The 2020 Vuelta a España heads into a crucial weekend of climbing this Saturday with back-to-back summit finishes that hold special memories for all Alberto Contador fans: first up is La Farrapona, where El Pistolero effectively won the 2014 race, and 24 hours later the race tackles l’Angliru, where Contador pulled down the curtain on his career with a memorable lone win in 2017.
First used in the Vuelta in 1999, the Angliru has long since overtaken the Lagos de Covadonga as the race’s most emblematic climb. Not only is the Angliru widely seen as Spain’s single-most difficult ascent, but over the years, moments like Contador’s victory in 2017, or Robero Heras’ stunning lone win in 2002, or the late Jose María Jiménez’s pursuit of Pavel Tonkov up to the mist-enshrouded summit in 1999, have gradually morphed into hallowed and honoured landmarks in the Vuelta’s collective memory.
The history of both climbs in the Vuelta, curiously enough, centre not just on Contador but also Chris Froome (Ineos Grenadiers). In 2014, when the race last visited the Farrapona, the climb embodied Froome’s last chance to turn the tables overall on Contador, by then leading by nearly two minutes. But instead, the Spaniard shadowed Froome to the last kilometre, then consolidated his overall advantage by darting ahead for a stage win and a 15-second gap over the Briton.
As for the Angliru, while Contador effectively won the Vuelta outright there in 2008 - and he remains the only rider to have won on the Angliru twice - Froome sealed his 2011 win on the same mountain by finishing fourth behind Juan Jose Cobo, the Spanish racer who was stripped of his title for a doping offence last year.
Then in 2017, finishing third, 17 seconds behind Contador once again netted Froome the overall title of the Vuelta in Madrid, making Froome the first rider since Bernard Hinault, and just the third rider in history, to win the Vuelta and Tour in the same year.
However, history books are only ever going to be about the past. And no matter the Angliru’s - and Contador’s - cult status, when this weekend’s two stages in the mountain ranges of Asturias in Spain’s far north are compared, globally Saturday’s ascent of the Farrapona is by far the hardest of the entire Vuelta route.
That’s both in terms of stage length - 170 kilometres on Saturday as opposed to 109 kilometres on Sunday - and vertical climbing - Saturday has nearly 4,700 metres of uphill, an amount that would not be out of place on a major Tour de France mountain stage, and Sunday ‘just’ 3,100 metres.
That’s no guarantee Saturday will have more specific gravity in the overall outcome of the Vuelta, but if the weekend were a rock concert, don’t sneak out on Saturday for a back-up can of beer or bag of popcorn during what could appear to be a warm-up band for the main act: you’ll likely reget it.
Stage 11 and La Farrapona
Overshadowed by the Angliru by such glorious chapters of Vuelta history the Farrapona may be, but as the culmination of a relentless climbing trek through the mountains of western Asturias, in practical terms, the stage is certain to do real damage.
Terrain-wise, the 2020 stage is a close imitation of the 2014 version, being preceded by the first-category Alto de la Colladona, the Alto de la Cobertoria - usually tackled by the Vuelta as a warm-up climb for the Angliru, but on this stage ridden in the opposite direction - and one of Asturias’ most difficult ascents, the Puerto de San Lorenzo.
All three ascents featured in 2014 and in the same order, but in 2020 the Colladona has been shifted, route-wise, much closer to the Cobertoria, rendering the day’s racing that much more difficult compared to six years ago.
Perhaps the most striking feature of stage 11 on Saturday is that the deeper the riders get into the stage, the more the distance shrinks between each first-category challenge they tackle. There’s a good 20 kilometres for riders to recover between coming off the descent of the Colladona and starting the Cobertoria, for example, but far less recovery time between the Cobertoria and San Lorenzo, and nothing at all between the sharp descent of San Lorenzo and the stage’s rearing upwards again with the final challenge of the Farrapona.
Sixteen kilometres long, the first two-thirds of the Farrapona are essentially a 4 to 5 per cent preamble to the meat of the climb. There’s one brief segment at kilometre seven which briefly rears into a 12.5 per cent gradient, but the last four kilometres, never below nine per cent, are where the biggest gaps should emerge.
Like the Angliru, in this part of the world there’s always the road surface and the weather to consider, too. Unless there’s been a considerable hike in local municipalities’ budgets in the last few years, the middle section of the Farrapona, in particular, will likely have remained as it was in 2014 - a nerve-wrackingly narrow, twisting goat track of a climb on a puncture-inducing mixture of rough and rutted tarmac that could cause a few technical problems just when they are least needed.
The weather, meanwhiile, is set to be cold but dry all weekend, and on such difficult roads that matters a great deal: in the wet, on the ultra-steep Angliru, it wouldn’t have been unusual for some less-proficient climbers to walk (or run) up some parts. As for those who stay on their bikes, quite possibly they would be unable to stand out of the saddle to accelerate on the harder segments.
