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Climbers' Christmas

From the moment the peloton at the Tour of Flanders hit the Koppenberg, this has been the year of the mountain goat. Races with discretion to change their course, particularly the grand tours, have erred in favor of the uphill whenever possible. Sure, some years it seems like the Tour or the Giro is extra climby, but this has been something more. All three grand tours have seriously emphasized climbing, at the expense of time trials or anything else. All of them have featured minor mountain stages between the major ones, and when there were no mountains at all they still managed to find uphill finishes.

But nothing has been more symbolic of the attitiude of race organizers than the appearance of banned or limited slopes. Le Tour is under constant pressure to include Alpe d'Huez, the main course in fans' minds, and after resisting for a year, they set it up to be the decisive stage, a day after an historic climb to the highest paved road in Europe. The Giro, meanwhile, wasn't content to design a course that looked like an Italian climbing greatest hits package; they had to include a time trial up the Plan de Corones, a road so steep and rough that its only prior inclusion in the race had to be canceled. Similarly, the Tour of Flanders has long wondered aloud whether it was appropriate to include the Koppenberg -- short and low compared to the Alpine giants but no less steep or legendary. After being deemed unsafe, the Koppenberg got fixed up and removed from the banned climbs list in time for de Ronde... conspicuously after the other major races announced their own legendary climbs.

Tomorrow's race up the Alto l'Angliru marks the end of the list of legendary, nearly-forbidden climbs, and like Christmas morning, it brings the Year of the Climber to a spectacular conclusion. Arguably, this is the greatest of the greatest: the Koppenberg is great viewing but not decisive for anyone who gets up in one piece. Alpe d'Huez is the headliner, but a well-worn path and probably not the hardest climb even in France. The Plan de Corones course was a short ITT -- cool enough, but in the mountains there's nothing like a road stage. The Gavia/Mortirolo had a downhill finish, as did the Col de la Bonette.

The Angliru stage is all you could want: a long 209km ride, an uphill finish after four other climbs, an unimaginable grade, utterly decisive in the overall, closely contested, and featuring a star-studded field. The Vuelta often suffers for being the last of the grand tours, but in this case they have the chance to upstage the entire Year of the Climber. OK, Alpe d'Huez may be hard to top even if we've seen it a lot; after all, the riders make the race. But with any luck, this will be just as memorable.

Consider this an open thread to drool over the Angliru, or recoil in horror, or simply post pictures that tell the frightening tale.