Since it was first included in the Vuelta a España in 1999, the Alto de l’Angliru has earned a formidable reputation. Thanks to its maximum gradients of well over 20%, the Angliru has quickly become one of the most feared climbs in cycling.
There has even been debate in the past over whether the climb is so difficult that it produces boring racing. In 2002, French cyclist Patrice Halgand went on record to say that riders on the Angliru “go too pitifully for the climb to have any sporting interest. Even the winner goes up in slow motion. There’s no attacking. From front to rear, everyone just gets up as best he can.”
Despite this criticism, the climb has its fair share of backers. A victory on the Angliru garners a rider a certain amount of prestige that is not present with easier mountain finishes.
With the next appearance of the Angliru looming on Sunday, let’s take a look at riders who have conquered the climb in years past, and what their performances mean for the race in 2020.
The Angliru was introduced to the riders relatively early into the ‘99 Vuelta. The climb came at the conclusion of the race’s eighth stage. The stage was won by José María Jiménez. The great Spanish climber finished just ahead of Pavel Tonkov after catching the Russian towards the end of the climb.
Despite the two men finishing over a minute ahead of anyone else, the Angliru did not secure overall victory for either one. The 1999 Vuelta featured a whopping 99 kilometers of individual time trialing, paving the way for Jan Ulrich to claim victory by over four minutes. For their troubles, Tonkov and Jiménez finished fourth and fifth respectively.
A year later, the Vuelta took on the Angliru again, with the mighty climb coming on stage 15. Gilberto Simoni took the victory, surviving from the day’s breakaway to take his first Vuelta stage win.
However, the important damage was done farther down the mountain. The decisive riding was that of Roberto Heras, who took his second straight third place on the Angliru. Heras exploded out of the group of contenders and completed the Angliru in a blistering time of 41:55. Over 20 years later, Heras’ performance is still the fastest recorded time on the Angliru.
Heras had gone into the overall lead two days earlier. But the Spainard’s ride on the Angliru propelled him to his first of four Vuelta victories between 2000 and 2005. When it was all said and done, Heras beat Ángel Luis Casero by a margin of two minutes and 33 seconds. On the Angliru stage, Heras put three minutes and 41 seconds into his rival. In doing so, Heras garnered enough of a cushion to withstand Casero’s push back later in the race.
The 2002 Vuelta once again included the Angliru in its 15th stage. Heras once again took it as an opportunity to shine. This time around, Heras won the stage, riding for US Postal Service after switching over to the American team the prior season.
With his victory, Heras moved into first in the overall standings. However, his margin was not enough for him to hold the lead. Heras lost the Vuelta in a 41.2 kilometer time trial on the final day. His former teammate, Aitor González, beat him by over three minutes. González had done well on the Angliru stage, finishing fifth and losing just 2:16 to Heras. That was enough to keep him within striking distance of securing his first and only grand tour victory.
After three appearances in four years, the Vuelta opted not to use the Angliru again until 2008. The climb, which featured on stage 13, played right into the hands of the 25-year-old Alberto Contador. Contador, who had won the 2007 Tour de France and the 2008 Giro d’Italia, was aiming to become the youngest rider in history to have won all three grand tours.
El Pistolero entered the stage wearing the white jersey of the best young rider. He utilized his Astana teammates to whittle down the main field before eventually going solo. Contador outclimbed all his rivals, winning the stage by 42 seconds ahead of Alejandro Valverde. The win propelled Contador into first place, a position which he never relinquished. He ultimately beat Levi Leipheimer by 46 seconds, completing his grand tour hattrick. Considering the slim margin of victory, Contador secured the title with the 1:05 that he put into his American teammate on the Angliru.
In 2011, Juan José Cobo was the first rider to cross the line at the top of the Angliru to finish the Vuelta’s 15th stage. Cobo finished 48 seconds ahead of a group containing Wout Poels, Denis Menchov and Chris Froome. Cobo’s victory moved him into the overall lead, and he went on to win the race seven days later in Madrid by 13 seconds over Froome.
