MADRID (Reuters) - The shortened version of this year's Vuelta a Espana is heating up - and Sunday's stage 12 is likely to play a major part in determining who will be wearing red in Madrid next month.
Coming just a day after a punishing 170km mountain stage, the 109km route is noticeably shorter than a normal Grand Tour stage - and with good reason.
Riders will tackle five categorised climbs and finish at the summit of what many professionals call the toughest ascent in the sport: the Alto de l'Angliru.
THE MOUNT OLYMPUS OF CYCLING
There is a sign that welcomes riders onto the "The Mount Olympus of Cycling" in its early slopes.
It is a bold claim for a single-track road in a relatively unknown pocket of northern Spain, but while the Angliru might not have the fame of the likes of Mont Ventoux or the Stelvio Pass, its brutality is almost unmatched in grand tour terms.
Averaging over 10% for its 12.5km distance, riders gain 1266m as they slowly snake their way up the narrow roads that usually only play home to cattle.
That percentage is all the more daunting given the first half of the climb has an average gradient of just 6.8% - standard fare in cycling terms.
WELCOME TO HELL
If there are to be any fireworks, they will come once riders have passed kilometre six - marked on the road by daubing that say 'Hell starts here'.
From the climb's halfway point it averages over 13%, with kilometre 11 an eye-watering 17.4%, including sections of ramps that hit 24% - and do not slip below 16.2% - at the 450 metre Cuena les Cabres section.
It is this point that breaks many amateur riders tackling the climb - and at that steepness it is nigh-on impossible to resume riding, leading many to turn around back to the start defeated.
THIS IS INHUMAN
Former Scottish pro David Millar famously refused to finish a 2002 stage that culminated at the climb's peak, stopping his bike just before the finish line and taking off his rider number in protest. He was eliminated from the race for not finishing the stage.
"We're not animals and this is inhuman," Millar said at the end of the brutal stage. On that day, Millar crashed descending the Alto del Cordal en-route to the Angliru, and this year riders will take the same route into the summit finish.
Oscar Sevilla, who came fourth in that year's Vuelta, described it as "an inhumane climb."
Meanwhile former Kelme team manager Vicente Belda went one further, saying: "What do they want blood? They ask us to stay clean and avoid doping and then they make the riders tackle this kind of barbarity," when asked about the climb.
WHAT TIMES CAN WE EXPECT TO SEE?
A number of factors, including the previous day's stage, the region's unpredictable weather and team energy will come into play with regards to what times riders will clock up on Sunday.
King of the mountain Roberto Heras is recorded as having climbed the Angliru in 41 minutes 55 seconds - a time that is never likely to be beaten - in 2000, more than a minute quicker than the second-fastest by Chris Horner in 2013 (43:06).
Exercise tracking app Strava's fastest recorded time is by Steven Kruijswijk at 45:33 during the 2017 Vuelta.
This will be the eighth time that the Vuelta has taken on the climb - the last time was three years ago, when Alberto Contador won the stage for a second time (he did so previously in 2008) in what was the final win of his career.
(Reporting by Joseph Cassinelli; Editing by Christian Radnedge)
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