What’s The Point of the Vuelta?

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.

69 thoughts on “What’s The Point of the Vuelta?”

    • It’s often the recent editions that come to mind, which is sort of my point, the race has a blank canvas now to make it’s own history. There seem to be few stages from further back have entered into legend, there are some but there not cited as much.

      • Very true. From a spectator’s point of view last year’s was probably the most exciting racing for GC given the comparative dominance of Nibali and the Giro and Froome in the Tour. While I came around to your view that this year’s Tour was a cracker providing you ignored Nibali and just concentrated on the race for the minor placings I’m still hoping for some good battles on the slopes and in the time trials for the leader’s jersey.

        Also maybe the audience will be bigger this year as Froome and Contador are far bigger names than Horner and pre-Tour winning Nibali.

  1. How about that Robert Millar stage where they “stole” the Vuelta stage from him? It’s the only Vuelta stage before 1999 I can think of.

      • For Colombians, the 1987 Vuelta stands out. That victory by Lucho Herrera was, until recently (hello, Nairo!) Colombia’s only GT win and made Lucho an even bigger national hero. It is widely seen as an impressive victory (and it is) though people forget that Sean Kelly was in the lead after the final TT and had to abandon due to saddle sores. Also not as widely known is the fact that Herrera wasn’t targeting the race at the time. He was using it for training even though back then it was the first GT on the calendar. Someone I know spoke to Herrera at victory party at the Colombian embassy in Spain and he said that Lucho told him he had dropped a Betancurian 11 kilos during the race. Nuts, right?

        Then there are the allegations made by the late Laurent Fignon about Colombians paying him not to attack in the final stages. Still, for people growing up in Colombia in the 80s, this victory was incredible

  2. There seems to be huge anticipation for this years Vuelta, not just amongst the aficionados but also amongst those who have little interest in cycle racing outside the Tour. I wonder if the main stream media will pick up on this and give the race a lot better coverage than in previous years.

  3. I may be one of only a few, but I actually look forward to the Vuelta much more than the Giro. I think it’s the fact that it is isolated in the Calendar, without the same build up races or standard preparation that makes the outcome that more unknown and fascinating.

    • I’d also count myself among those few, John.

      The complexity and breadth of stories is half the appeal of the Tour, but I quite like the simplicity of the Vuelta. Some years it can seem like there’s general classification action every day, so it’s very easy to follow.

      I like an uphill finish as well. Mountain passes can be a bit pedestrian, but the shorter climbs they seek out for the Vuelta demand a bit more oomph. And who doesn’t like a bit of oomph?

      • Check the parcours out for this year. I think that will make the race! They are persisting with shorter stages and plenty of uphill finishes that aren’t brutal (unlike what you have in the Giro or Tour) and can be actually raced. Perhaps then the best racer will win instead of the guy with the best recovery through successive high mountain days. We shall see what happens, but the field is the best in a GT in some time so I’m excited about the race!

  4. To be honest, I think the TdF being so fun to watch this year helps this edition of the Vuelta. People want to see the riders again they enjoyed watching at the TdF and they want to see how the riders that didn’t make it to Paris bounce back. It is a huge chance for the Vuelta.

  5. I’m from Spain so I might have a different idea of “legendary” means for cycling as a whole (it’s my home Grand Tour after all, the only race I’ve been regularly following since I was a little child) but I think there are a few very special moments worth mentioning:

    1) Pedro Delgado “stealing” the 1985 Vuelta from Robert Millar’s hands in the last mountain stage, with the help of every other spaniard in the peloton (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1985_Vuelta_a_Espa%C3%B1a). Maybe not the best example of sportmanship, but a HUGE a day of cycling. The most legendary moment in Vuelta history, if you ask me.

    2) Bernard Hinault winning the 17th stage to Avila in the 1983 Vuelta, showing his prevalence over the whole peloton but specially over the former leader, a young Julián Gorospe, who lost more than 20 minutes to The Badger that day (http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vuelta_a_Espa%C3%B1a_1983)

    3) This is only for the numbers as I wasn’t even born then, but I think that Freddy Maertens’ sweep of the 1977 Vuelta is also remarkable (http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vuelta_a_Espa%C3%B1a_1977). The guy won GC (he actually wore the leader jersey every single day during the race), 13 stages (look mum! a not-from-eddy-merckx cycling record!) and the points jersey.

