The Vuelta is a belter: Why the Tour of Spain deserves the plaudits

For many years, the Vuelta has arguably been the most exciting of the three grand tours.

The Giro d’Italia can be blighted by a slow first week made up of one-too-many consecutive sprints, as it certainly was this year. Next, the Tour de France has been a procession of Team Sky jerseys at the front of the pack for the majority of the last 8 years – although this year we were served with one of the best in recent memory, just to buck the trend.

However, it’s typically the Vuelta a Espana, the ‘youngest’ of the Grand Tours, that delivers the most drama. It may struggle to top the incredible Tour from this year, but in the past, this minnow of the three-week races has been THE ONE to watch.

Here’s a few of the key reasons why:

Stages set to inspire drama

The heritage and tradition of the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia means that the ASO and RCS tend to be slightly conservative when developing their routes, and although they’re starting to learn that 220km pan-flat stages are not what the viewing public want to see, they still throw at least a few in per year.

ASO, who organise the Tour, also govern the Vuelta, but the Spanish race with a totally different perspective.

Vuelta stages are short, packed with summit finishes, and typically in an unusual order.

Whereas the other two grand tours typically lean towards a first half snoozefest of sprints and transition stages before the second half of high mountains and time trials, at the Vuelta, it’s like the organisers draw the stage order at random from a hat, with first-week high mountain stages, middle mountains falling toward the end and very few stages that are going to last over five hours.

The organisers of the Vuelta almost make a point of attempting to find the most savage climbs that the pro peloton will encounter all year, with the Basque and Cantabrian mountains, in particular, serving worlds of 20%+ gradient pain.

A good example of that in this year’s edition is the return of the eye-watering Los Machucos climb on stage 13. The climb, last used in 2017, is a 9km, 9% average beast, full of 28% ramps and bizarre concrete surfaces which render progress even more sluggish.

Here are a few of the highlights and unusual points of the 2019 race:

  • A 1950m summit finish as early as stage 5
  • One stage of under 100km that includes 2 x cat 2, 2 x cat 1, and 1 x HC climbs
  • Majority of stages being around 160-180km (approximately four hours of racing)
  • 8 mountaintop finishes, of varying length and steepness
  • The final three stages before the traditional final stage procession consisting of one high mountain stage, one breakaway / sprint stage, and one medium mountain stage

Riders with something to lose and nothing to prove

The Vuelta’s position just one month after the Tour means that the riders denied a ride in France by injury or poor form tend to get their chance to shine as their teammates from the Tour take a well-deserved break.

Similarly, those GC-contenders that left the Giro or Tour empty-handed tend to go back for a second crack at the nut. The short gap between the Tour and the Vuelta means it can be tough for Tour riders to recover in time, but if their training load is managed correctly, they can head to Spain with Tour de France-level form.

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Last year was a good example of this, where a stacked field of GC hitters included Richie Porte and Vincenzo Nibali, both of whom went into that year’s Tour as genuine contenders, only to crash out.

They didn’t get much luck at the Vuelta, but it was their shot at revenge. Similarly, Simon Yates, who so drastically crumbled in the Giro that year, started the race looking to prove he had learned from his Italian mistakes and ended up winning in emphatic style, holding the red kersey for 11 stages and finishing 1:46 up on his nearest rival.  

Young Guns

As well as rejects or disappointments from the Giro and Tour, Vuelta squads tend to be full of young guns out to make their mark on the race. As the Vuelta tends to be treated by the biggest teams as the ‘third’ Grand Tour, they are happy to ‘risk’ sending out riders with less experience, with the intention of using 21 days in Spain as an opportunity to get grand tour miles and experience in the legs.

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And in a lot of cases, it’s those young guns that shine, for example, take Enric Mas in 2018, the 24-year-old’s breakout performance after showing so much promise in 2017.

This year’s race is full of young guns, with Tao Geoghegan Hart, Sepp Kuss, and Pierre Latour all on the provisional start sheets.

Sure, this trio of talent have all ridden in Grand Tours before, with Geoghegan Hart and Latour shining in the Giro and Tour respectively, but the Vuelta will provide them a ground to really build experience and develop towards the new generation of GC riding talent.

It’s not the Tour

The Vuelta gains a lot by being the least prestigious three-week race of the year. Without the huge pressure from sponsors, media, and fans, riders race with less fear, and there’s typically more aggression and less defensive riding.

Whereas in the Tour, many GC contenders would rather mark each other and settle for a top-six spot rather than rolling the dice on attacks that could lose them everything, at the Vuelta, we see riders free of pressure and full of expression.

Without taking anything away from the Vuelta – it is a huge race and to have any high-ranked result there is a huge thing on a riders’ palmares – there does seem to be a sense that it’s an environment where teams feel free to test ideas and attempt different things.

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The freewheeling, attacking nature of the Vuelta is also enabled by the fact that there’s typically not one dominant team. With the exception of 2017 where Team Sky ruled with an iron first, recent editions have been notable for several equally-strong teams looking to assert dominance, with Movistar, Astana and Mitchelton-Scott all playing the rule of enforcer at different points last year.

The provisional lineups for 2019 sees Movistar, Jumbo-Visma, Astana, and Mitchelton Scott all boasting strong GC teams, and so it could be quite a fight for supremacy when it comes to controlling the action in the decisive summit finishes.

The Basque Fans Love it

Basque fans are the best cycling fans, ever.

The Basque Country has a strong affinity to cycling for decades, and it was sad to see their home team Euskaltel-Euskadi, with the iconic orange jersey, fold back in 2013. However, cycling lives on in the Basque hearts, and their new home team Euskadi Murias are now at Pro Continental level and will be racing in bright green at this year’s Vuelta.

Although the orange of Euskaltel-Euskadi won’t be seen on riders’ jerseys this year, it will be seen on the fans. And there will be so many fans. As soon as the race approaches North East Spain, the stages will be lined with frenetic Basques, decked out in the orange of the legendary old team, or flying the national Ikurrina flag.

The Spanish fans in general, but most particularly the Basques, are famed for the way they line the wall-like climbs in the Vuelta, creating the tunnels of rabid spectators that make for such stunning scenes.

However, fortunately, they tend to veer on the side of respect for the race, with runners and selfie-takers – the scourge of other grand tours and source of danger to the riders – being relatively minimal.

It inspires epic battles and awesome ambushes.

Some of the most memorable moments of grand tours in the last 10 years seem to have taken place on the savage slopes of Spain.

Here’s some of the best:

2012 – Al Pistoleo shoots down Purito

Everyone’s favourite Spaniard (or at least mine) Alberto Contador overturned a 28-second deficit on Purito Rodriguez with a kamikaze attack in the final 50km of stage 17 before powering to victory on the climb to Fuente De. It was his first win since the clenbuterol ban and classic Contador.

2013 – Angliru Showdown

Everyone must remember the Chris Horner – Vincenzo Nibali ruckus on the Angliru on stage 20, surely?!

The scenes as the ageing American withstood a series of attacks from Vincenzo Nibali in his trademark awkward grinding style, with the crowds and clouds going wild around them, are on repeat in my flat.   

2016 – The Formigal ambush

A relatively innocuous middle mountain parcours saw Team Sky and Froome get caught napping on stage 16.

Contador, Nairo Quintana and their teams launched an ambush just 10km into the stage, distancing then-second place Froome, leaving him far back in the fractured bunch with just one teammate as he was caught out of position.

The Brit lost 2:40 on the stage and later admitting it cost him the race.

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