Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride.
Mention the Tour de France to any Tom, Dick, or Harry and he will immediately have some sense of what you are talking about… whether he finds himself an avid cycling fan, a humble bike commuter, or some yokel in a local diner who can’t even ride a bike. This is the reach the Tour has cultivated and the prestige it continues to grow. But for those of us that work in the sport it also counts as just one of the three Grand Tours. Yep, that’s right, there are three.
Behind closed doors and in hushed offline conversations, many folks will agree – Everyone LOVES the Giro, Everyone HAS to do the Tour, and Nobody THINKS about the Vuelta.
So what happened in the evolution of Grand Tours that brought us to this point? There is no question that The Tour is The Tour. This exact statement can be overheard on so many occasions during the road cycling season that it often becomes laughable. Tired and wired journos in the press room, overworked photographers, under appreciated team staff, stressed-out riders: they may not all feel divine affinity for the Tour but they will all agree it is the pinnacle of the sport. Any other aspirations be damned.
And then you have the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España. All three Grand Tours have 21 race days with a similar classification ranking system, a ratio of mountain stages, flat stages, sprint finishes, and time trials, a circuitous and scenic route mapped through the host country’s many distinct regions, and the highest portion of UCI points available in the racing calendar. They all feature the world’s best riders within each technical specialty and solicit global media attention. They have more in common than their reputations might warrant.
Which makes one wonder how or why the Vuelta became the runt of the litter. I recently sat on an airplane next to a passenger who spent two and a half hours telling me all about his cycling adventures in 15 states, his experiences as a lifelong Chicago bike commuter, his debate about doping at the Tour, and his personal preferences for bike frames and saddles. He then asked me where our work was taking me next and when I said The Vuelta he said The What?
The Vuelta a España may be one of the most under valued races in all of cycling. Here’s why…
For one thing, this Grand Tour used to be held in April before the Giro d’Italia in May. It subsequently was moved to August/September when the World Road Championships got pushed to the fall; thereby, filling the gap in the racing calendar after the Tour. As a post-Tour, late-season race the Vuelta may have lost some of its significance by shear fact of having to follow the star attraction, the Tour de France.
Consequently, the dynamic of the Vuelta changed dramatically with this move (from the cold rain and snow of spring to the blistering heat of late summer) and ultimately changed the identity of the race.
Another factor that has continually plagued the Vuelta is the state of Spanish cycling as a whole. Struggling with lack of sponsors, ongoing doping investigations, and, frankly, the dire state of the Spanish economy the Vuelta has a massive mountain to conquer.
But when compared to the Tour – the fact of the matter is – the Vuelta is a hidden gem.
Although lacking all the big favorites of the Tour, the beauty of the Vuelta is that the riders come here to truly race. The competition is more exciting and dynamic than at the Tour – more akin to the notorious racing of the Giro. The overall favorites seem to race with more bravado, less apprehension, and more emotion than at the Tour. Perhaps it is their willingness to take more risks, perhaps it is the opportunity to save a rider’s season, perhaps it is as a tune-up to the Worlds. Perhaps it is one of the best ways for a younger, less accomplished rider to get noticed.
The Vuelta also offers such a diversity of terrain, from gorgeous coastline to iconic cultural landmarks to mountains that seem nearly unconquerable, that it has become a photographer’s paradiso.
Unique to the Vuelta, one will find the most relaxed atmosphere for the riders – normally under insane amounts of pressure, riders here can often be found smiling and genuinely engaging with fans and media.
For the spectators, the Vuelta offers an arms-reach access to their favorite athletes which is in stark contrast to the other Grand Tours. In the stage start towns, team buses will be literally swept up in a frenzy of excited fans and energy.
It could also be argued that this race launched the comeback of Lance Armstrong in 1998 after a fourth-place overall finish which may have validated his future Tour de France aspirations.
And who can leave out one of the most memorable aspects of being at a Grand Tour; what else, the food? Spain might possibly even take the prize on this over the Giro. Patatas Bravas, anyone?
And finally, well, it’s Spain. And who doesn’t love Spain?”