As for the Farrapona, after passing through the small town of Salienca with about five kilometres to go, the road surface improves. But as if to make up for that, at the same point - only recently surfaced to enable tourists to visit the lakes at the summit - it steepens notably, all the way to the final, somewhat easier kilometre. The absence of bends, too, apart from a few hairpins near the finish, make it much harder to gauge your effort, and do little to make this climb feel any easier.
Stage 12 and l'Angliru
The Farrapona looks certain to set the cat among the pigeons, but 24 hours later on stage 12, when the peloton will face the Vuelta’s eighth ascent of the Angliru, you could say that, like the Alpe d’Huez in France or the Mortilo in the Giro, the race will have reached its emotional highpoint. Victory on the Angliru, though, is far from certain to guarantee you a win in Madrid. Only once in the last seven ascents, in 2008 with a certain Alberto Contador, has the Vuelta’s stage winner on the Angliru also won the Vuelta outright.
However, the Angliru has seen the race leader change three times: in 2002 Roberto Heras, the winner, replaced Oscar Sevilla atop of the GC; in 2008 Contador ousted Egoi Martinez; and in 2011, Cobo, albeit prior to disqualification, supplanted Sky’s Bradley Wiggins.
Despite being marginally shorter than in 2017 - 109 kilometres compared to 117km - the 2020 equivalent stage is also marginally harder. Both featured two short, punchy, category-one ascents, in the 2020 race the Alto de la Mozqueta and the Cordal, but this time round, unlike in 2017, they are preceded by two category 3 ascents as well.
While the Mozqueta has only featured once before in the Vuelta, in 2018, the Cordal is an old favourite of the race and for the last two decades it has almost invariably preceded the ascent of the Angliru.
Although steep, it’s short and the real challenge of the Cordal is its descent. It’s well known to be a skating rink in wet weather and once caused a change of leader. In 1999, Abraham Olano fell and cracked a rib there, and although he hung on to first place overall on the Angliru, he finally ended up ceding the top spot overall because of his injury.
Then almost immediately after the very fast descent off the Cordal, the race reaches the mining village of La Riosa, and it’s onto the Angliru itself.
The first 5.5 kilometres are not so hard, but from that point onwards, on ramps known as the Viapará, the road rears more steeply, and the average gradient shifts to 10.1 per cent. On such steep slopes, the stage switches from being a normal race into the toughest of uphill individual time trials.
Hard as 10 per cent may sound, on the Angliru those are the easy parts, with mid-climb challenges like the Cuesta les Cabanes ramp, at 21.5 per cent pushing the riders into the reddest of red zones. There is a brief respite of sorts at kilometre 8.5, where the ramp’s percentage points drop to a mere 14.5 per cent. But then as the race swings right for another kilometre-long straightaway, we’re back up to a more standard, horrendously hard, 20 per cent.
Could it get any worse? Of course it could, this is the Angliru. With just 2.5 kilometres left to go, the steepest corner of the entire climb, so well-known it actually has a name - curva de los cobayos or the improbably named ‘guineapigs corner’ - leads directly onto the 1.3km-long segment called Cueña les Cabres - the ‘goats’ track’, as it is rather more aptly called.
By far the hardest part of the Angliru, with an average of 18 per cent and the toughest segment at 23.5 per cent, the Cuena les Cabres is where the massed lines of fans gather - except in pandemic years like 2020 - and where team and media car clutches burn out, where riders suddenly reach the end of their strength and where, perhaps, the Vuelta may be won or lost.
The last part of the climb maintains the pain, with the final hard segment of El Aviru which has slopes of 21 per cent and 1.5 kilometres to go, very likely to broaden any gains made by a breakaway on the Cabres ‘ramp’. Finally, after a short descent and quick kick back up in the final kilometre to the Picu del Puerto finish, the ascent is over - 1,266 metres of vertical climbing to 1,573 metres above sea level.
It’s pretty foolhardy on such difficult stages to predict exactly who will be raising his arms in triumph at the end. But the display of climbing strength shown by Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) on the Moncalvillo automatically makes him the pre-race reference point for both stages.
That said, Wout Poels (Bahrain McLaren) has the best track record of any rider in the 2020 Vuelta peloton on the Angliru - first in 2011 (following Cobo’s disqualification) and second in 2017. A certain Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) too, took his first major professional result in his maiden Grand Tour on the same climb - 11th, an exceptional result for a first year pro, and a good two minutes ahead of another GC contender this year, Enric Mas (Movistar). While Mas has the Vuelta’s strongest team to date to back him, fourth-placed Hugh Carthy (EF Pro Cycling) has an excellent track record in Asturias, too, given he won the region’s stage race back in 2016 when he was just starting his career.
Forecasting a winner, then, is by no means straightforward. But the Vuelta’s overall GC battle will largely be shaped by the next two stages, and the current gap between the top five of just two minutes will likely be far, far bigger come Monday’s rest day. Contador fans, meanwhile, can dust down the good old memories, one more time.