Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Chris Froome (Sky) and other top stage racers are set to tackle the Vuelta a Andalucía’s most difficult climb, the Hazallanas, later today in stage 3 of the race - on what is by far the hardest ascent of the early part of the 2015 season.
Fortunately - and contradicting earlier forecasts - the weather is unexpectedly good in Andalucia today, sunny and clear and with almost no wind. But that will not make the 16.9 kilometre Hazallanas ascent, last tackled in the Vuelta a España 2013, with segments of 22 per cent and an average gradient of 12 per cent, any easier. The two prior climbs in the 157 kilometre stage, a first category early on and a second mid-way, will make for even more tired legs.
Other factors that will make the climb difficult are the snowdrifts and sheets of ice that, as of this morning when Cyclingnews checked out the ascent, lie on both sides of the road for the final three or four kilometres. Temperatures at the summit were slightly below zero early this morning, but are expected to rise to about 10 degrees this afternoon. The snowdrifts - assuming they have not melted - mean that it is impossible for support vehicles to pass on the narrow, twisting road at its summit, just a the point where punctures, given the road’s very rough surface, are most likely.
The climb itself is situated on the lower part of the Sierra Nevada mountains near Granada. The Vuelta a Andalucia peloton will make the last part of its approach to the ascent on a winding but well-surfaced A road, heading up the valley of the River Genil before a sharp-left hand turn onto a much more sinuous road takes them onto the climb itself.
The first part of the ascent, for about 7 kilometres is relatively straightforward, a steady 6 or 7 per cent grind on fairly broad roads, passing a large reservoir on its right. At this point most of the non-climbers will slide out the back, but it should not be too big a challenge for the rest of the peloton.
The part of the climb that leads to the ultra-difficult last seven kilometres, though, is another story, even if, as a brief chunk of downhill, it will provide some relief to tired legs.. As it passes through and out of a small village of Guejar Sierra, the Hazallanas road narrows considerably on a fast, very technical descent, perhaps a kilometre long but sure to single out the pack and perhaps cause crashes. Then after this short break from the climbing, a small chicane and steep right hand corner leads the peloton onto the hardest part of the Hazallanas ascent.
For around four kilometres, hairpin after hairpin of narrow, badly surfaced road rears upwards without any breaks. The average gradients of each corner are - kindly - provided on recently erected signboards on the side of the road - 18 per cent, 19 per cent, and 18 per cent. At some points, though, it steepens still further, to around 22 per cent. If an attack goes here and sticks, it will be almost impossible to respond to.
With about three kilometres to go, the road becomes a lot straighter and the gradient eases considerably and the final segment, whilst rising steadily, is no longer as difficult. The final segment’s principal challenge could be both the altitude, plus the very treacherous road surface. As of this morning, snowdrifts were reaching down on both sides of the road and overhanging trees could make it difficult to see where there is any remaining ice. Finally, though, the road forks right onto a short, 150 metre downhill section to the finish - and for the first rider to make it, a victory that could well be decisive overall in the 2015 Vuelta a Andalucia.