La Vuelta may not have the history of the two other Grand Tours, the Giro D’Italia and the Tour de France, but in recent years it has made compelling viewing and in my eyes can rival its elder rivals as the number one stage race in the world.
I’m not speaking in terms of prestige. The history of the Giro and Tour rank those races above the Vuelta comfortably. It isn’t only the age though – a new race such as Strade Bianche in Italy has relatively high prestige and is less than ten years old. The Vuelta hasn’t got the iconic jerseys of the Giro and Tour, pink and yellow respectively, instead using a variety of colours during its 70 editions. The current red design certainly seems to work – it’s unique and reflects the national colour of Spain, unlike the previous gold version, which felt a little too close to a yellow copy. In the early days of the race it was run on a small budget, on roads barely paved in a country still recovering from the civil war. In Alasdair Fotheringham’s biography of Federico Bahamontes he explains that riders weren’t too happy at the food or hotels on offer in Spain as compared to those in other parts of the world. No doubt that this hampered its rise in prestige and favourability. It’s position in the calendar has also never helped. Formerly in April, it was too close to the Giro for many to tackle it; now in August / September much of field is tired after the Tour de France or leaves early to prepare for the World Championships. It is rare to see a field involving the absolute crème de la crème of cycling, firing on all cylinders, assemble at the Vuelta; even if this has improved since the date change.
However, this isn’t an issue which is unique to the Vuelta, especially in the modern era. Although riders competing in and winning the Giro and the Tour was not unusual, if not common in years gone by, to win both races in the same season is seemingly now impossible. The last time it was done was in 1998 – the year the Festina Scandal rocked the Tour and Pantani produced something incredible on the slopes of the Galibier. Proof of just how difficult it is came this year – Alberto Contador claimed the maglia rosa but faded in the mountains of the Tour de France into 5th place. Thus, most GC riders choose to focus on the top prize of the Tour, leaving the Giro sometimes a little empty at the very top. Indeed, it has been some years since a real battle of the top GC talent in the world in Italy. Andy Schleck rode the Giro as his first grand tour in 2007, never to return as the Tour took over. Only a tainted Ivan Basso in 2006 looked to be capable of the double, but he was pulled out of the Tour for his involvement in Operacion Puerto.
In fact, getting a top field out in recent years hasn’t been an issue for The Vuelta – 2014 saw an embarrassment of riches in Froome, Contador, Quintana, Valverde, Rodriguez and Aru – either coming off the back of a disappointing Tour de France or having raced the Giro.
It seems that the move to August has helped the Vuelta get better fields off the back of the Tour and Giro, even if it will never rival the Tour. La Vuelta is something of a last chance saloon for the GC riders, or a chance to add something to your palmares after winning the Tour, a la Froome, Sastre and Schleck (although he didn’t wear yellow in Paris).
One thing this does in make it a very open race. This year for example we see young talent Fabio Aru, 2nd in the Giro and rested take Froome, Quintana et al, who may be better riders (at least in terms of results) who will be jaded from July. It’s no surprise that The Vuelta can throw up some interesting winners – see Chris Horner in 2013, beating Giro champion Nibali and Tour rider Valverde. The riders may not be at their peak, but the date change at least enables them to race.
Although the riders make the race, the parcours give them the opportunity and this is an area where the Vuelta has improved massively in recent years. The race used to be full of highways in baron landscapes, a far cry from the beauty of Italy and France. Now though the organisers are not only taking the race through better scenery, but using stages which would otherwise be a fairly dull, straightforward sprint, to create exciting finishes where the GC riders can gain time on their rivals. There are 9 summit finishes in this years’ race – not all high mountains but some little climbs to test the legs at the end of a stage. Steep ramps are added in the closing kilometres to encourage attacking racing. This is something you really only see in the Vuelta and it gives the race its character. If the Tour has the most traditional ‘all round’ route, the Giro the toughest, then the Vuelta has the most original and quirky.
If the Tour has the Alpe D’Huez and Ventoux, the Giro the Mortirolo, the Zoncolan, then the Vuelta has the Angiluru. Its own mythical climb. Introduced in 1999 to rival the Alpe D’Huez, it has become a legendary climb and much harder than the Alpe. The incredibly steep sections make the climb among the toughest in the world and the atmosphere on the slopes in incredible. The organisers are still including new climbs, such is the vast geography of Spain, so although it may not visit a host of famous climbs every year like the Tour and the Giro, it does have its own legendary climb; one to rival, possibly beat its counterparts.
I always look forward to the Vuelta now; especially in the last five years or so, when the parcours have improved. The best thing Hein Verbruggen did as UCI president – move the Vuelta to a late season race? Almost certainly.