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In photos: Faces of the Angliru

30 Oct 2020

The Alto de l'Anlgliru was first used in the Vuelta a Espana in 1999 and has caused carnage on every occasion it has been used

Words: Joe Robinson Photography: Offside

Cycling is always an undeniably tough sport but whenever it visits the Alto de l’Angliru it is taken to another level. This Asturian climb tucked away in the northern enclaves of Spain was only introduced to La Vuelta in 1999 but in just seven visits to date, it has firmly become a legend of the race. On each and every occasion, the Angliru has caused carnage.

From the Offside archives, I found these images of the Vuelta’s first-ever trip to the Angliru in 1999. Now, I will cut it straight with you, I have no first-hand memories of this visit. I was five years old and into wrestling, not cycling. But I think these picture truly speak a thousand words of what it was like on that inaugural ascent.

Riders were chomping up the 25% gradients on gear ratios so tiny they mirrored the demeanour of a sorrowful paperboy painfully hauling his BMX up that really steep hill. Most riders were all too happy to take the helping hand of over-enthusiastic poncho-wearing spectators while even team cars relied on human power rather than horsepower as the slick surface was more like an ice-rink.

Pavel Tonkov looked like a man drained of all life. Abraham Olano looked like he was on the verge of being sick. Jan Ullrich carried the drawn face of a man starved of oxygen. Jose Maria Jimenez, funnily, looked a little bored. A despondent-looking Giuseppe Palumbo rode the climb in a floppy hat you’d find a train enthusiast called Robin wearing on a visit to the Iberian-gauge railways.

This was from a time before big helmets and even bigger sunglasses. While they rightly protect riders from head injuries and the glare of the sun, it guards us against the rider’s emotion, you can no longer stare into their eyes and see how they are truly feeling and whether they are seconds away from disaster. You could then.

Above all else, the image that is burnt into my mind’s eye front a centre is that of Ullrich rounding that absurdly steep corner, his fluorescent and reflective Adidas kit turning him into a signal beacon within the fog. The armwarmers creeping down his arm, the exposed wire from the ear piece. His sinuous legs churning as much power as possible through his cranks to keep his massive gear going on his Pinarello Galileo – for me quite possibly, finished in its pink Team Telekom colours, the most beautiful bicycle ever race on by a pro.

The Vuelta peloton is set to visit the Angliru’s sloped for an eighth time on Sunday and yet again it is sure to go off like a grenade amid the GC contenders. Legs will explode, time gaps will expand, hopes and dreams will be shattered.

At the end of the strangest season of professional cycling we have ever seen, it’ll be a near-barbaric spectacle. We can't wait...