In the Cantabrian mountains, in the heart of Asturias and overlooking the city of Oviedo, lies a rugged massif named Gamonal. From its peaks trickle two narrow mountain roads. One, on the northern flank, is known as the Alto del Angliru. It’s 12.5km at 10.1% with sections of 23% and is quite rightly mythologised as one of, if not the hardest, climb ever tackled in professional cycling.
That’s the easier of the two.
The second climb is called the Alto del Gamoniteiro, or Altu d’El Gamoniteiru in the local Asturian dialect. This is the Angliru’s evil sister, even longer and even harder. This year it makes its debut in professional road racing when the 18th stage of the Vuelta a España concludes at the top.
The Gamoniteiro is 14.6km and features an average gradient of 9.8%. The difficulty lies in the fact that beyond a kilometre and a half at the very bottom, plus a couple of kilometres in the middle, the gradient never drops below 10%. The final kilometres get narrow and increasingly steep as the road slowly degrades to a rough concrete goat path, although race organisers confirmed to Rouleur via email that new tarmac would be laid “on just some parts..."
At the top sits an abandoned weather station and an austere iron cross. Devoid of myth or legend, the name is believed to stem from ‘gamón’, the Spanish name for the white asphodel which grows in abundance in the region. And that’s about it. It’s bleak, cold, wild and beautiful.
Phil Deeker runs the Cent Cols Challenge and has climbed the Gamoniteiro on a number of occasions (notably in 2017 when he rode 1,000 cols in 100 days to celebrate his 60th birthday). He says the consistent steepness of the Gamoniteiro makes it an unusual climb for the Asturias region.
“The Angliru is harder for us amateurs, but for pro racing, the Gamoniteiro could be harder,” he says. “It’s a longer time spent in steep gradient and gets more 'intimate' at the top as the road gets narrower and more broken. And it definitely has a wilder feel than the Angliru.”
The Gamoniteiro is a climb of three parts. The first eight kilometres out of Pola di Lena, the eastern flank, are a consistently steep gradient of 11 to 12% on a gently curving main road along the side of the mountain to the Alto del Cobertoria, much like the Col du Lautaret as it beelines out of Briançon towards the Col du Galibier in the French Alps.
From the Cobertoria, a hard climb in itself, the Gamoniteiro is accessed via a sharp turn onto a single lane road. The gradient lessens slightly as the road shrinks and the views open up amongst the rocky high mountain meadows but the respite is short lived; the gradient soon ramps up again in the final section to a final kilometre of around 14% that maxes out at 17%.
“The tarmac starts to break up, and it gets really wild,” Deeker adds. “The last couple of kilometres are where the concrete gets really gnarly and the road gets very narrow, then the last kilometre is the steepest of the lot.
“With the fans up there, it will be chaos.”
Spain has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to goat tracks leading to nowhere, which is perhaps why it has taken so long for the fearsome Gamoniteiro to feature in a professional race.
Burgos-BH rider Pelayo Sánchez is riding his debut Grand Tour at this year’s Vuelta. He lives around 20km from the mountain, about as local as it’s possible to be, and explains that Asturian fans have been clamouring for the climb’s inclusion in the race for ages. When it comes to home advantage, however, there’s a problem. He never rides it. It’s just too hard.
“I’ll often train on either side of the Cobertoria,” he tells Rouleur. “But as for the Gamoniteiro, although the views are fantastic, I hardly ever go up.”
So is the Gamoniteiro the hardest climb in pro cycling? It depends how you like your suffering. As Deeker says, “which hurts more, a section of 23% or a section of 14% after 10 kilometres of 11%?”
The other contender is the Monte Zoncolan, in the Carnic Alps of north-eastern Italy. That is 10.5km at 11.5% and includes a kilometre-long section at almost 20%. The Gamonitero doesn’t get as steep, but it’s a whopping 50% longer.
As for the Vuelta, it’s enough to know that the mountain is hard enough to blow the race to smithereens.
“It will be the queen stage and could be the judge of the race,” says Sánchez. “As for the climb, it is hard from start to finish without any rest. It’s difficult to know the impact on the race but it’s one of the most spectacular climbs in Asturias and we’ll be sure of a show.”
With thanks to Phil Deeker of Cent Cols Challenge for photo usage. Bookings for both 2021 and 2022 trips available now.