Travel around Andorra, the mountain principality high in the Pyrenees between Spain and France, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a single centimetre of flat road. The Vuelta a España visited this year, for an intense rollercoaster stage that some were calling the hardest Grand Tour stage ever.
Certainly there have been stages of the Giro d’Italia that stand out for their combination of tough climbing and terrible weather, and there was a Tour de France stage in 1983 that featured 6,685m vertical gain in 247km, but the Vuelta’s Queen stage, with 5,000m (16,400ft) climbing in 138km (86mi) and taking riders up to finish at 2,095m (6,900ft), could lay claim to packing in the most vertical metres per horizontal kilometre.
It had been designed by Team Katusha’s Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez. An Andorra resident, he had picked perhaps the most devious route through the territory possible: first up, the Collada de Beixalis, 6.5km at an average 8.7%, but with some narrow, steep 15% ramps right at the start; then the relatively gentle Coll d’Ordino. After a quick descent back through town, the course then hit the long but steady Coll de la Rabassa, 16.8km at 6.6%, and the fearsome HC Coll de Gallina, with sections of 18%.
As if that wasn’t enough, they then had to contend with the 4.2km / 8% Alt de la Comella, which led right into the final climb, 8km at 9% to El Cortals d’Encamp. An air of trepidation lay over the hotels of Andorra on the rest day before the stage, as riders took their choice between resting their legs or taking a spin to recon the next day’s challenges.
“I think the reality is, with a day like tomorrow, there are guys that go into it thinking they’re just there to survive and get through the day,” said Cannondale Garmin’s Joe Dombrowski on the rest day. “Then there’s the other portion of the peloton that is actually racing it. It’ll be pretty clear from climb one who’s who.” It would be a day for the pure climbers, he predicted: guys who were not high up in the GC and so might be allowed enough leash by the main contenders to make a winning move from a day-long break.
The next morning in the start village many riders got on their turbo trainers early, in preparation for the ordeal ahead. And though the Vuelta is more relaxed than the other two Grand Tours, with riders simply walking through the crowds to sign on, the nervous atmosphere persisted.
“I want to get in the break, but so do a lot of other people!” said IAM Cycling’s Larry Warbasse. “I’m feeling a little tired right now,” he added. Team Sky’s Ian Boswell concurred:
My legs don’t feel very good after the rest day,” he said.
So, how tough will it be? “I guess that depends how we ride it,” he said, before disappearing for sign on.
Shortly after 1:30pm, battle commenced, and there was intense jockeying for position even on the (uphill) road to the start of the first categorised climb. And that was where the first casualties occurred: Joe Dombrowski was involved in a very early crash, as was Team Sky’s race favourite Chris Froome – who sustained injuries that would later end his Vuelta campaign.
Around two kilometres from the top, a break was decisively established, featuring Larry Warbasse’s French team-mate, Jérôme Coppel… and, surprise, surprise, Ian Boswell. “Once I got on the turbo and warmed up a bit, I felt good and figured, why not,” he told Strava later.
I was up at the front, going for the Strava KOM on that first climb and then happened to be in the break.
“I had made sure I was at the start line early and I fought pretty hard even in the neutral to stay in the front. That definitely made a difference starting that climb at the front, it was strung out even before we got to the climb.”
With his fellow escapees, who included Movistar’s Imanol Erviti, Katusha’s Alberto Losada and Astana’s Mikkel Landa, Ian held the diminishing peloton off over the next four climbs.
“I knew that on the third climb our team was riding behind, so by then it wasn’t up to me to force the break,” said Ian. “But I was wondering what the other guys in the group were doing. Especially Sicard and Landa. I’m sure they had their own team missions as well. By then, people were attacking and there were a lot of moves to follow.
“One thing we’ve learned at Sky is that riding a steady pace is quicker than surging. For me, it’s almost easier to ride a steady pace. I’d follow some attacks but never really stress to get across to them. If someone attacked, you’d kind of ride your pace to get back, because they can’t really sustain an effort when they’re full on sprinting.”
By the final climb, the lead group was down to four. Ian had been expecting all day long to be called back at any moment to help the team effort, but the injured Froome had been distanced by Astana.
“Even going into the final climb I didn’t expect us to stay away,” Ian said. “We got to the bottom and Dario [Cioni, Team Sky Sports Director] said, ‘You’re racing for the stage win now.’ I was kind of, half my mind was like, oh sweet, I could do well on a stage! The other half was, oh crap, I kind of want to be called back so I can do an effort and call it a day, because I’m pretty tired!”
And then Mikkel Landa attacked. Nobody could stay with the Spaniard though his team-mate Fabio Aru almost bridged over to him from the shattered remnants of the peloton, taking second place in the stage and the overall red leader’s jersey. But Ian held on for third place, securing a podium position in his first Grand Tour. Larry took 28th spot while Joe, after some attention from the doctor at the medical car, fought back from his crash and finished a strong 15th. He tweeted that evening:
Cycling is cruel. Objective: breakaway and go for stage. Reality: Crash at km 0, bash knee, go full up climb 1 and catch broom wagon on top.
— Joe Dombrowski (@JoeDombro) September 2, 2015
Was it the hardest stage ever? Riders’ faces made a convicing case for it, even on the third or fourth climbs, and the last finisher was a full 35 minutes down on Landa. Ian’s numbers also tell the story: “I looked at the file now and it was 290W average power for the day including neutral. 5000kj. It was a big day, you know,” he said.
But the Vuelta has been a tough, hilly race that will, by the end, have featured no less than 11 summit finishes. And after a massage and a meal and a good night’s sleep, Joe, Ian, Larry and more than 170 others took the start line the next day.
And they’re racing still… the Vuelta finishes in Madrid on Sunday 13 September.
Feel like having a go yourself? The inaugural Purito Andorra cyclosportive took place over the same course in August this year, and looks a dead cert to be repeated. Or join our September Climbing Challenge, and see how many metres you can climb this month.