This year the Vuelta visited one of its new favoured battle grounds, Los Machucos, a road so ridiculous it will push the riders to the very edge in order to provide us blood thirsty fans with the entertainment we crave, but is it as hard as it looks? Is it harder than the Angliru? Monte Zoncolan? I’ve been lucky enough to ride all three and each one presents a unique challenge that I’ll never forget but which really is the toughest?
Let’s start with The Angliru which I first rode in 2014. That day I arrived at the base fresh, eager, and as excited as a puppy in a toilet roll factory. The first half is tough but manageable, then there is the flat section, the interlude where you can grab a drink and some popcorn before the main feature starts. Passing the large image of the late José María Jiménez, (who won the stage the first time the climb was included in the Vuelta) the 20% gradient starts. It’s not 20% the whole way up but there are enough double digit sectors that your speed begins to slow to a walking pace. Back in 2014 I was armed with a 39x27 and as I’d never been beaten before on this gear I had no inclination that I would that day, but I was wrong. At about two and a half kilometres the road bends left and you begin the hardest part, a ramp of pure terror. Even employing some extreme zig-zagging back and forth I knew I was not going to make it and just before my knees were about to snap down went the foot. As the clock was ticking I began to run in my cleats, made it to the next bend then re-mounted. I got to the top but knew in my heart I had failed. Roll on five years and a couple of weeks ago I was back to take my revenge. Now equipped with 34 at the front I was going to show this climb who was boss. It was still hard, very hard, and I still weaved and wished I’d put a 29 at the back instead of the 27 but I made it without the cleats touching tarmac. My nemesis was tamed. But is it the hardest grand Tour climb?
Let’s now consider the The Zoncolan. Last summer whilst researching my guide to the climbs of Italy I took on this famous foe. I took the precaution of fitting a 34x27 on the bike and was sure that would be fine. It was, JUST, but my backside didn’t touch the saddle for about six kilometres. It’s constant, relentless 15-16% wears you down physically and mentally and worse still is that the multitude of tight bends offer no salvation. On a classic climb such as Alpe d’Huez the road levels on the bends allowing you to spin for a while, to take a short break, but the bends on the Zoncolan are even steeper than the straights, they are all 20%. There is just nowhere to rest, nowhere to hide, until, and this is the climb’s only saving grace with about three kilometres to go there is the slight descent before you pass through the tunnels into the grandstand finish. By this point you are simply begging for it to end and it is in my opinion that although it lacks the prolonged periods over 20% it is in fact harder than The Angliru.
At that point in time point I believed the Zoncolan to be the hardest Grand Tour climb, it was in my opinion harder than The Angliru and I was sure I’d never find anything tougher, or would I.
On my latest trip riding the climbs of northern Spain I arrived at the base of a climb that made its grand Tour debut in 2017, Los Machucos. I’d seen this climb on TV, I’d listened to the hysterics from the commentators as they waxed lyrical about its savage 28% gradient. I’d seen the fearsome pictures of its concrete hairpins and believed I’d done sufficient research into what lay ahead, but oh how wrong I was. By the time you reach the village of Bustablado, deep in the valley there is already a sense of foreboding in the air. There are a brace of signs directing you towards the horrors ahead and a nasty ramp out of the village, but this isn’t the climb, not just yet. Los Machucos starts as you turn left, plummet down a ramp, cross a river then come to an abrupt halt as the road rears up the other side. From here on it is a torture chamber. My 34x27 was totally insufficient, I was bringing a balloon sword to a gun fight. Each of the early vicious ramps takes it toll and then you reach the big one, a gargantuan stretch of simply ludicrous 20- 30% gradient. And there is more, much of which my brain deleted from its memory to prevent nightmares, before you reach the very welcome mid way hiatus. Once through this you appear to be riding into a ‘cul-de-sac’ of towering rock with no obvious way out. It looks impossible for a road to escape the fortress of granite that surrounds you but Los Machucos somehow does. Entering the woods and it is time for the famed concrete and oh so photogenic switchbacks. 20%, 25%, maybe be steeper, but by now you will really be beyond caring, you just want to keep moving forward over the harsh scores in the surface that do nothing to aid your progress. With these showpiece corners conquered there’s still more. Leaving the woods you dare not look up. I kept glancing my computer waiting for the road to run out but with no joy. I would not, could not give in, and no matter how slow, I would reach the top and when I came to a sharp left hand band, adorned with the name of the legend Contador I decided that must be the finish. I had a sneaking suspicion, although the road descended somewhat that there might be slightly more to come, but with dark clouds overhead, and alone in the middle of absolutely nowhere with 100km still to ride to said ENOUGH. I turned and fled.
Los Machucos takes suffering to the next level and by comparison the slopes of The Angliru and Zoncolan, as savage and unforgiving as they are suddenly seem quite sedate. My list of the hardest Grand Tour climbs now has a new name at the top, until that is the sadistic race planners find something even more difficult for the world’s best riders to entertain us on.
Thanks to Ben veloviewer.com for the graphic.