    Do you consider this moments as “legendary” for cycling… or are just my personal favorites about a race I’ve been following for a long time? (not a rethorical question, I’m really interested in the answer)

  6. A wonderful piece on a race I love dearly (I love all of ’em). Contador’s challenge two years back made for some exciting racing which was some what dampened last year. I believe that in the future Vuelta could be used to groom young GC riders and 2014 could be a watershed moment.

  7. I feel that part of the problem is you keep getting Vuelta “champions” like Horner and Cobo. It’s hard to feel great about them now, even though that one Cobo/Froome slugfest stage (was it Angliru?) was one of the most exciting I’ve ever watched.

  8. Certainly 3rd on my list of the Grand Tours, but so what? LeTour is always going to be the biggest, the Giro always the best, but just behind those two isn’t such a bad place. Without so much history and heritage ASO (sad that they had to take over to save it) is free to fiddle with the format in search of something that will interest the fans. They got a gift this year with so many top contenders showing up. I hope they make the most of it, while Spanish cycling could use a boost as well.

    • I have to say the Vuelta is the best of the three tours since it is normally the most difficult in terms of climbing and climate and you have relative no names in the sport winning. The Giro is 2nd best because of its difficulty and generally good bouts by Italians gunning for the top spot and the prestigious ascents and potential for awesome racing for people to make a name for themselves. Le Tour is the best in terms of big names and everyone in thier peak form, but the terrain isnt as difficult as the other two grand tours.

  9. I think Pologne has a similar role to the Vuelta as Romandie has to the Giro. The real preparation races are Trentino and Burgos. The last two Giro winners who rode Romandie (Hesjedal and Basso) didn’t do much there.

    • How about last years Horner/Nibali duel ?

      The Leaders Jersey changed hands just about every climbing stage.

      This year promises to be even better with a star studded line up and some really good climbing. Too bad we will not have the Pyrnees this year.

      As to a lack of prep races: AC used the the Eneco in 2012. But typically guys will ride San Sebastian and Burgos. Utah seems to be the hot prep race now. After Chris Horner parlayed it into a Vuelta title. This year saw Cadel Evans, Wilco Kelderman, Moreno Hofland, Horner, and Winner Anacona come sleep, train and race at altitude. Then a thirteen day layoff before the Vuelta seems to be the new formula for winning the Climbers GT.

      • Good points on the Tour of Utah. Some time is spent between 10,000 and 11,000 ft in elevation
        (11,000 feet = 3353 kilometers) and in the heat, as Anonymous said. Utah has some very steep climbs and most of the week is spent between 1829 and 2473 kilometers. Great pre-Vuelta lung work. Horner finished 2nd on GC @ + 52. And Cadel Evans showed he still has some punch left in his legs, winning Stage 6 and 7.

        Evans has stated that he will likely retire if his Vuelta doesn’t go well. I don’t know if he has what it takes to win a GT any longer, given his competition. But he’ll give 150% for BMC.

        With a smorgasbord of GC riders competing, a few should animate this race like we may not have seen this season. I think this could be THE Grand Tour of the season, barring the usual incidents that take riders out.

  10. I think it did not help that Spain had quite an undeveloped road network until the mid-eighties and early nineties, not many roads and in quite a state until then. I know because I used to experience them.

    I would say Lagos de Covadonga is definitely the Vuelta’s traditional climb. And it is a shame that they have not gone to the Canaries yet as a stage in Tenerife and up the Mt Teide would definitely dwarf the Stelvio or the Galibier or at least put them in their place.

  11. ‘Three of the same’ is simply one too many. The Giro gets the nod due to the calender position. Therefore, I think the wise thing for the Vuelta is to make it a race that appeals to the most talent possible with short stages, short transfers, and excellent accommodations. (Very possible as the Euro tourism is just wrapping up now and rates are much lower during the Vuelta). Also, Spain is so vast and empty, I think it wise to concentrate on a certain corner of the country each year with the final stampede to Madrid. That way each region is more intimately displayed instead of the passing notion in the present format.

    • I agree with you on the concentrating the stages in a certain area. I disagree with you on the vuelta having a final sprint stage in madrid. Even though the tour ends with a final sprint into paris, I do not think that this is something that the ASO should transplant elsewhere. The only reason that the final stage into paris is remotely interesting is that you have the best healthy sprinters in the world. When you are watching the b level sprinters, who make it through the vuelta, do battle in a straightforward stage, I don’t think it is very interesting. I would much rather see a short time trial, such as this year, or something even more interesting.

  12. The Vuelta is my favorite GT precisely because we get all these guys totally desperate to salvage something from their season, either because the Giro or TDF hasn’t gone to plan or because they need to land a new contract for next year.

