Alto de L’Angliru: The “Inhuman” Beast of the Vuelta a España

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reviewed by Rory McAllister
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The Alto de L’Angliru deserves its reputation as the most brutal climb in professional cycling.

Often referred to simply as “The Angliru”, it’s a mythical mountain pass in the La Vega-Riosa region of Asturias, part of the Sierra del Aramo range of northern Spain’s Cantabrian Mountains.

The Angliru is infamous amongst cyclists as being one of the most challenging and fearsome cycling climbs in the world.

So fierce is the climb that it was first used by the Vuelta a España in 1999, the Kelme team manager exclaimed;

“What do they want? Blood? They ask us to stay clean and avoid doping, and then they make the riders tackle this kind of barbarity!”

Today, we will analyze the role of the Angliru in the 2023 Vuelta a España, reminisce on famous and infamous showdowns that have taken place on its slopes, and look at what it takes to tackle the beast of Cantabria.

In this article, we will look at the following:

  • Vuelta a España 2023: Alto de L’Angliru
  • History of Alto de L’Angliru at the Vuelta a España
  • Alto de L’Angliru: Route Profile

Let’s jump into it!

Alto de L'Angliru: Title Image

Vuelta a España 2023: Alto de L’Angliru

At the beginning of the slopes of the Angliru, there is a sign that reads “The Mount Olympus of Cycling.”

It is, therefore, a befitting battleground for Stage 17 of the 2023 Vuelta a España.

Stage 17 may end up being a pivotal moment that could significantly shape the final outcome of the race.

Within the brutal 124.4 km stage, the professional riders will embark on a journey that entails conquering two formidable 1st category climbs: the challenging Cordal and Colladiella. Nevertheless, the true test lies ahead as they approach the feared slopes of Angliru.

Vuelta a España 2023 Route: Stage 17
© Unipublic

It’s here that the contenders in the general classification (GC) are expected to unleash their competitive spirit. Whichever rider emerges as the victor in this demanding terrain will likely take a significant stride towards the maillot rojo.

The Angliru is a legendary climb. Although its total length may surpass just over 12 km, there are segments of eye-watering gradients, even for the pro peloton. At its steepest, a section known as Cueña les Cabres, the climb maxes out at 23.6%.

Expect fireworks on the final slopes; it is here that we’ll likely see cracks in those battling it out in the general classification. Near the top of the Angliru, there is a 6 km section that averages 14%, with a full kilometer of that averaging a whopping 19%.

That kind of incline breaks body, mind, and spirit.

La Vuelta has proved a nail-biter of a race thus far, with little to separate the top three favorite GC riders: Primož Roglič, Remco Evenepoel, and Jonas Vingegaard.

There has even been a surprise fourth added to the mix in the form of Jumbo-Visma super-domestique, Sepp Kuss.

At the moment, it looks as if the Vuelta a España will come down to the final few stages. After almost two weeks of racing, there are only a couple of minutes separating the top four riders.

By contrast, Jonas Vingegaard had over six minutes in hand at the Tour de France ahead of the final climbing stage.

History of Alto de L’Angliru at the Vuelta a España

The Alto de l’Angliru has been included in the Vuelta a España eight times between the years 1999-2020. It will return for the 9th time during Stage 17 in 2023.

The Tour de France had Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux, and the Giro d’Italia had the Passo di Mortirolo. How could the organizers of Vuelta a España find a comparable challenge?

Say no more; Alto de L’Angliru made its first appearance in the Vuelta a España in 1999 and quickly gained a reputation for being one of the most demanding climbs in professional cycling. It is considered to be far harder than Alpe d’Huez or Mont Ventoux.

In the 2002 Vuelta a España, Scottish professional cyclist David Millar famously stopped a meter short of the finish, after multiple crashes and chaos amid biblical downpours which caused even the team cars to slip backwards on the savage gradients.

He refused to cross the line, stating:

“We are not animals, and this is inhuman.”

Some of the most memorable moments in the history of Alto de L’Angliru include:

1999 Vuelta a España

Riding for the Banesto team, José Maria Jiménez conquered the inaugural battle up the Angliru in 1999.

After the race, he stated: “I dedicate it to Pantani for everything that he has suffered in this time.” Marco Pantani had been disqualified from that year’s Vuelta.

Eighteen years later, the Spanish newspaper El País wrote:

“When “El Chava” Jiménez emerged from the fog on the Angliru in 1999, the myth of the Vuelta was created.”

2000 Vuelta a España

The climb gained notoriety in its second appearance in the Vuelta a España when Italian rider Gilberto Simoni famously battled through the steep gradients, beating home favorite Roberto Heras.

Nonetheless, it was while chasing Simoni during this stage that Heras set a remarkable record ascent of the Angliru in 41 minutes 55 seconds – a mark that has stood the test of time.

The Spaniard produced an estimated 6.57 Watts per kilogram for 41 minutes, marking one of the most exceptional pure climbing displays in the past two decades (although later doping allegations perhaps mean Heras’ record needs an asterisk beside it).

Heras successfully defended his title and secured his second consecutive Vuelta a España victory, despite defeat on the Angliru.

