The Basque Country’s most famous climb, the Subida a Arrate, will be tackled by the peloton of the Vuelta a España late this afternoon for the first time since 1974.
Just 5.5 kilometres long and with an average gradient of 7.8 percent - but with some sections at 11 percent - unlike in the Vuelta al País Vasco, where it is usually tackled twice, for its first visit in nearly four decades, the Vuelta will head up through the deep woodlands of Mount Arrate just the once.
Arrate is far from being the toughest climb in the Basque Country, but it is the best-known and one of the most frequently used in bike races there. For years it was traditionally the last climb of the Euskal Bizikleta stage race, which then fused with the Vuelta al País Vasco in 2008, and which still always includes at least one ascent of this emblematic climb.
Prior to that, for nearly half a century - 1946 to 1990 - the Subida a Arrate was one of Spain’s best-known single hill-climb races. All-time climbing great Federico Martín Bahamontes holds the record for victories, winning it five straight times between 1958 and 1962, although ‘The Eagle of Toledo’ still insists that in fact he won it six times and the record-books are wrong!
The list of winners on Arrate is testament to its prestige: almost all the Spanish top names are amongst them - Jesus Loroño, Julio Jiménez, Miguel Indurain, Luis Ocaña, Alberto Contador, Alberto Fernández and Joseba Beloki. Foreign winners include Ivan Basso, Evgeni Berzin and Stephen Roche.
The Vuelta a España, curiously enough, has had just two ascents in its history, 1972 and 1974, both ending in wins for Agustin Tamamés, best known for his overall victory in 1975.
For the last three years the Arrate stage of the Vuelta al País Vaso has been won by Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), not taking part in the race, although the return of the Vuelta to the Basque Country today will almost certainly see his team-mates like Igor Antón in the thick of the action.
“Winning here would be fantastic but I dont’ see myself doing it, although it’s always been a good finish for Euskaltel-Euskadi” says Anton, although he came very close in the last edition of the Euskal Bizikleta back in 2008. “I don’t expect there to be huge time differences, but with just a single ascent of Arrate, there will surely be some spectacular racing.”
The key to victory in Arrate is in fact not just the climb, but the two kilometres of very fast descent which follow on from the summit. Normally whichever rider comes out first of the final bend close to the finish, wins.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.