“Amazing scenes at La Vuelta as a 30% ramp on the climb to Mirador de Ezaro forces a number of riders to stop and dismount” – Sky Sports (Aug 27th 2013)
That must be music to the ears of the organisers of the Vuelta Espana – steep roads and brutal stages are what sells this race. Every year when the routes for the Vuelta and the Giro d’Italia are announced we hear the same story – that they’ve gone to far this time; too many climbs; the climbs are too steep; the demands on the riders too great; the organisers are a bunch of masochists, parading the worlds greatest bike riders in a show of suffering for our amusement.
But which stage are we all really looking forward too in this years race? Stage 20, Alto de l’Angliru, 1500 metres of climbing over nearly 13km with long stretches of road over 20% in gradient. And what are we tuning in to see? A great race hopefully, of course, but also the sight of some of the world’s fittest athletes struggling, bent over their bikes in an unequal struggle with the gradient. This kind of spectacle sells the sport.
Are the organisers guilty of a touch of masochism? The sport is no harder now than it’s ever been, and in many ways the demands on the riders have been reduced. Often the marquee races of the past were held over vast distances – Paris-Bordeaux, for example – which ran until 1988 and covered a whopping 560km in a single one-day race.
For some riders it’s the tougher the better. One of the reasons why the great Laurent Fignon won Milan – San Remo twice in the mid eighties was because the punishing distance (300km) favoured a particularly durable athlete, and forced a selection within the field. As he himself puts it, “it would take a long, long race for my stamina to be a real advantage.”
In the same way, there are riders who favour the super-steep climbs like Alto de l’Angliru. On his way to the overall win at the Vuelta in 2011 Juan Jose Cobo seemed to spin his way up that climb, in no excessive discomfort, and claimed a key win on his way to overall victory. No doubt Joaquim Rodriguez will have his eye on that stage this year.
The Tour de France doesn’t go for these steep gradients but sells itself to the public with, among other things, big days and multiple cols in the Alps or Pyrenees. If the Vuelta or the Giro simply replicated that style of racing they would be watered down, lesser versions of the Tour, and so they try to out-do each other with the really steep stuff.
But lets hope the organisers don’t get carried away – too many Alto de l’Angliru’s or Monte Zoncolan’s would disrupt the balance, and the spectacle of a Grand Tour is limited if only the small, explosive climbers have a chance of competing.
When it comes to the rights and wrongs of racing surely we’re talking about unsafe descents, excessive travelling between stages, dangerous weather conditions or unruly spectators. Adding super-steep gradients to the racing is not right or wrong – it’s just different – and for many it’s what makes the Vuelta.