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Vuelta a Espana

The Alto de L´Angliru could decide who wins this year’s Vuelta a España

Saturday’s summit finish up the feared Angliru should provide Alberto Contador (Astana) with the launching pad he’s been impatiently waiting for to rocket decisively into the lead at the Vuelta a España. So far through nearly two weeks of racing, determined rivals have stymied the precocious Spanish climber on roads that he claims just haven’t been steep enough for his taste.

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By Andrew Hood

The Angliru is so steep and so hard, almost anything can happen.

The Angliru is so steep and so hard, almost anything can happen.

Photo: Alfonso Fernandez

Saturday’s summit finish up the feared Angliru should provide Alberto Contador (Astana) with the launching pad he’s been impatiently waiting for to rocket decisively into the lead at the Vuelta a España.

So far through nearly two weeks of racing, determined rivals have stymied the precocious Spanish climber on roads that he claims just haven’t been steep enough for his taste.

“The truth is the climbs in the Pyrénées just weren’t steep enough to make any real differences. The conditions of the race worked against us,” said Contador, poised in third. “We will see real differences in the Angliru. It’s a brutal climb and it’s the ideal place to attack.”

Contador is the overwhelming favorite to win the Vuelta, but so far he’s had to fight hard for just the few seconds he’s gained on rivals during climbing stages up to now.

Contado says the Angliru is “the ideal place to attack.”

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Late-stage attacks at the Rabassa climb in stage 7 and Pla de Beret in stage 8 didn’t produce much despite some deep digs. Contador was able to drop his rivals, but the differences were minimal.

At Rabassa in rainy Andorra, Contador surged away but only gained five seconds – 13, if you include the eight bonus seconds he got for finishing third – on archrival Carlos Sastre (CSC-Saxo Bank). The next day, with Sastre suffering in cramps up Pla de Beret, Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) and Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) wouldn’t – or couldn’t – collaborate and Sastre only lost five seconds.

Sensing an opening in Thursday’s rising finish to Suances, Contador accelerated again to fracture the peloton, but only gained three seconds on his GC rivals.

Contador is the heavy favorite to surge into the race lead Saturday, but Sastre sounds unimpressed with what he’s seen so far.

“I haven’t seen anything extraordinary considering that everyone says he’s the strongest rider in the race,” Sastre said. “He’s been collecting seconds here and there like a little ant. Leipheimer is on Astana, but he’s racing for himself.”

It will <i>not</i> be an easy day.

It will not be an easy day.

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Race leader Egoi Martínez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) is expected to fade out of contention, leaving the jersey up for grabs in what should be the Vuelta’s most exciting mountain battle up the Angliru.

Leipheimer is poised in second at 11 seconds back with Contador in third at 29 seconds, so one of the two Astana riders are expected to inherit the jersey.

The elimination of Valverde – who lost more than three minutes in Thursday’s cold and rainy stage – is a big loss for the Vuelta.

So it’s up to Sastre, slotted into fourth at 1:38, to break the Astana grip on the Vuelta.

“They had a good chance to get rid of me (at Pla de Beret), but my experience and my tranquility saved the day,” Sastre said. “You have to be prudent. I am a hunter that patiently waits for its prey. I don’t make stupid moves or get nervous. But I am attentive and if the opportunity arrives, I will take it. Just like I did in the Tour.”

Ezequiel Mosquera (5th at 2:10), Antón (6th at 2:23) and Robert Gesink (7th at 3:22) all are probably too far back to be considered threats for overall victory, but still in the hunt for the podium.

But the Angliru is so steep and so hard, almost anything can happen.

And with forecasters calling for rain and cold, the Angliru will only live up to its fearsome reputation.

Angliru the beast
The Angliru isn’t a stand-alone mountain, but rather part of a steep ridgeline running across Asturias, the lush, rainy northern province that straddles Spain’s northern Atlantic Coast.

Beloki suffered on the Angliru in 2002

Beloki suffered on the Angliru in 2002

Photo: Graham Watson

At 12.2km in length, the climb rises 1,248 m (4,090 ft) with an average grade of 10.3 percent.

The opening five kilometers aren’t terribly excessive, with an average grade of 7 percent, hardly anything that will cause the pros lose sleep. There’s even a false-flat at 5.5km that gives a short respite.

It’s the second half of the climb where the Angliru earns its reputation.

At 6.5km, the road narrows and hits its first serious ramp of 21 percent. From there, the average grade never falls before 12 percent to the summit.

The steepest part of the climb is the so-called Cueña les Cabres with about 2km to go. At 23.5 percent, it’s not a switchback but more like straight run up a wall. There’s another 21 percent ramp in the final kilometer before the summit.

“I went to see in early August and it’s very, very hard. It’s one thing to say but it’s something else to climb it. It’s a brutal climb,” said Mosquera. “Like I’ve always said, it’s where you win or lose everything. If you have a half bad day on the Angliru, the minutes can fall off in chunks.”

The climb is so steep that most will ride with 34×28, with critics calling it more of a gimmick than a true road climb.

“It’s a mountain bike climb with road bikes,” said Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez, who’s not racing in the Vuelta but lives near the climb. “I can see the Angliru from my house, but I’ve only climbed it once. It was on a bet when I was 16 and I made it up without touching the ground and I won 50 euros. I haven’t been up it since.”

For Sastre, the Vuelta won’t be decided on the Angliru, but rather on the climbing time trial at Navacerrada on the Vuelta’s penultimate stage.

“I climbed it in 2000, when I won the mountain jersey in the Vuelta. It’s a ‘media’ climb that few have actually climbed on their own. The fans see the ramps so excessive that they cannot help but push the cyclists,” Sastre said. “That year I made a pretty good time even though I remember if you climb out of the saddle the bike starts to slip. And the differences were minimal.”

Leipheimer remains an enigma so far in this Vuelta. He’s publicly vowed to help Contador, but he’s obviously riding to protect his interests. Even if Contador wins the Vuelta, Leipheimer is a very strong candidate to finish on the podium.

“I’ve never climbed the Angliru,” he said. “I don’t even want to think about it.”

Short, but rich history
In the Angliru, Vuelta officials believed they found a climb that would be on par with Alpe d’Huez at the Tour de France or the Marmolada in the Giro d’Italia.

Efforts to build momentum around climbs up the Sierra Nevada or the Lagos de Covadonga fell short, but since its inclusion in the 1999, the Angliru has earned a notorious standing.

José María “El Chava” Jiménez won the inaugural ascent in 1999, with Gilberto Simoni dedicating his victory to Marco Pantani the next year.

Roberto Heras was the last winner on the Angliru.

Roberto Heras was the last winner on the Angliru.

Photo: Graham Watson

In 2002, rain and fog descended on Asturias and turned the narrow road into a slippery mess as Roberto Heras rode away with victory.

In his wake, riders who tried to stand out of the saddle slipped out. Anyone who stopped could barely get going again. It was a true mess with team cars spinning out on the painted names on the road.

David Millar, who had already crashed on a previous descent and was nearly run over by a team car, placed his race number bib on the finish line and abandoned the race in indignation.

Vuelta officials didn’t dare bring back the Angliru, until this year.

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