  13. I know it’s only very recent, but riders discuss Tour of Utah as good prep. The reports I read claimed the altitude and heat are good practice for the Vuelta.

    Wasn’t the Vuelta a Burgos always a prep race?

      • In the conclusion you also said: “One hindrance is a lack of races in the approach”

        Wait a moment…really? You’ve also pointed out that far from being a lull in the season, August has the most racing days of any month. This week there were also big-name riders (not all for the Vuelta of course) in l’Ain, Norway and the Eneco Tour (which as a World Tour race, ought to have ALL big names, but we know that’s not how it works). So it’s not that there are not enough races, perhaps there too many for a dedicated cycling fan, let alone a casual one, to follow – attention divided is attention lost. And for the riders there’s a smorgasbord of choice for those who need more racing kilometers this late in the season – the focus on specific preparation in the spring and before the Tour (for the riders who only train) is more obvious.

        Also, I must admit I found this post a little thin on account of being a bit full of ‘evergreens’ about the Vuelta rather than new insights. I’d be curious to know what you think ASO might do to put its stamp on the race. Personally, I thought the parcours’ for Paris-Nice, the Dauphine and the Tour all contributed to the recipe for exciting racing and viewing – we discussed the ‘alchemy’ of their methods previously, you pointed out exploiting local geography to provoke racing rather than just a war of attrition. And the Vuelta has tried some ‘innovations’ recently, like the nighttime TTT (an ASO idea like the sunset Champs Elysees?).

        And what if it became a two-week race (and why aren’t there two-week races in the first place)? Like the penchant for shorter stages, perhaps ‘grand’ tours could be shorter…I know, blasphemy! But as you rightfully point out, ‘tradition’ is a rather flexible term when it comes to the Vuelta in particular and cycling in general. Some of the races that are currently 1-week could step up, be spread evenly and predictably throughout the calendar – say, 5 ‘grand’ tours…Italy, France, Spain, Germany (now we’re really dreaming, right?) and a rotating 5th (a southern hemisphere / warm weather locale during European winter).

        We’ve seen a lot of new and interesting names winning or emerging this season, are torches being passed? I hope we’ll get your insight in a race preview.

        • It’s more we don’t get many races with a summit finish. There’s Burgos and Utah but only a small share of the field is riding these races, with many other races riders are split and those who’ve done the Tour aren’t racing. It means we don’t get many early comparisons. For example anticipation of the the Froome / Contador duel came about because of the excellent Dauphiné.

  14. I was in northern Spain recently and we stayed in a tiny village called Valmeo. It is on the route of stage 14. I mentioned this to the lady who looked after our apartment – she didn’t know! In the nearby tourist town of Potes, there were no posters, no warnings of road closures, nothing at all in fact to indicate that a major bike race was passing through in a few weeks. Perhaps this gives an indication of how Spain views it own national bike race?

  15. Thanks for the great insights to a much under appreciated WTSR.

    As so many have pointed out it is the bit of Kaos which makes it a great race to watch. Many things can
    and will happen.

  16. The 2006 Vuelta was really good, too, and the Granada stage was quite spectacular. Anyway, it’s a recent edition, indeed.
    El Teide is hard, but you should climb more than one side to compete with Stelvio and Galibier 🙂
    It would be perfectly possible to draw a very testing mountain stage with a normal length and a couple (or more) of different Teide climbs.
    Recently, the Vuelta was about to visit Canary Islands, they were talking about it in 2011.. 2012… 2013… but finally there wasn’t enough money (or, maybe, the right amount of political accord). In 2012 even Contador insisted that the Vuelta should go there, just as in 1988. Will 2018 be the right year?

  17. Can anyone suggest a book about the history of the Vuelta? My bookshelves buckle under books about the Tour and the Giro but I have as yet been unable to find anything about the third GT- are there any?

  18. As a long time lover of pro racing, the Vuelta has always been perhaps my favourite 3 week race. Not like Le Tour or the Giro which have their own unique list of attributes. The Vuelta has its own character and to sit down in front of the box at the end of another British “summer” and watch a full stage across those dusty plains is just my sort of thing, I love it and have loved it over the years. Long live the Vuelta.

