Will the Mighty Angliru Decide the Vuelta Again?

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

As the 2023 Vuelta a España enters its final week, the riders will be faced with two more brutal mountain stages, of which Wednesday’s stage 17 will no doubt be most decisive, as it features a summit finish on the Alto de l’Angliru, one of the most difficult climbs in all of road racing. At 12.4km, with a fearsome average gradient of 9.8%, and featuring on the final 13km long ramps of between 19 and 24%, the climb can break the best of climbers. And since it follows two difficult Category 1 climbs – the Alto de la Colladiello (7.8km at 7.1%) and the Alto del Cordal (5.4km at 9.2%) – the riders will be tackling it with tired legs.

That climb will probably be the last chance for those GC riders still in contention to break Jumbo-Visma’s stranglehold on the race. As of September 12, Sepp Kuss leads the race for the red jersey by 1’ 37” over teammate Primož Roglič, with a third Jumbo-Visma rider, the two-time Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard, at 1’ 44”.

Six riders – Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates), Enric Mas, (Movistar), Marc Soler (UAE Team Emirates), Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious), Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Cian Uijtdebroeks (Bora-Hansgrohe) – still have a theoretical chance of upsetting the Jumbo-Visma juggernaut, as they trail Kuss by between 2’ 37” and 5’ 30”. However, realistically speaking, and considering the quality of the Jumbo-Visma climbers, the best they can probably hope for is that one of the “killer bees” cracks on the Angliru so they can snatch a place on the podium.

So, the Angliru can make you or break you. The great Alberto Contador, who has won the Vuelta three times and the Angliru stage twice, calls it “the most difficult pass in all of Spain and a benchmark in cycling.” He also says it is “a dream stage…. It was a fourth dream that I didn’t know I had. One was to be a professional cyclist, another was to race in the Tour and the other was to win it. [He has won the Tour twice.] What I didn’t know was that I had a fourth dream: to retire like I did on the Angliru.” In August 2017, Contador rode in the Vuelta as his final race as a professional, finishing fifth in the GC, winning the combativity award and taking his final mountain stage atop the Angliru, 17 seconds ahead of Wout Poels and eventual Vuelta winner Chris Froome.

Chris Froome climbing the Angliru at the 2017 La Vuelta. © Profimedia

“The Angliru is special because it is a mythical climb,” the now 40-year-old Contador says. “Cyclists dream about putting their name to it.” The climb was first included in the Vuelta in 1999, on stage eight, and was won by a Spaniard, José María Jiménez.” Since then, six riders have won the Angliru stage, with Contador the only rider to win it twice. In addition to 2017, he also won it in 2008. “My feelings and my thoughts in 2008 were that a dream had come true,” he says. “The Angliru has had an important impact on my career for two reasons: one, because it made me a leader in 2008, in my first Vuelta a España, and also because it was the last chapter in my book in 2017. I retired with the sound of that victory on the peak.”

There have been, of course, other notable victories on the Angliru over the years, two of them by cyclists riding in this year’s Vuelta: Wout Poels (Bahrain Victorious) in 2011, and Hugh Carthy (EF Education-EasyPost) in 2020, his only Grand Tour stage victory. They both rank low in the GC and so would be allowed to race away on a breakaway if they wished to recapture past Angliru glory. And there was Chris Horner’s inspiring win in 2013, which cemented his Vuelta GC victory over Vincenzo Nibali and made him, at age 41, the oldest rider to win a stage on a Grand Tour and the oldest ever Grand Tour winner. He is also the last American rider to win a Grand Tour. Kuss is the first US rider since then to lead a Grand Tour, and could become the next American to win a Grand Tour – if he makes it up the mighty Angliru.