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4 Iconic Climbs of the Vuelta 2021

The Vuelta is the last grand Tour of the year since 1995, with a traditional boiling month of August over the Iberian peninsula. Often presented as the most exciting Grand Tour, the race has shaped its uniqueness over the last 25 years, through a creative course, terrible ascents & unpredictable riders, along with an end of the season position that weakens teams and empower aggressive strategies. Read on to discover some of the iconic climbs of the 2021 route that will define the race.

Written by Peter Cossins, journalist and author of A Cyclist’s Guide to the Pyrenees. Photography by Daniel Hughes, content creator and founder of Epic Cols.

Alto de Velefique, stage 9

A close neighbor of the Calar Alto summit, which lies 20km due west, the Velefique is often compared to another much more famous climb, Alpe d’Huez. While it’s true that the two ascents are similar in length and that their toughest sections come early on, they could hardly be more different in terms of appearance. While the French ascent is on everyone’s bucket list of climbs because it’s iconic but is not the most attractive of climbs, the Velefique should be because it’s spectacular, its many sweeping hairpins offering immense views across the rugged and largely barren countryside where many of the Spaghetti Westerns were filmed.

As was the case in 2009 when Ryder Hesjedal won the Vuelta stage to the Velefique’s summit, the race will tackle the climb via this magnificent southern flank. The pueblo blanco of Velefique comes early, the village’s white buildings luminous among the olive and fruit groves. The first of more than 20 hairpin bends comes soon after, the gradient sticking stubbornly to nine and ten per cent for the opening third of the climb. Although the gradient then eases, the mesmerizing switchbacks continue to the mirador, or viewpoint, just before the summit. Jack Haig holds the KOM in 37:45 from stage 10 of the Vuelta 2017.

It’s surely only a matter of time before the Vuelta presses beyond the pass to the telecoms mast that sits another 3km up the mountain, with access to it via a narrow road with frequent ramps in double figures percentage-wise.

Pico Villuercas, stage 14

This ascent is a tale of two sides of the same mountain that are very different to each other, although both are extremely demanding. The Vuelta will tackle each of them, firstly the Collado de Ballesteros, a hellish 3km stretch of concrete road that averages a leg-melting 13%, getting steeper as it rises, the last two of those 3km averaging 14.5%. In short, it’s the kind of climb fans relish, but most riders fear.

Topping this fearsome ascent, the riders can glance up towards the Pico Villuercas, which is less than 3km distant. If the Vuelta organisers were being benevolent, they’d send the riders that way, but instead they’ll have to descend to Guadalupe at the foot of the climb, then loop back to tackle its 14.5km length in its entirety.

The Villuercas is a “steppy” climb, the gradient continually shifting between easier and steeper sections, making it hard to find and maintain a rhythm. As a consequence, it should suit the pure climbers perfectly, encouraging their darting accelerations. Above the junction with the Collado de Ballesteros, the gradient eases briefly, then rears up again one final time to reach 13% at the summit, where the now abandoned military buildings that necessitated these literally breath-taking roads can still be seen.

Lagos de Covadonga, stage 17

Back in the early 1980s, the then Vuelta boss Enrique Franco decided to boost the profile of Spain’s national tour by finding a climb that would be the race’s equivalent of Alpe d’Huez. The result, in 1983, was the first appearance of the ascent to the Lagos de Covadonga, which is located in the stunning Picos de Europa mountain range. It was an instant hit, Spaniard Marino Lejarreta winning the stage, while Frenchman Bernard Hinault retained what was then the yellow leader’s jersey and declared the climb “one of the hardest in the world”.

While the Vuelta has since unveiled many other ascents that are far more testing than this 1,135-metre summit, including the not too distant Altu d’el Angliru, Covadonga has retained its classic feel. This is the Vuelta’s 22nd finish and it rarely disappoints. The Frenchman Thibaut Pinot has climbed the ascent at a speed of 22.2 km/h / 13,7 m/h during the Vuelta 2018, winning the stage solo, and since then he is the KOM holder of the segment.

It begins in the village of Covadonga, rising through dense woodland, the gradient sticking a point or so either side of 10% for the most part until it reaches La Huesera, the bone yard, where the slope rears up viciously. Above it, there are three steps, with significant descents in between them, the second drop running down to Enol and Ercina, the two lakes that give the climb its name.

Altu d’el Gamoniteiru, stage 18

It’s surprising that it’s taken until this year for the Vuelta organisers to include the Gamoniteiru on the race route. A near neighbour of the Altu d’el Angliru and comparable in terms of its extreme difficulty, the Gamoniteiru lies 600 metres above the Alto de la Cobertoria pass, which first featured in the Vuelta back in 1988 and has been a regular feature ever since.

Indeed, its stats suggest that the Gamoniteiru is a little tougher than the infamous Angliru (13.1km at 9.4%), the road climbing for 14.6km at 9.8%. Where the two climbs differ is the nature of that ascent. While the Angliru has long ramps that are close to 20%, but some flatter sections too, the Gamoniteiru is relentlessly steep, the slope only easing briefly as the road reaches the top of the Cobertoria pass.

The 5km before that point, above the hamlet of Piedraceda, ascend at 11.4%, rising through lush hillsides where livestock graze. A kilometre beyond the Cobertoria, a narrow road to the right heads towards the telecommunications masts atop the Gamoniteiru. While the terrain changes, becoming more rugged and weathered, the steepness of the gradient persists. It’s in double digits almost all of the way, the road weaving a little but essentially following the most direct route to the top, where a final section at 17% provides a fittingly brutal finale.