Climbing high: watching stage 11 of the Vuelta a Espana in Andorra
Stage 11 of the 2015 Vuelta a Espana was touted as the toughest Grand Tour stage ever in a sport which regular puts its stars through the ringer. A veritable feast of climbing, with six mountains and more than 5,000m of ascent packed into 138 tortuous kilometres. The pain etched across every rider's face - none more so Chris Froome's - as they crossed the finish line at the 2,095m summit of the Alto Els Cortals d'Encamp told the story of an utterly brutal day in the saddle.
When they asked me if I wanted to go to Andorra, I said, ‘Sure, where is it?’. The fact that I was on my way to watch a stage of the Vuelta a Espana should have been my first clue. The tiny nation, the world’s only co-principality, is situated high in the Pyrenees, sandwiched between France and Spain. As you may have gathered, Andorra isn’t a very big country. To put things in perspective, the whole nation has an area less than 500km2 and the total population is just slightly more than Harlow, but less than Burnley. Not massive at all then.
But what Andorra lacks in square-footage it more than makes up for in scale and drama, both in terms of its jaw-dropping mountainous landscape and the fireworks it brings to proceedings when a Grand Tour comes to town. Never more so than this week, when the Andorran mountains ripped the Vuelta a Espana wide open on Wednesday.
Next year, the Tour de France will visit, spending three days in Andorra with a stage finish, rest day and stage start. It will be the first time the Tour has come to town since 2009, when Brice Feillu won at the summit of Andorra-Arcalís after a long breakaway, and the fifth visit in the race’s history after previous stopovers in 1964, 1993 and 1997.
This year was the first time a stage of the Vuelta has been contested completely inside this punchy little micro-country, and the parcours didn’t disappoint. Or rather, it did disappoint the riders, but for us watching it was an inspired route that saw the peloton explode into pieces almost from the off, with the road rising from the first kilometre. There were several anguished tweets from pro riders on Tuesday night (the first rest day of the Vuelta so far and the evening before the stage), many of the them ‘blaming’ Joaquim Rodriguez for the day to come.
Purito lives in Andorra and knows its slopes extremely well, so it made sense for the race organisers to consult him when planning the course. Just as he never shirks a punchy climb, Purito didn’t shrink from including as many as possible in the route he helped devise, with six cols, including the Collada de Beixalis (1,790m), Coll d’Ordino (1,980m), Coll de Rabassa (2,037m), Collada de la Gallina (1,910m) and Alto de la Comella (1,345m), all before the gruelling final ascent to Cortals d’Encamp, which climbs from 1,295m to 2,095m – at gradients of eight to 12 per cent the whole way.
It’s hard to gauge just how pumped the Andorrans are for the race, because the country has been flooded with Vuelta fans from all over Europe. What is clear is that this is a place keen to leave its reputation as Europe’s go-to spot for cheap ciggies well behind and embrace the possibilities of its wonderous natural environment for cycling. While it has long been established as a ski destination in winter, what few still realise is that it’s also a top spot for outdoor sports in the summer months, with the French Pyrenees and Alps the go-to destinations for riders in search of mountain peaks. Purito isn’t the only Grand Tour rider to call Andorra home – La Massana, just north of the capital, is an enclave of former pros, enjoying the country’s great climbing, low taxes and virtually non-existent crime and unemployment rates – and Andorra is keen for the secret to get out.
La Massana is also just a short pedal from the site of the crash that ended Chris Froome’s Vuelta. In one of stage 11’s defining moments, the Kenyan-born Brit was toppled just five kilometres into the stage and soldiered on courageously for another 130 clicks – arriving on the finish line ashen-faced, before being lifted from his bike and swaddled in warm kit. Given that he withdrew from the race some 16 hours later with a fractured foot, the fact he rode his bike back over six climbs to the team bus is all the more eye-watering.
