Somewhere around kilometer ten of the drive up the Altu del Gamoniteiru, a couple of realities have presented themselves simultaneously.
First, the combination of logistics and infrastructure here has perhaps left a little to be desired.
Crammed again into César’s small but capable Renault hatchback, we left from the press center at just after 3:00 pm, which is about forty-five minutes before we were initially instructed to. And yet, staring up at the tiny goat-track road winding up the exposed face of the mountain, with thousands of people crowding the sides of the roads or cycling up them in front of us, it feels like we might actually be late somehow.
We were far from the last people left in the press room when we departed, and everyone in the press caravan is imagining a nightmare scenario wherein we’re still on the road when the race shows up.
Second, this weather… my god. Even more so than yesterday, nearly everything above a certain altitude is shrouded in a layer of fog so thick you’re inclined to wonder if this isn’t simply what it’s like to be inside a cloud. When Fernando Escartin — who twice finished second in La Vuelta and once podiumed the Tour while riding for Kelme in the late nineties, and now serves as a race designer for La Vuelta — selected this climb for the first time, he no doubt envisioned a day which would showcase the breathtaking views of the second-highest summit in Asturias. Today, you can barely see the person next to you.
The rain is cold but not near freezing, which makes it the perfect temperature for miserable bike racing: warm enough that you’d overheat in genuine cold gear, but too cold to be remotely comfortable otherwise.
After what feels like an hour of weaving between between pedestrians and amateur cyclists, and listening to the banter between a cavalier César at the wheel and an equivalently anxious Juan Carlos in the back seat, we’ve gone as far as we’re allowed by car, and will trudge the rest of the way on foot. We’ve made it on time — nothing to do now but see whether the riders can say the same in a half hour or so.
Always, they skirt that line.
Under the best of circumstances, this sport can be unconscionably difficult. As has been discussed thousands of times by now, the concept of suffering holds a unique meaning in the cycling world — something to be actively sought and endured rather than avoided or minimized — a necessary byproduct of producing the effort necessary to achieve victory, limit loss, or sometimes even just finish the race. Often it feels less like a byproduct than the means itself, like pushing against the suffering is the impetus that allows riders to continually forge ahead.
Some days, however, the calculus shifts, and the suffering turns from edifying and affirming to cruel and unmanageable. Gamoniteiru does not have the impossibly steep twenty-seven percent sections of its nearby sister, the Angliru, which featured prominently in last year’s race. However, it is longer, and barring a short four-ish percent respite in the middle, almost entirely unrelenting.
It isn’t quite last chance saloon for those hoping to make a difference before Sunday’s final time trial, as Saturday’s constantly up-and-down medium mountain test is ripe for a classic Formigal-style Vuelta raid. Still, for those searching for chinks in Primož Roglič’s increasingly impenetrable-looking armor, a long, steep climb is an ideal opportunity, more or less.
After yesterday’s full-gas, rain-soaked battle and with another brutal finale ahead, nobody wants to spend another eighty kilometers furiously fighting for the day’s break. Instead, a large group goes away relatively quickly, and several of the strongest teams block the road in order to give it some space, establishing the order for the day’s proceedings.
Notably absent is Bahrain-Victorious, the only team to miss out. As such, they are condemned to a long afternoon as the primary party responsible for controlling the gap to the break. With relative surprise contender Jack Haig currently fourth, and an ascendant-looking Gino Mäder having recently snuck into the top ten, Bahrain appears to be perhaps the strongest team remaining overall, even factoring in the recent abandonment of original leader Mikel Landa. This, however, is not what they will have hoped for. Haig will be forced to burn through his lineup of excellent climbing domestiques much earlier than anticipated, and hope he can hold on.
From the breakaway, Michael Storer attacks alone, in pursuit of a third stage win. Perhaps the revelation of this Vuelta, his all-in riding style and nearly endless diesel reserves recall breakaway climbers of bygone eras. Summiting the Alto de la Segá o del Cordal alone, he has overtaken teammate Romain Bardet for the lead in the King of the Mountains competition, which he will attempt to solidify and add to his two stage wins.
Today, however, he is flagging, and when David de la Cruz attacks from the peloton on the lower slopes of Gamoniteiru and catches him with under seven kilometers to go, he appears resigned to his fate almost immediately. Unable to pull through and take a turn, he is dropped about a kilometer later as de la Cruz attacks, trying to stave off the charging GC group.
At the front of that group, Jan Hirt is setting a furious pace for his Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert leader Louis Meintjes. It’s difficult, but sustainable, and ideally too fast to be attacked.
