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Vuelta returns to Naranco after 16 year absence

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The peloton en route from Lugones to Alto del Naranco during stage 3 of the Vuelta Asturias.

The peloton en route from Lugones to Alto del Naranco during stage 3 of the Vuelta Asturias. (Image credit: Rafa Carbonero)
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Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) signs in for stage 13

Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) signs in for stage 13 (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)

Today the Vuelta a Espana reaches the Naranco climb outside Oviedo for the first time in 16 years and last seen in 1997 when Txente García Acosta, now a director with Movistar, rode through atmospherically swirling mist for a prestigious victory.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Naranco was a regular Vuelta feature. It had its own hill climb, the Subida a Naranco, until a few years back, and it still features regularly in the Tour of Asturias. After the Basque Country, Asturias is one of Spanish cycling’s heartlands, and traditionally in the Vuelta thousands of fans would mass on the climb to cheer on the race.

That said, the climb itself is not exceptionally hard or long – particularly compared with the Angliru. Naranco measures six kilometres, has an average gradient of four percent and some ‘ramps’ of 10 percent at the worst.

Yet it has been witness to some key moments in Spanish cycling. In 1974, Jose Manuel Fuente, Asturias 'greatest ever rider and one of Spain’s top climbers, sealed his second victory in the Vuelta  on its first ever ascent of the climb in front of thousands of his supporters. With typical eccentricity,  as the rain teemed down, Fuente soloed across the line waggling his left leg in the air - a way he said, of thanking the doctor who had helped him, he said “sort out my varicose veins.”.

22 years later, when Daniele Nardello won there for Mapei, the climb showed that the writing was on the wall for Miguel Indurain in the 1996 Vuelta. Whilst Alex Zulle, Laurent Jalabert and Tony Rominger all completed the Naranco within a few seconds of each - Zulle was the fastest, 2:26 down on Nardello in fifth place - Indurain crossed the line a good minute further down. The next day, on the road to the Covadonga Lakes where Zulle sealed his grip on the Vuelta, Indurain retired, never to return to competitive racing, barring one criterium.

The local favourite today is none other than Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), gunning for a win a few miles from his home in Oviedo and with - possibly - new team owner Fernando Alonso coming along for a grandstand view from the Euskaltel-Euskadi team car.

“I’ve known this climb since I was a kid,” Sanchez said prior to the stage. “And of course I would love to win here. It would be a huge boost for Euskaltel,” which has yet to net a stage in a Grand Tour this season, and with their GC options in the Vuelta long gone up in smoke.

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 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. Apart from working for, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.