A few years ago this blog asked “what’s the point of the Vuelta?“. It wasn’t meant to be rhetorical wisecrack, instead a means to explore the role and purpose of Spain’s grand tour because it has struggled with its identity. In the space of a few years it feels like it’s found its mojo.
Not long ago the Vuelta struggled for an identity and a purpose, the three weeks felt long. It felt like a Spanish preserve, see 2004 when 23 of the first 25 riders were Spanish. Under a past points system to secure World Tour licences, Ag2r hit on the idea of sending Nicolas Roche to battle for GC, and as consistent as Roche was, it worked because because few big GC contenders were there. Others used the Vuelta as a training camp for the Worlds. The race could have its moments but felt like it crossed empty roads for hours on end with little to rouse viewers from their siesta.
In recent years the Vuelta has become a “revenge race”, the chance to make amends for a Giro or Tour that didn’t work out. The 2022 edition in particular has the feel of a Giro della Spagna with Hindley, Carapaz, Landa, Nibali, Yates and Lopez taking to the start after their Giro. Then add Tour contenders like Roglič, O’Connor, throw in some more names like Evenepoel and there’s a dense field to the point where picking a winner in the pre-race preview was a headscratcher, a nice problem to have.
It’s less a UCI points bonanza because the points are skewed towards a high GC finish and today the field is very deep with many grand tour winners taking to the start when a decade ago this was much less so. Still a training camp? Less so, Julian Alaphilippe seems to be here for this although a stage win or two is a goal in itself. But no with stage over 200km, look for anyone with Wollongong ambitions doing a warm-up or a long ride back after a stage. It’s become a useful place for neo-pros to embark on their first grand tours.
Above all the race now has a firmer identity, it might still be the third grand tour by more than one measure, but you know what you are getting. It’s become the race where there’s action almost every day, and the grand tour notorious for its uphill finishes, a rampòn here or a sierra there.
Now, whisper it but this year’s race actually has more time trial kilometres than the Tour or Giro, and fewer vertical metres… but that’s the point because the Vuelta’s reputation now precedes it: we think of it as the vertical grand tour. In the Vuelta the big climbing often comes late into the stage, the Giro might have the Pordoi as a warm-up like the Tour uses the Galibier and this helps bump up the numbers but in the Vuelta it’s the final climb that dominates. Above all, it’s the frequency of summit finishes that differentiates. It depends how picky you are about defining this but this year’s Vuelta certainly has more summit finishes than either of the other grand tours and if we push the label a bit, it’s got more than the others combined.
There’s also a freshness to the course design. While the Tour and Giro rightly trade on their history and the Tourmalet, Stelvio and other climbs are famous, the Vuelta doesn’t have celebrity climbs (sure, readers here will cite, say, the Lagos de Covadonga or the Angliru, but it’s not the same, one only dates from the 1983, the other from 1999 and neither Cangas or La Vega have bike shops renting out rides and selling Covadonga-related merchandise to a stream of punters from May to October, unlike Bourg d’Oisans, Bédoin or Ponte di Legno). Instead it gladly finds new climbs, hunting down shepherd’s paths and getting them tarmacked, or just concreted, in time for the race.
The Vuelta is leading the way in course design. The Tour de France organisers ASO first bought a stake in the Vuelta organisers Unipublic, then acquired the race whole and Tour director Christian Prudhomme once described the Vuelta as a “laboratory” to test concepts before they appear in France. The prime experiment has been what this blog’s called “tapas cycling”, bite-sized snacks to consume each day rather a feast on weekends. Stage distances are almost never over 200km in the Vuelta. Now it’s being imitated, the Tour only had three and just; the Giro had four but again just. The only grand tour stage over 205km this year was the Tour’s 220km stage from Binche to Longwy. The Tour almost has a doctrinal belief that consecutive sprint stages must be avoided, an idea imported from Spain. The Giro looks to be tilting the same way but we’ll see if the trend continues, it’s more nascent for the Italian race.
So far so good but there are still a few questions and loose ends. What the Vuelta isn’t is a national tour. Now no grand tour can ride past everyone’s front door and all three try to balance things out over a few years but the Vuelta seems the most prone to lingering in a particular quartile of the country rather than touring around. And while the Vuelta has found a successful formula, Spanish cycling as a whole hasn’t perked up. The current relegation battle sees Movistar at risk and this would be a big issue for Spain and in turn the Vuelta. The Giro might look fine outwardly with lack of a home World Tour team but it means no big home team to support although what really brings the crowds is a dynamic, charismatic home superstar and in the likes of Carlos Rodriguez and Juan Ayuso things look bright here, the structural problem is that these home talents were not identified and retained early.
It wasn’t that long ago that some were talking about trying to shorten the Vuelta down to two weeks. Now the race feels a lot more settled. The three week format works because something seems to happen almost every day, the course is designed to prompt action. You might not need to watch every hour, and you can’t since it’s not live from the start, but you can regularly tune in for the final hour and enjoy tapas-size action. Some pioneering course design to exploit new roads, made-for-TV finishes, more stars on the startline, the Vuelta’s settled on a format that’s now working well.