This question was raised three years ago as the tour of Spain seemed aloof on the calendar, an uncertain event. With hindsight the race was at a turning point but as ever it is good, even healthy, to question established practices so let us review this race once more, an event that doesn’t have the history of its French and Italian cousins and in recent times its future has been in doubt but now the race seems to have found its niche.
Obviously the race is here to lap Spain. But the perpetual problem has been that the Vuelta has been the third grand tour and in more than one way. First the modern calendar slot with a start in August since 1995 it means it’s the third grand tour of the year and by now season fatigue for riders and fans alike can set in meaning energy and interest can be harder to come by.
It’s the third grand tour in terms of history too with its inaugural edition in only 1935. Spain’s Franco era didn’t seem to hit the race, the country may haven been isolated politically but the Vuelta has long been an international race open to the likes of Anquetil, Poulidor, Gimondi, Janssen and of course Merckx. If anything the race became more Spanish in recent times when viewed by the list of winners. But even if it’s been going for ages it’s not entered cycling’s collective conciousness in the same way the Tour and Giro have. The Vuelta lacks the mythology associated with other races. Can you name a famous climb from the Vuelta? The likes of the Angliru and Covadongas come to mind but can you name five or ten? Probably not but many readers could probably name ten or twenty climbs from the Tour and Giro. If the Giro has the Cima Coppi, the Vuelta has… the Cima Alberto Fernández, a rider you’ve probably not heard of. Similarly can you name an anecdote from the past about the Vuelta? Perhaps one or two come to mind but the race doesn’t have the same cultural mythology and shared stories that is so important to anchoring the Tour and Giro as socio-cultural events above and beyond a mere bike race. Similarly there are very few books about the Vuelta outside of Spain, only “Viva La Vuelta” by Farron and Bell comes to mind.
One recent feature of the Vuelta has been a training race where those aiming for the world championships would take part for, say, two weeks before leaving after accumulating plenty of racing hours and perhaps a few test efforts. This was never a great advert, a grand tour as a glorified training camp, a means to and end. It seems no longer the case or it least it is greatly reduced but this can have as much to do with the Worlds route namely the relatively flat course in Doha last year and Bergen this year mean a mountainous stage race is no use, we’ll might see things differently ahead of the hard Innsbruck course next year.
Many are at the Vuelta to win but can you find a rider who starts in the season in January or February talking about their prime goal being a Vuelta win? It’s very rare, if not unheard of and if Froome “favorites” on Twitter the Vuelta route the moment it comes out for many contenders the Vuelta is a bookend to the season, a last minute decision for Contador, an entry that is confirmed relatively late by Bardet or the consequence of riding the Giro for the likes of Nibali. Similarly many riders recon Giro and Tour stages but how often do you see riders share images of Vuelta recons on social media? It’s rare, signalling a more relaxed approach.
This leads us to one of the most fascinating aspects of the Vuelta, a grand tour to save the season for some. 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.” This still holds and if it’s not as noble a motivation it can make for more interesting stories.
One purpose in recent years is to create a TV spectacle with the repeated summit finishes there are as many in the Vuelta as there are in the Giro and Tour combined. This is a race made for TV with regular contests between the main contenders and all often on short stages, there are only three stages over 200km and just with the longest day being 207km. There’s a problem sometimes with the production but the coverage is almost exclusively about the race, there are few lingering shots of castles although that’s in part because of Spain’s geography, history and landscapes.
This all points to a race with a future. It might not have the historical resonance but it means there’s less baggage and expectations, a blank canvas to paint and a race to enjoy in the moment, a race of immediate action.
The Vuelta can’t change its calendar slot and so will suffer as “the third race” where those who start with other goals in the Giro or Tour or even elsewhere come for their own reasons Spain. But the variety of their motivations can only make the race more interesting, a lucky dip with stories of revenge, redemption and failure. The recent tend of many star riders to compete has boosted the race and if Chris Froome wins this year it’ll only heighten interest in the race and convince more in the peloton, especially those who ride the Tour, to double up at the Vuelta.