Today’s stage 11 of the Vuelta a España culminates with a new - and by all accounts very tough - climb, the 9.9 kilometre San Miguel de Aralar ascent, which will test the climbing strength of new leader Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and his rivals.
Contador has proved the most consistent of the climbers in the Vuelta so far, taking third in La Zubia and then launching an attack at Valdelinares. But San Miguel de Aralar, the third of eight summit finishes, is a much harder challenge than anything previously encountered in this year’s Vuelta.
Averaging 7.5 per cent, the climb has 14 per cent gradients on its steepest segments, two kilometres before the finish, and most of the entire ascent is on a narrow cement track. Fortunately good weather is forecast, with temperatures soaring to the mid-thirties at the foot of the climb.
Movistar can count on a high level of support on this climb, too, which leads to the sanctuary of San Miguel - Saint Michael - at its summit. San Miguel de Aralar is close to Pamplona, where the team has been based ever since its inception as Reynolds in the early 1980s. Pamplona is also the European base for Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who is reported to know the climb well, having checked it out in June. Chris Froome said at Jerez de la Frontera that he knows nothing about the Vuelta route, but he will be able to ask for details about Saint Miguel de Aralar from teammate Mikel Nieve (Sky), who lives nearby.
However, Navarre is Movistar territory par excellence: the town of Estella, through which the race passes, is where the GP Miguel Indurain - who raced for Movistar’s previous incarnation, Banesto - is held each year. Abarzuza, close to the foot of the third category climb of Lizarraga which precedes the final ascent, is the home town of Banesto’s top manager in the Indurain and Abraham Olano years, Jose Miguel Echavarri. And the race starts in Pamplona, of course, where Movistar not only have their headquarters, but also won the team time trial in the Vuelta in 2012.
The mountain itself is riddled with both caves and legends. According to Basque newspaper El Correo, Saint Michael put in an appearance on Aralar to save the life of a knight, Theodosio, who had been condemned by the Pope to wander Aralar in chains after killing his parents. A dragon threatened to kill Theodosio, who prayed to Saint Michael, who duly appeared and killed the beast - and the saint now has a sanctuary in his name at the summit.
Dragons are unlikely to threaten the peloton today, but reports last week that cracks had appeared in the road had rung alarm bells, raising fears that the climb might be impassable. But the cracks have apparently now been repaired, and the Vuelta stage 11 will now go ahead as planned.