It’s well known that Vuelta a España, the third grand tour of the cycling season, simply doesn’t 'do' flat. This year is no exception, and in the first week Spain’s mountains have already made their presence on the peloton felt. Here’s our pick of the passes that have passed, and the best of those yet to come in this brutally climby Vuelta 2023.
Coll d’Ordino and Arinsal
Stage 3 saw the peloton leave Spain and head to the Pyrenean kingdom of Andorra. And, you guessed it, that involves a lot of UP. The day started at 337m / 1,105ft and the riders entered Andorra at 848m / 2,782ft, and from that point it was a solid 30km / 19 mi climb to the 1,980m / 6,496 Coll d’Ordino, where AG2R’s Australian rider, Ben O’ Connor, took the KOM for the final climb to the pass.
The stage then finished at Arinsal, where the Vuelta’s defending champion, Soudal-Quickstep’s Remco Evenepoel, took the stage win, the leader’s red jersey and also the Strava KOM.
Pico del Buitre
This year’s Vuelta stays very much in the north of Spain, and by Stage 6 the peloton were almost as far south as they were going to go. The stage ended in the Sierra de Javalambre mountain range on the border between Aragon and Valencia, on the road up to the astronomical observatory on the Pico del Buitre. Evenepoel had already indicated that he might be willing to give up the red jersey, to give his team a break, and a battle was duly unleashed on the steep slopes (including 3km / 2 mi at 10% and a final ramp of 15%) to the summit finish at 1,914m / 6,279ft. Ominously for the smaller teams, it was Jumbo-Visma’s super domestique Sepp Kuss who took the win here, while FDJ’s young Lenny Martinez no doubt went into red to take the red jersey.
Five Segments that can decide the 2023 Vuelta a España
A Big French day out
Friday 8 September’s Stage 13 might look familiar to dedicated cycling fans, as it features a summit finish on the Col du Tourmalet, just over the border in the French Pyrenees. This legendary climb has already featured in the 2023 Tour de France, and was also the stage for Demi Vollering’s incredible attack for victory in this year’s Tour de France Femmes. So there will be thrills and spills here for sure – but even before arriving at the foot of the Tourmalet this stage offers plenty of climbing action.
First up in this very French-flavoured day is the historic Col d’Aubisque (16.83km / 10.46 mi at 6.9%), closely followed by the Col de Spandelles, which measures 10.26km / 6.38mi at an average 8.3% gradient. Those figures, however, conceal the fact that this twisty, rough-surfaced road is a total nightmare to race on, with steep pitches, bad surfaces and narrow, unpredictable bends. It was on the Spandelles descent in the 2022 Tour de France that, when Tadej Pogačar slid out, in a gesture of sportsmanship his yellow-jersey rival Jonas Vingegaard waited for him to remount before continuing the battle for the win.
The Vuelta doesn’t have as many iconic climbs as the Tour or the Giro d’Italia. But perhaps the most feared is the Altu de l’Angliru, which has a good claim to being the hardest climb in grand tour racing, and features on Stage 17 on 14 September.
Situated in the mountains of Asturias, near Spain’s north-western coast, the Angliru ascends 1,232 vertical metres (4,042 ft) in only 12.53km / 7.79 mi – an average of 9.8%. However, because of the gentler lower slopes and even a few short downhills, this average masks the fact that the final section is consistently above 12% gradient, with a whole kilometre at 18% and frequently above 20%. A short section known as the Cueña les Cabres (‘Goat Road’), spikes almost up to 30%.
Climbers who have won here include José María Jimenez, when it was first tackled in 1999, and Chris Horner and Alberto Contador in more recent times. When it last featured in the race, in 2020, EF Education’s Hugh Carthy took the win and Ineos’s Richard Carapaz took the red jersey. They would finish second and third on the final podium, behind Jumbo-Visma’s Primož Roglič.
The presence of the Angliru, then, shows that this year’s race will be won by a climber. Who will that be? The answer to that question is being worked out as we speak on the unforgiving mountain roads of Spain.