Vuelta Verdict

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Having looked at the racing and Alberto Contador’s victory yesterday, time to look at the race itself. It’s been a successful tour with big TV audiences, as you’ll see below. Were 10 summit finishes necessary? Was there a big contest for the points and mountains jersey? What can the Tour de France organisers ASO learn from this race?

Summit Fever
This was certainly a race for the mountain climbers with 10 summit finishes. These ranged from 10 minute ascensions where riders had to be caught after crossing the line to ski stations with big wide roads and so each brought something specific. But each time they tended to tease out the same result.

I’ve written about how thanks to the right gearing the steepest climbs are an almost arithmetic test of rider power to weight, divide one by the other and the highest score wins. So yes we got the same riders trying for the same result but because the climbs varied it did feel different. What we didn’t get was much steep climbing mid-stage or a descent to the finish line to vary the mix, most stages saw a succession of easier climbs before finishing up a wall.

TV Record
All that climbing certainly worked on TV. It had a maximum share of the TV audience of 21.5% with the Stage 20 and the Bola Del Mundo climb drawing in 2.6 million viewers in Spain, making it the the most viewed bike race in Spain since the Vuelta in 2004, an age when multi-channel television was limited. Overall half the Spanish population watched at least some of the race and on average it had 1.4 million viewers a day and over 10% of the viewing audience, making it the most watched edition of the race since 2006.

Natural High
If the Vuelta had so many uphill finishes it was because the race sought out extra climbs and roads and it’s something the Tour de France could reflect on. Many of the climbs were not above 1,500 metres above sea level, proving you don’t have to head to the high mountains and climb above the tree line for steep and selective roads.

A road waiting to be used

Beyond the Alps and Pyrenees the spread of TV, mobile telecoms and, increasingly, wind turbines mean many hills and ridges have small, surfaced roads to their peaks, for example Mont Tauch which sits beyond the eastern end of the Pyrenees but it’s one of many examples. These offer intense climbs and if there are logistical problems to get the race up and then back down these climbs, then the TV spectacle can outweigh the costs. On the money side, stages often finish in large ski resorts as they are happy to bid big for the privilege. But the audience figures mean an exciting finish is far more lucrative for the Tour and its sponsors. Used sparingly these finishes provide a thrill but without setting the overall classification in stone.

Bonus time
I can’t make up my mind on time bonuses. I like the way they force riders to sprint, rewarding the lively riders. But I don’t like the artifice they bring to the overall classification. Also they incentivise riders to save energy for the finish line instead of emptying the tank during the climb. I’m happy to see them in the Giro and Vuelta but equally happy they are not in the Tour.

Jersey Size
I also didn’t see a great contest for the other jerseys. Don’t get me wrong, Simon Clarke did a great job though, he started the year with a flat battery on his bike and rode a clever Vuelta to take the jersey and then defend his lead but it wasn’t a head-to-head duel. But the points jersey seems to be too closely correlated with the overall result. It is not a sprinter’s jersey but we didn’t seem to see much of a scrap until Valverde poached it on the last day.

Another issue with the jerseys is that the holder gets no reward ranking points. There is a daily cash prize or “rent” and it generates both publicity and pride. But no UCI points. The overall classification in Madrid gets UCI points of course but wearing the red jersey for many days earns no points, the same for the other jerseys. Worse, there is not a single ranking point for winning the points or mountains jersey competition. As often stated on here, ranking points are a currency in pro cycling and riders who win these prizes should perhaps get the economic prize to match the prestige of the jersey.

The Verdict
A successful race with some innovations. The organisers had plenty of climbing but ex-pro Abraham Olano ensured nothing too hard appeared too soon. For me this is a crucial lesson for other races, it is possible to have steep climbs in many cases so long as organisers have a “lite” finish line, perhaps with the media infrastructure and more located at the foot of the climb. Remember the Tour organisers ASO own half of the Vuelta and should pick up on this. It’s a way to ensure the first week is never just for the sprinters, that the battle for the overall lead should take place early and often.

