AVILES, Spain (VN) — It’s one of Europe’s steepest roads, with punishing ramps as steep as 24 percent.
It’s the Angliru, a climb brutal enough to inspire fear in more than a few in the peloton. And the marquee summit should deliver a clear favorite in a still very tight Vuelta a España going into the final week of racing.
Race leader Bradley Wiggins (Sky) keeps on surprising, defending his red jersey with panache Saturday on a day that saw pre-race favorites Purito Rodrîguez and Vincenzo Nibali lose time La Farrapona and Michele Scarponi go home.
Rodríguez admitted he’s “lost the Vuelta” while Nibali vowed to fight on after suffering through a bonk on Farrapona.
Paced by ever-steady teammate Chris Froome, Wiggins will be under the gun Sunday. The track star is under no illusions that it will be easy.
” I know (today) is a very hard stage. We’ll keep fighting and hopefully it’s enough to win this red jersey,” Wiggins said Saturday. “Gaining some time boosts my confidence, so that should help a little. The Angliru is a climb that doesn’t suit anyone. This race is about who can suffer the longest.”
Public Enemy No. 1, at least for the Sky camp, is Juan José Cobo of Geox-TMC. The revived Spanish climber, nicknamed the “bisonte del la Presa,” stampeded out of the herd Saturday, took a second-place time bonus and clawed to within a minute of Wiggins, into fourth place overall.
Whether Cobo, who nearly quit cycling this spring when the results were not coming, can respond to attack again remains to be seen. Recovery is key to this Vuelta, which is being called the hardest edition ever by nearly everyone in the peloton.
“I am ready to attack again, but I am aware that I have used up a lot of energy and that the Angliru is not ideal for my characteristics,” Cobo said. “We’ll see what happens today, because there are four of us who can still win. I know Wiggins doesn’t like the climb, but I don’t think I will, either. I would love to finish on the podium, it would be amazing.”
Mechanics had a busy night Saturday, setting up climbing bikes with 39×32 low gears, to give the riders the spin they will need to get up the punishing steeps.
Possible showers, fog and wind should make an already epic setting even more dramatic in what’s the decisive day of the 2011 Vuelta.
One rider who seems to get lost in the shuffle is third-place man Bauke Mollema (Rabobank). The young Dutch rider hung in there Saturday with Wiggins, Froome and Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) and remains third overall.
“I am really satisfied with (Saturday’s) ride. I was really suffering, but when I heard that Nibali and Rodríguez were dropped, I realized I was going well,” Mollema said.
“It was a perfect day. It puts me closer to the top three.”
Rabobank teammate Carlos Barredo, however, believes that Mollema could still deliver a surprise. With the GC still so tight, finish-line time bonuses will still be a huge factor if a breakaway doesn’t stay clear to win the stage.
“I sacrificed my chance to win the stage (Farrapona) because Mollema could still win the Vuelta,” said Barredo, who lives in Asturias. “We’re not often in this position as a team, so I am happy to sacrifice my personal ambitions for the team.”
The big question mark for Sunday is Froome. Sky has declared Wiggins as the team captain, and rightly so. He’s the franchise rider on great form, so it’s only natural that Froome, an untested grand-tour rider, should use his excellent form for Wiggins.
On paper, Angliru favors Froome over Wiggins. It will be interesting to see how Sky plays it out once the race is under way. Will Team Sky put the brakes on Froome if he’s flying again and Wiggins is just barely hanging on?
That scenario is what all the rivals will be watching for and hoping to exploit on the final steep ramps of the Angliru.
Froome, just seven seconds behind Wiggins, could easily be the man who carries red into Monday’s second rest day. Froome is also negotiating his contract, so he will be feeling pressure on both ends, tugged between helping the team and looking out for his own personal interests.
So far, the Africa-born rider has proved nothing but loyal to the team and Wiggins. So Wiggins and Team Sky brass will have to make that call if Wiggins starts to crack. Will they let Froome take a shot?
“Bradley has been incredible. He’s in super condition and he’s one who deserves to win this race,” Froome said Saturday. “I got the best feeling in the world when I heard on the radio that a few other GC contenders were getting dropped (Saturday).”
The Angliru should settle all that in just a few hours.