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In praise of the Vuelta a España

27 Oct 2020

It may be the lowest in terms of prestige, but the Vuelta a España has a character that makes it stand out from its Grand Tour siblings

Words: Trevor Ward Photography: Tapestry

In his 2006 book, The New Spaniards, journalist John Hooper refers to the type of coffee normally served in Spain, torrefacto, as ‘double roasted and finely ground until it is the gastronomic equivalent of Semtex’.

‘The Spaniards’ addiction to  torrefacto is all of a piece with a nation in which there is very little that is bland, gentle or reassuringly soft,’ he adds. ‘So is the way in which they use the word descafeinado in a wider, and universally pejorative, sense to mean “watered-down”, “artificial” or “bloodless”.’

What hope for a bicycle race in a nation with such an attitude, where bullfighting and bull running are still popular pastimes, and where no one eats dinner before 10pm?

If a Grand Tour is defined by the history of the country that hosts it, the Vuelta a España makes the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia look like a pair of spoiled, narcissistic brats.

Tough upbringing

Launched 22 years after the Tour and 16 after the Giro, the Vuelta was for many years the runt of the litter. It was almost strangled at birth by the Spanish Civil War and has been played out against a backdrop of political turbulence, economic isolation, domestic terrorism and regional rivalry ever since.

Lacking the stature of the other Grand Tours, the Vuelta had to lure foreign superstars with generous appearance fees, yet they often used it as little more than a training exercise for the Giro or Tour.

It even disappeared from the calendar completely for five years after a threadbare peloton of only 42 completed the 1949 edition, prompting sponsors to look elsewhere for value for money.

‘After World War Two, Spain was economically and politically isolated,’ says Adrian Bell, author and publisher of the authoritative Viva la Vuelta!.

‘It was a pariah nation. It had been denied a place in the newly formed United Nations and its application to join the Common Market rejected. So there was little foreign participation in the Vueltas of the 1940s.

‘Later, Spain suffered from a real inferiority complex that was apparent in the way Vuelta organisers would rig the route – long time-trials to attract Anquetil and loads of flat stages to attract Van Looy, for instance – and pay large amounts of money they could ill-afford just to entice foreign riders to come to the Vuelta in the hope that it might give their race a bit of international prestige.’

In 1960, the daily sports newspaper Marca declared the race dead after only 24 riders from a field of 80 completed what had been a farcical affair marred by the peloton striking over the lack of an extra feed station during a 264km stage.

The bunch had rolled into that day’s finish in a sports stadium at 9.20pm to the jeers of 30,000 fans and ‘the lethargy of the “Stage of Hunger” inexplicably held for four more days’, writes Bell in Viva la Vuelta!.

While the Tour is regularly interrupted by striking dockers or farmers, and the Giro was ambushed by Slavic sympathisers near the disputed city of Trieste in 1946, the Vuelta has had to put up with attacks by terrorists.

On two occasions, in 1968 and 1972, a bomb planted by Basque terrorists ETA detonated at the roadside shortly before the peloton was due to pass by. In 1978, two stages in the Basque Country were disrupted by the threat of violence and the results of a time-trial were annulled after many riders had objects thrown at them.

It would be the last time the Vuelta visited the region until 2011, when ETA announced an end to its armed campaign.

Finding an identity

The idea for the Vuelta was first proposed in 1913, 10 years after the first Tour and just four years after the inaugural Giro. It came from Catalonia, which was already successfully hosting two stage races, the Volta a Tarragona and Volta a Catalunya.

But the rivalry between the Catalan capital Barcelona and Madrid meant the idea was quietly forgotten and not resurrected until 1935 by the Madrid newspaper, Informaciones.

The date of the race was switched from April to September in 1995 to avoid its clash with the Giro, and it was brought forward to August in 2011 to attract riders who were also targeting the World Championships.

The Vuelta has sought other ways to firmly establish its own identity. ‘In the most recent period of its history, the Vuelta brand has become firmly associated not only with mountains, but with the most unrelenting, gruelling slopes plucked from obscurity,’ writes Bell in Viva la Vuelta!.

‘It’s a trend that began in 1999 with the Angliru, transformed into an established symbol of the Vuelta in less than 20 years. The race’s organisers have Spain’s impressive mountainous topography to mine, and a network of informers – often local cyclists keen to see their favourite training torture immortalised.’

Speaking in 2016, race director Javier Guillén said, ‘We have to give the fans what they want. Cycling’s business model depends on its audience. The sport is based on the “epic”, but epic isn’t just about the kilometres – it’s also about the efforts.’

And Bell believes the Vuelta’s new, exciting approach is already rubbing off on its better known but rather more staid cousin across the border.

‘The Tour organiser, ASO, now also runs the Vuelta and has been using the Spanish race as a test bed for the Tour,’ he says. ‘Just look at the increasing number of summit finishes in the Tour, and the general reduction in the average length of a stage. This can only be a good thing for cycling.’

A new, updated edition of Viva la Vuelta! was published by Mousehold Press in July 2019