But the Vuelta organisers can learn from others too. Take the points and mountains jerseys, they see too closely correlated with the race for the overall and if used right, can help to animate the moments when the big names are taking it easy. That said the organisers are probably very satisfied with the race and the strong TV audiences.

Either way that’s it for the grand tours in 2012 and we can project our thoughts to next year. It might seem a long time away but the 2013 Tour de France route is unveiled in six weeks’ time.

39 thoughts on “Vuelta Verdict”

  1. Another excellent review.
    i agree on the points jersey, but without a good Spanish sprinter they are unlikely to change the format…
    i think the race was designed for Purito and as i cant see Contador doing the race next year , I expect more steep gradients and little time trials….

  2. Truly a great race, but not visiting the south of the country must have riled some fans, perhaps smaller time bonuses and one less mountain top and one more TT would have made it a fairer (for the non mountain goats) race.

  3. Nice wrapup, no giddy claims of “best of the Grand Tours of 2012!” Dunno if I really WANT LeTour to end up with a format like this one, there’s something to be said for variety and I’d hate to see some of the monumental climbs get scrapped in favor of simply steep roads to nowhere. Finishes at the TOP of climbs? Yes. A balance of those vs chrono stages? Yes. Some variety in the first week vs mostly flat stages for sprinters? Yes. In the end I think it will take the return to prestige of winning the Vuelta or Giro (which I think began to happen this season) to make LeTour again a race to win rather than one not to lose. Maybe Il Pistolero’s return in 2013 (providing he avoids those steaks) will liven it up and take away some of the “scientific formula” racing we saw this year? No doubt that stuff is effective but it’s not much more exciting than watching paint dry. Of course I’m anticipating the route of La Corsa Rosa 2013, since this will be (almost) the first time we’ll bring some clients with us to watch a few stages.

  4. One positive aspect of the Vuelta course was the minimum number of massive crashes taking out contenders. Except for the time loss by Valverde, the race was won on the bike, not on the pavement.

  5. I like time bonuses on flat stages (gives the sprinters an early shot at a leader’s jersey), but not on mountain stages. Organizers should consider using bonuses on some but not all stages.

    I thought this Vuelta had too many summit finishes, but at least they avoided turning it into a death march like the 2011 Giro. I would have liked to see a couple of downhill finishes. The displays of both strength and strategy that Thor Hushovd used to win two downhill finishes in the 2011 Tour were particularly memorable, but those types of stages seemed completely absent from the 2012 Vuelta.

    Long range attacks like Contador’s of course always make for great racing. If organizers can come up with a format that encourages that (I don’t know how you would do that), I would be in favor of it.

    • Surely time bonuses on mountain stages encourage long range attacks and stages which are ridden to the end, and not just until a comfortable time gap is established?

    • It probably have to be Contador (tendency to attack) in his current situation (no UCI point, desperate for a win) to be able to (or having any appetite for) such feat (folly if he failed).

      So there’s probably nothing the race organisers can do (course-design-wise) to repeat the effect. Probably Contador himself wouldn’t have done it in any other year.

      Climbs in themselves are definitely good, but there needs to be a variation of them: long gradual/ short punchy, early part of the race/a short decent from a finish/finish. So the problem with this Vuelta wasn’t the climbs but to have more or less the same type of climbs everyday.

  6. Good call on making the secondary jerseys worthwhile – in a rather moribund TdF, I personally found Voeckler’s battle for the KOM jersey gave some life to a race that NEEDED it.

  7. I thought La Vuelta was excellent overall, and in recent years has done so much to improve. It is such an underrated tour. Good point about the race staying solely in the north, however there was little complaining from the riders with regards to transfers. This is critical, as in order to improve the prestige of the race, you need the best riders and to do this you need to attract them year after year.
    It was also good to see an innovative start and TT. Excellent crowds throughout really give an atmosphere to the race.
    Perhaps less brutal summit finishes to entice more contenders for the overall early on. The return to the Basque country and Barcelona is another good move.
    Good way to finish the grand tour season after the ruthless efficiency of Sky nullified Le Tour.

