The Vuelta’s New Role

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.

31 thoughts on “The Vuelta’s New Role”

  1. On 22 August I wrote: “I’m interested in watching Juan Ayuso and Remco. Both have big potential.”
    Today Remco leads, Ayuso in 5th and has the white jersey. I suspect Remco will fade in the 3rd week but probably not Ayuso. Will Primoz recover? We’ll see.

  2. It seems like the Vuelta really changed with the red jersey being introduced. Was that in 2012 with Contador and his Fuente De raid? That was the best GT stage of the season.
    The red jersey really gives the race its own identity with a nod to bullfighting perhaps? I thought the gold jersey was a bit too much like the maillot jaune. Now when you see a race clip on YT you instantly know it’s the Vuelta. It’s pretty clever branding

  3. The weather is another thing that differentiates now the GTs. In the Giro is not strange to see rain and snow, the tour has more steady good weather, and La Vuelta you can go from extreme heat to cold and wet in a few days. And the weather is often another factor for some riders, some perform better with cold, others with heat…

  4. La Vuelta may not be a tour of Spain, but it does pretty well at being a tour of where the Spanish are, so it serves the same function if you’re a business sponsor with stuff to sell and clients or suppliers to entertain.
    Take a look at the population density map of Europe to compare France, Italy and Spain. The blobs of dense populations are largely* where each tour goes to.

    *Bordeaux won’t be having a Tour stage anytime soon.

  5. Since the TV coverage is not on, why not have longer stages by starting an hour earlier on some stages? Endurance is supposed to be a part of a 3 week tour and if riders could do it in the past without all the “marginal gains” etc of today then what’s stopping it? All 3 GT’s have their geographical limitations which is a good thing if organizers do their job right and plan accordingly. These shorten stages are also producing crazy average speeds and seemingly a different sort of riding/rider.
    (Personally I hope for a return of the cattle path, Los Machucos – Moo!)

  6. Re the vertical metres, yes there are a lot of summit finishes but the vast majority are not very long. It’s a race I struggle to get into, I’ve hardly watched any of it this year. A major part of this is the lack of previews on here! I feel like I don’t know what’s going on. There might be some very interesting wall like summit finish today but because you haven’t told me I don’t know so I’m less likely to remember to watch! Sad but true!
    The most interesting thing for me so far this year of the little I have watched was the finish Vine won in the rain. The approach roads, lined by dry stone walls covered in wet moss and overhung by trees reminded me very much of where I live in the north of England. I knew the north of Spain was green but I thought Europe was all in drought and was pretty taken back.

    • On rainfall and temperature in Northern Spain Vs England’s ‘rainiest city’;-

      The average temperature in Santiago de Compostela is 12.7 °C | 54.8 °F. In a year, the rainfall is 1242 mm | 48.9 inch.

      The average annual temperature is 9.4 °C | 48.9 °F in Manchester. In a year, the rainfall is 1047 mm | 41.2 inch.

      Surprising, eh?

  7. The ToS will stay 3 weeks as long as ASO still owns it.
    ASO wants the 3 weeks of sponsorships and advertising revenue.
    Plus its guaranteed global coverage as ASO ransoms the TV rights of TdF with coverage of the ToS.

    Isn’t it ironic or telling that Spain’s greatest Tour rider never won his home race?

    • Lots of countries show the Tour de France, but few show the Vuelta so not sure where the “ransom” concept comes from, they can’t sell it as a package. The Vuelta’s on Eurosport only in most European countries, eg it’s not on France TV, it’s not on RAI etc.

  8. Color me NOT a fan of “tapas cycling”, Eurosport’s covering it and where I live it comes on at a good time but the past few editions have a sort of contrived feel to them….like they’re racing on roads purp0se-built for the race. A brute like Planche des Belles Filles or Zoncolan is great for a GT but I’m not a fan of these paved goat tracks where the riders seem to winch themselves up via tiny gears day after day. I guess ASO knows what they’re doing but the current format leaves me with the feeling La Vuelta really is second-string GT.

      • Well, that’s pretty unnecessary, isn’t it?

        I’d say Larry argued his point reasonably.

        /And don’t be a fool, there is nothing wrong in being an old male (while it’s wrong to insinuate colour per se has anything to do with privileges). /

  9. We think of it as the vertical grand tour? You can speak for yourself but not for others. As others have said, so much of this race is so often in the final climb, and that impacts on another debatable point. You say something seems to happen every day now at the Vuelta. Really? That’s not my impression. I see plenty of dull days where nothing happens at all until the last ten or fifteen minutes.

    It’s a race to my eyes where there’s a lot of allowing the break to take the stage; a lot of tired riders doing tired racing; the same few motivated riders doing the same thing day after day even on days when there is some action; and so much of that action only being slow-motion grinds by the same riders in the same order on the interchangeable final goat tracks, memorable only for their interminable, mind-numbing steepness.

    It’s bike racing and it’s better than counting sheep but there’s been more happening in almost every other race in Belgium, France and Germany since this race started.

  10. The mention of Vine, IMHO another “numbers” rider like Evenepoel makes me wonder if La Vuelta is cause or effect, especially on these almost silly-steep climbs where it comes down to almost a totally watts/kg equation? Is the modern recipe for success: Find (or create with PED’s and bulimia) an athlete with great “numbers”, teach him to ride a bike well enough and then program him through a radio earpiece? Not a new idea (IMHO that’s the Wiggins/Froome recipe) but one even more suited to “tapas” cycling?
    Whatever it is, it leaves me feeling like I’m watching more science experiment than sport…but I’ll admit I’m probably in the minority here….and I’m still watching…at least as long as Eurosport is as cheap as it is at-present. If it ever gets to pay-per-view (like MOTOGP) I won’t bother.

  11. I’m afraid I have to disagree with Larry here about the Vuelta being a “second string” GT. Ok it’s not as big as the Tour (and never will be), but I’d argue it is not far behind the Giro and gaining ground. Imo, over the last few years the Giro has felt pretty stale both in terms of its route and racing. I live in Spain so fully admit I may possibly be biased here but I get the impression that the Giro is constantly harking back to its glory days, every year a bit further away, whereas the Vuelta is looking forward and finding ways to make itself stand out from the other 2. And you can see the effect on the roads here. Every year I see more and more riders, especially youngsters and girls/women. So perhaps internationally the Vuelta lags behind the Tour but the effect it has here is pretty big.

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