The Vuelta a España has long been third of the three grand tours. Now it’s changing, helped by a startlist with more stardust than the Perseid shower, combining the best of the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. The exception is 2014 winner Alberto Contador yet his absence could be the best thing to happen for the Vuelta in the long term.
Third Grand Tour
The Vuelta’s late slot has been a problem with what we could call “season fatigue” setting in. By late August pro cycling is beginning to take on the feel of an out of season seaside resort, the crowds have gone and there’s a chill of melancholia. The energy that had you watching rudimentary footage from the Tour de San Luis or a pirate feed of an early season semi-classic is long gone.
The Vuelta has been third in other metrics too, it was the third grand tour to get going in 1935 and has lagged ever since; for years it was as if the Pyrenees were almost impassable for the peloton as the race remained an Iberian preserve, some foreigners would race and even win but it remained an Iberian preserve. Little more than a decade ago 23 of the first 25 finishers in the Vuelta were Spaniards. It’d reached the point where shortening the race had been up for discussion, or at least attempted by some.
When a star crashes out of the Tour de France does Vuelta director Javier Guillén dance a jig or a fist pump? French leave often sees the rider return for the Vuelta, see Chris Froome last year and Tejay van Garderen now, a boost to the Spanish race which becomes a Tour remake or repêchage. Yet has the biggest contribution to the Vuelta’s success come from Spaniard Alberto Contador’s absence? Perversely his failed Giro-Tour double could be a big boost to the Vuelta in the coming years. Contador’s fatigue, aided by the relative discretion in July of fellow girini Alexandre Geniez, Steven Kruijswijk and Ryder Hesjedal will likely make the combo unfashionable for another decade. For all we know the Giro-Tour could still be possible if circumstances had turned out different for Contador and others would be tempted to copy. But that didn’t happen and since the Tour de France is the body around which the sport orbits it means the big GC contenders will skip the Giro to congregate in France with fresh legs. Once they’ve done the Tour many will ride the Vuelta.
There are fewer days between the Tour and Vuelta than there between the Giro and Tour so why is el doble ok and la doppietta isn’t? Partly because of the Giro is harder, it has some longer stages (260km this year) and the mountain stages are brutal with more altitude and attitude although the Fuente del Chivo looks demonic. Mainly because there’s nothing to lose. Get the Giro gamble wrong and you ruin the Tour. But get the Tour wrong and you can salvage something in the Vuelta; get the Tour right and you can ride the Vuelta as you wish.
Another factor behind the Vuelta’s draw for some riders is training. While some don’t want to ride the Giro because of the effort involved, the Spanish tour attracts some because of the workout. It’s been used by many as a pre-Worlds conditioning, see Philippe Gilbert for example or Tony Martin who even used a long raid on a stage as part of his prep for the Worlds title. Now there’s another angle with the stage race specialists wanting to bank three weeks in their legs before the off-season. Take Chris Froome who could ease up for the rest of the year, perhaps trundling around the Tour of Britain, but it would mean a long break from racing. Instead the Vuelta offers hard conditioning and usually in good weather too. This isn’t flattering the Vuelta but Guillén will surely take it.
A small factor is the UCI points system has changed and perhaps attitudes have followed too. Once UCI points were highly prized as teams fought to avoid relegation; today there are 17 teams in the 18 team world tour and the currency is devalued. Some riders were “benched” by their teams on news they were leaving for another squad: if a rider’s leaving why give them a valuable start which will only help them and even earn points which accrue to their new team. The counter argument was that it pays to take your best team to go win something but several riders were redundant for some managers. Now we see Dan Martin will ride for Cannondale-Garmin despite an almost certain exit. Perhaps there are more? It’s a small thing but another tilt to the Vuelta.
Made for TV
The course has also got better in recent years with more lively finishes rather than endless rides across the plains of Spain. ASO owns the race 100% now and there’s been talk of using the Vuelta as a “laboratory”. Certainly it’s got shorter stages to spice up the races. There are more summit finishes and they’re spread throughout the race – perhaps too many – but it’s a better TV product than it was five or ten years ago.
Finally you don’t have to choose. The point of this piece isn’t to rank the Vuelta against the Giro. Don’t read this as a simultaneous ode to the Vuelta and an obituary to the Giro. With luck you get to enjoy plenty of stage races, spring classics and more all year long. To watch or even ride the Vuelta is not to exclude or abandon the Giro. It’s a matter of nuance and relative standings, the Vuelta this year looks to be on the up while the Giro may struggle to attract star names. Yet the Italian race remains compelling, beautiful and prestigious. One example is how the Vuelta struggles to impose itself on our collective conscience of cycling via the landscape. The Tour de France has made the Galibier, Tourmalet, Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez famous, ditto the Stelvio and Gavia for the Giro. For the Vuelta the likes of the Angliru or Lagos de Covadonga just don’t seem to have the same hold. Meanwhile the Giro has showered celebrity on the Mortirolo and Monte Zoncolan in no time, they first used in 1990 and 2003.
The Vuelta a España is on the up, boosted by the presence of top riders and taken seriously by more teams. While it was once an Iberian preserve it’s becoming increasingly open, a Tour de France revenge match that also attracts the best from the Giro keen to test themselves once more in the season. Meanwhile the Giro d’Italia has a recurrent problem of trying to attract star names and Alberto Contador’s fatigue in France probably means fewer big names will do the Giro next year. We will all still watch the Giro but Vuelta is starting to play catch-up.