Stage 16: Gijón - Alto de Cotobello
Highest point: 1,350m
Terrain: Medium mountains
Category: Road stage
A trio of peaks
Instead of lots of huge 1,800m-plus climbs, Vuelta organisers Unipublic have tended to pick ascents around the 1,200m mark for key moments this year. This stage exemplifies that perfectly with a trio of cat 1 climbs that are tough without being overly long. The San Lorenzo is the biggest and has ramps of 15 per cent. The Cobertoria featured as a summit finish in 2006, when Alexandre Vinokourov took the stage, and the Cotobello is a new climb that averages 8.1 per cent. The podium contenders should be evident by the end of today.
RadioShack's disappointing Vuelta omission means José Luis "Chechu" Rubiera won't be racing up the mountain re-named in his honour – the Cotobello is now the Cima Rubiera. It's a shame as Rubiera is about to retire and will miss this perfect swansong. In his absence, the other Asturian riders will want to pay tribute. The profile looks too tough for Rubiera's friend Benjamín Noval but his Astana team-mate Dani Navarro may be in the mix, while Euskaltel's Samuel Sánchez is almost sure to feature.
Flashback Zülle's undoing
It wasn't until 2006 that the Cobertoria first featured as a summit finish at the Vuelta. That year, Alexandre Vinokourov beat Alejandro Valverde to the top, but the Spaniard was mildly compensated by taking the leader's jersey from Jani Brajkovic. Prior to that, the Alto's fearsome reputation was forged by the slew of high-profile victims claimed on its rough descent.
The most notable was Alex Zülle, who was told by his ONCE team boss to follow rival Swiss rider Tony Rominger everywhere he went. Zülle stuck to his task admirably until the last of four days in the Cantabrian mountains. Riding off the Cobertoria in driving rain, the normally cautious Rominger attacked. Zülle tried to follow, but crashed and lost his bike in the foliage.
"Water, backside, road, bicycle, flowers," he explained in brief after Rominger had won the stage and stretched his lead to a race-winning margin.
Zülle's in good company. In 1999, Fernando Escartín was knocked unconscious in a crash here, while Denis Menchov struggled in the mist in 2005 and lost his lead to Roberto Heras. He was vindicated when Heras was disqualified for a positive EPO test, though.
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