The Vuelta a España climbs La Pandera tomorrow. It’s one of several new climbs in the race that are gradually making a name for themselves because of the Vuelta’s spotlight and in time they will become destinations for more than the locals.
La Pandera? It all began thanks to a local teacher who discovered the road was open and decided to visit and thought it was so hard they just had to tell the Vuelta…
One of the curiosities of the Vuelta is that it’s a grand tour but lacks the mythical climbs of its cousins the Giro and Tour. Yes there’s the likes of the Lagos de Covadonga and the Angliru but they only appeared in the race in 1983 and 1999 respectively. QED.
New climbs can quickly establish themselves, see the Mortirolo (1990), the Zoncolan (2003) or how the Planche des Belles Filles (2012) has usurped the likes of the Grand Ballon in the Vosges. All they need is a fearsome status and regular visits and they start to appear on the map of cycling’s psychogeography.
The story goes that Juani Zafra, a 23 year old physical education teacher from nearby Valdepeñas de Jaén discovered the road for herself in 2001 when the road was opened as part of the local feria. It had been closed because of the military communications masts belonging to the US army and a small Spanish garrison nearby too. But the troops left in 1998 leaving the mountain to the sheep and goatherds. Zafra and her boyfriend heard the access road was open for a few days and decided to drive up and see what it was all about. Neither are big cyclists but they thought the Vuelta could visit and sent a fax – or an email depending on which account you read – to Unipublic, the Vuelta owners. The rest is history and Zafra got a VIP ride in the race director’s car when the race visited. The climb being scaled four times and tomorrow marks the fifth ascent. This is not an isolated story, in 1999 ONCE lottery worker Miguel Prieto wrote to Unipublic to tell them about a climb called the Angliru.
A local tip helps but so does cash. The Planche des Belles Filles wants to market itself as a destination and so it siphons the Tour de France away from the classic Grand Ballon and other stalwarts of the Vosges. Similarly Jaén spent €90,000 on promoting La Pandera’s first visit in 2002 and has presumably ploughed in much more since, all for a road that is closed to motorised traffic but to make it a cycling destination. Although you can ride up and enjoy the view and that’s it, hopefully you will spend your money in Jaén.
The race organisers are only too keen to oblige because they make for great TV and become talking points, in Spain climbs are measured against the Angliru just as the Zoncolan is the reference for Italian ascents: is it as steep as the Angliru? These new climbs gave the Vuelta more options and the gradients increased the spectacle on TV although it does create a sort of “spectacle inflation” where an 8-10% climb – selective by most measures – now looks humdrum. But as steep as these climbs are they’re now accessible to all thanks to the development of the compact chainset and their adoption in the pro peloton. So the old school spectacle of riders bench-pressing their way up with a cadence of 30-40 rpm is gone.
An illusion of difficulty? This brings us to the Tour de France and the recent course that featured a succession of steep climbs like the Jura stage with the Grand Colombier and the Mont du Chat. They’re “new” to the Tour de France too in part because they derail the familiar tactic of the mountain train. The speed in a pro race is so high that drafting helps on an Alpine pass but use a goat path with a 15% gradient and team work counts for a lot less.
Today all race directors are interested in finding new climbs. Giro boss Mauro Vegni has a network of local contacts but checks the chatter on forums, just as Tour directeur Thierry Gouvenou is welcome to suggestions from the LeGruppetto forum where one thread has members drawing their own suggested Tour routes, even mimicking the ASO house style maps to the point of fooling some that next year’s route has leaked when the image is circulated online. Some races also serve to “discover” new routes, for example what appears in the Ronde de l’Isard, an U23 stage race in the Pyrenees, one year might show up in the Route du Sud the next and quite possibly be in the Tour de France soon after.
But what makes a climb legendary? According to Daniel Friebe’s “Mountain Higher” when the late José María Jiménez discovered the Vuelta was going to climb the Xorret de Catí in 2000 he declared “this climb will be legendary but only if I win“. This says plenty about El Chaba himself but in order to become famous a climb needs a special winner or something dramatic. If the an unheralded rider from a Pro Conti team holds on to win then good for them but the climb will not gain such a noble status; just as La Pandera suffers from a series of suspect winners although this says more about an era than the road. Local identity helps too, the Kapelmuur is more than another cobbled climb because of that bend, the chapel and the Sunday morning mass every April.
One challenge for La Pandera is that it lacks these visual cues. The likes of Mont Ventoux are instantly recognisable to many and other climbs have their reminders whether Alpe d’Huez and its “21 hairpins”. In time you might note the local geology like the dark schist of the Aubisque or the pinky-grey dolostone of the Dolomites. But if this time next week we see a picture of the riders on the slopes of La Pandera can we be sure it is not the Calar Alto?
Out with the old and in with the new. Even the Tour and Giro are exploring new climbs while the Vuelta is making several hitherto unknown roads famous.
It may seem odd to find a new road in Spain given modern mapping techniques but the Vuelta has been collecting many new climbs in recent years. All the grand tours hunting for new locations but also rely on local tips to find them. With La Pandera and the Angliru coming up how many riders in the peloton will be cursing their discovery?
Photo credit: La Pandera by Flickr’s Anpalacios