The Vuelta a España enjoys a reputation and a privileged status all while being an elusive event. It lacks obvious preparation races to get the audience warmed-up and if it has a rich history a lot of its best stories are not well known just as it lacks obvious focal points, in the collective conciousness of cycling fans there’s no Spanish equivalent of the Stelvio or Tourmalet.
French website Velochrono pointed out that a decade 23 of the first 25 finishers in the Vuelta were Spaniards. Now it’s all so different with an international cast. In recent years the race has become a “revenge race”, the chance to make amends for a Giro or Tour that didn’t work out and also used as a training race by some for the World Championships. Spain’s grand tour might rank third out of three but it’s one of the three greatest stage races of the year.
The Tour de France needs little explanation being the summit in terms of prestige, reputation, popularity and money. It wins on almost every metric. The Giro d’Italia is harder to define but if it comes second on many scores it’s also first, starting in May and the first grand tour to grab our attention, sitting at the point where spring turns to summer and the landscape is fresh and green and it’s a race laden with history and charm.
In his autobiography Charly Wegelius likens the Vuelta to “the crew of a pirate ship“, full of weary and unmotivated riders looking to redeem a season, “either riders didn’t want to be there or they were desperate to perform.” It’s true the Vuelta offers a tale of revenge, the chance to make amends for misfortunes earlier in the season. But is revenge too strong a word? It could simply be repêchage for stage racers, a second chance in a season. For some it’s even more, notably Joaquim Rodríguez who crashed out of the Giro while already racing with a broken rib, went to the Tour with goals for stage wins only to find the podium was open were he in form and now he’s left to salvage something in the Vuelta.
This “second chance” role is cemented by the Vuelta’s spot on the calendar. Few want to attempt the Giro-Tour double so those who have aimed for the Giro will take a rest before rebuilding for the Vuelta, think Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Urán, Cadel Evans, Dan Martin, Fabio Aru and Wilco Kelderman.
To return to Wegelius, motivation is a big deal. Anyone who had a great Giro might struggle to apply themselves. As Velochrono points out the last three winners of the Vuelta (Juan-José Cobo, Alberto Contador and Chris Horner) have succeed after invisibility and even ineligibility during the season, the triumph of outsiders.
It has more roles. Some treat it as a training race for the World Championships making it the only grand tour that’s regularly used as a means to an end, it is rare for anyone to use the Tour or Giro for training. The “glass half empty” view is to lament the use of a grand tour as a mere training event for a one day race while the “glass half full” aspect sees it all the better than some riders start the Vuelta when they’d otherwise not, for example this year’s race can only be improved by the presence of Philippe Gilbert and Peter Sagan.
It’s also a development race for young riders. The Giro fulfils this role too, a chance to test riders over three weeks. We’ll see Warren Barguil, Adam Yates and Michael Valgren tested in different ways, Barguil will try team leadership while others explore the idea of three weeks of racing for the first time. For others often at later stage in their career it’s a jobs fair with riders needing to prove their worth to secure a contract renewal.
So far, so many different roles for riders and this means different ways to view the race. But viewing the race matters as much as riding it, without an audience there’d be no race. It could be season fatigue as races become harder to watch. Repucom is a marketing agency and counts the total audience of races for the UCI. The Tour de France has a “cumulative audience” of 1,981 million compared to 503 million for the Giro and 269 million for the Vuelta. Without getting too tied up on methodology the Tour has a lot of hours of live broadcast but also reaches a wider audience via TV news bulletins and more.
The third grand tour
The Vuelta’s calendar position ensures that it is the third grand tour in the chronology of the season but this is a recent concoction with the race starting late in the season only in 1995. Prior to this it started late in April. But it’s long been third in other ways, for example it was the third grand tour to get going as it started in 1935 only to get stopped by Spain’s civil war then WWII and a period of absence between 1950 and 1955. It’s tempting to view the race in the light of Spain’s isolation under the Franco dictatorship but La Vuelta became an international event from the start (the first winner was Belgian) but during the Franco era the race was regularly ridden by foreign stars and won by the likes of Jacques Anquetil, Raymond Poulidor, Roger Pingeon, Jan Janssen, Felice Gimondi and inevitably Eddy Merckx. If the Vuelta is a training race today it fulfilled the same function in the past too, a grand tour to get under a rider’s belt in between the spring classics and the Tour de France.
There’s also a French touch to the race. The event is now owned by ASO and features a range of French sponsors such as Carrefour and Cofidis and the maillot rojo is supplied by French firm Le Coq Sportif.
The slipstream of history
Name a legendary Vuelta stage. It’s not so easy. Should you have one in mind, few have stuck in the collective conscience of cycling fans outside of the Iberian peninsula. By contrast the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia are constantly making references to the past and at times no mountain pass can be scaled without references to Hinault, Gaul, Garin, Coppi. If the Giro has the Cima Coppi, the Vuelta the Cima Alberto Fernández, a rider you’ve probably not heard of.
In fact the French and Italian races have helped to define their national geography, names like Galibier and Stelvio are familiar to national populations because of the race. The reputations extend abroad, travel companies do a tidy business shepherding cyclists over these mountains but few seem to operate out of Spain, there isn’t the same demand to climb up to the Lagos de Covadonga or tackle the Angliru – only scaled for the first time in 1999. Most cyclists visiting Spain go to Majorca or Calpe for training rather than to ride the famous roads. The leader’s jersey, often essential to the iconography, has changed eight times between orange, white, yellow, gold and red.
Adios grand tour?
There’s talk of scaling the race back from three weeks but it’s just a whisper for now. The risk is Gulliver goes to Aigle, the Vuelta could go from third among giants to first among more Lilliputian contests. There’s plenty to enjoy in the Tour de Suisse or Dauphiné but once a race loses its status it’s hard to recover it.
What’s the point of the race? This isn’t a rhetorical wisecrack, more to wonder where the race sits in the sport. Three weeks of racing for a start. The 2014 route is being adjusted to provide something for everyone with summit finishes, time trials, sprint stages and several uphill ramps for puncheurs. This year’s race is packed with star names too. Yet somehow the chemistry isn’t quite there. One hindrance is a lack of races in the approach, there’s Vuelta a Burgos opposed to the pre-Tour and pre-Giro races like the Dauphiné and Tours of Romandie and Trentino: we haven’t got much to go on.
The history is a curious point, Spain has produced many champions but the Vuelta’s legend isn’t the same as the Giro or Tour whether in terms of famous stages or locations. But what if this this is also an opportunity, a chance to reinvent itself without constant references to the past? Being third is not being last because on a calendar is packed with races. The race outranks many others and the sheer length is something to enjoy and celebrate.
It’s an elusive race meaning different things to different riders, a rematch for some and a last chance for others, three weeks to make amends for a year that’s not gone to plan. For others it’s a pre-Worlds training camp, a jobs fair or an obligation. For viewers the audiences are down. With this year’s field of galaticos it’ll be interesting to see if the audiences follow the celebrities.