2002 Vuelta a España

Roberto Heras reigned victorious, overtaking and launching an attack amidst thick fog.

The stage unfolded under rainy conditions, causing cars to struggle on the steep slopes and riders to tumble, making it challenging for them to regain their footing on their bikes.

It was during this stage that David Millar staged his infamous finishing-line protest, getting himself disqualified in the process.

2008 Vuelta a España

Alberto Contador, a Spanish cyclist who later secured victories in several Grand Tours, emerged as the victor on the Angliru stage.

His triumph proved pivotal in his ultimate success in winning the Vuelta that season.

2011 Vuelta a España

Juan José Cobo, a Spanish rider from the Geox-TMC team, won the stage, conquering the Angliru ascent and securing his overall triumph in the General Classification.

Cobo’s performance on the climb was exceptional – perhaps too exceptional, as Cobo’s biological passport indicated the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Britain’s future Tour de France champion Chris Froome was eventually named the 2011 winner, after Cobo was retrospectively disqualified.

2013 Vuelta a España

At 41 years old, American cyclist Chris Horner displayed remarkable resilience as he successfully fended off a series of assaults by Vincenzo Nibali.

Horner then surged ahead amidst the mist-shrouded Angliru, securing a substantial lead for himself as he approached the last day of the 2013 Vuelta a España.

The 2013 Vuelta a España was Horner’s only Grand Tour win in his 20+ year professional career. His win established him as the oldest Grand Tour champion ever recorded.

2017 Vuelta a España

In a fitting conclusion to his illustrious Grand Tour career, Alberto Contador left his mark by clinching victory in Stage 20 of the 2017 Vuelta a España, conquering the summit of the formidable Alto d’Angliru once again.

Despite not being a contender for the overall race, Contador’s triumphant performance on this iconic climb added another remarkable chapter to his cycling legacy.

2020 Vuelta a España

Hugh Carthy set a decisive time up the Angliru with 42:40 min, this time in cooler November conditions due to the race being delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alto de L’Angliru: Route Profile

Key Stats (from La Vega)

  • Departure Elevation: 340 m (1116 ft)
  • Finish Elevation: 1719 m (5640 ft)
  • Altitude Gain: 1,380 m (4528 ft)
  • Length: 7.7 miles (12.4 km)
  • Average Gradient: 11.2%
  • KOM: Roberto Heras, 41′ 55″
  • QOM: Rakel Maestre, 106′ 23″

This guide describes the ascent from the village of La Vega, the more famous side that the 2023 Vuelta will approach from. It’s also possible to climb from the other side, at Santa Eulalia, which features a more gradual approach before joining the same route to the summit.

The Angliru is renowned as one of Spain’s most famous and challenging climbs, often overshadowing even Pico Veleta in popularity. This climb offers both breathtaking scenery and an exceptionally demanding ascent.

Situated within the picturesque but hilly landscape of Asturias, a lush and rainy region along Spain’s northern Atlantic Coast, the Angliru is not an isolated peak but part of a steep ridgeline.

Don’t attempt this climb without any proper planning, and of course, training. You’ll benefit from installing a high-range cassette with a wider range of teeth on the rear. A compact crankset with smaller chainrings on the front can also provide lower gearing options.

You’ll be thanking yourself on the steeper slopes!

The first five kilometers offer a relatively moderate average gradient of 7%, with a brief respite on a false flat around 5.5 kilometers.

While an 11.2%% average gradient may appear manageable at first glance, what truly sets the Angliru apart from other Spanish climbs are its brutally steep and sustained segments, with gradients that far exceed 11.2%.

It’s the second half of the climb that truly distinguishes the Angliru. After 6.5 kilometers, the road narrows and introduces its first formidable ramp, with a gradient of 21%.

From this point onward, the average gradient remains consistently above 12% until the summit is reached.

Approximately three kilometers from the summit, there’s an entire kilometer stretch where the gradient averages nearly 20%, pushing riders to their limits.

The most challenging section is known as Cueña les Cabres, situated approximately 2 kilometers from the top. Here, the gradient soars to a staggering 23.5%, resembling a near-vertical ascent rather than a typical switchback.

As riders near the summit, the climb becomes almost unbearable due to the exceedingly slow speed on the steep sections. Maintaining balance on the bike becomes precarious, and getting out of the saddle is not a viable option, as the risk of the rear wheel slipping is high.

It’s not uncommon for riders to swerve back and forth in their efforts to conquer this formidable ascent.

The final kilometer before the summit also includes another punishing 21% ramp. Additionally, there are several shorter segments with gradients surpassing 15%.

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As a qualified sports massage therapist and personal trainer with eight years' experience in the field, Ben plays a leading role in BikeTips' injury and recovery content. Alongside his professional experience, Ben is an avid cyclist, splitting his time between his road and mountain bike. He is a particular fan of XC ultra-endurance biking, but nothing beats bikepacking with his mates. Ben has toured extensively throughout the United Kingdom, French Alps, and the Pyrenees ticking off as many iconic cycling mountains as he can find. He currently lives in the Picos de Europa of Spain's Asturias region, a stone's throw from the legendary Altu de 'Angliru - a spot that allows him to watch the Vuelta a España roll past his doorstep each summer.

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