Stage 13 will be another day for the battle between the sprinters and the breakaway men. The 189.8 km course goes straight north through the central region of northern Spain. The stage begins in Burgos and ends in Santander on the northern border, and takes in four categorized climbs along the way. That sounds like a lot of climbing, but it isn't, as the stage actually has a net descent of 880m on the day. After some rolling terrain with some descents, the riders hit the Cat 3 Alto de Bocos at 79 km. They then move on to the only real difficulty of the day, the Cat 1 Alto Portillo de la Sia: the climb begins at the 99 km mark and lasts for 7 km, with the steepest gradient of 7.5% coming near the top. After the climb there is a long descent that leads up to the final two climbs, the Cat 3 Alto Cruz Uzano at 135 km and the Cat 3 Alto Fuente de las Varas at 145 km. After that, it's downhill and then flats for the final 44.8 km. A breakaway will have to have a big lead and work like hell to stay away on such straight and flat roads, but the many small climbs could provide enough of a springboard for a few no-name heroes to make us all smile with a win.
Stage 14: one more day to Angliru. The race heads due west along the northern border of Spain, beginning in Santander and ending in Gijon. The stage is once again extremely flat and pretty straight, so it looks like a day for the sprinters. Over 190.2 km the riders will only encounter two Cat 3 climbs: the Cat 3 Alto Buenos Aires at 148 km and the Cat 3 Alto El Gobernador at 165 km. The GC men will have nothing but Angliru on their minds (as will most everyone else), so while there will likely be some frisky men anxious for a stage win, don't be surprised if the peloton rides "piano" for a good chunk of the day. A bunch sprint between the remaining big guys should cap another exciting day of elbow-smacking, high-paced fun before the fearful and pitiful crawl to come.
Stage 15 is the big day. It's a 176.7 km with four categorized climbs, starting in Gijon and finishing at the top of the dreaded Alto de l'Angliru. The first climb is the Cat 1 Puerto Marabio, a 10.6 km climb that hits at the 69 km point: the climb starts gradually at 5.5% and gets to 12.5% towards the top. The Cat 2 Alto de Tenebredo is the next leg-softener at 109 km, a nasty 4 km climb that is followed by about 37 km of flat riding. At the 150 km point the riders hit the Cat 1 Alto del Cordal, a 5.5 km climb that starts hard at 9.4%, flattens a bit before hitting 9.8% at the middle, and then gets really hard with a 12.3% grade at the top. The riders will then get a blissful 8 km descent before the big bad mountain sinks its teeth into their legs.
How tough is the Angliru? No less a climber than Angel Casero is talking about using a triple-ring up front for this stage. The Angliru makes professional riders look like me on a normal climb. The road to Angliru snakes up the side of the mountain, its large coils strangling the oxygen from the riders' lungs and the strength from the riders' legs. It is 12.9 km long, and starts off relatively modestly at a 5.9% grade in the first kilometer. It tilts to 7.9% in the second kilometer, then 8.7% by the end of the third kilometer. At 5 km the road levels to a mere 2.4% for a full kilometer before twisting up to 14.2% at the 6.5 km mark. Then it gets hard. The steepness stays above 11% for the next several kilometers. At 10 km the climb gets legendary: starting at 12.9%, the grade goes absolutely perpindicular to 17.4%, then 19.6%, then 21.6%, before hitting the ridiculous, I-might-as-well-just-push-my-damned-bike level of 23.6% at about 10.6 km into the climb. After that, the Angliru returns to simply cruel proportions with a 12.7% grade at 11 km. The last hundred meters or so of the 12.9 km climb flattens out to 2.8%; if by some miracle the race isn't blown to smithereens by then, we might see something that resembles a crawl mixed with a sprint as the leaders approach the line.
The time-gaps on the Angliru will be definitive, and the shape of the final podium will start to clarify as the riders straggle across the line in the thin air at the top. Roberto Heras (US Postal) built his victory in 2000 on his 3rd place performance on this climb, and will be a big favorite for the victory this year. Gilberto Simoni (Saeco) won the 2000 stage by over 2', but he wasn't a marked GC rider at the time; still, he is likely the biggest favorite for the stage win. Casero lost the Vuelta that day, finishing over 3' behind Heras and 6' 39" behind Simoni. He and the rest of the GC hopefuls will have to tame the Angliru this year to land on the podium in Madrid.