I’ve been this way many times. In every way possible, in every kind of vehicle. I knew this spot before they tarmacked the road. I’ve seen it improve year by year, corner by corner. Normally this is a quiet place, a haven of tranquillity, despite being just a handful of kilometres from the coast, loud, modern and cool. Not here. If you listen carefully you will still hear the whistle of the dalle, the traditional Cantabrian scythe that is still used here. You’ll also hear the whistle of a shepherd calling his dog, or the beating of the wings of a kite or a vulture, the call of a cuckoo or a blackbird.
The fields are steep on both sides of the road, almost impossible to climb. The asphalt itself rises and falls crazily; it’s not for the vertiginous. Sharp stones erupt from the soil, as if a giant were trying to escape from a subterranean prison. Moss covers the trees. A stream bubbles over boulders. There are cows and also a few sheep. There is sky, there is cloud and there is greenery. There is all this. A remote corner of a mountain in a land known to its inhabitants for centuries as ‘La Montaña’. A peaceful place, one where even silence seems too loud.
Less so today. Because today the Vuelta a España arrives in Los Machucos. One of the toughest climbs of the 2017 edition. It’s September, a misty, cloudy, gloomy day. I have come here to breathe in the atmosphere, to taste the effort of riding it. And also to see with my own eyes how a race of this size changes the appearance and the life of the wild places it passes through.
The Vuelta is a small portable city which uproots its foundations and moves to a new place every day. There are billboards, huge tents after the finish line for riders and journalists, vehicles of every type, inflatables of a thousand colours, cameras and people. Lots of people. The place where nobody lives, trodden only be a few shepherds who come up here with their flocks, is transformed for a few hours into the centre of the cycling world. And of course this blurs the boundary between what is real and what is just a dream.
On a normal day you can leave your car wherever you like. In a ditch, at the entrance to a dirt track, even over there near the animals. But not today. Today we journalists have to climb up the pass and then do a thousand and one manoeuvres to find a space. It’s not easy – room is so scarce we have to park off the tarmac. The most skilful, who know the area, travel a few hundred metres in reverse gear, taking care not to put a wheel on the slippery cliff edges. Just one small error and it’s a long drop. Others struggle, less used to the conditions, or suffering from a fear of heights, or simply never having expected to find themselves in a traffic jam this far from civilisation. There is a smell of burning clutches, nervous looks among the drivers, a couple of wheels spinning uselessly in the mud. This is normal in the grey and green kingdom.
A few hundred metres higher is the little esplanade at the finish line. The mountain has sprouted a podium, a TV set, a place where the journalists can write their reports and attend the press conference. With the heating on full blast. The Vuelta in September: a pleasure trip, all sun and sand, some might think. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today, in Los Machucos, the temperature does not once reach ten degrees. And it rains. Or rather, it doesn’t rain, but the clouds and the mist dot your clothes with moisture, a dewfall on your skin. It feels really cold. Some are shivering. Where’s the beach? Where’s the warmth?
A grey and green landscape. This is Los Machucos on a normal day. An abandoned place nobody visits, except a few too-brave cyclists and the local farmers. The road, in fact, did not exist until five years ago. Before that anyone travelling from Calseca to Bustablado (from the Miera Valley to the Ruesga Valley) faced a journey of almost fifty kilometres. Today, thanks to the construction of the new road, it’s barely ten.
Even so, cars are hardly ever seen in Los Machucos. No. There are trees, a ghostly forest halfway up the climb where moss covers the stones, which look like hedgehogs. A handful of huts dot the climb, where the cows can take refuge when the weather turns, and the shepherds can try to keep warm. And there are rocks, white and grey, some of them looking fierce, as if the mountain itself was launching a bid for freedom. The appearance is threatening. Add the mists, so frequent as to be almost permanent, and the overall impression is wild and unsettling. A place untouched by human hand. A stronghold of almost primal nature, with vultures in the skies and deer and wild boar in the undergrowth.
And them. The cows. Mottling the view with patches of black and white. And brown, of course. At the summit of Los Machucos there is a monument to the highland cow. A homage to cattle. It might seem ridiculous elsewhere, but not here. The highland cow is the traditional breed of the region. A small animal, brown in colour, adapted to the cold, to the rain, to the most challenging of conditions. Tough and stubborn, difficult to handle, she will kick and butt strangers. These are working cattle, bred for meat, and they yield little milk. But what they do give is a treasure. Fed on mountain pasture they produce a thick, nutritious and highly calorific liquid. This is the milk used to make the traditional jewel-like Cantabrian desserts, soboas and quesadas. It fed young and old in winter. It warmed the homes and fuelled the work in the fields. Yes, here there is a monument to the highland cow. And quite right too.
