Dreamlike memories of the Vuelta’s first visit to the Angliru
This Sunday, the Vuelta d'España will visit the terrifying inclines of the Angliru, one of Europe's hardest climbs. The race first visited the mountain just over 21 years ago, and history was made.
For months little else had been spoken of. It was a Sunday in Asturias, September 12th 1999, the Vuelta’s first visit to the Angliru.
I remember the rain. And the clouds, so low that they licked the asphalt.
I remember the bus that took the journalists to the top of the climb. It was an ascent that had become a legend before even being tackled. It was without ancient stories or photographs of old cyclists sweating its ramps. But in the days before, there was nothing else to talk about.
The bus was slow, very slow, and it stopped every few metres. The engine, it seemed, did not have enough power to ascend the Cueña de les Cabres – the 23% stairway, in which hundreds of fans closed the passage to any vehicle wider than a bicycle.
It smelt of wet grass. And the exhaust and burned clutches of the cars that had already climbed and stalled on it. Fans helped push the vehicles in the same way they would push struggling riders.
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The Angliru, or la Gamonal as it was then called, had been introduced to take the Vuelta to the heights of the Giro with its Mortirolo and Stelvio climbs, and the Tour with the Galibier and Tourmalet.
The 21st century had not yet arrived but the era of exaggerations, the search for the most difficult yet, had already begun in cycling. This arrival of the race on this unknown ramp signaled a change of era for the sport.
For the first time in road cycling, there was no shame to speak aloud about the need to put a triple chainset on a bike so that the cyclists could overcome the toughest sections.
Even a few days before, Telekom boss Rudy Pevenage had ordered mechanics to put a granny ring on Jan Ullrich’s spare bike so that everybody around the Telekom car could see it. Manolo Saiz, meanwhile, kept secret his intentions for the bicycle of Abraham Olano, his ONCE team leader.
It was the beginning of a kind of military race among the Grand Tours to present the hardest and most impossible climb. The Giro responded shortly after with the Zoncolan. The Tour stayed indifferent for a while but also ended up succumbing, most recently introducing the Mont du Chat.
I remember the dreamlike sensation of watching the stage, standing in front of a tiny television set in a tent on a steep slope at the finish, between the low clouds that thwarted the television helicopter.
When we dream, everything that happens has its logic. Only when we wake up and recall it, do we recognise events were not subject to the laws of reality. That they were preposterous.
And that’s what the Vuelta’s first visit to the Angliru was like. Everything seemed normal as it happened. The cyclists appeared and disappeared from the screen one by one, in pain and suffering.
Olano – who had fallen on the descent of the previous pass and been pulled from a small canyon by his mechanic — went up the Angliru not knowing he nursed a broken rib. Nonetheless, he climbed quickly and left behind overall rival Ullrich.
Ahead, the Russian Tonkov seemed to fly. But less so than ‘Chava’ Jimenez.
Chava, in the dream, did not suffer, but he went on whistling, like a happy boy walking under the sun. And, without knowing how, as in a dream, he caught Tonkov in the last kilometre and beat him.
And Chava won like cyclists used to win, without raising their arms. He spoke of his friend Marco Pantani, of wanting to share the suffering of “the pirate” – his idol, another impossible climber, who had been expelled from the Giro three months before.
Already, one visit in, the Angliru had become a legend of meat and bone.
Carlos Arribas is a reporter for El Pais