  8. I very much liked this Vuelta with more focus on climbing which gave a chance to riders like Purito to go for GC. Similarly the Giro which is again more for the climbers. Tour was decided, as it appeared but not entirely true, by 100K of time trialing which definitely doesn’t make for a spectacle but is still good racing.

    I enjoyed all the Tours this year and I don’t blame ASO for the chosen parcours. If Contador, Cadel (in top form) had been there, they would have pushed Wiggo and Team Sky both in TT and the mountains. The point made by Inrng that wearing a classification jersey for a day should carry UCI points is great. It will incentivize the riders to go for those sprints and mountain points which is good for audience.

    A very good wrap of the Grand Tour season. Thank you Inrng for covering them all and much more.

    • The Combination jersey wouldn’t have been a wast of time if they’d used something like the old TDF Combo jersey – the coolest jersey of all time.

  9. I am not too sure about the “positive” feedback given by most of the readers to this Vuelta. After all, the scenarios where not so different to any other grand Tour: Most of the flat stages will finish in a bunch sprint and the mountain stages will see the battle of the GC contestants in the last ascent. This is how pro cycling has developed in the last years and there are only very few exceptions to the rule. This set up makes the racing very predictable and (sorry) boring. Of course, you must mention Contadors gutsy attack far from the finish that shook up the GC, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
    Interestingly, in Junior or U233 races, its the other way around, as such scenarios as seen on the famous Contador stage are the rule rather than the exception (just look at the results of last weeks Regio Tour, one of the major Junior stage races). This is mainly because teams are smaller and therefore unable to fully control a race. So in my view, its much more promising to change the number of team members for each team for a grand Tour from 9 to 5 or 6 and invite 2 or 3 more teams than to discuss course design.
    And don t forget the riders in the Grupetto, who have to drag themselves up these endless climbs every day, when Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez all already under the shower.. They are not in a good and healthy condition after this 3 week ordeal!

    • Races are looking at smaller teams, the Tour de France boss Prudhomme has even said he likes it.

      The trouble is that the existing teams don’t want this, they like being able to control the sport and don’t want to spend millions on a leader only to see him flounder because of a puncture or a crosswind.

      • But it’s race organisers who should run the show here. Every race is an organiser’s initiative and responsibility. Teams and riders can choose whether to participate or not, but races must do what they think best for themselves. (Tip for the TdF: think “what would Henri Desgrange say if he saw this?”)

  10. I agree with most of the piece, but would like to call on the Vuelta to introduce a young rider jersey. It always adds some interest for the younger GC men and can add a bit of spice to the fight for lower places in the top 10.

      • Easy – the combination jersey. I might be wrong, but the holder of this jersey didn’t wear it at all during the race.

        This year was also the first time since 2003 that the winner of the GC didn’t win combination as well (Valverde on both occasions I believe). What is the point of that?

        • The rule limiting the number of jerseys is a piece of nonsense. Can somebody explain why it’s there and it’s not removed? The combined classification used to mean something when there was another jersey for intermediate sprints (used to be red in the TdF, grey in the Vuelta), so that the combined classification would ranked well in climbing and sprinting, or else was contantly in breakaways and still had a good GC. Nowadays, in the Vuelta, the combination jersey gurantees its sponsor that a famous top rider will be wearing it. Contador won in Fuente Dé in this “Fertiberia” jersey, and I’m sure the fertilizer manufacturer was only too happy about that. That’s why I guess the jersey will continue the way it is.

          • Thats a good point, as far as the sponsor is concerned. As a sporting entity though, it’s a bit ridiculous that the person leading the rankings never actually wore the jersey on the road at any point during the tour.

