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Riders react to Cuitu Negru

All 181 riders who made it atop the Cuitu Negru summit finish in Monday's stage 16 of the Vuelta a España had one thing in common: they had just climbed one of the steepest climbs in recent Grand Tour history, and they certainly didn't enjoy it. The new ascent, an additional three kilometre-stretch to the Col de Pajares which is already 16 kilometres long, features some of the steepest sections of pro cycling, increasing its gradient from 12 to 15 percent in the beginning to 17 and finally 22 percent at the top. No wonder some riders were barely able to remain on their bikes in the final kilometre.

Eritrean rider Daniel Teklehaymanot (Orica-GreenEdge) was seen vomiting as he crossed the finish line, some 35 minutes behind stage winner Dario Cataldo (Omega Pharma). "I think he has never known anything that hard," an assistant of the Australian team told L'Equipe. Of course, depending on each athlete's race experience and climbing abilities, the impression the Cuitu Negru left on the riders slightly differed.

Italian Cataldo, who finished 12th on GC in both this and last year's Giro d'Italia, was not overly impressed by the dreaded ascent. "It was very hard, so much is ture, especially in the last three kilometres, but there was nothing exaggerrated about it, either," he commented. "Most of all, it was the repetition of climbs that made the race hard. Personnaly, I find the Zoncolan in Italy much more difficult. It has the same percentages but it's ten kilometres long. On a Grand Tour, it's normal to get a climb like this one, we're used to it."

Race leader Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Tour de France winner Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank) and even non-climber Pablo Lastras (Movistar) agreed with him. "The Cuitu Negru features enormous gradients, but you tell yourself that the line is close and that you have to do this last effort. But the on the Angliru [another Asturian climb frequently included in the Vuelta] and the Zoncolan, you suffer more," Lastras said.

Others contradicted these views. Rabobank climbers Robert Gesink and Laurens Ten Dam, sixth and eighth on general classification, were horrified at their experience. "I have never seen anything as hard than the Cuitu Negru," Gesink said on the team's homepage after the stage. "This last climb is hell, for a fact. The Angliru is also very steep, but it's more regular. The last three kilometres were horrible. It was steeper than the Angliru. I almost fell off the back of my bike."

Ten Dam echoed his sentiments. "It was perhaps a great show for the spectators, but not for the riders. When I came down again, I saw other riders still going up, and it was just unbelievable to watch, terribly steep. I rode with a compact cassette for the very first time in my life. And in the end, I needed it! It was no fun, I was in a cave of pain. Horrible."

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