Vuelta a Espana: Dreaded Alto de L'Angliru the pick of brutal race's toughest climbs

Matt Westby looks at nine ascents that could decide the race

Last Updated: 07/09/13 12:13pm

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Riders make their way up the Alto de L'Angliru in the 2011 Vuelta

Riders make their way up the Alto de L'Angliru in the 2011 Vuelta

Sky Bet

This year's Vuelta a Espana is set to be one of the most difficult Grand Tours in recent memory, with the dreaded Alto de L'Angliru one of 11 summit finishes on brutally mountainous course.

The parcours takes in some of the most challenging ascents of the Sierra Nevada, Pyrenees and Asturias mountain ranges, testing the riders with violent ramps, sapping distances and sobering vertical gains.

Here, we look at ten climbs that prove the toughest obstacles.

Alto do Monte da Groba (category one, stage two)

The first summit finish of the race comes on day two and it is far from an attention-grabbing gimmick. The category-one ascent to Alto do Monte da Groba is 11km long and reaches a maximum gradient of 10 per cent, albeit after 3km, which is too early in the climb to be a launch pad for attacks from general classification riders. The climb flattens off with around 3km to go, but then rears back up for a potentially explosive finish. The road kicks up straight from the coastal town on Baiona and climbs on to a mountain-top overlooking the Atlantic.

Alto de Penas Blancas (category one, stage eight)

A stunning climb ending on a mountain top flanked by cliffs of white rock, the category-one Alto de Penas Blancas is at its worst right at the very start. The ascent's maximum gradient, 12.5 per cent, lurks less than 2km into the 14.5km distance and will shed those unable to keep up with the GC riders, whose teams will no doubt be on the front and pushing a fierce pace. From there, the gradient is not actually that tough, but the length of the Sierra Nevada climb and a vertical gain of almost a kilometre compensate to present a stern test to the peloton.

Alto de Hazallanas (especial category, stage ten)

The first especial-category climb of the race sees the peloton tackle a tough but picturesque ascent in the Sierra Nevada National Park. The opening 8.5km of the 15.8km distance are nothing to fear, with the gradient rarely getting up above six per cent and a 1km downhill giving the riders a welcome chance to rest their legs. That is when the niceties end, though, because the climb rears up to 12 per cent by the 9km mark and then steepens further to a maximum of 18 per cent. It eases off and climbs steadily for the next 5km, but then kicks again with another 18 per cent ramp inside the final 2km. It is at this point that the general classification contenders will look to make their attacks, setting up a thrilling finish overlooking the Embalse de Canales reservoir.

Port de Envalira (especial category, stage 14)

The massive Port de Envalira is the highest point on the race

The Port de Envalira is a giant in every sense. Although it is officially listed at a sobering 26.7km, the ascent up to its sky-scraping summit begins long before that and the riders will have been climbing for almost 50km by the time they finally reach the top. And when they do so, they will be at the highest point of this year's race, a headache-inducing 2,410m above sea level, having made a vertical gain of almost 1,400m. The Envalira is far from the steepest ascent of the Vuelta, with an average gradient of 5.2 per cent, but it carries two stinging ramps of 15 per cent, the latter of which coming with just over 1km to go.

Collada de la Gallina (category one, stage 14)

Alejandro Valverde will be looking for a repeat of his win on the Collada de la Gallina in 2012

After the ordeal of the Envalira, the riders have to regroup ready for a summit finish on the punchy Gallina. Its distance and vertical gain are relatively small compared with the monster that goes before it, but this climb carries a more sustained steep gradient, averaging eight per cent over the 7.2km distance and reaching a maximum at 15 per cent. That ramp arrives around 3.5km from the line and consequently provides an ideal place to open up gaps on weary rivals. The road up to the finish is a dramatic one, with no fewer than 18 hairpin bends making the Gallina the Vuelta's answer to Alpe d'Huez. Alejandro Valverde won on this climb in last year's Vuelta and will no doubt be looking to do the same again.

Col de Peyresourde / Peyragudes (category one, stage 15)

The Col de Peyresourde precedes the summit finish at Peyragudes

The Vuelta crosses the border into Tour de France country for a visit to the Peyragudes ski station and a passage of the climb that precedes it, the Col de Peyresourde. The Peyresourde alone is a challenge, but with Peyragudes tagged on at the end, the duo present a spectacular summit finish and a stern, category-one test totalling 16.7km in length. The hardest part of the climb is a 13 per cent ramp right at the foot of the Peyresourde, but the GC contenders will probably save their attacks until around the 9km mark, when they will look to open a gap leading over the summit, recover on the subsequent short descent and then go again on the drag to Peyragudes. The test is amplified by the fact this climbing double-bill comes at the end of a bruising 224.9km day containing three other category-one climbs.

Aramon Formigal (category one, stage 16)

The 2013 Vuelta's final test in the Pyrenees sees the riders tackle the undulating, category-one ascent to the Aramon Formigal ski resort. This is not your average European cycle climb, because rather than being a continuous rise up the side of a mountain, the 15.8km total distance includes 2.5km of flat and two short downhill sections. The steepest ramp, of 9.5 per cent, comes at around the half-way mark and could provide an ideal launch pad for attacks.

Pena Cabarga (category one, stage 18)

The Pena Cabarga climbs saves its worst till last

The first of three back-to-back summit finishes, the category-one Pena Cabarga is far from the longest climb of the Vuelta, but it is one of the steepest. Other than a half-kilometre section after 3.5km where the road momentarily flattens out, the ascent is seldom drops below eight per cent in gradient and frequently rises up into double figures. However, the worst part of the climb, a 20 per cent ramp, arrives inside the last 1km, paving the way for late attacks and a thrilling finale to both the stage and climb. Chris Froome began building his reputation as one of the best climbers in the world by winning on Pena Cabarga in the 2011 Vuelta.

Alto de L'Angliru (especial category, stage 20)

Levi Leipheimer leads, from left, Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador up the steep Alto de L'Angliru in 2008

The fearsome Angliru is quite simply one of the hardest cycle climbs in the world, a genuine rival to the likes of Italy's Passo di Mortirolo and Monte Zoncolan and Austria's Kitzbuheler Horn. It averages 10.2 per cent in gradient over its 12.2km course and ascends for more than 1,200 vertical metres, but that doesn't tell the full story of a climb that sends shivers down the spine of professional and amateur riders alike. Having wrestled their way up the first 9.5km, hell then breaks loose on the Angliru with a 1.5km section that rears up through 16 per cent, 19 per cent, 21 per cent and, finally, a leg-snapping maximum gradient of 23.5 per cent, ensuring the crux of this brutal test comes just when protagonists are at their most fatigued. It then eases off a touch, before ramping back up to 21 per cent just before topping out and a flat run to the finish line. A truly epic test.

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