For the second day in a row, Egan Bernal breaks free, hunching over his bars and powering away in the saddle. For the second day in a row, Roglič is on his wheel, not conceding a second. Bernal is minutes back and an inferior time trialist — far from an imminent threat in this scenario, but Roglic is racing instinctively; perhaps uncharacteristically so. Bernal’s is a wheel he wants to chase, and at the moment, he’s doing what he wants on the bike, when he wants to, and so he’s chasing. Within thirty seconds, the rest of the group has rejoined them, paced by a determined looking Miguel Ángel López.
Over the last few days, López has emerged as the stronger and more dynamic-looking of Movistar’s two remaining leaders, and as such, the pressure is on him to make something happen today. He is, generally speaking, a poor time trialist, and is likely too far adrift from Roglič to make up the gap, but he can hardly sit on and hope for a comfortable podium. Haig is on his tail in the overall classification, and he’s under additional pressure from closer to home.
Movistar is a proud old team, the oldest in the World Tour, and are close to going the entire season without a Grand Tour stage win for the first time in two and a half decades. Failure to try today would be interpreted as cowardice, something more or less antithetical to the entire ethos of the rider they call Supermán.
With that in mind, he sets off into the cold, dark mist with four kilometers remaining, in search of glory.
The last few kilometers are even less forgiving than the ones preceding them, with the steepest gradients of the entire climb in the closing meters. He alternates between spinning in the saddle and hopping out for short bursts, devouring the narrow road with each pedal stroke and clawing back the gap to de la Cruz, who is dangling just meters ahead, his strength on the verge of failing him.
Behind, Sepp Kuss has sprung into action, taking up the front to pace for Roglič. The benefit of drafting a teammate’s slipstream is not huge at gradients this steep, but every watt saved is crucial.
With 2.7 kilometers remaining, López has caught de la Cruz, and dropped him on the spot. Far from content, he accelerates once again, tapping out a rhythm and steadily increasing the gap to his pursuers.
A short time later, with Kuss exhausted, Roglič jumps out of the saddle and puts in a dig of his own, followed closely by Enric Mas and Bernal. López’s move isn’t enough to win the Vuelta in isolation, but that doesn’t mean Roglič can allow him to ride away. Haig is left in the lurch, and Mäder must stay with his leader and attempt to bring him home safely.
Suddenly, Bernal puts in a counter of his own, attacking Roglič. Roglič again follows without incident, and we’re forced to briefly contemplate the reality that this is the duel we may have been robbed of by Bernal’s poorly timed crash in the Vuelta a Burgos, a couple of weeks prior to the start of this Grand Tour. Had he entered the race on the sort of flying form he showed in winning this year’s Giro d’Italia, this GC battle might’ve been one for the ages.
López crosses the line first, barely visible through the fog. He has saved Movistar’s season, and made good on his reputation as a courageous climber who thrives on a queen stage. Behind him, Roglič has attacked once again, this time dumping everything he’s got left into one of his patented uphill sprints, easily dropping his companions. When all’s said and done, he has surrendered only fourteen seconds to López on the road, and gained time on everyone else in the race.
On a day when he was meant to be vulnerable, he has only consolidated his position.
As the riders file through the finish line, most need to be pushed up the hill to the tent where they will briefly warm up, changing into cold-weather kit for the ride back down the climb. I’m surrounded by the sort of satisfied misery I’ve spent countless hours wondering about, having watched dozens of historic races up iconic climbs.
Miguel Ángel López, the first man to vanquish Gamoniteiru, is appropriately proud, but remains purposeful and focused; his job far from over. Primož Roglič is uncharacteristically ebullient, even going out of his way to congratulate López, Bernal and Colombia at large on a Vuelta well-raced in an interview with Juan Carlos for Colombian network Win Sports. He won’t acknowledge the likelihood of his overall victory — not yet, with a few key obstacles remaining — but he has cleared a huge hurdle.
I’m struck by Egan Bernal, though, who despite attacking Roglič unsuccessfully for the second and third times in a two-day span, looks... joyful, if shivering a little while giving his post race interviews.
“Yes, but isn’t there a saying that the cemetery is full of brave guys?” he jokes, responding to a question about the way his fearless riding has made him a fan favorite here. A winner of two Grand Tours, he goes on to say that this one, in which barring several miracles, he will miss the podium, is the one he has enjoyed racing the most.
Perhaps in a few decades, Gamoniteiru will join its sister on the list of climbs which shape both La Vuelta and cycling’s broader history. Some would argue it will take several more eventful editions than today’s, in which the general classification remains mostly stable and the gaps are not enormous.
I get that, and perhaps on re-watch I’ll agree.
But as I walk back down to the car, and wait with Kate for César and Juan Carlos to finish their live show, it’s impossible not to reflect on the impressiveness of the courage and the performances we’ve seen today.
I’d come here again. I hope I will.