After a year in which the Vuelta completely bypassed the southern half of Spain, in 2013 three straight summit finishes in the area means Andalusia’s climbs will have a major impact.
The region also features two completely unprecedented summit finishes, the 16 Peñas Blancas climb just outside the Meditteranean coastal resort of Estepona and - after the short but brutally steep Valdepeñas ascent 24 hours later - the 6.5 kilometres of Haza Grande in the foothills of Sierra Nevada.
Peñas Blancas has two very different segments, local professional Luis Maté (Cofidis) told the Spanish newspaper ‘AS’ earlier this week. “The first part has a series of short, steep ‘ramps’ and little descents, and then the second is more straightforward, with a steady climb of around six to seven percent.”
“It’s 16 kilometres long so that’s somewhere between 40 and 45 minutes. And almost 1,000 metres of climbing, from sealevel at Estepona up to the summit.”
With the stage starting in Jerez, Peñas Blancas will inevitably be preceded by a very difficult series of climbs through the Sierra de Grazalema in Cadiz - last used in the 2002 Vuelta on a memorable stage won by Aitor Gonzalez (who would later take the race). The roads are narrow and very twisty, making accidents more likely than usual - as the now retired rider Michael Barry, run over by a motorbike and badly injured during that stage, will testify.
Although the heat and the preceding climbs will make it difficult enough, riders can take some kind of consolation in the fact that Peñas Blancas could be even more difficult.
“It’s a pity the race doesn’t go all the way up to the top of the climb, they could have added on another five kilometres” says Mate. “That’s the hardest part of it, too.”
48 hours later, the Vuelta tackles what AS describes as “Sierra Nevada’s hidden bomb”, the 6.5 kilometre Haza Grande climb. As a 642 metre ascent it has less vertical climbing than Peñas Blancas, but the average gradient of 9.2 percent, with ramps of 22 percent, make it far more difficult.
“It has a very difficult start,” local rider Javier Moreno warned in ‘AS’. “The second half is hard, but no way as difficult. If anybody’s in the back half of hte bunch, they could easily get dropped.”
That is assuming, of course, that they haven’t been dropped already on the climb that is expected to precede Haza Grande - the first category Alto de Monachil, where a slow wheel change by a neutral service vehicle arguably cost Cadel Evans the Vuelta in 2009. Or on the long, fast descent that precedes it, where Alejandro Valverde was dropped by Alexandre Vinokourov (and lost the Vuelta as a result) in 2006. And in 2013, this could be another crucial battleground in the Vuelta again.