For some years now, the Vuelta a España has relied on a certain type of climb. Relatively short and impossibly steep, these guarantee a few minutes of struggle between the strongest climbers, simply by virtue of the force of gravity. They always create gaps, if only small ones of barely a few seconds.
Los Machucos is a perfect example. Just eight kilometres long, but reaching a maximum gradient of 28% – steeper than the Angliru, for example. Over the last three kilometres it averages about 12%, beginning with 750 metres at 17%. A wall that crosses meadows, forests and rocky ground via asphalt that in some places looks like carpet, in others is cracked by the snow, and in yet others starts to disappear altogether, where nothing more than a few strips of concrete are visible. It’s only a short stretch, but it leaves its mark on the legs.
On a normal day Los Machucos is a climb with a scent. It smells of wet grass, and in summer of petrichor, the bitter aroma produced when rain falls on long-dry soil. It also smells, of course, of cattle, of the traces of wild animals that pass along the narrow paths in the bushes. There are all these smells, but there’s barely a sound to be heard. Just about audible is the metallic sound of cowbells. Maybe the muffled but powerful bark of a distant mastiff. Otherwise, nothing. Silence, dense silence you can almost hear when you enter the woods. Among the trees that arch over the road to form a tunnel, all sound is muffled. It is also more humid there: the steam leaves your lips, your nose, with each breath. It’s cold. At the bottom is a small stream, carrying dry leaves and a few twigs. But even the stream doesn’t sound happy. It’s as if the world has been struck dumb.
But not the day the Vuelta comes. On the day the Vuelta comes everything changes. There is merrymaking, joy, celebration. The crowds flood up from Arredondo, from Bustablado where not a single additional car will fit into the farmyards of the locals. Everyone is singing, smiling, some are drinking from wineskins, some are eating chocolates to stave off hunger. Further up there are even a couple of groups with barbecues, covering the grille with umbrellas so that the rain and fog don’t douse the flames. And there is also the sound of cars, motors straining at the steep inclines, horns honking as they try to pass through the thousands of fans. A boy of at most twelve attempts the climb on his mountain bike. The car of a guest passes him closely, very closely, making it impossible for him to pedal in comfort. In the end he has to dismount. If he wants to conquer the giant he will have to wait for another day. On the day of the Vuelta climbing without putting a foot down (to avoid a crash, for a traffic jam, to talk to someone you know) is almost an impossibility.
As we rise, less and less is visible. There is fog, clouds so low they leave woolly traces on the treetops and gather around the mountaintops. Sometimes it rains, sometimes the humidity is enough to soak your arms, your skin. Watching a mountain stage takes time. You arrive at the mountain and make your own way up (on a bike, in a car, on the bus, on foot). As you ascend you take photographs mentally, looking for the right spot to watch the professionals go by. There is a tough hairpin corner, but from above it we can hardly see the road. This straight is long, but it’s a false flat. Here – here is the perfect spot. Look at the view, look at the loops of grey asphalt in the distance. Perfect. Then it’s just a question of waiting. For hours – sometimes, many hours. Most of us are shivering.
The roadsides are full of people, full of stories. At times I think the wind has made me crazy: there are trees that seem to be growing cycling jerseys instead of leaves, stones covered in socks and baselayers, all spread out to dry. Everyone is trying to get warm. Some look at their phones, talk to their colleagues (who they likely did not know until a few moments ago), cheer the appearance of the publicity caravan, sip at soft drinks without much enthusiasm. Today Los Machucos, the place where silence is king, is filled with voices speaking French, English, Italian, German, Danish or Dutch. Maybe the cows, listening quietly, are surprised at these strange noises.
