For the overall classification contenders in the Vuelta, today’s 14.5 kilometre ascent of the Peñas Blancas climb will mark a watershed in the battle for victory in Madrid on September 15th. The ascent, which overlooks the Mediterranean coastline at Estepona, is the first of three tough stages in the southern region of Andalusia prior to a rest-day next Tuesday, and individual time trial on Wednesday.
Spanish daily Marca reported on Saturday that la Vuelta was alerted to the Alta de Peñas Blancas as a possible finish by one of Spain’s top bullfighters, Jose Tomas, who uses the climb when recovering from his injuries. Tomas, Vuelta director Javier Guillen and one of the route’s designers, Paco Giner, visited the climb last October and the decision was made to include it.
Initial plans to have Peñas Blancas at the end of a stage with 4,500 metres of climbing were dropped - the peloton will have enough of that on Sunday and Monday’s stages in Jaen and Granada - and the ‘only’ previous climbing will be a brief stint through the sierras of Malaga a little further north, prior to a flat, fast approach along the coast roads to the big challenge of the day.
Today’s regionale de l’etape rider is Luis Maté (Cofidis), who lives in nearby Marbella. “It’s a really tough climb which I use regularly for my [climbing] tests”, Maté told Marca. “The ascent continues for another six kilometres beyond where the Vuelta will finish. If the favourites decide to go all out, we’ll see some time gaps appearing.”
Averaging 6.6 per cent the climb’s hardest segment is at its foot, a 12.5 per cent ramp after just two kilometres. After that, although the climb has some sections of up to nine per cent and one segment at eight per cent with three kilometres to go looks like an ideal ‘blastoff point, its hardest feature is arguably its length: 14.5 kilometres and 980 metres of vertical climbing.
The inclusion of three key stages in Andalusia cannot hide the fact, though, that the region’s cycling is in a state of near-irreversible decline. If a dearth of races and lack public money to back racing and teams at the amateur levels was not bad enough, the region’s flagship squad, Pro Continental team Andalucia - which also had amateur and junior teams to act as a ‘ladder’ for promising riders towards professional career - disappeared at the end of last season. The team’s former owners are now in the middle of a prolongued legal battle with its sponsors over alleged non-payments last year.