Compared with going to see the Tour de France, either when it has visited the UK or in its homeland, watching the final Grand Tour of the season is an altogether less fraught affair. The roads are lined with people, sure, but they are not scrambling over one another to get a good vantage point and they’re not all shoving their iPhones over the barriers in the hope of capturing a blurry shot of an FDJ domestique’s pain face. Anyone at the top of Holme Moss or Buttertubs Pass during last summer’s Tour de France Grand Depart will testify to the chaotic scenes – and remarkable atmosphere – there. In contrast, watching the Vuelta in Andorra is a delightfully calm experience. You have plenty of room to watch the race, the police are entirely more relaxed about things like which side of the crash barriers you choose to stand on and the scenery is truly spectacular.
On the day of stage 11, early in the morning I climbed the Gallina to get a feel for this whole Pyrenean thing. The Gallina was the penultimate mountain of the stage and the one where Froome really cracked and began shipping time to his GC rivals. But this would not be for several hours yet.
At 10am there were already fans waiting at the roadside, mostly with campervans, but many also making the long ride, or even longer walk, up the mountain. There are not nearly as many who follow the entire Vuelta as there are the Tour de France – devotees of the latter are almost fanatical in their zeal – but nevertheless there were healthy numbers of vehicles on the upper slopes, with floods of cyclists heading to the top to watch, too.
The Gallina itself is a monster – 12km of eight per cent, ramping up to 16 per cent for a sustained spell about two-thirds of the way to the top. After an hour and some change spent huffing and puffing my way up its densely tree-lined slopes I reached the summit and the welcome sight of the Puerto de Aqui banner (I think it translates to something approximately like ‘Thank God that’s over’). The views – back down into the mesmerising valley that contains most of the inhabited parts of Andorra – were very nearly worth the suffering.
Later, when the pros began wending their way up through more than 20 hairpin bends, the race began to fracture – especially for Señor Froome and his lieutenant, Geraint Thomas, who hung back to nurse his stricken leader. Things went from bad to worse for Team Sky, with deputy Nico Roche also faltering on the cruel Andorran climbs. If there was one positive from the day, it was the standout performance of Ian Boswell, who got himself in the day’s break and finished a gutsy third on the stage – I saw him absolutely booking it down into Andorra la Vella before the penultimate climb of the day in hot pursuit of Imanol Erviti, and then again at the finish looking utterly exhausted.
It was a far better day to be Spanish than British. The stage winner, Mikel Landa, showed exactly the form that he had hoped to replicate from the Giro d’Italia earlier this year, where he finished third overall and won two stages, by charging ahead in the final kilometres to the finish and take the day’s victory. There was more good news for Astana, when Landa’s de facto team leader (after the disqualification of Vicenzo Nibali), Fabio Aru, took enough time from Tom Dumoulin to go into the red jersey.
Katusha, the team of local favourite, Rodriguez, and his compatriot, Daniel Moreno, also had a great day – the pair came in fourth and fifth at the top of the Cortals d’Encamp climb, much to the delight of the roadside support. It was almost as though Rodriguez had planned the whole thing. The biggest loser on the day (other than Froome) was Nairo Quintana, who finished more than four minutes down on Aru. It seems like this was one Grand Tour too many for the diminutive Colombian, who began showing rare signs of discomfort as early as the second climb of the day.
To give Purito his due, the choice of Cortals d’Encamp for the finish line was a masterstroke, with dramatic views all the way back down to Andorra de la Vella. Seeing the helicopters appear in the sky a few minutes before the riders came into view added a palpable sense of excitement to proceedings. A cable car, typically used in the winter for transporting skiers to the top of the snowy peaks, was press-ganged into service to ferry spectators to and from the race.
Standing in the press zone immediately after the finish line and watching the riders come in painted the picture more fully than any TV broadcast – these were broken men, shattered, ashen-faced and ill-tempered. I’ve always been jealous of professional cyclists – they get to do a job most fans would leap at the chance for – and yet on this day in Andorra I felt a pang of sympathy. The days of gladiatorial bouts in colosseums for the entertainment of the masses may be over – but these riders still make herculean sacrifices on a daily basis, in pursuit of glory and sometimes not even that, to animate the race for our gratification. Andorra provided the perfect environment for that battle.