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Vuelta’08: l’Angliru Look Back!
l'Angliru Look Back: Ed Hood made his first pilgrimage to the mythical climb of the Alto de l'Angliru back in 2008. As the 2017 edition of the Vuelta a España revisits the monster of Asturias we take a look back at Ed's expedition to the heights of Northern Spain.

The wind is like ice on my skin, it feels like it’s trying to rip the flesh from my cheeks, within a minute my hands are too cold to use the camera, the only sound that the freezing blast carries is the ‘clang’ of the bells on the hardy cows and horses that graze this strange plateau – welcome to the Alto de l'Angliru!

It’s a puzzle to me why it exists; it doesn’t lead to anywhere, just to a tarmaced car park the size of half a soccer pitch. There are ‘bothys’ up here – as we name them in Scotland – little stone huts where the shepherds stay in the summer to keep an eye on their flocks, but there’s nothing else – just the wind.

The road was here long before the race ventured up; it was a partially sighted cycling fanatic and employee of the Spanish National Lottery for the Blind (sponsors of Manolo Saiz’s ONCE super team) who first suggested to the organizers that they include it in the Vuelta.

The valley road which leads to it isn’t flat, it winds its way up past the La Foz and the coal mines – in the Civil War in the 30’s, the miners here fought Franco’s fascist troops with the dynamite they used to blast the black diamonds from below this mountainous, wild region.

At La Riosa, hang a right and it starts, the sign tells the story – it’s 12.5 kilometers long, the top is 1573 meters above sea level, the climb starts at 307 meters above sea level and rises 1266 meters with an average gradient of 10.13% and a maximum gradient of 23.5%.

There are higher and longer climbs to be found in Europe, but none are as unrelentingly steep for so long.

It snakes to start with, through the lush, saturated green valley, not too severe, but at the village of Ablaneo at 1500 meters, it begins to serve warning as the hairpins tighten and the inside of them become viciously steep.

Scotland? No, no.

At El Teleno, 3000 meters into Hell, there’s a tight right and it becomes truly horrible – steeper, hair pinned and gnarly as the wind and rain batter at the Peugeots roof whilst the trees around us convulse in the wind.

It’s not unlike Scotland, we’re reminded of the Glen Tarkie climb in Fife, there’s even ‘bonnie purple heather.’

It’s flat at 5000 meters, where the laborers toil to get the car park ready, the cops stop us and we have to flash our credentials; the Basque country and the ETA terrorist organize who want independence for ‘Euskadi’ are just along the coast and chances can’t be taken.

We gasp at the gradients and the view at 6500 meters, the cows are unimpressed and munch away at the sweet, pollution free grass, let’s hope that Bert and Levi don’t bump into one of these chaps on Saturday.

Another kilometer and my ears begin to pop.

At nine kilometers, we get our miracle and eight hours of rain stops, the clouds scurry off and there are just us, l'Angliru, the sunshine and the gale waiting for us at the top.

That’s not strictly true, four or five guys are pitting themselves against the giant on their mountain bikes.

They’re not serious race guys - who only have two chain rings – all of them are in the 26 'crawler' ring and biggest sprockets; we give them a shout of encouragement as they battle past.

It’s not just the steepness and length which makes life hard, the gradient alters constantly, maybe there’s a long ramp and a rhythm can be struck, but then it will kick right or left through a savage hairpin and the exit will be even steeper – this is one for the pure climbers, a big man will struggle to just sit here and ‘grind it out.’

Ten kilometers and the cops stop us again; “periodista, internet!” They are good guys, but; “no fotos!”

Oviedo sparkles like a jewel below us in the evening sunlight as the car baulks in second gear – we have to use first from here to the top - and we’re running out of words to describe this climb.

Cheeky fans, no?

It's being said that l'Angliru won’t have a big impact on the GC, but a bad day on this and it would be ‘curtains’ for any rider; to limit losses here would be impossible.

The landscape below looks like it has been painted on, as if we’re at a model railway exhibition, and the markers say 11 kilometers as we look to our right and realize that the ‘goat track’ slicing right, left than right again across the cliffs above us, are actually the crash barriers.

We’re inside the last kilometer and the sign says ‘20%’ but within meters it’s ’21.6%’ – that’s one of the Angliru’s little games; it’s at its steepest nearest the summit.

The tar zigzags across the rock face, only the heartiest of bushes and trees can survive up here, tucked away in folds of the landscape.

The 12 kilometer marker has had the red paint power blasted from it by the wind and rain as the terrain becomes other worldly – you could shoot a Star Trek episode up here.

The wind bites as finally the beast shows mercy and the last 300 meters are down hill – to that half a soccer pitch of tarmac.

The Mobistar portable telecommunications mast sits like a space probe, looking strangely at home – but maybe I’ve seen too many science fiction movies.

But if you look closely, there are signs of life - shepherd’s huts are dotted around and the animal bells clang – humans aren’t really welcome here though as the wind forces us into the car.

We grab a last look from the viewpoint, where frozen engineers wrestle with telecoms gear and are really earning their wages; Davie sums it up; “it’s like being in an aeroplane!”

Moonscape, biting wind, rain, ham-string-wrecking gradients and all, we’ll be back on Saturday for the race – we wouldn’t miss it for the world, and of course you can come too!

It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he's covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,500 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself - many years and kilograms ago - and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site where more of his musings on our sport can be found.


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