However, in 2019, it turned out that Cobo’s biological passport suggested the use of performance enhancing drugs between 2009 and 2011. Cobo’s results were stripped after he opted not to lodge an appeal. As a result, Froome was declared the winner of the Vuelta while Wout Poels became the official winner of the Angliru stage.
The first three winners on our list rode in an era dominated by EPO. The fourth has a section titled “Doping” on his Wikipedia page. In fairness to Cobo, the official record book is a bit hit or miss in that sense. However, it credits Poels, so he is the official winner of this Angliru stage.
In 2013, the 22-year-old French climber Kenny Elissonde became the youngest rider to conquer the Angliru when he won stage 20. Elissonde took the victory from the breakaway while a fierce GC battle unfolded behind him. The overall contender who fared the best did so by producing a historically quick time.
In 2000, Roberto Heras used the same formula to secure victory. In 2013, that rider was Chris Horner. The 41-year-old American produced a time of 43:07, the second fastest time the Angliru has seen. In doing so he gained 28 seconds on his closest rivals, extending his race-winning margin to 37 seconds on Vincenzo Nibali.
Although he entered the day in the race lead, it was Horner’s performance on the Angliru that clinched his only grand tour victory.
The most recent appearance of the Angliru in the Vuelta came in 2017. An aging Alberto Contador capitalized and took his second victory on the brutal climb. With the help of teammate Jarlinson Pantano, Contador started the climb with a buffer of roughly 30 seconds on the overall contenders. Contador bridged up to the front of the race before going solo with 5.5 km to go.
At one point, Contador held an advantage as large as 1:20 over his chasers. That gap was whittled down significantly by a great deal of action in the final kilometers. Contador held on to win by 17 seconds ahead of Wout Poels and Chris Froome. In doing so, he secured the final victory of his storied career. Contador also earned the honor of becoming the first man to win on the Angliru twice.
Froome’s strong third place on the Angliru wrapped up a dominant overall victory. His teammate Poels moved into sixth in the overall standings with his second top-two finish on the Angliru.
So what does the history of this climb suggest for the 2020 race? Well, for starters, whoever wins the Vuelta is going to be there or thereabouts on the Angliru. The lowest finish on the Angliru by the Vuelta winner was Ulrich in ‘99. The German still finished seventh and limited his losses to 2:45.
Past results suggest that it’s plausible that victory on the Angliru could be claimed either by a breakaway or a GC contender. Based on the style of racing that was on display during today’s stage to Alto de la Farrapona, a victory by a GC contender seems more likely. The favorites were content to keep their powder dry in anticipation of fireworks on the Angliru. Therefore, they will be motivated for a big showdown tomorrow. David Gaudu took advantage of that strategy to grab the stage win ahead of Marc Soler from the breakaway, while the GC guys waited until the final few hundred meters to show themselves.
Richard Carapaz and Primož Roglič have proved to be the two strongest GC riders in the race up until this point. The two men are currently sitting even atop the overall standings. Carapaz needs to gain time on Roglič ahead of the stage 13 time trial. That being said, the strength of Roglič’s team makes Carapaz’s job a lot harder. Both Sepp Kuss and George Bennett were present to assist Roglič while Carapaz was isolated in the finish of today’s stage. That disparity should only be magnified by the difficulty of the Angliru.
With all that in mind, the Angliru will swing the balance of the Vuelta firmly in the favor of Roglič. Even if he misses out on the stage win like he did on the high-altitude Col de la Loze at the Tour, he’ll limit his losses enough to be in control heading into the time trial.
Essentially, Ineos have not shown themselves to be strong enough to set Carapaz up to gain enough time tomorrow. After this weekend, only stage 17 features another summit finish. That climb, the Alto de La Covatilla, is nowhere near as difficult as the Angliru. This means that the race winner should be mostly decided by the next two days of racing.
I expect Carapaz to do everything in his power to drop Roglič on the Angliru tomorrow. I just don’t anticipate him having enough in the tank to overcome the Slovenian’s superior time trialing ability.
The Angliru has been decisive in determining the winner of the previous seven Vueltas that it has featured in. One way or another, that should be the case again tomorrow.
– Andrew Fasciano (@afasc573)
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