emirates), fifth overall at 3:05 back. “It could explode the race.”

The climb is punishingly steep, and the road surface is rough concrete. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

The 166km, seven-climb stage is the first of three summit finishes sprinkled across northern Spain this weekend that will go a long way toward crowning the winner of the 2019 Vuelta. With the final week featuring only one truly challenging mountain stage, whoever emerges with the red jersey on their back for Tuesday’s rest day could win the overall title.

A fresher, more confident Roglic enters the fray with a commanding lead, thanks in large part to his smashing time trial victory in Pau on Tuesday.

All eyes will be on Miguel Ángel López (Astana), who’s attacked every time the road has tilted upward so far in this Vuelta. Hovering at third at 2:11 back, López leads a fleet of climbers who cannot afford to miss this chance to take it to Roglic.

“The team is very strong and helps me to stay calm,” López said. “Los Machucos is going to be very hard, and it’s an opportunity we cannot miss to try to attack Roglic.”

Los Machucos is critical for the climbers to try to claw back some time on Roglic. The other summit finales waiting in Asturias on Sunday and Monday — Santuario de Acebo in stage 15 and La Cubilla in stage 16 — are longer, steadier efforts that better suit Roglic’s steady-tempo climbing style.

“We have no choice but to attack Roglic,” said Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, who lost the leader’s jersey in Pau, now fourth at 3:00 back. “Alejandro [Valverde] and I are still close, and we can use that to our advantage. I have nothing to lose.”