Angliru, La Vuelta a España, September 4th, 2011
The small Spanish town of La Vega de Riosa is still waking up at nine in the morning. Cockerels crow and an old man sips a bitter coffee at the only café to have opened on the high street so far. He has taken his vantage point to view the comings and goings of the Vuelta, not that there is much to see some seven hours before the peloton is due to pass. A clump of Guardia Civil Tráfico man the nearest junction; route signs are being attached to lampposts; the occasional official Skoda speeds past.
I wander through the town to where a sharp right-hander denotes the start of the Angliru, 12.5km of pain for the 178 riders approaching from Avilés.
A heavy sky duly delivers its load as I stare up into the mist, seeing little of the climb with the fearsome reputation. A young and impetuous David Millar famously tore off his number and refused to cross the line in 2002 at the end of a crash-strewn, rain-soaked day of misery. I wanted to know if he was right to do so. Conditions looked to be swinging things towards Millar’s line of thinking.
An elderly lady approaches looking agitated and rattles off a sentence at high speed. “’Scuse me,” I reply in Desperanto. “Inglés. No parlo Español.”
No one gets out of here alive
She is now grabbing the hem of my jacket, pointing towards the mountain, increasingly animated but talking a tad slower. “Mucho frio” – very cold. The rest I take as “There be demons” and “No one gets out of here alive”. Or words to that effect.
She scuttles away to issue dire warnings to anyone else prepared to listen, having planted a seed of doubt regarding my dress sense for the day ahead. An enterprising local has set up a stall selling flimsy-looking rain capes that may hold off the rain for a few minutes, but I return to the car for a couple more layers of protection and consider my options.
To get the true fan’s experience of the Angliru, the climb should be tackled on foot or by bike. A steady stream of both footsloggers and cyclists is already passing, pausing for photos by the sign helpfully detailing what lies ahead:
“El Olimpo del Ciclismo”
Altitud: 1.573 m.
Desnivel: 1.266 m.
Pendiente Media: 10.13%
Pendiente Maxima 23.5%
Alternatively, for VIP guests and the press, the organisation has laid on a convoy of busses leaving La Vega bound for the summit in half an hour. In the interests of professional journalism, it is very clear what needs to be done: walking boots should be donned, rucksack buckled and yomping begun. I flash my press accreditation and take my place in the 20-seater for a ride to the top…
It is slow progress, groups of riders tackling the lower slopes engaging low gears as they pass the pedestrian procession bound for the steeper ramps on the second half of the climb. The coach driver skillfully threads his way through on a road surface barely wider than his vehicle, swinging sharply round the occasional hairpin and dropping into first gear to maintain what little momentum we have emerging the corners.
The briefest of downhills and then it begins: a turn to the left followed by a straight ramp disappearing into the mist above at the alarming rate of 22 per cent
We reach Via Pará, a wide plateau serving as overnight stop for the ultra-dedicated who have made the ascent the day before, their cars and camper vans doomed to be last off the mountain this evening. The beer tent is doing a steady trade, the big screen yet to kick into action with the peloton still two hours away from lining up at the start in Avilés.
There is a view at last, the cloud clearing sufficiently to see the town in the green valley below – “vega” translates as “fertile valley” from Asturian. The briefest of downhills and then it begins: a turn to the left followed by a straight ramp disappearing into the mist above at the alarming rate of 22 per cent.
The road surface glistens from the earlier rain. The bus whines its disapproval as we crawl skywards, its payload of Spanish journalists chatting incessantly while I am tongue-tied and aghast. The 23.5 per cent of Cueña les Cabres is still to come.
Our vehicle grinds to a halt, the entire convoy stopped by the driver of a Europcar hire van optimistically hoping to make an escape having already deposited his load of banners at the 6km to go mark.
There is much to-ing and fro-ing, gentle maneuvering and Spanish swearing. A string of riders recently overtaken re-establish themselves ahead of the convoy and will need to be passed again. The view has disappeared, replaced by thick mist and damp air.
If cycling the Angliru is something of a challenge, I dread to think how the first of several runners we pass during the day must be feeling. The annual running race to the summit produces some extremely distressed competitors if the evidence in a La Vega photographer’s shop window is anything to go by.
My ears have blocked with 3km to the finish, the only remedy being an undignified holding the nose and puffing out of cheeks. Wire mesh holds the now steep grass-covered embankment in position on the mountainside, then a narrow strip of tarmac, then… an obscured lengthy drop to where we’ve just come from. Finally the road starts to level out, then all too briefly descends before we round the corner to the end of the line.
Extract from issue 26 of Rouleur