Predicting how the many climbs of this Vuelta a España will shape the race is a fool’s errand. There are fully 48 categorized ascents spread out across the 21 stages of the race, and with so many variables in play regarding the prospects of the top GC guys, like whether the Tour guys are gonna pop or the Giro guys are gonna rev up again, it’s impossible to judge when and where the key opportunities will make themselves available. It’s easy to point at the exceptionally steep climbs and say that the race will be decided there.
The reality is that on some of the most brutal ascents it’s just as likely that everyone will be hanging on to each other for dear life than that one or more riders will hit a 20 percent gradient and decide it’s time to unleash the kraken. As fans, we can see that riders can and will just come up with a way to get over anything, no matter how miserable, but when a road is too steep for anyone to do much, it's not that great to watch. Better is when a steep section comes in the middle of a climb so that riders can launch attacks beforehand, and the nasty ramp just increases the suffering being felt in their wake. But there's a better chance nothing changes on a slope that's beyond anyone's comfort zone.
But part of a course design is about the imagination, and here’s where this Vuelta tries extra hard to push our buttons. Were us normal humans to go out and try to ride these extreme gradients, there are ... issues. Personally, my sweet spot evaporates somewhere around 6%, so when 20% comes up... there are problems. The street I live on tops out at 14% and I can grind it out, since I don't have a granny gear on my bike. But I'm not sure any bike has a gear that can be used to spin up a 20% hill. And grinding is anaerobic, which means your legs start to hurt pretty quickly, which is fine if you aren't stuck on that ramp for too long. But if it's km after km, I mean, that's beyond hard. It's demoralizing. Then there's going back down. No thanks.
OK, back to it.
Stage 8: Xorret de Cati
Starting tomorrow, the Vuelta shifts from "relatable test of athletic endurance" to "does watching this stage make me a co-conspirator in torture?" Exhibit 1 is the Alto Xorret de Catí, which will look cute by the time the Vuelta pulls into Madrid, but for now is a 5km climb that never stops hurting.
Climbbybike has this as a 3.5k ascent that averages over 11%, which is a fair description of the business end of things. I've written about how hard the Koppenberg is, with its 20% gradient in the middle coming after a lead-in of double-digit pain, then followed by more of the same. This is kind of the same thing, only replace cobbles with tarmac (that's good!), and replace 600 meters with 3500 of them (that's bad). Stage-placement-wise it's 3km from the line, which checks in a few pedal turns under 200km, so this one will leave a small mark.
Stage 9: Cumbre del Sol
Next it's on to the Cumbre del Sol, the “summit of the sun,” where the rider who arrives first will be sacrificed to the Basque sun god Hillari, dashing his general classification hopes but helping to save the rest of the peloton from otherwise-certain catastrophe. And in fairness, he'll prefer sacrifice to having to ride down the final climb, on a bike or (even worse) in a team bus, since it's a brake-smoking plummet of 4km in mostly double digits, including a stretch of 21%. But still, we are just getting started.
Stage 15: Alto de Hazallanes
Stage 15's toxic treat is the Alto de Hazallanas, a climb of 16km that goes up a little, then levels off and descends slightly, then turns upward like a shark launching after a sunbathing seal. And by the way, I know something about this subject, after a paddleboard was munched by a great white shark this week at the beach we used to swim at as kids (the presumably non-delicious paddleboarder was relatively unharmed). There were no seals back then, thanks to good old clubbing and pollution and overfishing which kept us all safe, but now they are back.
Anyway, after the interlude there's a kilometer of about 15% average, with ramps of 19 and 22%, then another pause, and five more kilometers averaging something like 12%. This too is a bit like a shark attack, where first they bump your paddleboard, then they bite off your toes, and if you taste enough like a seal at that point, they come back and thrash you around for five kilometers or so until you give up. I'm not a marine biologist, but I know a bunch of them, and they alll told me this is how it works.
Stage 17: Alto Los Machucos
Three days later, following a rest and the Vuelta's decisively long time trial, it's on to the next unfathomable ascent, the Alto de los Machucos, or the climb of the bruises. Machuco also translates as just "hurt, and not in a fun way that allows you go get to the top, congratulate yourself and your friends, and marvel at the fact that someone made a monument to a cow. Nope, this one is all pain and misery, for a long, long time. It comes at you in waves, first a 17% ramp, then a flat spot, then about 600 horizontal meters where you gain 175 vertical ones, either topping out or holding steady at 26%. Then another flat spot, a few hundred more meters at 25%, then finally a kilometer of nonsense before the real climbing begins. OK, that part is about 3.5km gaining 400 meters, 11% average with long stretches of 12 and 15.
The road to hell is paved with 20-plus percent gradients, so I’m pretty sure the Ascent of the Hurts is the road to hell.
Stage 20: Alto de l’Angliru
Just the worst climb in Europe. It hardly requires description, but I will throw it out there that they definitely have to go back down the thing. Somehow there are supposedly 291 harder climbs in the world but it’s not clear whether you can race a bike on any of them, since most of them require crampons.
The Angliru has been in the race six times, and on three occasions the overall winner has taken the stage. Part of that has to do with the “attack me” gradients on the lower half, but mostly it’s because it’s always at the end of the Vuelta and the guys who know at this point that they aren’t winning the race are forced to give up all hope of leading a normal life again with about 7km to go, and only manage to finish the stage by having their DS insist that there’s food and a warm blanket waiting at the top... but he has to return his bike to the team van or no food for him. Grown men have been known to cry on L’Angliru. In fact, I’m welling up a bit right now.