Next to me is a man wearing a short-sleeved jersey and bibshorts; no arm-warmers, no rain jacket, and nothing warmer than a huge Colombian flag in which he wraps himself, shivering with what is presumably not patriotic fervor. Every so often as the team cars pass he shouts a word of encouragement. Come on Fabio Duarte! We believe in you Jarlinson Pantano! But he soon returns to a mute chattering of teeth and the occasional bit of jogging on the spot in an attempt to keep warm. I speak to him. He tells me is with an organized tour, following the Vuelta and riding the last few kilometres of each stage on his own bike (pointing out an expensive model leaning on the barrier). He says he has never been so cold; in Colombia he lives on the beach, on the Caribbean, with the warmest seas in the region. This is why I’m not used to wrapping up warm, he says. And he tries again to make his flag serve as a winter coat. A few hundred metres away the locals have built a small improvised bar, with four pieces of plastic serving as walls and three chairs. I climb to it, buy two coffees, one for me and one for the Colombian. When I return his face is livid purple. He thanks me, still shivering, and wraps his hands around the cup. For a moment I think he is going to spill it. On the way I spot the strangest jersey I will see today. It bears the logo of José Cuervo tequila in many colours, together with a picture of a bottle. Its wearer does not seem to feel the cold. Maybe that’s the trick, I think.
The Vuelta also transforms the landscape itself. It transports you to different places and different times. Where once there was just a stone hut, a shelter for shepherds, today there is a small bar full of people. There is a huge fridge connected to a generator, full of soft drinks and cold water. There is a coffee maker with capsules. There are plastic cups. Nothing else is needed. A few metres further along another building, an old grey block, serves as a makeshift shelter for a whole cycling club. It’s strange to see the fans in their brightly coloured clothes press against each other to squeeze into this humble shelter. It makes you think.
There is also a scene from a western, with the local farmers standing on the crests of the mountain like Comanches waiting for the cowboys. Except in reality they are the cowboys. It’s a muddle. Maybe it’s the altitude, or the cold, or the harshness of the climb that confuse the senses. I walk slowly and see two lads meet and greet each other in the middle of the road. One is carrying on his back a flag bearing a lábaru, [an ancient solar symbol that today serves to identify Cantabria]. The other is carrying an enormous bronze bell. To encourage the riders, no doubt. They embrace, smile, and the one with the flag asks after someone he knows. Answer: he’s down there, go on climbing and you’ll see him further up. It sounds like gibberish, a joke. I wonder whether I am dreaming. Then I remember the final kilometre of the stage, with the sudden descent. I get it now. You go up to get lower down.
It’s very cold.
You hear it before you see it. There in the distance, among the white mane of clouds sliding past. The roar, the clamour. So many voices, but a single sound. It’s like a wave slowly approaching – very slowly. At first there is just a red and black dot, then shapes and details start to form. The dark face, sallow, shrivelled by the daily effort of the race. Thin legs, with every tendon stretched to breaking point. And the white teeth, a grimace that will soon be seen no more, that will no longer traverse the mountains of half of Europe. Is it an expression of suffering? More like the face of a predator. Human beings, like all animals, show their teeth when they attack. He’s here. The applause, the cheering, the contorted faces, the expressions of wonder. He’s here. He passes. He’s gone. And that’s that.
The Vuelta a España of 2017 was Alberto Contador’s last major race. One of the most charismatic champions of his era, perhaps the last of the great attackers. Of course, there are areas of chiaroscuro in his professional career, reflecting the times and places cycling has been through over the same period. All that is forgotten when the emotion arrives, the supreme moment. When you feel the energy of so many people willing another on, the brutal discharge of howls, of applause, of energy directed at the emaciated man doubled over his bicycle. Later, yes, at home you can reflect on the positive test in 2010, the teams he raced with, his results. But there, in Los Machucos, none of that matters. The spectacle is too much.
Alberto Contador will not win in Los Machucos. His place as victor is taken by an Austrian named Denifl, one of those young riders who promised much in his early days only to have a modest professional career. It is his biggest win, no doubt about it. As for Alberto . . . it’s irrelevant. His great achievement of the Vuelta will be communion with the public, the adoration of the masses.
That afternoon he makes Froome suffer like never before. The leader reaches the finish line coughing, his face pale and drawn.
In truth, the only thing that is consistent from one day to the next is the cold. When you climb up to Los Machucos you should wrap up warm, because the area is treacherous. The green of the mountains and the grey of the fog that shrouds the peaks are also the same. The road is the same, the difficulty, the feeling of suffocation. The rest looks like a fiesta, as Paris looked to Hemingway. Tomorrow Los Machucos will go back to how it is the rest of the year. The last frontier, the kingdom of silence and tranquility. Tomorrow the cows will cross the asphalt unconcernedly, and the stream will whisper its stories, and if you’re lucky you’ll surprise a fox or a deer in the middle of the forest. There will be bells and wind and clouds. But that’s tomorrow. Today Los Machucos has dressed up for a party. The Vuelta came, at last.