  19. I though the Vuelta was super exciting for the last two years. The Giro was great, too. Better then the hyperbola of the Tour in some important ways. I know how unthinkably idiotic. Everyone loves the Tour. Do they really? I mean really? Crashes, politics, endless commercials? Riders being at their best form does not mean the best racing… finishing and mountaintops form means a great deal unless you’re in a breakaway or lucky. I prefer my drama in the race not in the recycled press conferences. I think the Vuelta is really important. Same with the Giro. Not everyone is going to win stages or the overall in the Tour. What a concept. Professional cycling would die without other super challenging races for rising and falling stars, not to mention the resurrections of careers for domestiques and second tier riders. It is incumbent on the UCI, ASO and RCS to continue to make the Giro and Vuelta thrive. How many millions is a flagrant attempt to portray these races as utterly unimportant. Give us some real numbers like the cobblestones and the rest. Make the number mean something by ignoring the Tour, and comparing activity per day and per type of stage. The Tour is a bloated beast that should only be compared to other international events.

    • I completely agree with SusanJane! Vuelta and Giro are better overall races with The Mosquera vs Nibali battle up the Bolo Delmundo. Cobo vs Froome a couple years back? Mosquera vs Contador? Vuelta and Giro have three times the excitement of the Tour. When in the tour have you seen 3 members of the same team with a favorite in the group breakaway on a descent and work together on an otherwise unassuming day become a stage for the jersey? Only in the Giro and Vuelta. Better races and more exciting more breakaways and such!

  20. Lance Armstrong effectively “boycotting” the other GTs throughout his career probably meant both Giro and Vuelta were relegated in the eyes of his supporters/sponsors. If Lance didn’t feel they were big enough to ride then ‘who cared’ sort of thing. Both suffered during his “boom years”.

    The Giro has really got it’s act together over the past few years – Acquarone can probably take most of the credit for that, realising that in order to thrive it had to stop navel gazing and become more global at the expense of a home victory every year. It’s really found its voice/brand and has begun mining its quite considerable history. Ask anyone in Ireland about the Giro now, people who know nothing about cycling know a lot about the Giro – well done. That’s the challenge/road-map for the Vuelta.

    Having a Grand Tour slap bang in the middle of holiday accounts for the spike in viewing figures and the popularity of the the Tour. The earlybird got the worm in terms of prime calendar position, everything inevitably gravitates around it – for good or bad.


      • Hard to say if the Vuelta and Giro would be in better positions today – financially/public recognition – if Armstrong had ridden them. Most of North America (non cycling fanatics) aren’t aware of any cycling events outside of the Tour.
        While it was/is hugely embarrassing having a blank podium from 99-05, Festina, Rasmussen, Contador, Landis… the Tour proved that it’s bigger than any 1 rider – though for a decade it looked like it was in real danger?

        It’s debatable whether or not the Vuelta and Giro could have withstood a similar battering on such a global scale. Maybe Armstrong in not riding these events – shielded their misdemeanours from the larger viewing public. Who knows?

        The ‘last chance saloon’ nature of the Vuelta does make it very entertaining though.

  21. Not to change the subject (much), but my Inrng cap arrived today, the first day of the Pro Challenge. Perfect timing! And a great cap! I’ll wear it with pride when the boys ride into town on Thursday.

  22. Being the tour is the pinnacle of the sport for both athletes and sponsors… I’ve always thought it’d be cool for the trade team season to end with the tour and have nationals teams after, San Sebastián – Lombardi Running a World Cup omnium style event. I think this would create interest august-October for fans and avoid the weirdness of riders riding for teams they are leaving.

  23. Sad thing with its smaller presence is that it’s a great race for a spectator, usually the most entertaining/close grand tour of the season. I think it will be closely contested again, and a better field than the tour or giro. In many ways it would be a better showcase of the sport to the unitiated

  24. Spaniards cycling supporters are afraid of the possibility of the Vuelta begin in a 2-weeks race.
    Only a little people knows that in the past there were 4 Grand Tours: also the Portugal‘s Volta. But that race was reduced from 3 weeks to 2 weeks and then became and not important race. Now is a third-categoree european race.

    I think it‘s very important for the Vuelta to mantein the status of be 1 of the 3 Grand Tours forever.

  25. I love ‘La Vuelta’ just finishes my addiction for the year for all the GTR’s on the screen, just a pity here down under their only showing a few Live stages for us on SBS. This year is going to be a belter with some big names out for redemption from no shows during the TDF Vive La Vuelta

  26. Time to take them up Pico Veleta near Granada at over 3300 metres which would be do-able by September time, a potential of a classic stage.

  27. For a Grand Tour that little care about this post has brought up plenty of comments.

    Anyway, my view is that the more GTs the better, the same for cycling teams, the more races, the more teams, the healthier the sport is, from the point of view of the viewer, of the pro-cyclist and from the firms that sponsor the sport.

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