The steep hills and passionate fans of La Vuelta

Keith Tuffley

Feb / 3 / 2018

In 2013, Keith rode every kilometre of La Vuelta, just hours ahead of the pros. Here's his story about what makes this race different from the others when you experience it from your bike as we do on our Vuelta tours.

There’s something about the spectators at La Vuelta.

The fans in Spain tend to enjoy their sleep–ins, as they rarely appear on the roads until the final 50km. You can ride for 100km and hardly see a spectator waiting anxiously for the race to come through. In fact, sometimes, you feel like the race has gone a different direction, given how quiet the roads are.

It’s quite a contrast to the Tour de France where you will see the campervans parked within the first few kilometres of each day’s start, and then grow and grow in number as you ride the race route. By lunchtime, the roads are packed with excited fans, and of course on the big mountain days, each mountain pass is jam packed.

In Spain, they tend to wait till the final few hours of the day, after their siesta, before joining the race. But once they are you, they are very loud and very passionate. And I mean very, very loud. It’s as if they have stored up their collective energy for this final climb, and they simply scream you on to the finish line. It is impossible to stop, as you would feel life-long guilt for letting them down.

I’ve come to realise that this passion is also a product of the typical profile of the Vuelta race route. The race organisers love very, very steep daily finishes! In fact, in 2018, the race has 9 official mountain finishes, although there are two others with steep hills to the finish line - so 11 in total. The Tour de France has 3, and the Giro has 8.

Fortunately, the race distance from the start to the steep finish is typically shorter than in the other Grand Tours, so the legs should be a bit better shape before you hit the final incline.

But rest assured, once you hit that incline, you know you’re in Spain. As it is steep!

In 2013, I have many fond memories of these final ascents – some of them are long, others are quite short but very intense. One of my favourites is in Galicia where I struggled up the short (1.8km) but infamous Mirador de Ézaro near Fisterra, which has a gradient up to 30%, and there is simply no rest on the way – the “flattest” section is 16%. If you stop for a rest, you’re in real trouble trying to start again. My legs were already tired after a 150km ride from Santiago de Compostela, but this climb really stretched me. Ah, the simple pleasure of success once on top!

Another great climb embedded on my memory and legs for life was Alto del Angliru in Asturias. This featured on stage 20 of the 2013 Vuelta (and again in 2017), and it is typically regarded as the toughest on the pro race circuit, alongside Monte Zoncolan in Italy. The first 6km of the climb are “easy”, but then suddenly the wall hits you – the next 6km are brutal. No rest spots, a peak of 24%, and an average of 14%. But once on top, it feels like cycling heaven, with the flat meadow, open paddocks, and peace and quiet after the maelstrom of passionate fans packed on the steep road screaming in your ear.

These are only examples of what it feels like to ride in Spain, on the race route of La Vuelta. I loved this race, just as much as the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. It is under-rated, under-appreciated and under-cycled by amateur riders. The landscapes and scenery are surprisingly diverse – from the wilds of the Pyrenees to the beaches of Galcia and Asturia, the olive trees, cork trees and rolling hills of Andalucia to the warm glow of the Mediterranean coastline – some of my favourite riding days have been in Spain on the route of La Vualta.

And as you ride, you always know that at the end of a big day of cycling, thousands of fans will be there waiting for you, screaming you up the final steep hill!

But before you get there, you can enjoy those quiet and intimate moments with fans of all shapes and sizes on the race route.

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