  11. While I agree that the Vuelta was exciting overall… in the end. It was that way for 1 reason: Purito didn’t have the team depth to control the race like Sky did in the Tour. (I’m more and more convinced that smaller teams is the way to go to make racing more exciting overall)

    When you look at the first 2+ weeks of the race, it was mostly quite predictable that Purito would ambush everyone to take the bonus seconds at the end of a severe uphill sprint. Had SB-TB and Bertie not pulled a brilliant strategic move to exploit a weak Katusha team, then the whole race would’ve been that way.

    Not that I didn’t find it exciting. But as @vaughters said. It’s less about aerobic threshold and more about body weight and anaerobic power (Purito is light, so he goes up the very steep stuff faster).

    I also think that the GT organisers need to consider what some of the riders have been saying, in that some of the insanely brutal stages of the Giro and Vuelta can be what makes the riders consider doping just to be able to finish them.

    Overall. I think the Vuelta did a pretty good job this year. Some of the stages were great. The finish profile of the Barcelona stage was very good, for instance. But the finish of Cuitu Negru seems more like a freak show and less like a bike race *to me*.


    • Agree with the insanely steep finishes. The Bola finish on Saturday bordered on the outrageous.

      I also agree that there is a strong argument for 6/7 man teams in GTs. I mean, Sky did an impeccable job in Le Tour, but it hardly made for exciting racing. Make it harder to control the race. As well, less riders per team = possibly more teams and hence more happy sponsors?

  12. I felt La Vuelta was quite entertaining. I do agree with others that a descending alpine finish was lacking. It gives the escape artists and descenders an opportunity to shine. The battle for the GC, Points and Combo jersey was fun as well. I would recommend double points on the last climb to equalize the KoM between guys in the breaks and the finishers.

    Kudos to the Vuelta nad Giro organizers for creating exciting and entertaining races. The only excitement in the Tour was whether or not the breaks would succeed.

    • Hate to break it to you, but if the first two are dopers and the third guy is just a few seconds behind…………..

      Unless, of course, you have specific, detailed knowledge about how he’s never taken drugs, even when he is away from your side.

      • Let’s assume they are now racing clean.

        Perhaps I should have called them ex-dopers, but I haven’t read much of Valverde’s contrition, and Contador doesn’t even acknowledge his guilt, does he?

  13. Not sure if there is an official prize money list for this years Vuelta, but I have put together my own list. Can’t guarantee it’s 100% accurate, but it’s a decent enough look at the prize payouts attributed by rider, team and nation.

  14. It should be underlined that the two most interesting and decisive stages in this Vuelta were a crosswinds/echelon stage and a mid-mountain stage.
    I think words like “sparingly” or “variation” are the clue here. A GT should have enough of everything: enough mileage, both in TT, flat and uphill; mountain-top finishes (steep and not steep); mid-stage decisive mountains; important descents; then everything falls in the right shape. If the climbs are not concentrated at the end of stages, and if the majority of stages do not finish uphill, then the 3 main jerseys do not correlate so hardly. But they should correlate, and not be devalued, and be always won by top-20 riders. No one should be surprised at Valverde winning a green jersey, it is very natural: the guy is very regular. But it should certainly earn UCI points (and quite a few!). I just don’t see why it doesn’t. Somebody explain.
    Reducing team size also seems the way to go. 2010 Giro, 2011 TdF, 2012 Vuelta… I think (much to some riders and DS’ dismay) young audiences are beginning to suspect that cycling is not necessarily what they had been told “modern cycling” is about.
    And let’s do away with those radios and output and HR monitors!

  15. On the subject of UCI points for classification leaders, having read the Tour of Britain regs this morning, that race awards points on the UCI Continental Tour for the following:

    8 points to the daily leader of the General Classification by time

    If this can be done on the UCI Continental Tour, why can’t it be done on the World Tour? Another head scratching moment… I much prefer the IG Markets Index and CQ Rankings, who acknowledge daily leaders for GC, points and mountains.

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